Ukrainian women are volunteering to fight, continuing a tradition Ukraine's military has been inundated with volunteers. That includes women, who are not required as men are to stay and fight the Russian invasion.

Ukrainian women are volunteering to fight — and history shows they always have

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave their country. They are encouraged to fight. Women are under no such mandate. Still, many Ukrainian women have taken up arms against the Russians in this conflict and in past ones, as NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Western Ukraine.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: In the lead-up to the Russian invasion, Tanya Kobzar started having nightmares.

TANYA KOBZAR: (Through interpreter) I was waking up in the middle of the night terrified. I would look at a black-and-white photo of my grandmother. She reminds me of how brave a person can be.

FRAYER: Kobzar's late grandmother was an army medic in World War II. It's become part of the family lore, how brave she was treating soldiers on the front lines. So when Ukraine went to war again last month, Kobzar, a 49-year-old mother of two, decided to follow in her grandmother's footsteps. She left her office job in health care supply chains and enlisted in the army.

KOBZAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

FRAYER: "I did this for my children and for my country," she says. And she says firing a weapon is easier than she expected.

KOBZAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

FRAYER: "It's easier than cooking borscht," she laughs. Kobzar is deployed at a military academy in the western city of Lviv, teaching soldiers how to set up field hospitals. She's serving in a training role, but other Ukrainian women are on the front lines. They've actually been serving in combat almost a century longer than American women. There were female Ukrainian officers in World War I in the Austro-Hungarian army and in World War II in the Red Army.

OKSANA KIS: The Bolsheviks and the communist parties, they declared equality between men and women in all the spheres, including the military.

FRAYER: Feminist historian Oksana Kis says despite that history, it wasn't until after Russia's 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine that women really enlisted in huge numbers and were officially recognized as combat veterans with full military pensions. Before conscription, nearly a quarter of Ukraine's military was female. And some of the iconic images of this war on propaganda posters and on social media are of female combatants, reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War, of Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, of Kurdish women fighting in Syria, Kis says.

KIS: It's a very familiar iconography when it comes to imagining a nation protecting herself, fighting for her independence and freedom.

FRAYER: That's what Alina Mykhailova is doing in this video she posted to Instagram...


FRAYER: ...Of incoming artillery on the front lines somewhere in central Ukraine. Mykhailova is a veteran of the 2014 war who reenlisted this year. She says she's seeing heavy combat.

ALINA MYKHAILOVA: (Through interpreter) We just burned a Russian tank. Actually, not just one - we wiped out their entire position. Their tanks took a direct hit from our shells.

FRAYER: NPR spoke to Mykhailova over by phone with permission from her commander. She could not reveal her exact location, but the 27-year-old says both she and her father are both in the same combat unit.

MYKHAILOVA: (Through interpreter) I'm the only woman in our unit, and it's difficult. Some of the soldiers we lost are my friends, my brothers in arms. But as a woman, I'm cautious about showing too much emotion. I don't want to hurt the morale of our unit, the combat spirit of the guys.

FRAYER: The combat spirit in Ukraine right now appears to be pretty robust. Only men face conscription, but lots of them have not yet been called up because the military has already been inundated with volunteers of all genders.

OLGA LIMARENKO: And they said, OK, you will be in a line, but now we have too many people.

FRAYER: Olga Limarenko is an architect who went with her girlfriends to volunteer at their local territorial defense branch. But it was full. They said they didn't need anyone else right now, so Limarenko decided to contribute another way...

LIMARENKO: On the first floor, we prepare pots for Molotov cocktails.

FRAYER: ...By preparing Molotov cocktails to transport to the front lines.

LIMARENKO: During the last week, we did around 1,000.

FRAYER: I met her at a library in Lviv that had been transformed into a bustling command center for volunteers, mostly women, making Molotov cocktails and camouflage nets. She says she'd fight in combat if asked. But for now, she says, make no mistake about our commitment to the war.

LIMARENKO: We are not weak. We're just waiting.

FRAYER: Waiting for a spot to open in Ukraine's military, she says, so that they can fight. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in Lviv, Ukraine.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.