If there is a feminist way to wage war, Ukraine wants everyone to know that this is how it is fighting its battle against Russia. Officials proudly proclaim that up to one-fifth of Ukraine’s armed forces are women. President Volodymyr Zelensky and other senior officials take pains to thank both male and female defenders of the country. Photographs and videos on social media show male soldiers cooking, women fighting, and everyone snuggling kittens and puppies. Prominent Ukrainian feminists have traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for weapons.

From the perspective of both gender equality and combat effectiveness, this is heartening. In order to prevail in a conflict in which its very sovereignty is at stake, Ukraine must attract its best and brightest to serve, irrespective of gender. Ukraine’s feminist military narrative also positions the country to stand in sharp contrast to Russia, whose leadership seems to have embraced toxic masculinity as a core value. Even before reports emerged that Russian soldiers had raped and sexually assaulted Ukrainian men, women, and children, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s branding of his country (and often himself) was rooted in what he called tradition but others might define as patriarchy.

But as I have learned over several months of conversations with roughly a dozen Ukrainian and Western officials and analysts, all of whom wished to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly, the Ukrainian military’s claims of being a champion of gender equity fall short of reality. For one thing, women almost certainly make up just nine or ten percent of the armed forces—half of the government’s official tally. That discrepancy is indicative of a larger issue: Ukraine, like many societies, struggles to reconcile the strength and capacity of its women with antiquated attitudes about gender roles. Women were front and center in the Maidan protests in 2013–14, which led to the downfall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who wanted to scrap a deal with the EU in favor of closer ties with Moscow. But both press coverage and activist messaging during the protests often hewed to traditional gender stereotypes, and women on the frontlines were heralded at least as much for their beauty as their strength. The same dynamic can be discerned today with respect to female soldiers: before the February invasion, the military held a series of beauty pageants for female enlistees and proposed having female cadets march in heels in a military parade.

In the face of full-scale war, Ukrainian society is changing more rapidly than ever. With more men fighting, a growing number of women now serve as the heads of households. Women are also assuming leading roles in supporting the troops and humanitarian efforts. When the fighting stops, these women may take on new leadership positions in politics and business. Ukraine, in other words, is poised for a fundamental rethink of gender roles, which could allow it to empower more of its citizens and serve as a model for other countries. But for that to happen, it will have to do better at practicing what it preaches.

MYTH, MEET REALITY

Gender has loomed large in Russia’s war. In justifying his invasion of Ukraine, Putin employed sexist clichés. On February 7, two weeks before dispatching troops to take over Russia’s western neighbor, he indicated at a press conference that Kyiv—and Zelensky specifically—should yield to Russian demands by offering what was at best a sexist children’s rhyme and at worst a rape joke: “Like it or not, take it, my beauty.”

Russia’s military, perhaps not incidentally, has grown more male in recent years. In 2008, when Russia’s armed forces marched into Georgia, about nine percent of the force was female. Now, women account for a mere four percent of soldiers. In 2014 and 2015, the Russian press lauded female volunteers who joined the fight in the Donbas. Today, the only women visible in the ranks there are the missile-targeting programmers identified in October by the investigative news outlet Bellingcat. With the possible exception of serving as military pilots, Russian women are prevented from taking frontline combat roles.

Ukraine, in contrast, has opened all military specialties to women. But the government has been fuzzy about just what proportion of its armed forces they constitute. A former deputy defense minister has offered an estimate of 25 percent, Zelensky has put the figure at 22 percent, and Ukraine’s defense ministry has claimed 15 percent. Such estimates may have been accurate before February. Back in December 2021, roughly 33,000 women wore military uniforms in a force of nearly 200,000—about 17 percent—the product of a steady increase in female participation after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. But the share has almost certainly fallen sharply in the last nine months. According to data that I obtained from well-connected Ukrainian experts, as of July, the number of women in Ukraine’s uniformed military services—including the regular army, territorial defense forces, border guards, and intelligence and transport troops—stood at just under 50,000. But because the number of men in the armed forces has risen faster than the number of women has, the women’s share in the armed forces has dropped. Zelensky and his team have claimed that 750,000 people now serve in the Ukrainian military. But even if the true figure for the total force is smaller—and many specialists, taking into account the rates at which Ukrainians are joining the armed forces, consider 600,000 to be a better estimate—then the proportion of women in the armed forces is around eight percent.  

