Women in the Russian Military
September 18, 2020
This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.
From the all-women Death Battalion led by Maria Bochkareva in the Russian Revolution, to the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, dubbed the “Night Witches” by the Nazis they fought in World War II, lore of women defending the Motherland is well-known among Russians. Yet, in modern day Russia, a fairly low number of women serve in the military, despite an expanded force structure approaching one million active duty personnel. Why is this the case? In this piece, I argue that traditional gender roles that emphasize reproduction and high-level doubts about female competency are key factors limiting the role of women in the Russian Armed Forces. Barring a shortage of military-aged males, Moscow’s cost-benefit analysis is unlikely to change, and increased female representation in the Russian military—whether in proportion or scope—remains improbable in the near term.
Women in the Russian military today
Though women have long served as volunteers in the Russian (and formerly, Soviet) military, females were officially permitted to enlist on contract in November 1992 by presidential decree. In May 2020, Minister of Defense Shoygu stated that there were approximately 41,000 women enlisted in the Russian Armed Forces, which constitutes roughly 4.26 percent of total active duty forces, according to official figures. Though this is a slight reduction compared to the totals in 2018 (44,500), a total of around 35,000 to 45,000 has been fairly consistent for Russia over the past 10 years. Compared to a proportion of 10 percent in the 2000s, however, this rate has more than halved. The current rate lags considerably behind most Western countries; for reference, women make up 16.5 percent of the armed forces in the United States. China’s rate is believed to be around 9 percent.
Conscription in the Russian military, though mandatory for males between the ages of 18 and 27, does not apply to females, as it does in Norway or Israel, for example—though the idea has been floated by Duma members in the past. Women who wish to enlist in the Russian Armed Forces must pass a modified physical exam and are tested for pregnancy before admission. While foreign men are allowed to join the Russian military, which is incentivized by a path to Russian citizenship, foreign women are not.
Once enlisted, women serve in units alongside men rather than units segregated by gender. Separate barracks and restrooms are dedicated for women, the costs of which are an oft-cited reason for restricting the proportion of women who serve. Women serve in the Army, Aerospace Forces, Navy (although on certain ships only) and Rocket Forces. However, not all roles are open to women; while the number of countries that allow women to hold combat roles is steadily increasing, Russian women are not permitted in frontline combat roles and are therefore typically restricted from service on aircraft, submarines, or tanks. Though the full list is classified, women are also restricted from being mechanics and from performing sentry duties. In large part, enlisted women serve in communications, medicine, psychology, or as clerks, musicians, or facility staff. Shoygu noted that of the 41,000 women serving, about 4,000 are officers, including 44 colonels. If there are women serving at a higher rank than colonel, they were not mentioned. As noted by Roger McDermott, “[T]he previous Defense Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov recommended the first woman for promotion to the rank of Major-General in June 2012, but then sacked her within a few months for alleged incompetence.” Shoygu noted that a larger number of women serve in civilian roles, and it should be noted that Tatiana Shevtsova holds a high rank as one of the current deputy Ministers of Defense.
Still, joining the military provides a steady source of income, medical care, housing, and offers privileges for those seeking higher education or government employment later on. Additionally, it provides the opportunity to serve one’s country. In a country not short on patriotism, why aren’t there more women in the Russian armed forces?
Some of this low rate can be attributed to Russia’s more traditional view of gender roles, including the social emphasis on reproduction. Outside of the military, too, an order from Vladimir Putin currently prohibits women from more than 450 professions across a number of industries—the fear being that overly strenuous activity might interfere with one's ability to bear children. Though the Labor Ministry is reportedly working to reduce this number to 100 by 2021, restricted jobs will still include mining, construction, metalwork, firefighting, or jobs that involve heavy-lifting, diving, handling hazardous chemicals, welding, or aircraft repair.
Analysis shows that despite some increase in public discourse about gender equality in recent years, Russians’ attitudes towards gender roles have actually “retreated” in favor of traditionalism. A 2020 poll by state-run VTsIOM sheds considerable light on views about gender roles and enlisting amongst Russians. Sixty-three percent of respondents said they would not want a daughter to serve in the military, whereas 62 percent said they would like to see a son serve. Interestingly, those who would like to see their daughters serve had different rationales for why it would be a good choice (13 percent - to provide discipline; 11 percent - to provide stability) versus those that would want their son to serve (25 percent - because it is a man’s job; 15 percent - because it is associated with the protection of the Motherland and family). The primary reason respondents did not think a daughter should serve was “the army is not a woman's business, the army is for men” (42 percent), whereas the top reasons respondents did not want a son to serve was fear for his life (17 percent). According to a 2010 study, the largest proportion of female enlistees serve out of financial necessity (67 percent) while only a small proportion (6 percent) are professionally oriented.
When women—commonly described as “the weaker sex”—do serve in the Russian military, they do not escape traditional gender stereotyping. For example, it is not uncommon for the Russian ministry of defense to organize beauty pageants or cooking competitions amongst its female enlistees.
Fears of gender-based violence may also play a role, as reports of rape and sexual assault even against men in the Russian military are common. An extreme practice of violence, bullying, and hazing, known as dedovshchina is acknowledged as a severe issue in the Russian military. In 2006, the Russian military reported 292 deaths related to dedovshchina alone. In fact, attempting to combat hazing was a key factor in the decision to shorten the period of conscription from two years to one. Statistics show that post-2008 military reforms have not been able to successfully eradicate this practice, with hundreds or sometimes thousands of incidents reported in any given year. According to a 2017 VTsIOM poll, dedovshchina remains the number one factor behind individuals’ reluctance to enter the Russian military (51 percent), ahead of the fear of being deployed to a hotspot (40 percent).
