Family Values or Fighting Valor? Russia Grapples With Women’s Wartime Role.

The Russian Army is gradually expanding the role of women as it seeks to balance President Vladimir V. Putin’s promotion of traditional family roles with the need for new recruits for the war in Ukraine.

The military’s stepped-up appeal to women includes efforts to recruit female inmates in prisons, replicating on a much smaller scale a strategy that has swelled its ranks with male convicts.

Recruiters in military uniforms toured Russian jails for women in the fall of 2023, offering inmates a pardon and $2,000 a month — 10 times the national minimum wage — in return for serving in frontline roles for a year, according to six current and former inmates of three prisons in different regions of Russia.

Dozens of inmates just from those prisons have signed military contracts or applied to enlist, the women said, a sampling that — along with local media reports about recruitment in other regions — suggests a broader effort to enlist female convicts.

It’s not just convicts. Women now feature in Russian military recruitment advertisements across the country. A pro-Kremlin paramilitary unit fighting in Ukraine also recruits women.

“Combat experience and military specialties are not required,” read an advertisement aimed at women that was posted in March in Russia’s Tatarstan region. It offered training and a sign-up bonus equivalent to $4,000. “We have one goal — victory!”

The Russian military’s need to replenish its ranks for what it presents as a long-term war against Ukraine and its Western allies, however, has clashed with Mr. Putin’s ideological struggle, which portrays Russia as a bastion of social conservatism standing up to the decadent West.

Mr. Putin has placed women at the core of this vision, portraying them as child-bearers, mothers and wives guarding the nation’s social harmony.

“The most important thing for every women, no matter what profession she has chosen and what heights she has reached, is the family,” Mr. Putin said in a speech on March 8.

These clashing military and social priorities have resulted in contradictory policies that seek to recruit women to the military to fill a need, but send conflicting signals about the roles women can assume there.

“I have gotten used to the fact that I am often looked at like a monkey, like, ‘Wow, she’s in fatigues!’” said Ksenia Shkoda, a native of central Ukraine who has fought for pro-Russian forces since 2014.

Some female volunteers do not make it to Ukraine. The convicts who enlisted in late 2023 have yet to be sent to fight, the six former and current inmates said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of possible retribution.

The reason for the delay in their deployment is unknown; the Russian defense ministry and prison service did not respond to requests for comment.

Ms. Shkoda and six other women fighting for Russia in Ukraine said in phone interviews or in written answers to questions that local recruitment offices still routinely turned away female volunteers or sent them to reserves. This occurs even as other officials target them with advertisements to meet broader quotas, underscoring the inherent contradiction in Russia’s recruitment policies.

Tatiana Dvornikova, a Russian sociologist studying prisons for women, believes the Russian Army would delay sending female convicts into battle as long as it has other recruitment options.

“It would create a very unpleasant reputational risk for the Russian Army,” she said, because most Russians would view such a breach of social mores as a sign of desperation.

The Russian Army is on the attack in Ukraine. But its incremental gains have come at very high cost, requiring a constant search for recruits.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, women who wanted to fight for the Kremlin often found their way to the front through militias in the east of Ukraine, rather than regular forces. These separatist units were chronically understaffed after a decade of smaller-scale conflict against Kyiv.

“They accepted anyone — absolutely anyone,” said Anna Ilyasova, who grew up in Ukraine’s Donetsk region and joined the local separatist militia days before Russia’s full-scale invasion. “I couldn’t even hold an automatic rifle.”

After serving in combat, Ms. Ilyasova now works as a political officer in a regular Russian battalion fighting in Ukraine.

Other women joined a Russian paramilitary unit started by soccer hooligans, called Española. It opened its ranks to women in September 2022, and has published recruitment videos publicizing their combat roles.

“These people take care of me, they are like a family,” said an Española fighter from Crimea who goes by the call sign Poshest, meaning “Plague.” She has fought with Española since 2022 as a medic, sniper and airplane pilot.

An undated photo of a female Russian paramilitary who goes by the call sign Poshest, meaning “Plague.”

All of the interviewed female soldiers said women remained rare in their units, outside medical roles.

