Resolute Square

Don't Forget The Women Of Ukraine

Women comprise nearly one-fifth of the armed forces in Ukraine and more than half of the civilian forces. We owe the many triumphs of this war so far to those women.
Published:February 23, 2023

President Joe Biden went to Ukraine on Monday to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in an unexpected and defiant display of solidarity against Vladimir Putin to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s unjustified Ukrainian invasion. “One year later, Kyiv stands,” President Biden announced as he stood beside President Zelensky in front of Mariinsky Palace. Biden continued: “And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands. The Americans stand with you, and the world stands with you.”

The visit comes at another critical moment for Ukraine, a country that is struggling with its supply levels and expecting the war to only increase in intensity with impending Russian spring offenses. For many months, Zelensky has been urging the West to provide fighter jets to assist in Ukraine’s defense, which is something other allies and the Biden administration have been unwilling to do.

US President Joe Biden (L) walks next to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) as he arrives for a publicly unannounced visit in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 20, 2023. (Photo by Evan Vucci/via Getty Images)

This impromptu show of support from President Biden was critical for Ukraine and followed Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Munich on Saturday, merely 1100 miles from the front, where she detailed Russian tactics that include a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population, gruesome acts of murder, torture, rape, and deportation. 

Harris openly declared that Russia is responsible for crimes against humanity and called for accountability. President Biden’s visit, where he spent more than five hours in the Ukrainian capital, consulted with Zelensky on the next steps for defense, publicly honored the country’s fallen soldiers, and visited with US embassy staff in Ukraine, was the one-two diplomatic punch against Putin that the world needed to see.

Since Russia began this war by invading the sovereign country of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, a significant number of women have volunteered to fight for the Ukrainian forces in response to that invasion. On March 23 of last year, First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, stated: "Our resistance, as our future victory, has taken on a particularly feminine face." Zelenska praised Ukraine's women for serving in the military, raising their children in wartime, and providing essential services. 

Olena Zelenska, the First Lady of Ukraine and the wife of current President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the participants at the Warsaw Security Forum on October 4, 2022, in Krakow, Poland. (Photo by Artur Widak/via Getty Images)

The First Lady of Ukraine said it best when she explained, “Women are fighting in the army, they are signed up to territorial defense [units], they are the foundation of a powerful volunteer movement to supply, deliver, feed.” Zelenska continued, “they give birth in shelters, save their children and look after others' children; they keep the economy going, they go abroad to seek help.” She made a profound statement that would also serve as a prediction for the next year: “Other [women] are simply doing their jobs, in hospitals, pharmacies, shops, transport, public services…so that life continues." 

The following is an entry in Wikipedia that fully describes the evolution of female soldiers in Ukraine, which now, according to Ukraine's Defense Ministry, accounts for close to one-fifth of Ukraine's armed forces: 

Ukrainian women have served in the armed forces since World War I, but were not officially recognized as combat veterans with full military pensions until the 2014 Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine.[22] Based on statistics by the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, the "share of women in the Armed Forces is 15.5% as of January 1, 2021 (12.2% in 2018)" ('total females in the Armed Forces' 22.8%; 'female service-personnel' 15.5%).[23] Viktoria Arnautova, adviser to the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on gender issues, added that in January 2021, about 57,000 military and civilian women were serving and working in the Armed Forces, with women constituting more than 54% of all civilian personnel.[24] Meanwhile, more than 10% of Ukrainian combat personnel fighting in Donbas were female, and 'more than 13,000 women received the status of combatant.'

Eugenia Emerald, who is one of more than 50,000 women currently enlisted in the Ukrainian army, has become a hero in Ukraine after fighting on the front lines as a sniper. The people of Ukraine call her "punisher of Russians," and the "Ukrainian Joan of Arc." "All Russians are scared of us," Emerald has said. "Afraid of me, afraid of us —Ukrainian women."

Evgeniya Emerald, a Ukrainian sniper, gives an interview about being a sniper on the front lines in the war against Russia in January 2023. (Photo via ABC News/via screen grab)

Emerald is a single mother who has had to leave her 11-year-old daughter behind in order to travel to Kharkiv and Zhytomyr, to Bucha, and even participate in the Battle for Kyiv. She admits that being a woman on the front leads to the duality of battling both the common enemy and internal discrimination, saying, "But they respect me later." Emerald recounted how one man she came into contact with told her a woman's place was not on the battlefield but in the kitchen. "I was angry, really angry," she said, adding she had to work twice as hard to be taken seriously. 