However, the problem may not be as simple as “Russian women do not want to serve.” In fact, Shoygu noted that competition for military universities is even higher for women than for men, with 27 women applying for every seat. In many cases, women are turned away from enlistment for seeking restricted roles. According to a July 2020 TASS article, a woman named Yana Surgaeva was denied by military recruiters and issued a refusal letter stating "the approval of military service by women as a driver, mechanic, sniper or gunner is not permitted.” Surgaeva sued the Ministry of Defense and National Guard, appealing both to the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court, both of which refused to hear the case.
Female competency for military duty is routinely questioned in public discourse. Russian academics and officials alike argue that perceived psychological and physiological differences, such as lower bone density and heightened emotionalism, make women less suited for certain roles. For example, according to military psychologist Yevgeny Zhovnerchuk, women are better suited for the roles of communication center operators or nurses because “women are more meticulous and attentive than men; they are better at coping with monotonous, simple, mechanical work.” The general sentiment regarding female serviceship can be summed up by the former State Duma defense committee chairman and ex-commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Admiral Vladimir Komoedov: “A woman can be entrusted with a lot: they can be radio operators, parachutists, translators . . . Of course, you don't need to put a woman in a tank or a fighter plane, but there are a number of places where it is too easy for a man to serve, but a woman would be just right."
In the few cases where women have served as pilots or in other restricted roles, they have had to petition the government for special permission, even sending hand-written notes to Shoygu. At the same time, it seems these women are disproportionately highlighted in Russian media, inflating the perception that female representation is robust and unrestricted.
Many Russian women, such as Russia’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Tatiana Moskalkova, chairman of For the Rights of Women in Russia Lyudmila Aivar, and Open New Democracy Foundation vice president Anna Fedorova have been vocal in calling for reforms to better include women in the Russian military. For example, Moskalkova believes that limiting conscription to males is a violation of women’s rights as Russian citizens. She believes that conscription for women should be introduced on a voluntary basis, so that all girls who have reached the age of 18 are sent an offer to serve through the draft, and then can decide for themselves whether to go or not. Overall, however, pressure from civil society does not seem to be sufficient to significantly alter the status quo of female serviceship, considering the degree of conservatism associated with the Ministry of Defense, and with the Russian government in general.
Manning with women: an overlooked solution to personnel shortages?
Countries typically integrate their armed forces for one of two reasons: (1) to meet a global trend in gender equality reform, often due to domestic demands to remove gender-based restrictions, or (2) to increase total personnel, as seen in smaller countries with multiple adversaries (such as Eritrea or Israel), or during wartime. A logical question to ask, then, is: does Russia particularly need women to serve in the military?
Although there may be little need now, as Russia’s present manning levels approach 90-95 percent, Russia has faced prolonged shortages of military personnel in its recent past. According to an official of the General Staff, manning levels dropped to around 70 percent in 2012. To mitigate shortages, Russia implemented an aggressive campaign to crack down on draft dodging. Additionally, to address a deficit of officers, Russia resorted to “non-standard” measures, including: inducing retired or reserve forces to return to active duty, shortening the training period at military academies from five to four years, and extending the professional lifespan for certain posts, including pilots. Based on current personnel estimates, these efforts seem to have been successful. However, the fact that the Ministry of Defense made little apparent effort to enlist women during this time highlights the durability of gender roles and biases in the Russian mentality. An observer might ask: Isn’t an obvious source of manpower being overlooked?
Recently, Putin expanded force requirements, increasing an authorized level of one million active duty personnel to 1,013,628. He also expressed his intent to move away from the draft by professionalizing Russia’s forces. A professional force made of volunteer contractors is seen as preferable to conscription in that it retains talent longer; with Russia’s present 12 month draft terms, conscripts only have about 6-9 months of useful service after completing training. According to official statistics, currently, about 405,000 of roughly 960,000 active duty personnel are kontraktniki, with a stated goal of increasing this number to nearly 500,000 by 2027. Perhaps female enlistees will help meet these goals. Looking farther out, some predict that Russia will undergo a population dip starting around 2033, which may also influence decisionmakers to further integrate the Armed Forces.
Today, due to a societal perception of women that permeates the highest levels of Ministry of Defense, the role of women in the Russian Armed Forces remains limited and gendered. This mentality, which emphasizes the importance of reproduction and motherhood, and doesn’t see women as particularly qualified for overly complicated or strenuous roles, is likely further entrenched by an unfavorable birth-to-death rate (10.1 to 12.3 out of 1,000, pre-Coronavirus figures).
In the future, Russia might find some reason to increase the number of female enlistees amongst its ranks or open more roles to women. Increasing the proportion of women in the Russian military could help Moscow not only meet manning requirements and shift towards professionalization but also provide a myriad of other advantages. Only time will tell. In 2014, the Deputy Minister of Defense Tatyana Shevtsova announced that the number of female enlistees serving in the Armed Forces would be 80,000 by 2020. For whatever reason, this goal was not met.
Significant obstacles indicate that the status quo will remain: lack of pressure from civil society, associated infrastructural costs of gender integration, violence and sexual assault, and pervasive views about gender among the highest ranks and public alike. Barring either a shift in public sentiment regarding traditional gender roles, or a demographic trend that reduces the supply of service-aged males, a substantial increase in female representation is unlikely in the near term.
Mary Chesnut is a research analyst in the Russia Studies Program at CNA Corporation. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer or of CSIS.
CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).