Vladimir Putin is a man’s man, or that’s how he likes to portray himself. The Internet is full of pictures of him without a shirt. He shoots animals, rides horses, camps on the taiga, and spars with the Olympic judo team. He surrounds himself almost exclusively with male advisors. He loves to rub up against the military, like a bear that needs to scratch an itch. He refuses to acknowledge any illegitimate children.
Putin is also a champion of traditional values, or least his interpretation of them. He believes that marriage is only between a man and a woman, a principle he enshrined in the constitutional amendments he pushed through in 2020. He has gone after the LGBTQ community. Once an official of the officially godless Soviet Union, he now embraces the Orthodox Church as an instrument of Russian soft power and relishes Patriarch Kirill of Moscow’s assessment that his leadership of the Russian Federation is a “miracle of God.”
A proud illiberal, Putin will hook up with anyone, wherever they are on the political spectrum, to advance his own agenda. He has cozied up to Nicaragua’s putatively leftist Daniel Ortega, Italy’s far-right leader Matteo Salvini, and Brazil’s macho man Jair Bolsonaro. He loved Trump (and still does). He gets on famously with China’s Xi Jinping.
But he seems to like the bad boys best. Putin has formed relationships of extraordinary violence with some of the worst human-rights abusing people on Earth. He partnered with the ruthless Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya to keep order in that restive republic. He served as the principal geopolitical lifeline for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, coming to the besieged autocrat’s aid when a civil uprising threatened his rule. He has sent his Wagner Group mercenaries to support strongmen in Libya, Sudan, and Mozambique.
Like a mob boss—a true alpha male in a man-eat-man world—Putin has also methodically killed his opponents. Journalists (Anna Politkovskaya), politicians (Boris Nemtsov), and former allies (Alexander Litvinenko) have all been assassinated, though Putin has been careful to wipe his own fingerprints from the scene of the crime.
Vladimir Putin, in short, is a man from Mars, a menacing, turbo-charged version of the can-do male described in the 1992 bestseller, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. That is the image he has cultivated, and that is the source of a good deal of his support among men, the far right, and those elements of the left that have never quite gotten over their dictator-worship complex.
But there is nothing that such Martians like so much as a good, old-fashioned war. Taking up arms is what separates the men from the boys, and for the most part in Russia the men from the women as well. It certainly seems to send Putin’s testosterone levels soaring. For an aging man worried about his declining potency and popularity, military intervention is a golden opportunity to get his mojo back.
A gendered war
Putin is a great believer in family values. So, let’s reframe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in family terms.
In this particular tragedy, the Kremlin plays the role of the husband who takes his frustrations out on his wife in an emphatically violent way. Worse, he believes in his own mind that he is beating his wife for her own good. Wives, in Putin’s traditional worldview, should be submissive. But little Mrs. Ukraine was making eyes at other men (Mr. Brussels, Mr. NATO). She was acting too uppity even to the point of allegedly adopting a political philosophy antithetical to her husband’s.
Thus, Putin the great liberator has decided to free Ukrainians led astray by a “Nazi” leadership. He has asserted his right to make this judgment and act on his assessment because Russians and Ukrainians are all part of the same “happy” family. To all the outsiders that have responded to Ukraine’s 911 call, Putin is effectively saying, “Sorry, officers, that you had to come over here tonight, but this is just a private squabble—you know how it is between husbands and wives. I’ve got everything under control.”
It’s no surprise, then, that this “Kremlin husband” has reserved so much of his violence for women and children in Ukraine. There have been more than 5,000 civilian casualties of Russian attacks, nearly half of whom are women and children. In Mariupol, Russian bombs fell on a theater clearly marked on both sides with the word “children” in Russian. A missile that struck a train station in Kramatorsk full of fleeing civilians, mostly women and children, read in Russian “for the children,” suggesting that the strike was in retaliation for alleged Ukrainian attacks on Russian-speaking children in the Donbas. The cluster bombs that fell on the crowded train platforms killed 57 and injured 109.
The batterer is legendary for his misinformation. The victims were clumsy. The woman “walked into a door.” The child “tripped and fell.” Their stories of being beaten? They’re just making things up, self-dramatizing, or dealing with their own anger issues.
Likewise, the Russian government has denied responsibility for civilian casualties. The Kremlin has even argued that the signs of violence are self-inflicted. Ukrainian forces, we are told, have been bombing themselves in Mariupol (uh, really?!). The Russian Ministry of Defense has insisted that Ukrainians “staged” the war crimes in Bucha by placing bodies of the tortured and the dead on the streets of the city after the Russian army withdrew (satellite imagery contradicts this nonsense).
