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  • Writer's pictureJoe Reid

How masculinist perceptions influence gender roles in armed conflicts

While men avoiding combat roles in Ukraine are being termed as 'deserters' while those fleeing Russia are considered to be brave and honourable. Joe Reid analyses how the differing perceptions of the roles of men in combat are influenced by the larger masculinist underpinnings of gender roles and armed conflict.

An interesting social narrative has been lingering since the start of the war in Ukraine -Who should fight, and who will fight?

The military, masculinity and male violence are intangibly linked. Through the social promotion of key ideals of hegemonic masculinity like toughness, force, emotional suppression and competition. Within the strict regime of the military and its core function of being able to enact organised, structured and state-sanctioned violence upon its adversaries. A core parallel between hyper-masculine performance and soldiering has been drawn and entrenched.¹ It is the ‘socially accepted ubiquity’ of these phenomena that continues to entrench the deeply gendered expectations we have about the role of men in armed conflict.² Giving rise to ‘militarised masculinities’, the combat-oriented roles shaped by the influence of hegemonic masculinity upon the state-sanctioned use of violence, and the expectation society has upon men to fulfil these roles. 

The war in Ukraine has had and continues to have, tragic impacts on individuals and communities of all genders. Although men are the predominant actors who both conceived and are acting as primary combatants within it. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022 Ukrainian men of ‘conscription age’, those between the ages of 18 to 60, have been banned from leaving Ukraine³, and on the 21st of September 2022, Russia’s partial mobilisation of reserve troops began, its first since World War Two.⁴ Both instances clearly display the expectation both states have upon their male populations to be both willing and prepared to engage in combat against each other. 

The immediate and popular cause of self-defence for the Ukrainian population naturally led to thousands of men heading to recruitment centres following the invasion. Similarly, Russia’s mobilisation also saw a significant increase in its fighting force.⁵ However, these decrees also saw a significant reaction from large numbers of both the Ukrainian and Russian ‘fighting age’ male populations who did not want to fight. It is estimated that since these events over 760,000 Ukrainian men of ‘conscription age’ have left Ukraine for the EU⁶, and upwards of 700,000 Russians have fled to neighbouring states since the mobilisation declaration.⁷

Of course, how you view masculinity and gender roles is crucial to your interpretation of this phenomenon. We know that in times of conflict, one expectation has remained almost exclusively consistent when it comes to gender roles and the expected performances associated with these - Men do the vast majority, if not all, of the combat fighting. The heightened media attention towards the vast numbers of men leaving Ukraine and Russia as a phenomenon that is crucially different to that of Ukrainian refugees leaving the country is endemic to the wider gendered expectation that these men should be engaged in the war, and not trying to avoid it. Although, beyond this wider response there has been a noticeable difference in how men fleeing Ukraine are being perceived as compared to the men fleeing Russia. 

Core media reporting surrounding men fleeing Ukraine is awash with loaded terms such as ‘draft dodgers’⁸‧⁹‧¹º and ‘deserters’,¹¹‧¹² and places a key focus on the reality that Ukraine is struggling to meet its demand for soldiers. Whereas reports originating from similar outlets and locations term men leaving Russia as ‘fleeing conscription’¹³ and “fleeing Putin’s war”¹⁴, and place a greater emphasis on the plight of Russian men at an individual level to escape, separating them from the Russian state.

A Russian man taking huge risks to avoid mobilisation to Eastern Ukraine is brave, morally honourable and possibly even foolhardy to act against the plans of Putin. Whereas a Ukrainian man taking similar action to avoid fighting in the war is seen as a deserter who is not fulfilling their national duty, letting their country down and possibly even a coward. It is fair to say at this point that multiple articles across both sections of this discourse aim to give agency to the men they write about with interviews included to allow the men to explain why they are personally trying to avoid combat in Ukraine.¹⁵‧¹⁶‧¹⁷ However, it remains that the presence of these articles and their reactionary tone of fascination with the idea that these men are deciding to avoid combat is intrinsically linked to the social expectation of militarised masculine roles for men during times of conflict as aforementioned. 

Expectations of masculine gender performance in this case (as is common within many other cases) become a key social battleground, not purely on the grounds of how observers expect men to behave in a natural sense, but also how their opinions on this align with their social positioning surrounding the conflict in general. 

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The optics here are clearly and understandably weighted by the key facts of the war. Ukraine has been invaded by Russia and therefore Ukrainian forces are defending their territory, whereas Russian forces are operating outside of theirs. Therefore, from an outsider's perspective, there is of course a politically weighted notion to this narrative. Depending on which side of the geopolitical census surrounding the war in Ukraine you fall, the narrative you receive, and therefore potentially the view you will have, will of course be different. The most obvious example being that in Russia, the actions taken by men to avoid military conscription are not seen as brave, honourable or understandable to the majority of the wider Russian population like they are percieved by many Western observers who have sympathised with the Russian men who have left, and in some cases called for them to be classed as refugees and worthy of asylum seeker status ¹⁸‧¹⁹ - Two claims that have not been made for men of ‘conscription age’ fleeing Ukraine. 