Another female soldier named Anastasia Kolesnyk, who enlisted on the first day of the war, said she agrees with Emerald about the flack they get from other male soldiers. "You always have to prove yourself," Kolesnyk said. "When you meet the new division, they need a couple days to get used to you, and the fact that you are the same as them." Kolesnyk, like many other women who are serving Ukraine, explained that she really had little choice when it came to joining the Ukrainian Army."The only option I had was to enlist," Kolesnyk said, “Because when a murderer and a thief come to your house, you don't just run away, you try to protect it — and everything was at stake."

Ukrainian soldier Anastasia Mokhina showcases a box containing a wireless bra during a visit to the supply room of nonprofit group Zemliachky in Kyiv, Ukraine, a group that helps equip women soldiers who have joined Ukraine's army by the thousands in response to Russia's invasion. (Photo by Vasilisa Stepanenko/via Getty Images)

While the female soldiers of Ukraine fight this ongoing battle of discrimination, along with the war against Russia, all of the women of Ukraine are managing this same battle, in their service at home, as civilians. It is hard to say who takes on more risk — those women who enlist as soldiers or those who stay home and are vulnerable to the violence of war, something that Vice President Harris confirmed is a daily struggle for the women of Ukraine. 

Perhaps the most indicative clue about the overwhelming sense of female power in this war, and the Russian fear of the way in which Ukrainian women are willing to fight back, is what is becoming the most famous image of Ukrainian resistance. "Saint Javelin" depicts the Virgin Mary cradling a US-made FGM-148 anti-tank weapon, known as a javelin missile. These missiles are among the arms being sent by Western allies to Ukrainian forces to aid in their fight, and the designer of this image makes a point to denote the importance of a US support weapon. 

The Saint Javelin mural is pictured on the wall of a nine-storey residential building in the Solomianskyi district of Kyiv, capital of Ukraine. (Photo by Oleksandra Butova/via Getty Images)

The image was created by Christian Borys, a Canadian marketer who was trying to raise a little bit of money for relief efforts in Ukraine. The response to the meme, which can be purchased on everything from tote bags to sweatshirts, flags, and stickers, was overwhelming and continues to remain strong. Thousands of orders come in each day and the campaign has made well over a million dollars

While it might be easy to explain the popularity of this image with the very religious nature of the Ukrainian people and the country’s foundation of both a resounding patriotism and Eastern Orthodox Catholic Christianity, the choice for the image was paramount to its popularity. There were religious images that typically represent love and peace that might have been used. We don’t see Jesus holding that Javelin; we see the most iconic representation of a mother, holding a weapon and fighting. Putin has forbidden the image from being distributed in Russia. 

Chobaniuk Ivanna is a veteran, a medic and she returned to the frontlines after completing her medical studies and working as a family doctor. (Photo via Ukrainian PR Army)

The key to assisting Ukraine in its defense is to help without escalating the actions of Putin and Russia. The best way to intimidate Russian soldiers, who are already underpaid, under-supplied, and demoralized, is to threaten them with what scares them most. By continuing to beat back Russian forces with a heavily female battalion and selecting an image of female empowerment to fund and fuel their war, Ukraine has successfully hit back at Russia in a way in which Putin refuses to compete. On this anniversary of the Ukrainian resistance, don’t forget the tipping factor that will deliver victory to Ukraine: the women. 

If you are interested in making a donation to help the effort in Ukraine, I can recommend the following organizations: 

UN Women helps to address the needs of women in Ukraine and for those who are fleeing the violence into neighboring countries, including those experiencing violence at a time of urgent crisis. Learn more or donate here

Liberty Ukraine Foundation is based in Austin, TX, and is made up of a team of professionals and cultural workers who are working to help Ukrainians defend their freedom and survive this brutal war. Learn more or donate here

The American Red Cross Ukraine Relief Effort allows teams on the ground to provide lifesaving aid — like food, shelter, water, medical care, and mental health support — to the millions displaced within Ukraine and throughout neighboring countries. Learn more or donate here

The World Central Kitchen (WCK) provides fresh, nourishing meals in response to humanitarian, climate, and community crises, and they are doing amazing work in Ukraine. Learn more or donate here.