The Role of Women in Russia’s Armed Forces

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 213


More than one year after the appointment of Sergei Shoigu as defense minister, Moscow still struggles to fully man Russia’s Armed Forces. Despite official claims that the total under arms is “one million” the recognition of under-manning in the military has now permeated the Ministry of Defense and General Staff following the Audit Chamber’s October release of its report on monetary allowances in the Armed Forces, which places the total manpower at 771,462 (Vedomosti, November 8). Shoigu now talks about increasing manning to “95 percent” and then to “100 percent,” while boasting about the success in recruiting 60,000 contract personnel (kontraktniki) in 2013 and dismissing the idea that Russia is headed toward a professional force structure. Moscow must keep conscription, according to Shoigu. The defense minister argues that Russia’s territory is “too big” to have a professional military, adding “we have to have the opportunity for mobilization” (

Of course, there is nothing new in Shoigu’s arguments, or particularly forward-looking in his archaic references to “mobilization.” But continuing to meet the kontraktniki recruitment demands to 2017 to reach the target of 425,000 contract personnel in the Armed Forces places fresh pressure on the manpower and recruitment system. Earlier in the year, some Duma members raised the possibility of helping to alleviate the pressure on manpower by conscripting women; to date, this suggestion has not made any progress. To explain the nature of this problem and assess why conscripting women was proposed in the first place, it is necessary to understand the role of women in the Russian Armed Forces (Izvestiya, June 20).

There are around 29,000 women serving the Armed Forces. None of these serve above the rank of colonel, after the previous defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov recommended the first woman for promotion to the rank of Major-General in June 2012, but then sacked her within a few months for alleged incompetence (RIA Novosti, June 12, 2012; Izvestiya, October 4, 2012). Among the 29,000 female personnel, 3.5 percent serve in command posts; the remainder function in posts such as staff workers, medical and financial specialists, or in the communications troops. There are around 900 female officers that have completed training in the military faculties of civilian institutions of higher education; around 60 have advanced operational and tactical military training. Moreover, 8,300 women serve as warrant officers, mostly in communication posts in the combat service support structures focused on logistics and maintenance. There are also approximately 19,000 women serving on contracts as soldiers and sergeants. In 2012, the state decorated 22 female members of the Armed Forces and 4,500 were awarded medals by the defense ministry (Russian Ministry of Defense website, March 8).

However, the numbers of women serving in the Armed Forces is in decline. Some estimates indicate the numbers have dropped by two thirds since 2007. In March 2012, RIA Novosti reported that around 40,000 women served in the military. Among 2,000 female officers, there were only twelve colonels. On the other hand, 35,000 women reportedly served under contract in soldier and non-commissioned officer (NCO) posts in the Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN), the elite Airborne Forces (VDV), and in the Navy and Ground Forces and defense ministry directorates (RIA Novosti, March 5; March 13, 2012).

More than 4,000 women currently serve in the RVSN, including 64 officers. The soldiers and NCOs are kontraktniki. According to defense ministry sources, most female personnel in the RVSN work on the civilian side as medical workers, psychologists or communications staff. Yet, women are also being trained at defense military-educational institutions in various specialties: mathematical and programming support in computing technology and automated control systems, testing and space-rocket equipment, chemical technology of polymer compositions and solid propellants, ballistics, metrological support for arms and military equipment, electronic warfare, as well as automated information-processing and control systems (Interfax, March 9).

In this context, Duma members considered the possibility of extending conscription to women; at present only men are conscripted, while women can volunteer to join the military. Opinion polls carried out in Russia in February 2013 suggest that many young women would like to join the military, but Russian society appears to oppose any move to extend the draft to include women. One opinion poll found that 27 percent of women polled would like to serve in the military. However, figures from the Levada Center suggest only 4 percent of Russians believe that service in the Armed Forces should be obligatory for women (Novye Izvestiya, February 8).

In June 2013, Russian parliamentarians drafted amendments to the law “On Military Duty and Military Service” allowing all women between the ages of 18 and 27 to perform military service; this was sent to the defense ministry for consideration and has resulted in a lengthy silence. The proposal is to amend Article 22.1 of the existing legislation to be supplemented with “sub-point c,” which would allow females to be conscripted. The amendments would also remove article 55.1, which exempts female citizens from military encampments. The author of the sub-point c amendment is Tatyana Moskalkova, a member of the Duma Commission for Monitoring the Reliability of Information on the Incomes of State Duma Deputies; she argues this is rooted in equal rights for both genders. Admiral (retired) Vladimir Komoyedov, the former commander of the Black Sea Fleet and chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee, noted that women could help to resolve under-manning issues in the military. Moskalkova sent the draft amendments to the chief of the Main Organizational and Mobilization Directorate with a request to assess her idea. “I have personally met with Vasiliy Smirnov, chief of the Armed Forces General Staff Main Organizational and Mobilization Directorate, and he voiced no objections. The draft law has been sent to the defense ministry for a conclusion in order to understand whether they have any conditions and whether there is support from their side so that this should not be simply a declaration” (Izvestiya, June 20).

A General Staff representative told Izvestiya: “Women are already serving in our Armed Forces under contract. Therefore, there is nothing bad in this idea. That the law should be correctly formulated, and that this should not provoke a negative reaction in society, is another question.” One argument against conscripting women is economic: the heavy costs involved in building separate living quarters, toilets and showers. But it appears that the underlying lack of defense ministry support for this amendment is rooted in the attitudes of Russian society (Izvestiya, June 20).