Moreover, of the women in uniform, only some 5,000 are in combat roles, although many civilian staff, such as medics and cooks, are close enough to the frontlines to consistently face mortal danger. The proportion of women in Ukraine’s national guard, whose members are excluded from the official count of armed forces but who also often serve on the frontlines, has fallen by nearly half since Russia invaded. The share has dropped from just over 12 percent in January to just under seven percent in July, according to figures from Ukraine’s ministry of internal affairs.

Many Ukrainian women who are currently not serving in the military could be called up, notably those working in the medical field and in other useful professions such as telecommunications and catering. So far, registration for mobilization has been voluntary for women. The government has delayed mandatory registration for women by a year, until October 2023. Men, however, have been registered all along, meaning that mobilization affects eligible men and women very differently. In principle, all Ukrainians who are subject to mobilization are forbidden to leave the country. In practice, Ukrainian officials have permitted women to cross freely but have forbidden most men from doing the same.

As a result, of the roughly eight million refugees who have fled Ukraine, the vast majority are women. Men who have left legally (because, for instance, they have three or more children), are often subject to sexist ridicule. Fellow Ukrainians, male and female, regularly accuse them of being women or womanly in social media posts and to their faces. Men displaced within Ukraine often have trouble renting housing and getting work, as landlords and employers may not trust their military exemptions. Transgender women, especially those whose legal documents do not reflect their gender, have also faced difficulty when trying to leave Ukraine. And although stories of Russian forces committing gender-based violence against Ukrainian civilians and prisoners of war are legion and often corroborated, stories of similar crimes by Ukrainian forces against Russian prisoners of war, although few and generally unproven, also circulate. Notably, however, the Ukrainian armed forces take pains to promise humane treatment for all who surrender. They pledge strict adherence to the Geneva Conventions, allowing legal aid from international organizations and contact with families.

THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE

While promoting the presence of women in the Ukrainian armed forces, officials and media outlets seem particularly keen to disseminate images that emphasize female soldiers’ femininity. The soldiers they showcase often wear their long hair in braids, sport makeup, and strike glamorous poses, even if they are holding an antitank weapon. Meanwhile, female soldiers complain of shortages of gear in appropriate sizes and lack of access to military education and training programs.

There is also long-standing evidence of sexual assault and harassment in Ukraine’s armed forces. So far, according to Tamara Martsenyuk, a scholar working with the Invisible Battalion advocacy project, an organization that documents female participation in the Ukrainian military, there have been just two cases of survivors pursuing justice for military sexual assault through Ukraine’s legal system, a reflection of the difficulty of getting both the military and the judicial system to take such complaints seriously.

Before the February invasion, activists including Invisible Battalion and some of Ukraine’s foreign partners had convinced Ukrainian military officials to establish a network of over 400 advisers on gender-related issues. Now, however, according to one of those advisers, who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, these individuals have been removed or sidelined.

The female soldiers Ukraine showcases often sport makeup and strike glamorous poses.

That said, public opinion polls show that Ukrainians as a whole have become more welcoming of both women and LGBTQ people in uniform over the past four years. Indeed, some soldiers wear a patch created by and for LGBTQ soldiers to proclaim their identity. Others, however, have told journalists that they remain closeted in their units, and some transgender people say that they have been unable to join the army because it does not recognize their gender.

Although Kyiv’s narrative on gender equality is a sign of progress, it is disappointing that Ukrainian officials have simultaneously exaggerated women’s role in the military and demonstrated a lack of responsiveness to the needs of female soldiers. If Ukraine fails to make its armed forces truly welcoming to women and LGBTQ Ukrainians, it will miss out on their talents, subject the soldiers who are serving to harassment and abuse, and undermine some of the international goodwill it has garnered with its more feminist approach. To succeed, the Ukrainian military must address the problems faced by soldiers of all genders, from inadequate gear to sexual assault to posttraumatic stress disorder to depression.

To be sure, Western militaries face many of the same challenges and debates. Ukraine, moreover, is in the midst of a war for its survival. But to build a truly modern army, Ukraine needs not just the newest weaponry but also state-of-the art approaches to recruiting and retaining the best personnel. A sensitive approach to gender is not merely the right thing to do; it is crucial to the country’s future. The Ukrainian women who, in and out of uniform, form a cornerstone of Ukraine’s resistance today will be at the center of the effort to rebuild tomorrow. If Kyiv matches its rhetoric with action, its military can reflect its society, give back to its heroes, and serve as a shining model for the world.

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  • OLGA OLIKER is Program Director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group.
  • More By Olga Oliker