Ukraine’s female soldiers: Nobody will tell you, ‘You are a chick, so you are not going to fight and save me’

The personal lives of many women in the country have been transformed as thousands are involved the long fight to repel Russia’s invasion

Images of fleeing Ukrainian women clutching suitcases and children dominated news coverage of the first weeks of Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine and inspired a wave of sympathy across Europe.

Eighteen months into the war, one quarter of Ukraine’s population remain refugees or are internally displaced, the majority of them women.

But there is another, less known face of Ukrainian women in this war.

More than 60,000 women play an active role in the defence of their country: 41,000 as members of the armed forces, of whom 5,000 are in combat positions, and another 19,000 as civilian employees devoted to the needs of the army, deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar said last spring.


The Irish Times met three extraordinary Ukrainian women who are risking their lives alongside the men they call their brothers in arms.

At age 28, Lt Yulia Mykytenko already has seven years of military experience, much of it in combat. Mykytenko survived the battle of Svitlodarsk in Donbas at Christmas in 2016, where nearly 3,000 explosions were recorded on the first day. She attributes the loss of her husband and father to the war. Last October, Mykytenko was awarded the Order of Courage by presidential decree. She now commands a frontline drone unit near Bakhmut.

We talk via video link, and I can see the brick facade of the abandoned house where Mykytenko’s unit is stationed behind her. The tough, young unit commander wears a khaki T-shirt.

A 30-year-old medic who asks to be known by her callname, Alaska, was severely wounded by shrapnel last January but was ordered to return to her unit in Donbas. Alaska wears a black T-shirt and jeans. She has braces on her teeth and piercings in her nose and ears.

I meet her in the offices of the women’s veterans’ group Veteranka, which is campaigning for more recovery time for wounded soldiers, men and women alike. Alaska’s patriotism is intact, despite terrible pain and the obligation to return to battle before her wounds are healed.

Ulyana Kuzyk, age 37, is a member of the nationalist paramilitary group Praviy Sektor (Right Sektor). From a rear base in Lviv, she sources drones and other equipment for the 67th mechanised brigade, which has integrated many of Praviy Sektor’s fighters.

I meet Kuzyk on the sidelines of a benefit concert for the military in Lviv. I notice she has perfectly manicured mauve fingernails. Her navy-blue chiffon dress is a change from the combat fatigues she wears on frequent trips to the frontline.

Without exception, the Ukrainian women I have spoken to, military and civilians alike, say that war is no harder for women than it is for men.

“I think it is the same for everybody,” says Kuzyk. “There are many women fighting on the front line, and there are many men protecting the rear.”

“We all suffer from cold and shelling,” says Alaska. “Within two months, your unit becomes your family. You lose your friends, people you love.”

There is a reluctance to criticise politicians or the military hierarchy when the country is at war. Sexism has not gone away though.

“Let’s face it. The army is a product of patriarchy, like it or not,” says Kateryna Pryimak who served as a frontline paramedic in Donbas in 2014-15 and is co-founder of Veteranka.

Mykytenko joined the Ukrainian armed forces soon after graduating with a degree in philology in 2016.

“I wanted to be in a combat unit but, because I was a woman, they assigned me to staff work with documents for a year,” she says.

Her university degree gave her the right to three months training at a military academy in Lviv, after which she was promoted to lead a motorised infantry platoon.

“That was in 2017,” Mykytenko recalls. “I was 21. I suppose I was quite young. The men in my unit had known me as a staff worker. They knew I was a good soldier, but they refused to fight under a woman commander. They just told me ‘I don’t want to be under a woman commander’. I said if they disagreed with my appointment, they could leave any time. I wouldn’t force them to stay.”

Mykytenko had met a soldier called Ilia Serbin in March 2015. They married three months later. She joined the 54th mechanised brigade because that was his unit. When she became an officer, “I hand-picked my own unit,” she says. “Some were friends of my husband. He supported me. Some of those who refused in the beginning returned to the unit when they saw it was not such a bad thing to have a female commander”.

Alaska says 5 per cent of her combat unit are women. They have no barracks or tent.

