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Women, Peace and Security as Deterrence? NATO and Russia’s War Against Ukraine

Author: MÍLA O’SULLIVAN                                                                                 

Affiliation: Oxford University

Organization/Publisher: International Affairs                                      

Date/Place: March 2024/UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 20


Keywords: “Women, Peace and Security/WPS”, Nato, Russia, Ukraine, Deterrence, Defense, Pragmatic Feminism



This article assumes that the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine has imposed a new reality for NATO that calls for it to enhance its participation in the field of women, peace and security and its further development in the field of deterrence and defense.

Initially, the article discusses the pragmatic feminist approach to security organizations and deterrence theories. In this regard, the writer decides to rely on the pragmatic feminist approach to security that believes in the possibility of gradual institutional changes through the investment of the “women, peace and security” (WPS) system within NATO rather than the Western feminist approach that is totally opposed to militarism as a gender-biased institution that promotes violence and wars. The author therefore believes that a pragmatic feminist approach to security could contribute to greater acceptance of the WPS system and open up new opportunities for it. Especially as more feminist activists join international security institutions whose role is to promote women’s goals for peace, justice and sustainability. However, feminist literature criticizes NATO for militarizing “WPS” standards and largely dominating male gender norms. This was seen as evidence of women’s underrepresentation in coalition processes.

On the other hand, the paper draws attention to the paucity of feminist literature about the perception of deterrence, with its understanding limited to only criticizing the realist theory of nuclear deterrence as justifying the production of nuclear weapons. Especially after NATO’s attention has now shifted eastward, the author believes it is necessary to ensure a locally informed understanding of insecurity in the region. However, in the author’s view, deterrence studies are evolving beyond military deterrence and are focusing more on standards, ideas, identity, speeches, rituals and others. The author refers to Malxo’s example that the NATO Social Deterrence and Defense Strategy in the Baltic reflects the symbolic cooperation of the Allies, which collectively stands out, more so than the military component. The author believes in the importance of deterrence practices and extends his studies to many other areas such as hybrid threats, cyberspace, and social and political practices that can open the doors of a feminist perspective within NATO.         

 The article then turns to the institutional difficulties facing NATO’s politicized external approach to the “women, peace and security” system. It clarifies how these factors impede a more inclusive participation of the women’s and peace protection system in deterrence and defense. The “WPS” agenda has been formally institutionalized on the political and military sides of NATO across different institutional classes following Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. The WPS system was considered essential to achieving NATO’s shared values: individual freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and other sources of international law. In 2012, the first Women, Peace and Security Office was established and the first Special Representative of the Secretary-General was appointed. However, structural difficulties in the implementation of the WPS system continued in the areas of deterrence and defense. The article refers to a number of factors and reasons, including: firstly, the failure of Democrats to pursue the WPS agenda and instead trying to implement it as a non-politicized and low-priority external military agenda. Secondly, to upgrade the system of protection of women and peace to the strategic level while ignoring the practical application of deterrence and defense. Third, treating the WPS partnership with Ukraine as a one-way transfer of knowledge on women, peace and security rather than an opportunity for mutual learning.

The author argues that linking women’s issues, peace and security to the agenda of combating insecurity and stability outside the Alliance has led to their separation from the alliance and their non-politicization. By contrast, there are Member States that we find to be leaders in women, peace and security, such as Norway and Sweden. After 2014, NATO has gradually begun to develop complex gender advisory structures to revitalize and follow up the “Women, Peace and Security” system internally. To cite a few examples, the Gender Adviser’s Office was established, whose mission it is  to guide and advise on gender issues. However, the writer believes that this progress does not guarantee immediate changes in NATO’s daily institutional culture.       

Although NATO reassessed its security strategy due to Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory in 2014 through the renewal of the principle of “internal deterrence and defense”, difficulties and challenges remained in the face of the WPS system in translating the new policies into practice because they remained low-priority and non-politicized political changes. In 2022, the WPS system emerged in the NATO Strategic Concept, which provides for the promotion of good governance, the integration of climate change, human security and the women’s and peace and security agenda into all its functions. However, this concept did not specifically mention the WPS system in the Deterrence and Defense Section. The author warns that the absence of a WPS system has become a new threat and challenge for NATO because of Russia’s use of gender and excessive masculinity as a weapon against liberal Western values. The writer cites the example of the rejection of the Istanbul Convention in Ukraine in 2017 due to the aforementioned. The latter part focuses on the boundaries of NATO’s one-way partnership with Ukraine in the WPS deterrence approach, and how NATO is slowly responding to the widespread attack. The writer believes that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 revealed NATO’s unclear approach to the WPS system in the area of deterrence and defense. The WPS agenda was ignored with the alliance solely focused in the early months on providing military aid to Ukraine. Thus, the writer criticizes the discrepancy between NATO’s stated commitments on the security and safety protection regime and the reality of war reflecting the institutional obstacles discussed, which identifies the partnership between NATO and Ukraine as a one-way transfer of NATO knowledge on the security and safety protection system to Ukraine. In this context, the writer describes NATO’s response to Ukraine since 2014 as slow and unprepared for such a security crisis. Accordingly, the article calls on the Alliance to seriously reflect on the importance of the WPS system. In particular, Ukraine was already developing strategic and practical steps for the alliance in multiple ways. This includes providing new opportunities for the WPS system as a means of deterrence and defense.                                

In conclusion, the author tries to present the consequences of the future trajectory of NATO’s WPS system and the world and suggests avenues for further research. Among the implications are the complexity of looking for new opportunities to localize the WPS system in deterrence and defense and reducing NATO’s position on the WPS system in deterrence and defense to mere speeches with no substance. For this reason, the article proposes revisiting women’s concepts of deterrence by focusing on deterrence practices, focusing on military and political deterrence and also on societal and institutional resilience. For example, it permits the practice of the Women and Peace Protection System as a deterrent to anti-gender policies as part of NATO’s identity.


By: Ryma Meddah, MA in IR and International Law



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