Russia’s cautious approach to women’s participation in the military differs from the more liberal policy adopted by Ukraine.

The number of women serving in Ukrainian military has risen by 40 percent since the invasion, reaching 43,000 in late 2023, according the country’s defense ministry. After the invasion, the Ukrainian military abolished gender restrictions on many combat roles.

The much larger Russian military also had about 40,000 servicewomen before the war. The majority, however, have served in administrative roles.

For both Russia and Ukraine, the military opportunities available to women have long fluctuated with recruitment needs.

The Russian Empire, which included most of modern Ukraine, created its first female combat units toward the end of World War I, after years of heavy losses. Decades later, the Soviet Union became the first country to call up women for combat, to compensate for the millions of casualties suffered in the first year of the Nazi invasion.

The lionization of female snipers and fighter pilots in World War II, however, masked the discrimination and sexual abuse many women faced as soldiers. The discrimination has continued into the modern era, exemplified by the way Russian women have struggled to collect the military benefits for their service in the Afghanistan War.

In Ukraine, the majority of Russian female soldiers interviewed for this article denied facing open discrimination. But some described male peers who felt the need to protect them, echoing the country’s traditional gender roles.

“My constant urge to throw myself into the thick of the battle is often halted with arguments like: ‘But you’re a girl!’” said Ms. Shkoda, the pro-Russian soldier. “And this drives me absolutely mad.”

Ms. Ilyasova, the Russian Army officer, said she had repeatedly turned down marriage proposals from a man in her unit.

“I always say that I’m married to war” to deflect the unwanted romantic attention, Ms. Ilyasova added.

Ruslan Pukhov, a Moscow-based security analyst who sits on the defense ministry’s advisory council, said the Russian Army had been trying to recruit more women for rear-guard roles such as mechanics and administrators for years, because they are viewed as hard workers who drink less.

The idea of using women in combat begun to gain supporters among generals following Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, which brought them in contact with the disciplined women fighters of the Kurd militias, Mr. Pukhov said.

The invasion of Ukraine in 2022, has brought the idea to the fore, leading Russia to consider the military potential of about 40,000 women who were imprisoned in the country in the first year of the war.

Prison officials started compiling lists of inmates with medical training in at least some jails for women soon after the invasion. The six current and former inmates said they were not told the purpose of the medical lists, but assumed that they were a shortlist for military recruitment.

Then, in autumn of 2023, men in military uniforms visited each of the two prisons twice, the inmates said. They offered women contracts to be trained to serve as snipers, combat medics or radio operators. In another female prison, in the Ural Mountains, officials put up the recruitment offer on the bulletin board, and asked interested inmates to write a petition to join the army.

“Everyone wanted to go, because, despite everything, it’s still freedom,” said Yulia, who said she applied to join the army while serving a sentence for murder. “Either I would die, or I would buy an apartment.”

Dozens of women in the three colonies, which were all in the European part of Russia, accepted the offer, the six current and former inmates said.

In interviews, these women cited enlistment motives similar to those of male convicts: freedom, money and regaining their sense of self-worth. The reality of Russian prisons for women, however, accentuated these needs.

Female inmates in Russia are subject to stricter rules and more compulsory labor than men. And on their release, they face even greater social isolation, because apart from breaking the law, they shatter the Russian society’s image of women’s behavior, said Ms. Dvornikova, the sociologist.

That was the experience of one inmate named Maria, who said she had enlisted to fight in Ukraine with just months to go on her sentence for theft. She took the risk because the pardon would erase her criminal record, allowing her to provide for her daughter if she survived.

But after signing the military contract late last year, Maria said she and other volunteers from her jail have not been called up, and she struggled to keep a job once her employers discovered her previous criminal record.

Maria said she eventually found informal work as a seamstress, but would still go to war if called up.

In jail, “all we cared about was for them to take us away, and send us to fight,” said Maria. “I will be in the recruitment office the next day, if I hear that the process got underway.”

Oleg Matsnev, Alina Lobzina, Andrew E. Kramer and Carlotta Gall contributed reporting to the story.

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