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Russia boosts efforts to recruit female fighters

Juri Rescheto
November 4, 2023

As the war in Ukraine drags on, Russia needs a steady stream of new soldiers to join the frontlines. Now more women are being recruited.

Russian contract soldiers take part in a military exercise
Russian contract soldiers take part in a military exerciseImage: Konkov Sergei/ITAR-TASS/dpa/picture alliance

A video posted to a Russian online platform shows a young female soldier with a baseball cap, holding a Kalashnikov rifle. Her voice is brimming with optimism. The footage was supposedly recorded in the area of Russia's "special military operation," which is what the Kremlin calls its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The woman's name is Natalia, though her nom-de-guerre is Valkyrie. She hails from the Ural mountains. Everyone engaged in the "special military operation" has a military callsign.

Julia from Donetsk is sitting beside Natalia, whose callsign is Demon. She, too, is a soldier wearing a bulletproof vest. Natalia jokes that Julia has a "demonic state of mind," adding that she "is indignant and it doesn't matter that she is a girl!" Julia nodds.

Good pay and welfare benefits

This video surfaced a few weeks ago on the internet and has been viewed thousands of times. In the clip, the women answer a range of questions, along with images of shooting exercises, talking about how important it is to serve in the army. They are said to be members of the Bors battalion, which media reports claim is a volunteer combat unit under control of Russia's Ministry of Defense.

Russian President Putin addresses male and female soldiers
Women have served in the Russian army for yearsImage: SvenSimon/TheKremlinMoscow/picture alliance

The battalion is currently running gender-neutral ads on a major Russian social media platform as it seeks to bolster its ranks. It is looking to recruit drone operators and snipers but also medics and drivers. Volunteers can sign up on a six-month contract, which also entails benefits. Recruits can expect to earn 220,000 rubles per month, equivalent to just under €2,300 — a lot of money by Russian standards.

Another account on the same platform by the name of "fighting girls" specifically targets women, urging them to sign up and serve in the Russian forces. The conditions — contract length and pay — are identical to those offered by the Bors unit. The ad says female drone pilots and snipers are wanted.

In the above-mentioned video, Julia, call sign Demon, tells viewers she is currently undergoing sniper training and learning how become a drone operater. Natalia, or Valkyrie, says she is a paramedic instructor.

The timing and content of this video is perhaps no coincidence as Russia ramps up its efforts to recruit additional fighters.

An 'enchanting army'

In celebration of International Women's Day this March, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu proudly announced that some 44,500 women were currently serving in the Russian army. He said 1,100 of them were directly involved in the "special military operation," and that one third had received special state decorations. Some 1,300 were studying at military colleges, Shoigu added, before describing the women as an "enchanting army."

Last year, 128 Russian female soldiers were decorated for their achievements, 24 of them for their participation in frontline combat operations. According to the Russian news agency Ria Novosti, women are active in all branches of the Russian armed forces, serving in some 150 different roles.

Shoigu failed to mention, however, that more and more female prisoners were being recruited to serve in the Russian armed forces, according to Berlin-based human rights activist Olga Romanova. Romanova's non-governmental organization Russia Behind Bars helps prisoners by providing legal assistance and other support. She is well connected within Russia.

According to the organization, the first 50 female inmates were recruited a year ago. Back then, 50 women held at a jail in the Ukrainian city of Luhansk, which was annexed by Russia, joined Russia's armed forces. Since then, many more incarcerated women have signed up. Today, Romanova told DW, there were thousands such women serving in the Russian military.

She said these women were "victims of Russian propaganda." While some joined the army for moral reasons, others were tempted by the money. In addition, those who return from the battlefield have their jail sentences scrapped.

Many male prisoners had also been recruited to serve in the Russian army, she added. 

Female soldiers attend a ceremony in Russia in August 2022
Serving in the Russian army can be lucrativeImage: Olga Maltseva/AFP

The worst kind of equality

Romanova has no contact to those female Russian soldiers who were not recruited out of jails. Yet she assumes that most of them either follow their husbands to the frontlines, or that they work for state security forces such as the police.

What do Russia's efforts to recruit women say about the state of Russian army? Romanova told DW she thought this reflected the worst kind of equality there could be: "If I didn't know the conditions of Russian prisons or along the frontlines, I would say we are seeing actual equality between men and women, but of course these women are used as cannon fodder, so in this respect they are indeed equal to men."

She said she hoped many Russian women would turn against the war and abandon their ill-conceived notion of patriotism.

This article was translated from German.

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Juri Rescheto DW Riga Bureau Chief