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Women soldiers join Ukraine’s war against Russia in historic numbers

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Liutikova, who goes by the call sign “Liutik,” was a playwright from capital Kyiv before the war. She volunteered to join the army in March 2022, just days after Russia’s invasion, and now serves as a combat medic.

Still, soldiers don’t have time to feel down, Liutikova said, speaking in English.

“You know why you are fighting,” she added. “Our destination, it’s too important for us.”

That destination is a Ukrainian victory, and it’s facing mounting odds.

Sitting next to Liutikova, however, another female soldier who goes by the call sign “Mavka” said she still feels the anger that motivated her to join the army two years ago — seeing the destruction and the toll on Ukraine’s civilians motivates her to keep going. “It makes me do my job,” she said, also in English, wearing a helmet with a military bandana around her neck.

Mavka, who did not want her name released because of her role in the military, is a sniper and drone operator. She also joined the armed forces in the first days of the war, and has been involved in some of the most intense fighting, including near Bakhmut, a town Russia seized last year after a brutal months-long battle.

Ukraine Women Elgel War
Liutikova, known by her call sign “Lyutik,” seen working at an undisclosed location on the frontlines.Supplied to NBC News

Many other Ukrainian women have made the same choice.

More than 43,000 women are currently serving in Ukraine’s armed forces, according to figures released last November by Ukraine’s defense ministry. That number has grown by 40% since 2021, the ministry said. More than 18,000 of the women serving have children, according to the numbers, including more than 2,500 single mothers.

Women are also taking on more traditionally male roles in the military, according to the ministry, such as drivers, machine gunners, snipers and commanders. The age for those who can sign up has also been raised from 40 to 60. And with a dire shortage of soldiers, there are efforts underway to draw more women into those ranks.

Liutikova and Mavka were both volunteers, as are most women serving in the army, but a new draft law is in the works and it’s possible that women may soon be conscripted like the country’s men.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the country’s top command often make a point of using a female derivative of the Ukrainian word for “defender,” acknowledging both the men and the women who are defending the country.

Still, both women told NBC News they occasionally experience what Mavka, who was a bartender in Kyiv pre-war, called “kind sexism” from their male counterparts.

Ukraine Engel Women Soldiers
Drone operator “Mavka” said cases of “kind sexism” in the military are not uncommon as more women join.Carlos Huazano / NBC News

Some soldiers question why the women are on the front lines in the first place, instead of staying at home and raising children, she said. “I think they are doing it with love and pity maybe,” Mavka, 24, added. “But I feel upset when I hear that.”

Ukraine’s defense ministry said it’s taking many measures to make women feel more comfortable while serving, including special accommodation and restrooms, as well as female-tailored uniforms and protective equipment. Earlier this month, the ministry said female soldiers had for the first time received custom-made summer field suits designed for women.

Ukraine’s personnel shortages are compounded by the delay in new military aid from Washington.

Both women said they were closely following the developments and disagreements in Congress.

“It feels sad. It makes me feel sad. It’s not only our war,” Liutikova said. “I don’t understand why we even have this conversation. Yeah, I know, because it’s money. Because it’s politics and everything. And what do you think they will stop in Ukraine? And that’s all? I don’t think so.”

The women fear the war will turn into a frozen conflict, like the yearslong fight against Russian-backed separatists in the east.

To stop that from happening, U.S. aid is crucial, the women said.

“Russia is the evil right now,” Mavka added. “I think it’s unfair that we have such a neighbor. And we need your help, guys. We need your help.”

Richard Engel and Charlotte Gardiner reported from Kostiantynivka, and Yuliya Talmazan reported from London.



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