Ukraine Recruits Women Soldiers. Why Doesn’t Russia?

The changing lives of women on and off the battlefield reveal the very different futures for which the warring countries are fighting

Ukraine Recruits Women Soldiers. Why Doesn’t Russia?
Ukrainian servicewomen carry flowers as they walk in the center of Kyiv following an award ceremony on March 8, 2023. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia is desperate for soldiers to fight in its war in Ukraine. Posters and billboards offer inflated salaries to men who are willing to sign short-term contracts to serve in the armed forces. Military recruiters struggled to fill their quotas toward the 300,000 “reserves” called up in President Vladimir Putin’s September mobilization. Some reached their targets by rounding up the medically unfit and the middle-aged, along with men who had no experience of military service. In April, the Russian Parliament passed new legislation making it more difficult to evade conscription, including closing the country’s borders to anyone who has been served with call-up papers. The Russian private military company Wagner Group has famously gone to Russia’s prisons for its recruiting drives.

Considering Russia’s acute need for more soldiers to send to the front, why has Moscow shown so little interest in mobilizing women? As a demographic, women in Russia have scarcely been tapped by the military, despite the fact that they could help to fill the shortfall in troop numbers. This situation is even more puzzling when contrasted with Ukraine, which not only accepts women into its armed forces but has passed new laws to open all military roles to them. The armies are now comparable in size: Russia has over 1 million soldiers, with plans to expand to 1.5 million, while the armed forces of Ukraine, a country with a population just over a third of the size of Russia’s, have swelled to 1 million since the full-scale invasion in February 2022.

The answer goes much deeper than short-term military requirements, and reveals fundamental differences in the ways that these two countries’ governments and societies see themselves, the ways that they want to be perceived by their allies and sympathizers and the ways that they envisage the future.

From the very beginning of his first term as president in 2000, Putin made it his mission to halt and reverse the decline of the 1990s, eliminating weaknesses in Russia’s economic performance, its political order and, most of all, its international reputation. His chosen instrument for achieving that goal was to provide Russia with a strong leader: himself. And Putin’s definition of a strong leader is much more than a person with a vision and the ability to inspire others to achieve it. Putin’s model of a strong leader is a “real man” who is physically strong, courageous, ruthless in his willingness to use violence against his enemies and, of course, attractive to women.

Demonstrations of Putin’s physical fitness and daring started out as a way of reassuring Russians that he was not like his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, an aging and ailing man, who drank to excess and was easily manipulated by members of his family and political allies. To that end, Putin has participated in martial arts displays, swum in rivers, driven a Formula One racing car and, of course, regularly engaged in such “manly” sports as horseback riding, hunting and fishing, preferably while shirtless. The public adoration of young women has been another crucial ingredient in the recipe to construct Putin as Russia’s alpha male. In 2002, a Russian girl band sang about their dreams of “A Man Like Putin,” while, several years later, a group of female students at Moscow State University created a calendar in honor of Putin’s birthday that featured photographs of themselves in their underwear.

Putin’s idea of a strong state requires an alpha male leader because the state itself is highly gendered. The most important, most powerful and most generously funded institutions of the state are those that are most closely associated with masculinity and the same sort of tough and ruthless behavior that Putin celebrates — most notably the armed forces and the other security services. These institutions of state security are both male-dominated and led by men. There are only two women who hold high-level positions in these organizations. The Security Council, which regularly meets with Putin and approves policies with security implications, contains one woman among its 30 members, Valentina Matviyenko, and she is there because of her position as chair of Russia’s Federation Council, not because she has any special expertise or a role that is relevant to national security. There is one woman serving as a deputy in the Ministry of Defense out of 12 who hold that position, and her remit is military finance — while important, this role is far removed from those activities perceived to be the business of “manly” men, such as designing military strategy or commanding the troops. Putin’s circle of close confidants and informal advisers is, of course, exclusively male.

In addition to high-level politics and national security, money is the other route to power and influence in Russia. Here, too, women are notable by their absence. Although some women in Russia are able to acquire great wealth, they do not seem to be able to leverage it to gain political power in the way that men do. When Putin held a televised meeting with leading oligarchs just before the mass invasion of Ukraine, it was an all-male gathering. Not a single woman in all of Russia was apparently able to command the right combination of wealth and power to receive an invitation to this exclusive event.

