Ukrainian women are making enormous contributions to the war against Russia.
Interview with Dr Jenny Mathers, Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University. Jenny Mathers is currently working on several related projects that focus on different aspects of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, including a book that examines the crisis from the perspective of feminist security studies. She is also the co-editor (with Veronica Kitchen) and a contributor to Heroism and Global Politics (Routledge, 2018).
What is your view on Ukrainian women’s contribution to the fight against Russia?
Ukrainian women are making enormous contributions to the war against Russia and have been doing so since the conflict in the Donbas began. There is no doubt that Ukraine would not be able to sustain its war effort without women's extensive and consistent contributions.
Some of the contributions women have been making fall within the range of more traditional and stereotypical ways that women participate in war from the home front, such as fundraising and collecting donations for soldiers who are fighting, including transporting those donations to the front lines. The war in Ukraine has famously been a crowd-funded war, where efforts by civil society have supplemented the resources of the state, and women have often been at the forefront of this effort, usually working through small, locally-based, and grassroots organisations. Another activity supporting the armed forces primarily associated with women is making camouflage netting for military vehicles, equipment, and camps. This has become a source of community-building and practical, material support for the military. Of course, many women have professional jobs that contribute indirectly to the war effort by keeping the civilian economy and society functioning - doctors, teachers, journalists, civil servants, and so on. And although President Zelensky's cabinet is very male-dominated, there are a number of women in deputy minister roles, including in the Ministry of Defence. A major contribution of Ukrainian women is looking after families, especially when so many men serve in the armed forces. This includes caring responsibilities for elderly and disabled people as well as children. Ukrainian women who have fled the war and are either IDPs or refugees abroad are also supporting the war, whether by looking after dependents (ensuring that children continue to speak their native language, don't forget about their history and culture), raising money for the war effort, speaking to their new neighbours about the war and raising awareness and so on. Ukrainian women, including those who have lived outside Ukraine for many years or whose families left Ukraine a generation ago or more, have also been using their expertise as scholars to speak to the media, give public talks, and generally raise awareness about Ukraine and its society, history, language, and culture. Dr Oleysa Khromeychuk, the Director of the Ukrainian Institute London, is a good example of a woman making these kinds of contributions.
One of the most dramatic and high-profile ways that Ukrainian women contribute to the fight against Russia is by taking up arms and joining either the Ukrainian armed forces or territorial defence forces. This is just the most recent phase of a trend that began not long after the war in the Donbas back in 2014. Initially, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence was reluctant to allow women to go to the combat zone and later permitted women to be deployed there but only in non-combat roles such as cooks or clerks. Many women went to war by this route and then played a more active role in the fighting once they arrived, although since then, the Ministry of Defence has changed its policy and permits women to serve in a wider range of roles, including combat roles. The latest reports I have seen suggest as many as 50,000 women are serving in Ukraine, making up over 20% of the armed forces. This is a very high proportion in global terms. Many women serve as medics or provide various support functions such as administration or logistics, while others serve in units that are actively involved in the fighting. Increasingly, those military women are depicted as doing a professional job alongside their male counterparts rather than an oddity. In my opinion, this is a positive step that may contribute to greater gender equality in Ukrainian society after the war.
Do you think there is a likelihood of further escalation between Russia and Ukraine in light of the recent accident at the Kerch bridge?
In the days since the explosion on the Kerch bridge, we have already seen an escalation on Russia's part - by attacking cities and civilian targets across Ukraine, especially critical infrastructure. It is important to remember, though, that these more recent Russian attacks are typical of Russia's actions in general, which have tended to come in the form of heavy-handed attacks on towns and cities rather than more selective use of force.
The Russian armed forces paid a heavy price for the initial failed attempt in February and early March to attack Kyiv, assassinate the president, and replace the government with a Moscow-friendly puppet regime. Thanks to the resistance of the Ukrainians, Russian forces lost a considerable amount of capacity, especially some of their most highly-trained elite soldiers. In the following months, Russia's military capacity has been further degraded, with Ukrainian attacks on command posts (so losing officers, including some senior officers), transport links, and supplies of fuel and ammunition. The partial mobilisation that Putin announced last month is an acknowledgment that Russia needs more war-waging capacity, but the losses of officers and other highly trained soldiers cannot be replaced quickly, and there are real doubts about how long it will take for this mobilisation to produce usable units capable of making militarily significant advances. In the meantime, Moscow's strategy is to inflict enormous damage to punish Ukrainians, deter them from further resistance, and prevent their international supporters from continuing to provide them with material support. Putin’s recent appointment of General Sergey Surovikin to take command of Russia’s forces in Ukraine suggests that the strategy of widespread destruction of civilian areas will continue since Surovikin became known for this approach to the forces he commanded in Syria (responsible for the destruction of the city of Aleppo) as well as experiences in other conflicts such as Russia’s wars in Chechnya. The Ukrainians and their supporters show no signs of being deterred by Russia’s actions, and in fact, the Ukrainians have every incentive to make as much progress as possible in retaking territory before winter sets in and also before Russia is able to put fresh trained forces in the field. All of this suggests a war that is likely to continue for some months unless something dramatic changes, either on the battlefield or in politics.
Do you think there is a possibility of a Russian domestic revolution and the arrival of a democratic regime due to failures in war and high casualties?
There are certainly growing signs of discontent in Russia with the war, although the communities who are opposed to the war have far less power and influence on Putin than the ones who want to see Russia punish Ukraine even more extensively and achieve a decisive victory. Many of the most prominent opponents of Putin’s regime, such as Alexey Navalny, are either in prison or have fled abroad, while hundreds of thousands of Russians are believed to have fled the country to avoid being mobilised for military service, adding to those who left soon after the start of the mass invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. This removes many of the Russians who might have been most likely to protest against Putin and his policies, including the war, and perhaps act as a groundswell of support for change, although there have been pockets of resistance and protest from different parts of Russia. There are signs that some in the political and economic elites are concerned about the effects of the war on the Russian economy and their personal material circumstances, but Putin keeps moving further down the path of more intensive military operations and showing more determination rather than less, showing himself to be more receptive, and probably more vulnerable, to pressure from the hardliners. But as the mobilisation continues and affects more people, taking more and more people out of the civilian economy and exposing more and more individuals and their families to the realities of this war, that balance of pressures on Putin might change.
As far as who might replace Putin – perhaps the most optimistic scenario is that a small group from his inner circle decides that he needs to step down to make a significant policy change and bring the war to an end and persuade him to enjoy a comfortable retirement somewhere. This would be the way to begin the process of “saving” Russia, both in material and reputational terms. Unfortunately, it looks as though more of the same is more likely, either with Putin or someone who is even more committed to the war.