Family values ​​or combative values? Russia is grappling with the role of women in war.

The Russian military 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 growing appeal to women includes efforts to recruit female inmates from prisons, replicating on a much smaller scale a strategy that has swelled its ranks with male inmates.

Recruiters in military uniforms visited Russian women's prisons in the fall of 2023, offering inmates pardons and $2,000 a month – 10 times the national minimum wage – in exchange for serving in front-line roles for a year, according to six current sources and former prisoners from three prisons in different regions of Russia.

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

It's not just about prisoners. Women now appear in Russian military recruitment ads across the country. A pro-Kremlin paramilitary unit fighting in Ukraine also recruits women.

“Combat experience and military specialties are not required,” read an ad aimed at women published in March in Russia's Tatarstan region. It offered training and a sign-on 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 the ideological struggle of Putin, who paints Russia as a bastion of social conservatism that opposes decadence. West.

Putin placed women at the center of this vision, portraying them as bearers of children, mothers and wives who guard the nation's social harmony.

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

These conflicting military and social priorities have led to contradictory policies that seek to recruit women into the military to fill a need, but send mixed signals about the roles women can take there.

“I got used to the fact that I was often looked at like a monkey, like: 'Wow, he's in camouflage!'” said Ksenia Shkoda, a native of central Ukraine who has fought for pro-Russian forces since 2014.

Some volunteers do not arrive in Ukraine. Inmates who enlisted in late 2023 have yet to be sent to fight, the six former and current inmates said. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of possible retaliation.

The reason for the delay in their deployment is unknown; Russia's 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 telephone interviews or written responses to questions that local recruiting offices still routinely reject female volunteers or send them to reserves. This happens even when other officials target them with advertisements to reach larger quotas, underscoring the inherent contradiction in Russia's recruitment policies.

Tatiana Dvornikova, a Russian sociologist who studies women's prisons, believes the Russian military would delay sending female inmates into battle until it had other recruiting options.

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

Russian army attacks Ukraine. But its incremental gains have come at very high costs, 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 lines through militias in eastern Ukraine, rather than through regular forces. These separatist units were chronically understaffed after a decade of small-scale conflict against Kiev.

“They accepted anyone, absolutely anyone,” said Anna Ilyasova, who grew up in Ukraine's Donetsk region and joined the local separatist militia just 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 founded by soccer hooligans, called Española. It opened its ranks to women in September 2022 and posted recruitment videos advertising their combat roles.

“These people take care of me, they are like family,” said a Spanish fighter from Crimea who calls himself Poshest, which means “Plague.” He has been fighting with Española since 2022 as a doctor, sniper and airline pilot.

An undated photo of a Russian paramilitary named Poshest, meaning “Plague.”

All female soldiers interviewed said women remained rare in their units, outside of 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 the Ukrainian army has increased 40% since the invasion, reaching 43,000 by the end of 2023, according to the country's Defense Ministry. After the invasion, the Ukrainian army abolished gender restrictions on many combat roles.

Before the war, the much larger Russian army had around 40,000 women in service. Most, however, held administrative roles.

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

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

The idolization of snipers and fighter pilots during World War II, however, masked the discrimination and sexual abuse that many women suffered as soldiers. Discrimination has continued into the modern era, exemplified by how Russian women have struggled to collect military benefits for their service in the war in Afghanistan.

In Ukraine, the majority of Russian female soldiers interviewed for this article denied experiencing overt discrimination. But some described male peers feeling the need to protect them, echoing the country's traditional gender roles.

“My constant desire to throw myself into the thick of battle is often curbed with arguments like, 'But you're a girl!'” said Ms. Shkoda, the pro-Russian soldier. “And that absolutely drives me crazy.”

Ms. Ilyasova, a Russian army officer, said she had repeatedly rejected marriage proposals from a man in her unit.

“I always say I'm married to war” to divert unwanted romantic attention, Ms. Ilyasova added.

Ruslan Pukhov, a Moscow-based security analyst and member of the Defense Ministry's advisory council, said the Russian military has for years tried to recruit more women for rear-guard roles such as mechanics and administrators, because they are seen as great workers who drink less.

The idea of ​​using women in combat began to gain supporters among generals following Russia's intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, which brought them into contact with disciplined female fighters from Kurdish militias, Pukhov said.

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

Prison officials began compiling lists of medically trained inmates in at least some women's prisons soon after the invasion. The six current and former inmates said they were not told the purpose of the medical lists, but assumed they were a restricted list for military recruitment.

Then, in the fall of 2023, men in military uniforms visited each of the two prisons twice, inmates said. They offered women contracts to be trained to serve as snipers, combat medics or radio operators. In another women's prison, in the Urals, officials posted the recruitment offer on the noticeboard and asked interested inmates to write a petition to join the army.

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

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

In interviews, these women cited similar motivations for enlisting as male prisoners: freedom, money, and regaining a sense of self-worth. The reality of Russian women's prisons, however, has accentuated these needs.

Female prisoners in Russia are subject to stricter rules and more compulsory work than men. And when they are released, they face even greater social isolation, because in addition to breaking the law, they shatter Russian society's image of women's behavior, sociologist Dvornikova said.

That was the experience of an inmate named Maria, who said she signed up to fight in Ukraine just months after finishing her sentence for theft. She took the risk because her pardon would clear her criminal record, allowing her to provide for her daughter if she survived.

But after signing her military contract late last year, Maria said she and other volunteers at her prison were not drafted, and she struggled to keep a job once her employers found out his criminal record.

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

In prison, “the only thing we cared about was that they would take us away and send us to fight,” Maria said. “I'll be at the recruiting office the next day if I hear the process has started.”

Reporting contribution was provided by Oleg Matsnev, Alina Lobzina, Andrew E. Kramer AND Carlotta Gallo.

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