Russia’s continuing onslaught is drawing Ukrainian women into the fight.
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KYIV, Ukraine — A small group of women gathers in a Kyiv park under clouds and looming snow. Some are clad in camouflage fatigues, others in bright winter coats and contemporary fashion. They are the latest recruits for Valkyrie, a civilian organization that offers basic combat medical training to Ukrainian women as well as fundraising and support for Ukrainian soldiers suffering from PTSD.
While Valkyrie is a volunteer civilian organization, a growing number of women are applying to join Ukraine’s fighting forces and showing a readiness to take an active role in combat operations. Volodymyr Dehtyarov, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Territorial Defense says that at least 11,000 women have enlisted in Ukraine’s regular army since the Russian invasion in 2022. Thousands of these women have participated in dangerous missions, including offensive operations where they are directly involved in combat. Women have played an especially important role in the defense of Ukrainian cities, including Mariupol.
Despite the readiness of Ukrainian women to fight for the independence of their country, achieving equality and recognition in Ukraine’s official military forces has not been easy. Nevertheless, although women were originally restricted to serving as cooks, seamstresses, and “cleaners,” these days many Ukrainian women are taking on increasingly vital roles in combat operations. Since female soldiers are not officially eligible for many of the military benefits and career opportunities accorded to men in Ukraine’s regular army, most women in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region opt to serve instead in volunteer battalions like the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps.
Olena Bilozerska, a Ukrainian journalist, poet, and combat veteran, is a prime example. Bilozerska began training for combat long before Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
“We knew that, de facto, Russia did not recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty,” Bilozerska says. “Russia still considered Ukraine to be part of its territory, and it was going to attack sooner or later. We spent 10 years, from 2004 to 2014, preparing to repel it. And in 2014, when Russia started the war, we were morally prepared, and by then, we had some military knowledge, skills, and abilities.”
The preparation paid off. After the 2014 Russian invasion, Bilozerska joined the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps as a sniper.
Bilozerska’s fight did not stop there. She soon played an active role in the drive to have women play an active role in the military. She was featured in a 2017 documentary, Invisible Battalion, which focused on six women fighting in eastern Ukraine. The documentary and the associated campaign convinced the Ministry of Defense to officially expand the role of women in the armed forces. That has paved the way for thousands of women to stand in defense of their country. It also led to Bilozerska being officially invited to join the armed forces of Ukraine as an officer in 2018. She now commands an artillery platoon.
Improving the position of women in Ukraine’s armed forces has been a slow process. A major obstacle is the fact that Ukraine is basically a patriarchal society. Many Ukrainian men tend to put women on a pedestal and value their ability to bear children more than their effectiveness in combat.
“For many commanders,” Bilozerska says, “there is a major difference between the death of a female fighter and a male fighter. For them, a woman is a mother or an expectant mother, and her possible death is a much bigger tragedy than the death of a man.” Bilozerska adds that some commanders still hesitate at sending women on dangerous missions. It’s an obstacle, she says, that needs to be overcome.
Despite the obstacles, the entrance of so many women into Ukraine’s fighting forces has already led to significant change. In the past, women were equipped with men’s uniforms and underwear, which failed to meet the needs of women. The military found it difficult to find boots small enough to fit women’s feet. Body armor clashed with women’s basic body structure. As the value of women ready to fight is becoming more apparent, the military is finding itself forced to adapt accordingly. Although there are still some gaps in material equipment for women in combat, attitudes from their male counterparts are greatly improving.
Bilozerska says there are now more than 5,000 women active in combat, and as a result, the attitude of their commanders and male colleagues has greatly improved.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s massive invasion in 2022 expanded the war to all of Ukraine. It had previously been a stalemate for nine years with the fighting confined mostly to eastern Ukraine.
Danika, identified here by her first name, who would later help found Valkyrie, was living in the Sumy Oblast in northeastern Ukraine. The ethnic population was 88.8 percent Ukrainian and only 9 percent Russian, but Russian troops, operating under Putin’s orders, quickly took hold of Danika’s hometown and occupied the surrounding region for several months. Danika was only 17 at the time.
“You don’t know what they will do to you,” she says. “They pointed their guns at me and pretended to shoot.”
Danika says she helped launch Valkyrie in the spring of 2022 as a direct response to the Russian occupation, and the fear that the war was likely to expand. The organization’s emergency medical preparedness has proven particularly useful in the wake of Russia’s massive missile attacks against Ukraine’s civilian population. The women have also begun preparing for future Russian offensives in the Kharkiv region. With Russia indiscriminately spreading death and destruction across Ukraine, the role of women in defending their country is increasingly important.