Ukrainian servicewomen

Gender Norms Keep Russian, Ukrainian Servicewomen From Combat

November 22, 2023
Jessica Trisko Darden

Women are playing essential, though not decisive, roles in the Russia-Ukraine war on both sides. Their involvement as combatants largely echoes a global pattern where women are increasingly accepted into national militaries, but relegated to roles that distance them from frontline combat. While some of Ukraine’s 50,000-60,000 female military personnel are being deployed to combat zones, the exact degree to which they are engaged in direct combat with Russian forces is not easy to determine. The role of Russia’s 39,000-41,000 servicewomen is even more opaque.

Operational contributions aside, women play a significant role in Ukraine’s communications efforts as a focal point for media coverage and lobbying efforts. The same is not true for Russia, where servicewomen have remained largely invisible in this conflict. This difference is surprising given their shared history of mass female participation in war. As civilians, women are propping up the Russian and Ukrainian economies through increased labor force participation and, in the case of Ukraine, remittances.

A Long History of Struggle

Women’s participation in warfare under the Russian Empire dates at least as far back as peasant resistance to French armies during the Napoleonic Wars. Notably, Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov had a female aide, Nadezhda Durova, who posed as a man during her military career in regular units but was nonetheless buried with full military honors upon her death. The Crimean War (1854-1855) saw dozens of women nurses deployed to the front for the first time, with at least three later given medals for their service in that war.  

World War I saw more than 31,000 women from the Russian Empire take up positions as wartime nurses, while individual women continued to disguise themselves as men in order to enlist as soldiers. Following the February revolution in 1917, women began to officially enlist in all-female military units. The fifteen women’s units that were formed eventually totaled more than 5,000 soldiers, the majority of whom were ethnically Russian. Women’s Battalions were formed in major cities such as Moscow and Yekaterinburg, as well as in Kyiv, Mariupol and Odesa between June and August 1917. This scale of women’s formal participation in a national military was unprecedented.

In the 1930s, when parts of Ukraine were under Polish rule, ethnic Ukrainian women joined nationalist organizations, including the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, or OUN, which had an armed wing known at the UPA.1 Girls and young women (primarily between the ages of 16 and 22 years old) were among the thousands who joined. Female members were trained, both ideologically and practically, for full participation in the OUN’s subversive activities. Over the course of World War II, Ukrainian women and girls became central in virtually every area of underground activity. As the Red Army fought to control formerly Nazi-occupied territory, women routinely appeared in Soviet casualty reports for Ukrainian nationalist forces. According to research by Jeffrey Burds, Ukrainian sources suggest that women constituted between 2.5% and 5% of the nationalists’ casualties though Soviet sources suggest a higher level of female involvement. In spite of their practical contributions, women were not considered suitable for political or military leadership within Ukrainian nationalist organizations.

During the same period, female soldiers made up 3% of Soviet Red Army personnel or approximately 450,000 to 490,000 individuals over the course of the war. Ninety-one women were awarded the Soviet Union’s highest honor, Hero of the Soviet Union, for their contributions to the war. After the war, the number of women in the Red Army declined precipitously as the military underwent significant personnel reductions. In the 1980s, the Red Army included 10,000 volunteer servicewomen in an estimated ground force of about 1.8 million.

The experiences of Russian and Ukrainian women in World War II remain relevant to the current conflict because the history and memory of these experiences shapes local understandings of women's roles in war. Women’s heroism, including the Red Army’s heralded “Night Witches” bomber squadron, provide role models for women joining contemporary armed forces.

Servicewomen in the Russian and Ukrainian Armed Forces

Women have voluntarily served in the Ukrainian Armed Forces since its formation in late 1991.When conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine in 2014, there were approximately 14,000 women serving among the 130,000 Ukrainian Armed Forces personnel. The vast majority of Ukrainian servicewomen were non-commissioned and contract-based, although 11% were officers. 

In response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and support for the separatist conflict in Donbas, Ukraine reinstated conscription in 2014, which had recently been repealed under the Yanukovych government. In a 2014 partial mobilization, 100 women who had registered for the draft were called up for positions as medical doctors and signalers. In February 2015, the Ukrainian Armed Forces announced it would mobilize women between the ages of 20 and 50 who had registered for the draft. Vladislav Seleznyov, then Acting Spokesman for the General Staff, noted that the focus would be on those who had completed military service or had training in an appropriate military specialty. By 2021, the number of women in the Ukrainian Armed Forces had doubled, with 31,757 women (over 15% of the force) permitted to serve in most military positions, including as company commanders. Most recently, in October 2023, Iryna Mudra, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister for Justice, gave an estimate of “more than 60,000” servicewomen. Earlier in the year, then-Deputy Minister of Defense Hanna Maliar reported 50,000 servicewomen, 5,000 of whom were serving on the frontlines.

The numbers are murkier on the Russian side. In 2015, Russia had roughly 35,000 women in its armed forces, as voluntary contract-based personnel. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported 39,000 servicewomen in March 2023, 5,000 of whom were officers. This constitutes less than 4% of Russia’s force of 1.15 million. It is unclear what role the recruitment of women will play in Putin’s recently announced efforts to expand the military. However, the incentives to join are notable: Russian soldiers deployed to Ukraine earn roughly 210,000 rubles (about $2,300) a month.