Russia’s gendered state relies on a centralized and hierarchical exercise of power, in which the Kremlin dominates and controls not only political parties, regional and local government and the judiciary, but also the media, private business and nongovernmental organizations. This vision of a strong state requires the support of a similarly hierarchical social order, in which everyone has their place and the weak are subordinated to the strong, right down to the level of the family and the individual. And while any Russian citizen, male or female, is subject to abuse by the state for stepping out of line in public, Russia’s women are subject to abuse by the men in their households — legally. In 2017, Russian lawmakers removed from the criminal code those incidents of domestic violence that do not cause “lasting harm,” reducing the penalty to a fine, community service or a few weeks in custody. In other words, any woman who does not suffer broken bones, or worse, at home has no right to legal recourse, and their abuser gets off scot-free. Legal attempts to reverse that decision have all failed, making it clear that women are positioned at the bottom of Russia’s hierarchical system.

Those Russians whose identity puts them at odds with this social order, such as LGBTQ people, have no place at all in a state that has appointed itself the champion of traditional family values. The idea that a state with such a rigid gender order would rely on women to defend the country and advance its interests in the world is almost comical. Women are openly and casually referred to as “the weak sex” in Russian media. Reliance on those who are regarded as the weakest members of society would be especially at odds with a crucial aim of Russia’s war in Ukraine: to extend Moscow’s dominance and control beyond its own borders. This is a mission that calls for real men.

While there are sometimes a few token women in uniform pictured with Putin, and a small number of women — mainly those with medical training — were included in September’s mobilization, the presence of these women does not disturb the Kremlin’s narrative that this war is all about men. Efforts to recruit volunteers to fight in Ukraine have relied heavily on the idea that true masculinity is only attained through military service. The acceptable range of ages (from 18 up to 60) listed in recruiting posters hints at the desperation to fill the ranks, and older men are lured with the promise of renewing their masculine credentials, or indeed gaining them if they did not serve in the army during their youth. A recent recruitment video made this connection between military service and masculinity very explicit. Depicting Russian men doing ordinary jobs in the civilian economy, the video indicates that these are not appropriately masculine occupations. It then shows these same men putting on military uniforms and carrying weapons, bluntly telling them (and men who are watching): You’re a real man. Be one.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Russia did have a significant proportion of women among its armed forces, but this came about by accident rather than design. The economic upheavals created by the abrupt shift to the market and capitalism in the 1990s reduced the employment prospects for many women, just as voluntary military service, or service by contract, was being introduced. At the very same time that many young Russian men were doing everything in their power to find ways of evading conscription, Russian women were looking at military service and seeing opportunities. This fact alone tells us a great deal about women’s experiences of the workplace in Russia around the turn of the last century. Women made up more than 10% of Russia’s armed forces during this period but the defense ministry seemed bewildered at the presence of all these women. The representation of military women through official channels relied heavily on stereotypes. The pages of the armed forces’ daily newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) were filled with photographs of pretty, smiling young women in uniform, while the accompanying articles expressed amazement that the women were able to perform their assigned tasks to the same standard as men and still preserve their elegance. Despite a continuing crisis of recruitment, the defense ministry made little effort to attract more women into military service, apart from sponsoring an annual beauty competition among its women soldiers. Apparently, military officials felt that young women who were considering joining the military needed to be reassured that they would retain their femininity. By the same token, little effort was made to remove obstacles in the paths of women seeking to make a career in the Russian armed forces, such as opening up a wider range of roles to women or removing the age restrictions placed on women’s service.

With no real encouragement to join or stay in the army, the numbers of Russia’s women soldiers have declined over the past decade. The most recent estimates provided by the defense ministry indicate that women comprise around 4% of all military personnel. Moscow’s unwillingness to see women as part of the solution to its personnel problems in the 21st century echoes the Soviet attitude toward keeping women in the armed forces after the end of World War II. Nearly 1 million Soviet women served with great courage and distinction in a wide range of military roles, including as snipers, tank drivers, machine-gunners and pilots. But as soon as the war came to an end, they were quickly demobilized and instructed to get married, have babies and, above all, not to brag about their military service in case they made their husbands’ wartime achievements look modest in comparison.

While Russia’s emphasis on the masculine character of its armed forces and the marked absence of women soldiers are important demonstrations of Moscow’s commitment to a traditional social order, the presence of growing numbers of women in Ukraine’s military demonstrates Kyiv’s commitment to a very different type of state and society.

One of the arguments that Ukrainian political leaders have consistently made since the Maidan protests of 2013-14 is that Ukraine shares an important set of core values with Europe, and with the West more generally. These values include respect for human rights, democratic freedoms, tolerance and diversity, including gender equality. The emphasis on these shared values has increased significantly since the start of Russia’s mass invasion last year, and they regularly feature in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s formal addresses, especially when he is making the case for Ukraine’s future membership in the European Union and NATO. But while rhetoric is powerful — and Zelenskyy’s rhetoric is more powerful than that of most world leaders — real-life examples are priceless when it comes to convincing sometimes skeptical foreign observers that Ukraine really belongs in these Western institutions. One simple fact — that Ukraine is willing to rely on women to contribute to its national defense while Russia is not — demonstrates that Ukraine and Russia want to be seen as two very different countries.

