Photo by Alain Jocard
Artillery Row

Putin the abuser

Terrifying parallels emerge between domestic violence and the Ukraine invasion

Five years ago, Vladimir Putin signed a law that partially decriminalised domestic violence in Russia. Men who beat up their wives and children, leaving them bruised and bleeding, now face a small fine as long as they don’t break any bones. Within a year, the number of assaults reported to the police had almost halved, despite jaw-dropping levels of violence against women. 8,300 deaths were recorded in 2018, an average of 22 each day.

This scandal has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in December last year that Russia has failed to deal with the “staggering scale” of domestic violence. It ordered Russia to pay compensation to four women who were savagely assaulted by their partners, including a woman who had both hands cut off by her husband. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, who has since become notorious for his defence of the invasion of Ukraine, dismissed the ruling, claiming that existing laws are adequate to deal with domestic violence.

This is patriarchy writ large, reflecting horrendous ideas about men’s ownership of women, but it has acquired new relevance in the light of Putin’s attempt to crush Ukraine. From the outset, the Russian president has used tried-and-tested methods of coercive control to confuse his critics, from outright lies to threats of more extreme violence; his tactics are familiar to anyone who understands domestic abuse, which evidently doesn’t include military experts. Women know more than anyone about male violence, but no one listens to what our painfully acquired knowledge has taught us about perpetrators — and how they are likely to escalate.

Putin claimed Ukraine made him do it, classic victim-blaming

Look at Putin’s behaviour towards Ukraine. He lied about his intention to invade, even as his troops massed on the border. When they crossed into the country on 24 February, he claimed Ukraine had made him do it, a classic piece of victim-blaming. When it looked as though other countries might intervene, he threatened them with nuclear weapons. Abusive men can’t stand defiance from their victims: when Ukraine fought back, Putin launched missiles against hospitals and apartment blocks. Such men are also manipulative, appearing to make concessions and then going back on their word, as Putin has repeatedly done with false promises of “safe corridors” for civilians.

While the war has not gone according to plan, Putin’s apparently unstable behaviour has achieved several objectives. It has inhibited Ukraine’s allies from imposing a no-fly zone or putting troops on the ground. It has sowed discord among Western leaders, many of whom no doubt sympathise with President Biden’s unscripted remarks at the weekend about regime-change, but dare not say do. Most significantly, it has bought time, allowing Putin to wage a war of attrition that is inflicting horrific levels of destruction on Ukraine.

It is important to remember that the most abusive men have no boundaries. They are driven by a need for total control, and will stop at nothing to get what they want. Putin’s air force has kept the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, in power for years, allowing him to murder thousands of his own people in chemical attacks. The Russian regime has allegedly sent assassins to the UK on at least two occasions, using a nuclear isotope to kill a former FSB officer, Alexander Litvinenko, in London and a nerve agent, Novichok, in the attempted murder of a double agent, Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury. Skripal and his daughter survived, but poor Dawn Burgess, who was accidentally exposed to Novichok, lost her life as a result.

Putin’s record suggests he regards violence as normal in relationships

Now there are reports that the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and two other members of a peace delegation in Kyiv experienced symptoms consistent with poisoning by chemical weapons earlier this month. The claim has been greeted with some scepticism, not least because of Abramovich’s previous closeness to Putin, which has led to his being sanctioned by the UK. But the Russian state has a long history of apparently poisoning critics, and the story, if true, would be further evidence that no one is safe.

Peace negotiations have started again this week, but there is an obvious question about Putin’s intentions. Does he genuinely want a way out, or is it another stalling tactic? Abusers sometimes agree to take part in perpetrator programmes, supposedly signalling their willingness to change, while carrying on pretty much as before. Putin’s record suggests he regards violence as a normal feature of relationships, between men and women, and between states. His behaviour in Ukraine increasingly resembles that of a familicide, who would rather kill his wife and children than let them go.

The analogy with domestic violence has terrifying implications. The only effective way to deal with men who have no boundaries, who are driven by infantile rage, is to impose them. Thus far, Western leaders have been reluctant to do so, holding back from offering military assistance that might allow Ukraine to repel the invaders rather than fighting to a grim stalemate. No one would deny that facing Putin down carries risks, but women who deal with abusive men know that they feed on weakness. We are like well-meaning but anxious neighbours, banging on the walls but afraid to enter the house, while Putin fills the family home with corpses.

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