You are researching the connection between masculinity and militarism: How do you judge Putin's behaviour from this point of view?
From this perspective, his behaviour is really congruent. He believes that claims to power must, if necessary, be enforced by violence. Anything else would be a weakness. In Putin's patriarchal worldview, subordinates must follow: from women to Ukraine, which is portrayed as feminized. In this respect, Ukraine is his subject, who dares to be an independent, free state. This is an affront that is necessarily "redressed" with violence.
Babies are being born in subway stations. Are women particularly threatened by the invasion and the violence of the war?
In our work on gender-specific peacebuilding, I always struggle with the word "special". If "more" means specifically, then no. All people suffer from the war - but for us, it is important to show who suffers and how. From a feminist perspective, it's not just women. But to come to the women: Yes, they are affected because, for example, they have to flee on their own, because their husbands have been drafted and they have to support their families themselves. In terms of care work, they very often still have parents in need of care and cannot leave them. Many children simply do not have a passport. And if we think further from the current crisis, when a society has been militarized, then domestic violence often increases very sharply because more weapons are in circulation.
Are you struggling with the classic portrayal of victims?
Yes, it is important for me to emphasize: gender-specific peacebuilding does not only refer to women. It is inhumane for men to be used as weapons in war and the trauma that comes with it. Men are denied vulnerability. What we want is to break this dichotomy. Accordingly, women are always victims and not active actors, and men are always only perpetrators and cannot be victims. This view is fatal. Especially in war, men's bodies are simply used.
What about the security of the civilian population?
There is reliable footage of bombings of homes and ambulances, so it's not true that only military targets are hit. Unfortunately, reporting is always very abstract. One hears constantly: Now they are advancing to the next town. People live there and are injured and killed. These concrete images are missing in the reporting.
Zelensky does not leave his country, the Ukrainians are defending their nation, and now weapons are also being supplied from the West. Will Ukraine still exist as a country in the foreseeable future, how do you assess the situation?
Despite everything, I am convinced that Ukraine will still exist and that it will be the end of Putin. Unfortunately, it will come at a very high price, but Putin is blinded and he completely underestimated Ukraine. Even if Kyiv falls, Putin will not be able to rule the country, not even with arms, the protest can also be silent. And even in Russia, popular support will dwindle. A war against a country that speaks the same language that people go to on vacation will not bring any support in the long term. In addition, people will notice that their lives have not improved for years given the high level of military spending. If sanctions are added and their sons die for no reason, even loyalists will have their doubts.
What could a feminist security policy achieve?
The basic approach of a feminist security policy is not to focus on states and their borders, but on people, the needs of the civilian population. This form of security policy relies on diplomacy. It's about a humanistic worldview. It will now be a major challenge to further strengthen this form, because the narrative that the West was too soft, too much disarmament, is already spreading again. One reads again the request that more money should flow into the military - where it is missing is in care work and for the basic needs of the people in the country.
The UN Resolution 1325 recognizes that in the context of war women's experiences should count. Almost a hundred states have drawn up an action plan for this declaration – what use is such a declaration now?
As soon as peace negotiations resume, it becomes important that people who did not take up arms, but who bear the consequences and mediate beyond the lines of conflict, have their say. Then the states have to be reminded of this agreement again. Hopefully, women's organizations will play an important role in the peace process. A peace agreement is not a ceasefire, it is extremely comprehensive. It's about disarmament, the integration of the fighters into society - these are many areas that also directly affect women, and it can't be that they can't have a say there.
Putin appears as an aggressor. How do Ukrainians judge his behavior – and that of the world community?
They perceive him very clearly as an aggressor, that's completely undisputed. The Ukrainians feel at the mercy of the world community, they are desperate and outraged at the lack of help. Many also feel that they have not been taken seriously enough since 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea. The West waited several days to stop Swift payments for Russia. Actually, the Ukrainians are demanding even more, for example, to close the airspace - but the international community cannot do that, because it could mean nuclear war.
