Masculinities and Putin’s war in Ukraine. Is there a connection? What does this mean?

I find it hard to process the videos of captured young male Russian soldiers calling their mums, crying, explaining they are alive, that they thought they were going to a training camp or would be welcomed as liberators and instead being sent to their death in Ukraine. These men have conducted atrocities and I do not seek to justify their actions. But it is more complicated that this: that Putin and his cronies in the Kremlin had so little respect for the lives of their own soldiers, that they were cannon fodder in Putin’s masculine crusade, is unfathomable. This is the ultimate form of male power. Having blatant disregard for the lives of countless other men, many poor and from lower classes, fighting on your behalf, seeing their lives as meaningless in your struggle to be a strong man.

I’ve worked on masculinities – what others and societies tell us about being a man – for 20 years. I’ve worked with men in communities, I’ve researched and published on promoting more equitable and non-violent forms of manhood in conflict and post-conflict settings, and advocated with and trained organisations, governments and international institutions on addressing masculinites in conflict and peacebuilding. I’ve been trying to make sense of what masculinities has to do with the current war in Ukraine. A lot, I’ve concluded.

Let’s start with Putin. We’ve talked a lot about him being a dictator. But we have talked much less about how Putin also represents a form of hegemonic militarised masculinities. What the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) refers to as acquiring and proving one’s masculinity through military action and combat. We live in a world today where one man’s need to prove his manhood and fulfil his ideology for an expanded Russian Empire is dictating the full military might of one of the world’s powers. Causing untold suffering and destruction. One man. An eery reflection of history. How is this possible?

Conversations about war are often gender neutral. It is mostly men, not women, who are the conceivers, implementers and fighters of war. There are more women than ever before in our armed forces. And we are seeing heroic military actions by both men and women in Ukraine. But overwhelming this war is gendered: it is a war between men. Despite this, an analysis of masculinity remains largely absent in the political, policy and media discussions around war. As a result, while we talk about civilian casualties, we often do not gender the troops that have died. These troops are predominantly men.  They have parents, partners, and children. This is not to excuse the actions of Russian troops (though arguably many have no choice). But to speak to humanity in all of us. Male soldiers who are now dying in their thousands, simply represented as a number of fatalities in lists of manpower next to the number of destroyed aircraft and tanks. As if there is an equivalence. And it is their families, partners and children who will forever suffer their loss.

On the Ukrainian side, we see pictures of mainly women and children fleeing as refugees.  But we talk less about the impact on them of the fact that it is men left behind – their husbands, fathers, children.  Many women feel huge guilt. Many will never see them again. Many Ukrainian children will never know their fathers. And on the impact on these men. What they witness and experience.  This is not in any way to diminish the immense suffering and hardship that women and children are experiencing in Ukraine or fleeing the Russian invasion – my heart breaks every time I see another picture of children huddled together in basements sheltering from Russian bombs. But it is to say that the men left behind will be equally traumatised.

There is growing focus on the fact that, while we did not cause this war, we have turned a blind eye to Putin’s increasingly despotic and macho behaviour for political convenience. Chechnya and Crimea. The report on Russian interference and money in British politics (what action was taken?). The Mueller report (remember that?). A macho worldview has in many ways been used by us to further Putin’s agenda – the need for Britain to reassert its ‘rightful’ place in the world which underpinned the Brexit result. A belief in a return to ‘traditional values’ that drove the election of Donald Trump.

So, what does this mean? What can we do about it?

We need to support and expand the work on militarised masculinities. Much work on men’s violence, including work I have undertaken myself, has focused on individual men, often from poor communities, rather than structural masculinities and patriarchy. We have a well established Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, supported by the UN Security Council resolution 1325. I’ve written about how we need to better conceptualise how masculinities fits into the pillars of this WPS agenda to promote gender equality and feminist peace. Feminist organisations, such as The MenEngage alliance, together with WILPF, have launched an initiative focussing on militarised masculinities and mobilising men for feminist peace. But the broader paradigm of work that focuses on ending men’s violence doesn’t truly embrace structural, militarised masculinities.

This work also needs to be expanded to not only focus on enabling men to be advocates for women’s rights, but to recognise the suffering which war also brings to men. How to we talk about this during and after war? How do we understand it? How do we address it? And what is the longer-term responses that are needed? As we respond to the crisis, men will also need support services.

We need to call Putin for what he is – a hegemonic male using weapons and force to enact his sense of being a man. But also understand what this means. Hegemonic men do not want to be emasculated. They do not want to give in. The more they are riled, the harder they will push back. I fear Putin needs a way out. A way to climb down before he is hopefully then locked up by the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

We need to have a serious discussion about manhood in our society. I know that doesn’t help the people of Ukraine right now. But we keep saying never again, and here we are again. We need to challenge norms which equate manhood with conflict. I fear the answer to this war will be an arms race, when truly what we need is to develop more caring forms of being human, including manhood – caring of others, caring of our planet. Time is running out.

Dr Tim Shand has published and spoken widely on masculinities, including a TEDx talk. His Doctoral research through the UCL Centre for Gender and Health focused on masculinities. He is co-founder and Director of ShandClarke Consulting Ltd and fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Views his own. @timjcshand

Published by Tim Shand

Co-founder ShandClarke consulting, gender equality & global health expert, PhD from UCL, former NGO Director, Labour and Union activist, Europhile, DIY addict, father of two @timjcshand

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