IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Weary but determined, women join Ukraine's fight against Russia in historic numbers

Two female soldiers told NBC News that, like their male comrades, they were exhausted as the war approaches the two-year mark. But unlike the men, the women said they were facing another challenge: sexism.
Get more newsLiveon

KOSTIANTYNIVKA, Ukraine — Sitting in the ruins of a bombed-out school close to the front lines in eastern Ukraine, Halyna Liutikova fills the overcast air with an infectious laugh.

Despite the setting, the 28-year-old remains cheerful — but admits that the exhaustion of two years of war is taking its toll.

“We are really tired,” said Liutikova, who is weighed down not just by the bulletproof vest beneath her camouflage gear, but also by the months of endless fighting to defend her country. “Because two years, it’s a lot.”

She’s not alone, in more ways than one.

Liutikova is among the historic number of women who have signed up to join the fight against Russia’s advancing forces as Ukraine works to bolster its beleaguered ranks.

Two of those female soldiers told NBC News on Tuesday that, like their male comrades, they were weary as the war approaches the two-year mark. Kyiv’s troops are under growing Russian pressure with little respite and now frustrated by a lack of support from the United States. But unlike their male comrades, they also said they were facing another challenge: sexism.

Ukraine Engel Women War
Ukrainian medic Halyna Liutikova, left, and drone operator "Mavka" during an interview in Kostantynivka, Donetsk oblast.Carlos Huazano / NBC News

Liutikova, who goes by the call sign “Liutik,” was a playwright from the 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 low, she 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 monthslong battle.

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

Many other Ukrainian women have made the same choice.

More than 43,000 women are serving in Ukraine’s armed forces, according to figures released last November by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. That number has grown by 40% since 2021, it 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 prewar Kyiv, 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.”

The Ukrainian 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, it 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, they 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.