“We sleep wherever we are. Sometimes it’s a half-destroyed house. At one point we dug deep, wood-lined trenches with a cosy smell. They were full of mice running around. Changing positions, movement, is part of military life. Movement is Life is a Ukrainian proverb. In our case, you must keep moving to survive. You have to run fast and low.”

Women soldiers eat, sleep, wash, and dress alongside their male comrades.

“I am like one of the boys,” says Mykytenko. “I respect and love my brothers in arms. They treat me with respect and give me privacy when I need it.”

Her unit has lived in an abandoned house without running water or electricity for months. They take water from a well and produce their own electricity with generators. The only other woman in her 24-strong unit is a medic.

Mykytenko is very busy on days when there are sustained Russian bombardments.

Because I am in a combat unit, and we are like brothers. That is just my experience. I know there have been cases. I am very lucky with my unit

“At such times, I have a lot of work as troop commander,” she says. “I need to be sure my people have enough technical resources, the internet, generators and four drones – two for the day and two for the night, and an extra one in case we lose one. We lead from the sky.

“I have to make sure my men can make internet translations to the staff. Identifying the enemy’s position and correcting artillery trajectories is one of our duties. Sometimes, after an attack, we need to make a video of the bodies and recognise them if possible. We have to make sure that the path to evacuate them is clear of mines, to suggest a path to get to the dead and wounded. Sometimes I go with the evacuation group.”

Has she ever been the object of unwanted sexual attention? I ask Mykytenko. “No,” she replies, dead serious. “I have a gun.”

There have been “some inappropriate jokes, not from my brothers-in-arms but from staff officers, from colonels,” she adds. She doesn’t want to repeat the jokes.

Alaska says she has never faced sexual innuendo in the army “because I am in a combat unit, and we are like brothers. That is just my experience. I know there have been cases. I am very lucky with my unit”.

Alaska was at a base between Kharkiv and Luhansk last January 25th when a Russian Lancet drone with a three-kilo warhead exploded near her. Shrapnel pierced her pelvis, damaging muscles, tissue and her sciatic nerve, but missing the bone.

“I didn’t know what pain was before,” she says. For once, Alaska’s gender worked in her favour. A Polish charity funded costly neuro-rehabilitation for her “because I am a wounded woman medic”.

Despite having been wounded, Alaska says she would join up again “because I don’t want to be part of Russia”. Before this war, she was a journalist at a television station that specialised in debunking Russian propaganda.

Standing beside a display of captured Russian equipment in the Veteranka office, Alaska makes a joke about her own femininity.

“I don’t want to wear frog camouflage. It’s so tacky!” she says, prodding a captured Russian rucksack with her crutch. “I want to wear our chic, pixelated camouflage!”

Alaska is on leave to go before the medical commission to request time to recover from her war wounds. Under 1990s legislation governing military deployments, wounded soldiers are required to return quickly to the front.

“I couldn’t walk for three months,” Alaska says.

She was ordered to return to the front only two weeks after she resumed walking, with great difficulty and with a cane.

“I cannot help evacuate wounded soldiers, which is part of my job,” she says. “But I couldn’t not go back. I signed a contract with the army, and I would be court-martialed.”

Alaska says sexism is present “only in units who are not fighting on the frontline, in headquarters. If you are actively engaged in combat there is no sexism because we work as one organism. Nobody will tell you, ‘You are a chick, so you are not going to fight and save me’. However, in headquarters it is possible to be looked down upon. Men have a biased attitude towards you because you are a woman”.

We do not know about their conditions, and we do not want to know because we want to see them dead

In theory, women are equal to men in the military. In practice, says Pryimak at Veteranka, there are barriers to career advancement. For example, at a time when many Ukrainian military are sent to western countries, men are given preference for training abroad. She says men are also more likely to be decorated for military valour .

Casualty figures are classified but, as of November last year, Veteranka had recorded the deaths of more than 100 women soldiers and many more wounded. Female military fatalities include Inna Derusova, an army surgeon who was killed in an artillery bombardment while caring for wounded soldiers in March 2022. Derusova was the first woman to be posthumously awarded the Hero of Ukraine medal. She was 51.

Making a career in the military is difficult for a woman, Alaska says.

“When a man is promoted, everyone thinks he’s professional. When a woman becomes an officer, they say she has slept with someone or paid someone or is someone’s relative.”