Within Russia, this has fed into wider media campaigns such as the ‘boys have left, but the men have stayed’ and ‘You are a real man. Be one.' advertising campaigns as Russia not only seeks to further bolster its fighting force for the war, but also reacts to, and grapples with, the reality that so many fighting-age men have left the country as what many see as a selfish betrayal.²⁰‧²¹ It is within these campaigns, that we again see the importance of masculinity, and the portrayal of militarised masculinities as a highly ‘elite’ and desirable form of being a man, as the Russian state seeks to play on men’s insecurities over their perceived ‘manhood’ and its relation to Putin’s ‘special military operation’. However, there has been a recognisable shift in the effectiveness of this narrative and the social pressure it seeks to bring upon men who are yet to enlist in the Russian military. The use of gender as a political strategy is straight out of the usual Putin playbook, although its heavy and direct use in this case can be seen as a symptom of Russia's faltering pace towards its desired recruitment numbers.²² The key target of Putin's military recruitment campaigns - poorer Russian men from more rural communities with fewer employment opportunities - are not rushing at the opportunity to ‘be a real man’ in Russia’s army. Socio-economic conditions have improved across Russia (although with huge disparities and inequalities) since the fall of the Soviet Union and a more pragmatic working class has been created. One within which the unison of ‘being a man’ and serving the state has fallen in importance, and thus the preoccupation of fighting a war of aggression away from home to serve said state, or ‘prove your manhood’ is becoming increasingly less desirable.²³

Ultimately, regardless of which men flee Ukraine and Russia, and the extent to which masculinity plays in their decisions and the social narrative around their actions, the war continues. Russia has already tightened its grip on its male-fighting-aged population following the early exodus, banning those summoned for service from leaving the country.²⁴ Meanwhile Ukraine is seeking to call up male citizens living abroad to bolster its defensive fighting capacity.²⁵ In both cases harsh punitive measures are cited for those who do not comply.

Masculinity will inevitably continue to play a role in this conflict, and within the realms of geopolitical analysis, this will ultimately manifest itself in different ways depending on an observer's positionality.

However, in some cases, we have to ensure that we can remove ourselves from these political narratives when assessing the impact gender has on our analysis of wartime phenomena. At the depth of this issue, we have men fleeing the direct threat, or perceived future threat, of violent conflict. We have to be careful not to place greater value upon one individual's actions in this case because we believe it to be more honourable from our point of view in comparison to the wider social expectations of a man's role in armed conflict.  


  1. Whitworth, S., 2004. Men, Militarism & UN Peacekeeping: A gendered Analysis. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc. 

  2. Shand, T., 2022. Masculinities and Putin’s war in Ukraine: Making the connection between Men’s gender and the current conflict. International Journal of Men’s Social and Community Health, 5 (2), pp. 18-35. 

  3. Tondo, M., 2022. Ukraine urged to take ‘humane’ approach as men try to flee war. The Guardian, 9th March. (Online). 

  4. Kottasova, I., 2023. Russia’s war on Ukraine, one year on. CNN, 24th February. (Online). 

  5. Olearchyk, R., 2023. Manpower becomes Ukraine’s latest challenge as it digs in for a long war. Financial Times, 26th November. (Online). 

  6. Greenall, R., 2023. Ukraine war: Male citizens living abroad to be asked to join army. BBC, 21st December. (Online).

  7. Reuters, 2022. Where have Russians been fleeing to since mobilisation began? Reuters, 6th October, (Online). 

  8. Abdurasulov, A. and Fisher, M., 2024. Ukraine War: MPs reject bid to crack down on draft dodgers. BBC, 11th January. (Online). 

  9. Kunkle, F. and Korolchuk, S., 2023. Ukraine cracks down on draft -dodging as it struggles to find troops. The Washington Post, 8th December. (Online).

  10. Gettleman, J. and Pronczuk, M., 2022. Ukraine’ Draft Dodgers Face Guilt, Shame and Reproach. The New York Times, 11th April. (Online).

  11. Thorpe, N., 2023. Ukraine war: Deserters risk death fleeing to Romania. BBC, 8th June. (Online).

  12. ARTE, 2023. Ukraine deserters flee to Romania. ARTE.TV, 31st July. (Online). 

  13. Otte, J., 2022. ‘We’re scared, we want to run’: the Russian men fleeing conscription. The Guardian, 27th September. (Online).

  14. Ivanova, P., 2022. Desperate Russians fleeing Putin’s war draft stream into Kazakhstan. Financial Times, 1st October. (Online). 

  15. Gutierrez, O., 2023. Young Ukrainians leave the country to avoid going to war. El Pais, 14th August. (Online).

  16. Babich, K., 2023. One year after partial mobilisation Russians avoiding the draft speak out. Open Democracy, 21st September. (Online).

  17. Waterhouse, J., 2023. Ukraine war: The men who don’t want to fight. BBC, 22nd August. (Online). 

  18. Jones. M., 2022. Ukraine war: why Russians fleeing conscription should be treated as refugees. The Conversation, 29th September. (Online).

  19. Kiseleva, M. and Safronova, V., 2023. Why are people leaving Russia, who are they, and where are they going? BBC, 4th June. (Online). 

  20. Yusupova, M., 2023. Russia’s appeal to ‘Warrior masculinity’ is unlikely to encourage men to enlist in the army. The Conversation, 9th May. (Online).

  21. Talmazan, Y., 2023. The Kremlin wants ‘real men’ to prove themselves by joining the fight in Ukraine. NBC News, 22nd April. (Online). 

  22. Massicot, D., 2023. The Russian Military’s Looming Personnel Crises of Retention and Veteran Mental Health. RAND, 1st June. (Online).

  23. Walker, C., 2023. Ukraine war: why Putin’s appeals to masculinity to recruit for the military will not work. The Conversation, 1st June. (Online). 

  24. Rowley, T., 2023. Russia plans crackdown on men avoiding the draft. Open Democracy, 11th April. (Online).

  25. Rai, A., 2023. Ukraine could ask male citizens living abroad to join army next year. The Independent, 22nd December. (Online). 


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