The Operational Impact of Servicewomen

Reports on women in these armed forces provide rough figures rather than precise numbers, which makes it challenging to assess the operational impact of servicewomen in the Russia-Ukraine war. For instance, does the 10,000-person increase in Ukrainian servicewomen between January and October 2023 reflect a significant increase in recruitment, or a difference in how the underlying number was rounded? It is impossible to know without access to information on Ukrainian military planning. Ambiguous definitions of “on the frontlines” similarly hamper operational assessments. For instance, over the past decade of conflict in Ukraine, the different forms of women’s participation in what Kyiv described as the Anti-Terrorist Operation in the east for almost four years were not consistently defined as frontline combat.

Currently, there are no detailed reports regarding the number of Russian servicewomen fighting in Ukraine. Russian Defense Minister Shoigu indicated in March 2023 that 1,100 of the roughly 39,000 servicewomen in the Russian military were taking part in operations in Ukraine. One way to try to assess whether these women are engaged in combat is to look at military casualties. A July 2023 investigative report by Meduza and Mediazona suggests that almost none of Russia’s servicewomen are fighting in Ukraine. Of the nearly 27,000 Russian combatant deaths identified in the study, only four were women. In comparison, The Guardian reports—without providing a source—that more than 100 Ukrainian servicewomen have been killed since Russia’s invasion. This pales in comparison to the 70,000 male Ukrainian soldiers estimated to have been killed. The limited number of female casualties reported for both the Russian and Ukrainian forces suggests that the operational scope of servicewomen remains limited. Based on the available data, Ukrainian women make up roughly 15% of the military, but less than 0.20% of fatalities.

Keeping most servicewomen away from the frontlines mitigates the risk of highly politicized casualties and is consistent with how women are used in other national militaries. In Israel, for instance, women have recently made up 25% of qualified UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) operators. Ukraine also has multiple programs training women as drone operators. In October 2023, Newsweek reported on Russian military recruitment ads targeting women on the Russian social network VKontakte for participation in a female sniper unit and a female UAV squad.

Women’s Future Roles in the Russia-Ukraine War

Even if attitudes toward women’s participation in the military were to suddenly shift toward greater egalitarianism, practical constraints would still impede women’s expanded involvement.

Military equipment has historically been designed for men’s bodies, which raises significant challenges for militaries seeking to effectively field women. The Ukrainian military has struggled to find appropriate kit for servicewomen. Until August 2023, when a female uniform was approved, Ukrainian women were responsible for having men’s uniforms tailored to their bodies. NGOs were established to provide combat boots and other military gear for servicewomen. Even with the new uniform, supply chain issues mean that it is more difficult to outfit women for war.

As more men are conscripted into both the Ukrainian and the Russian militaries, the ability to recruit more women will become constrained. Women will need to take on a greater share of the non-military labor force, as they have in every major war. Similarly, the role that women play as caregivers in these countries and the lack of a strong public infrastructure mean that women with dependents will continue to be exempted from mobilization efforts.

The expansion of women’s recruitment into the Ukrainian and Russian militaries is therefore likely to follow a predictable pattern as positional warfare takes hold. Women will continue to be mobilized into medical roles, as reflected in Ukraine’s October 2023 requirement that women doctors register for the draft. The few women who end up in combat roles are likely to support infantry units by operating UAVs or in other technical roles that place them at a distance from the frontline. The vast majority of women will simply be excluded from military mobilization despite their valuable skills.


In spite of continuing personnel shortages for both the Russian and the Ukrainian armed forces, women’s mobilization is unlikely to expand much further.

Traditional gender norms in both countries continue to limit public acceptance of women’s participation in armed conflict despite a century-long history of women’s involvement in the region’s wars. Policy changes that reflect the need for additional (wo)manpower conflict with gender norms that position women as guardians of the home and therefore as civilians. Ukraine has been far more hesitant in conscripting women than men, despite the fact that formal equality between men and women is enshrined in law. The same holds true for Russia, which has chosen to focus on hyper-masculine recruitment drives, recruitment from ethnic minority populations and contracting with foreign fighters, rather than mobilizing women.

Furthermore, the millions of Ukrainian women currently outside of the country are unlikely to return to fight. (The same holds true for Ukrainian men abroad.) There are 4.7 million displaced Ukrainians in OECD countries. Women make up around 70% of adult Ukrainian refugees; many fled the country with their children or other dependent relatives. Because their responsibilities include caring for children and/or elderly relatives, these women are among the least likely to join the fight. 


  1. There is controversy regarding the OUN’s history, in particular allegations of its collaboration with Nazis and its role in violence against Ukraine’s Jewish population during World War II.

Jessica Trisko Darden

Jessica Trisko Darden is Associate Professor of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University and Director of the Security & Foreign Policy Initiative at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute. She is the co-author of the books Insurgent Women: Female Combatants in Civil Wars (Georgetown, 2019) and Women as War Criminals: Gender, Agency and Justice (Stanford, 2020).

Opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, unless otherwise stated. Photo by President of Ukraine shared under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.