As in civilian life? I ask.

“In a way it is similar, but it is within a closed system. In the military, you are their subordinate, and you have to follow orders.”

Ulyana Kuzyk, the army logistician in Lviv, deals often with men in leadership positions. When the Praviy Sektor volunteer corps was integrated into the regular army last year, she says career army officers did not take her seriously.

“They did not want to listen to my technical expertise or opinion. They might feel embarrassed that a girl who is a civilian knows more than they do. We argued, but now we are the best of friends.”

Drone warfare has reached unprecedented levels in Ukraine. Drones have been used to kill, but also to rescue. In a video seen around the world, a Russian soldier last May surrendered to a drone which was programmed to take water to him and lead him to Ukrainian lines.

Ukrainian women excel in this relatively new field of combat. Kuzyk purchases drones, then transports them to the front where she teaches soldiers how to use them.

“I completed a course and I know how to operate a drone,” she says. “We use civil drones, like Chinese-made MAVICs and FPVs which are sold through US and European countries. Right now, we are buying them for medics, to use to search for our wounded. The cheapest cost around US$3,000, but if you need an infra-red camera with night vision it’s about USD$5,000.”

Women bring empathy, compassion and understanding to their unit

At Veteranka, I am told that there are many Russian women fighting in this war as well, and that an enemy is an enemy, regardless of gender.

“We do not know about their conditions, and we do not want to know because we want to see them dead,” says Hanna Demydenko, the legal adviser for Veteranka. “We can provide them with a crematorium. That’s the best we can do for them. They have another option: They can join the Russian Volunteer Corps (an anti-Putin group that wages war from Ukraine).”

Demydenko says many of the women on the Russian side are separatists from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. They join Russian forces because they are desperate for money and are notorious as brutal torturers of captured Ukrainians, she says.

Grief is an inescapable part of life in a country at war. Kuzyk lost two close friends, Taras Bobanych, callsign Hammer, and Dmytro Kotsiubailo, known as Da Vinci.

“I had to go and pick up Hammer’s body,” she says. “After Hammer’s death I wanted to take up a weapon and go fight in the east. A friend told me you have to train a lot to go to the east, because it’s no longer the war it was in 2014. I know how to use most of the guns. They say I’m a good shot.”

Mykytenko has paid a higher price than most. Her husband Ilia was killed in an artillery bombardment in 2018.

“I was just a few kilometres from the place, and I heard it on the walkie-talkie,” she says.

After her husband died, the army sent Mykytenko to Kyiv.

“I thought it was not appropriate to continue in the unit and combat zone where my husband died,” she says.

She transferred to a military high school where she supervised the first class of female students.

In October, 2020, Mykytenko’s father Mykola, an army surgeon, immolated himself on Maidan Square in Kyiv, in protest because he believed that president Volodymyr Zelenskiy intended to give the Donbas region to Russia. He died three days later.

The people around me are the thing I care most about, my brothers in arms. It’s much easier to see what is black and what is white there

Is there anything a man can do in war that a woman cannot do? I ask Mykytenko. She pauses for a very long moment and answers, “I think not”.

But there are things which Mykytenko believes women do better.

“In some cases, commanding. Women bring empathy, compassion and understanding to their unit,” she says.

Have grief and war hardened her heart, made her less compassionate? Mytenko pauses another long moment.

“I think it has made me more motivated to defend myself, my family and my country,” she says.

When Mykytenko returned to civilian life for six months before the full-scale Russian invasion, she was not happy.

“I feel much more comfortable in a combat zone,” she says. “The people around me are the thing I care most about, my brothers in arms. It’s much easier to see what is black and what is white there.”

I ask what the past seven years in the military have taught Mykytenko about herself.

“I have become less naive,” she says. “And more stress-resistant. I am physically trained and resistant to the environment. I don’t need a lot of comfort to live.”

When the war in Ukraine eventually ends, Mykytenko wants to cease active duty and devote herself to veterans’ affairs. She is active in Veteranka and in the Invisible Battalion movement, which also defends women’s rights in the military. She networks with female politicians. Her most cherished ambition, she says, is to become defence minister of Ukraine.