As Europe prepares to send main battle tanks to Ukraine and the latter rushes through training on German Leopard-2, British Challenger-2, and American M1A2 Abrams tanks, Russia could be rushing to wrap up its Special Military Operation (SMO).
Potentially being the first such armor clash on European soil after the massive tank wars of World War-2, it will be interesting to see whether Russia will repeat history and employ its celebrated female tank crews.
Russia has long celebrated its female war heroes from WW2. Since it also likens its current war in Ukraine to the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (as it calls that six-year-long war) due to the presence of neo-Nazi groups, it would be inconsistent to not send its women combatants in this new phase of the war.
Russia’s broad political narrative about the West’s intention to confront Russia with a proxy war than defend Ukraine has now acquired an ideological color.
Russian leaders and a large section of its defense bloggers present this as a clash between the “Satanic liberalism” that promotes “unnatural LGBTQ and anti-family ideas” that “corrupt the traditional puritanism and humanism” espoused by Russian Orthodox Christianity.
Whether this was in response to the ideological framing by US President Joe Biden of its strategic challenges (with Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea) as a fight between “democracies and autocracies” is a matter for another debate.
West Likely To Criticize Russia’s Gender Bias
But comparisons are likely drawn on which country is more gendered and patriarchal based on the number of female combatants it deploys or which state treats its war wounded better. Veterans’ issues have long been a sore point in the US, with many disabled and psychologically scarred ex-servicemen struggling with economic and health hardships.
Fighting continues in Bakhmut (Artemovsk), and Europe and the US have pledged to hike their ammunition production to match Ukraine’s massive hunger of a minimum of roughly 11,000 rounds a day. Western factories are only able to manufacture that amount in a month.
Whether Russia repeats history by pressing its female tankers into service will also influence the more considerable socio-political criticism from Western observers.
Russia’s Famous WW2 Female Tank Crews
Russia’s women tank crews like Maria Oktyabrskaya and Yekaterina Petlyuk from WW2 have been lionized in its military history. Both recipients of the Hero of the Soviet Union award attained notable feats with their T-34 and T-60 tanks, respectively, amid the biases of their gendered male colleagues.
Maria destroyed dozens of German tanks and an artillery gun, while Yekaterina miraculously noticed a minefield and stopped her tank three meters from the mines, thereby saving the lives of several of her officers traveling on it.
Liaison officer Alexandra Samushenko was another legendary tanker, the only deputy commander of a tank battalion. Nineteen when the war broke out, she saw action on several battlefronts, was wounded three times and had to abandon her burning tank twice.
But what sets her apart as she saw action in the most iconic tank battle of WW2, Kursk, where her T-34 faced three German Tiger tanks.
Despite speed and maneuverability, it was still outclassed by the heavier and more sophisticated German tanks when she is said to have calmed her panicked crew in a steely, powerful voice saying, “There is no way back for us.”
She took out the first Tiger and engaged the other two for several hours. Alexandra was killed in action in northwest Poland, while Maria succumbed after several months to a shrapnel injury she sustained on January 18, 1944.
Russia unveiled its first-ever female tank crew in the 2019 Army Games that it hosts for international armies. Anastasiya Baranova, Marina Pushkareva, and Daria Sirotenko operate the T-80 tank and interestingly had different core specializations – a surgeon, therapist, and pharmacist – before they opted to be deputed to the armored corps.
An article in Russia and Beyond noted women’s physical difficulties operating the tank. “The hardest thing for them is loading the tank ammo inside the tank. For example, each projectile (the lightest one weighs about 19 kg) is loaded manually. So, when they go to shooting ranges, they have to load dozens of shells themselves,” said the report.
Other Countries Having Female Tank Crews
Israel and China are two other countries that have either operationalized female tank crews or are training them as a part of a study. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in October 2022 announced the success of a pilot program for a company of all-women tank operators that began in 2020.
The company that operates the Merkava IV main battle tanks (MBT), part of the Caracal mixed-gender light infantry battalion, runs along the Egyptian border — not in wars or fighting deep behind enemy lines.