According to the most recent estimates provided by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, by the summer of 2022 there were approximately 38,000 Ukrainian women serving in uniform, including about 8,000 officers. Most of these women have joined the armed forces since 2014, when Russia first began sending troops to fight in eastern Ukraine. Formal barriers to women’s military service disappeared remarkably quickly during that time. The defense ministry was initially reluctant to send women into the combat zones. By 2015, it permitted them to be deployed to these areas but not in combat roles, although a blind eye was turned when women who were deployed as cooks put down their saucepans, picked up weapons and fired back at the enemy. In 2016, women were officially permitted to serve in combat, and Ukraine also adopted its first National Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security, making a public commitment to the principles of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, such as strengthening women’s rights through national legislation and involving more women in decision-making on issues relating to conflict. In 2022, Ukraine opened all military roles to women.

Ukraine is on a steep learning curve and its armed forces are not a model of gender equality
by any means. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense still lacks uniforms and body armor designed for women, although trials of both are currently underway. Women are not always readily accepted as colleagues or taken seriously by the men who serve with them. Many have to push back against stereotypes that they are weak or need to be protected by their male colleagues. The attitude that women soldiers are decorative, rather than professionals intent on carrying out their duties, may have been behind the much-ridiculed decision by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense in 2021 to require women soldiers to wear high heels with their combat fatigues to march in a military parade. One of the first decisions of Zelenskyy’s government after Russia began its mass invasion was to close the country’s borders to most adult men, sending a clear signal that it regarded men rather than women as the future soldiers who would be called upon to defend the country. Women were seen as caretakers of the family, and millions of them have streamed out of the country westward, often with their children and the elderly in tow.

But the government in Kyiv has shown itself willing to take both practical and symbolic steps to smooth the path of the women who come forward to serve in the armed forces, such as the renaming of National Defenders’ Day in 2021 as the Day of Men and Women Defenders of Ukraine. The difference in official attitudes between Russia and Ukraine toward recruiting women for military roles is stark. Russian recruitment campaigns ignore women entirely and call upon men to join the military to gain their masculine credentials. Ukrainian military recruitment campaigns depict the armed forces as a collection of ordinary citizens, both men and women, who come together to defend their country. Ukrainian military recruitment materials imply that the values of civilian society shape the armed forces, rather than the reverse. And Ukraine has a remarkably strong and independent civil society, in which women routinely play leading roles. The contribution that civilian women have made to Ukraine’s war effort since 2014 is remarkable. In the early years of the conflict, the armed forces depended to a large extent on crowdfunding and many of the smaller charities that regularly collected donations and transported them to the front-lines were run by women. Ukrainian politics at the national level, however, continues to be a male-dominated space, with only one woman in Zelenskyy’s cabinet, and with women comprising 20% of the elected officials in the Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament), a notch above Russia’s Duma, which is 16% women (the United States, by comparison, is 28.7%, the U.K. and Germany are both 35%).

Ukraine also has an important resource to support the further development of policy and practice toward its military women: a major research project known as Invisible Battalion. Launched in 2015, this project is led by a group of Ukrainian sociologists who carry out research with and about Ukraine’s women soldiers and veterans. The project has so far addressed policies that govern women’s employment in the defense and security sectors; access to military training and education; the everyday experiences and needs of women during and after military service; as well as sexual harassment and abuse of women soldiers within the armed forces. Invisible Battalion is more than a research project — it is a mechanism for providing evidence-based policy advice to the government and a crucial advocacy tool for Ukraine’s military women.

Cynthia Enloe, the American scholar of international relations, encourages us to ask the question, “Where are the women?” in any given situation. It is a deceptively simple way of focusing our attention on practices that we might otherwise take for granted or assume are just normal or natural. In this case, the presence or absence of women in the armed forces fighting in Russia’s war in Ukraine reveals far more than we might have imagined about these two states, their societies and their visions of the future.

The absence of women soldiers among the Russian troops fighting in Ukraine is an important symbol of Moscow’s reputation as a bastion of traditional values, and reflects the social order that Putin seeks to impose on Ukrainians. The presence of women soldiers among the Ukrainian troops fighting to defend their country against Russia’s invasion is an important symbol of the nature of the postwar society that Ukraine’s ordinary citizens, both men and women, will build together.

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