In Russia itself, protests against the war are being suppressed. Do people there even know what is happening in Ukraine?
"People in Russia" is very broad - many people in rural areas don't even have internet. It's a very poor country and people only get the news and propaganda from state television. But civil society in the cities can get information via YouTube, Telegram, etc. There are still a few independent media such as TV Rain or Meduza, they are internet-based and can broadcast. And most importantly, almost all of them have relatives and acquaintances in Ukraine who can tell them exactly what's happening.
Does informed civil society in Russia have any means of resisting? Anyone who demonstrates goes to jail.
They are desperate and very scared. They see the radicalization of their regime up close and know that they must continue to live under the regime and that the war is also being waged in their name. Apparently, not even Putin's closest circle has any influence on him.
What about targeted disinformation of the population?
It is heavily controlled by the state television stations, and there is still only one military operation in Donbas. Russian state media keeps alive the narrative of a Ukrainian Nazi genocide against ethnic Russians in the region. This is supported by false evidence that is circulating. New Russian accounts are therefore to be banned from Twitter, and something similar is also being considered for Facebook and Instagram.
How do you assess the reaction of the international community, day 4 since the invasion?
I can understand some of the hesitancy and fear because Russia is a nuclear power. Sanctions adoption and implementation has been slow and needs to be extended to all banks – Swift was an important step, as was extending sanctions to the Central Bank of Russia. Since the airspace cannot be protected, as this would be a declaration of war on Russia, the blocking of the countries' own airspace is certainly an important step. Had Swift not joined I would have been disappointed, but Swift and the extension of sanctions to the Russian central bank was like nuclear action without actually using weapons.
What comes up short?
All humanitarian aid - it will be essential that the Eastern European countries open their borders for everyone - even if they have not supported the European migration policy of recent years. There are many students from Africa in Ukraine who have not been admitted to Poland or Hungary in the last few days because of the color of their skin. A few months ago people were still freezing to death on Belarus' border with Poland and Lithuania, they came from Afghanistan and Iraq and not from Ukraine - and instead of these countries reacting humanely, fences were put up and people died from the cold. This is how we have been treating people with different skin color for decades.
It will be essential that the Eastern European countries open their borders for everyone - even if they have not supported the European migration policy of recent years. There are many students from Africa in Ukraine who have not been admitted to Poland or Hungary in the last few days because of the color of their skin.
A majority of Swiss parties are calling for sanctions: a large proportion of Russian assets are invested and companies are based in Switzerland. Why is the Federal Council not acting?
The official answer is that Switzerland is always neutral so as not to jeopardize its role as a mediator, meaning that sanctions must always affect both sides. But there are different interpretations of neutrality – politically and under international law. We are at a historic turning point in redefining that neutrality. It wouldn't be forbidden, it's a question of will...
... and the money. What would you wish for from Switzerland?
Supporting the EU sanctions and taking in refugees generously and quickly, and providing humanitarian aid on the ground, is something we are good at.
How can we help? How can we show solidarity?
The most important thing is to donate. In addition, we should continue to take to the streets and continue to demonstrate peacefully. We must not normalize the war in Ukraine. And we have to keep the pressure on our own government.
Which organizations do you recommend?
I can recommend Madre, the Urgent Action Fund, and Libereco, all three organizations are already on-site and do not need to build any new infrastructure.
Is donating and demonstrating the only way to support?
When refugees come to Switzerland, you can certainly get involved on a voluntary basis, if necessary also provide accommodation and welcome the people who come to us.
Thank you for this conversation.
Leandra Bias holds a doctorate in political science. Her areas of expertise include foreign and peace policy, authoritarianism, and ex-communist Europe - all from a feminist perspective. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Oxford in 2020 with a comparative work on antifeminism in Russia and Serbia, which was awarded by the Swiss Society for Gender Studies. Since then she has been researching and advising on these issues at the swisspeace peace institute.