Ukrainian sources have gathered many stories of rape committed by Russian soldiers, yet Russia refuses to acknowledge any of these abuses. The Russian military faced earlier charges of rape in other conflicts, and its refusal to engage the issue is consistent with the trivialization of rape that permeates statements by Russian leaders and even phone calls made by Russian soldiers.
But, of course, Russia will deny all charges of rape. Husbands from time immemorial have denied that such a thing can occur within a marriage.
In a domestic violence situation, service agencies encourage victims to leave, to seek help, to take refuge with family or a women’s shelter. Ukraine indeed tried to leave Russia’s embrace and seek refuge in the European Union. Like the typical jealous husband, Russia has stormed the shelter to retake Ukraine by force. The Kremlin believes that Ukraine belongs “back home” as a properly submissive member of the Russky mir (Russian world).
We’ve seen many stories about women who have switched planets, as it were, and channeled their martial spirit to beat back the aggressor. In the 1984 film The Burning Bed, Farrah Fawcett killed her abusive husband by setting fire to his bed; in 2018, Chrystul Kizer killed the man who raped her and pimped her out to others. These acts of violence were in part an expression of the failure of the system to protect the victims. If the police and the courts can’t help, women have to resort to self-defense.
International law did not protect Ukraine either. The restraining orders of the Minsk agreements proved to be nothing but paper. Russia has been hitting Ukraine over and over again for years. It illegally seized custody of little Crimea. And now, with all the force of the world’s second most powerful military, the Kremlin attempted a knock-out blow. Is it really any surprise that Ukrainians have picked up weapons to defend themselves from a serial abuser?
Is Ukraine really from Venus?
Women played a critical role in the Euromaidan protests of 2013-14, though their contributions were often overlooked. “Women coordinated the provision of medical supplies, compiled lists of missing persons, offered legal assistance for detained protesters, organized public lectures and documentary screenings inside the encampment, patrolled the barricades, distributed food, and provided first aid as bullets whistled past,” write Olena Nikolayenko and Maria DeCasper.
But it wasn’t just a support role. The Night of Women’s Solidarity in January 2014 marked a turning point, as women protesters defined the struggle against the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych as a fight against patriarchy as well. Newly formed Women’s Squads asserted their right to participate as prominent street activists and even armed partisans. Self-defense classes began to take on an additional element, not merely anti-rape but also the defense of the nation. Even as Russian aggression continued in 2014, the Ukrainian Women’s Fund in Kyiv supported 150 women’s organizations throughout the country. All over the globe, the Ukrainian group Femen put their own bodies on the line to protest Russian actions in Ukraine.
Ukraine is far from a feminist utopia. Although it has showcased women leaders—former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, former Luhansk Governor Iryna Veryhyna—it remains a male-dominated society. There is the usual pay gap, the usual presumption that women’s primary role is to take care of the family, the usual high rate of domestic violence.
But Ukraine has made great strides in recent years. It has done an impressive job of closing the wage gap, according to the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report. The number of women in parliament has also risen considerably from a mere 2.5 percent in the first parliament of independent Ukraine in 1990 to 20 percent after the most recent national election. In local elections in 2020, nearly 38 percent of the elected deputies were women.
Ukraine is not really from Venus. In fact, the whole Mars-Venus dichotomy is a gross simplification of gender relations. But war, too, is a gross simplification in its separation of aggressors and victims and its reinforcement of gender stereotypes. Ordinarily these two oversimplifications don’t intersect because wars usually feature two aggressors, two Martians who covet each other’s territory, who launch mirror-image incursions, who commit comparable war crimes.
But that’s not the situation in Ukraine. As in a case of domestic violence, the power differential is asymmetrical. To take just one example, Ukrainian men are not raping Russian women because Ukraine has not invaded Russia.
The analogy is not precise (no analogy is). The military in Ukraine is from Mars; the anti-war protestors in Russia are from Venus. There are women taking up arms and men refusing to fight. But the analogy to domestic violence is useful because it illustrates the profound power imbalance, the failure of institutional mechanisms of protection, and the legitimacy of self-defense.
Most of all, the analogy reveals the moral clarity of this situation. You really do have to pick sides. If you make excuses for Russian behavior, it’s comparable to making excuses for a wife beater. The international community needs to act accordingly.