Reuters: Ukraine launches military charm offensive as conscription flags

    WORLD  23 April 2024 - 12:15

    Far from the trenches, at orderly new centres across Ukraine, civilian recruiters armed with laptops and info packs offer patriotic volunteers opportunities to join the war.

    As Ukraine's efforts to conscript enough men to fight Russia are stymied by public scepticism, defence officials and military units are embarking on a multi-pronged charm offensive to recruit a citizens' army to resist the invasion, Reuters reports.

    This softer call-up is being conducted on job-search sites and outreach centres, as well as billboards and social media, and offers a wartime novelty: an element of choice.

    Candidates can select their precise unit and roles suiting their skills, for instance, as well as how long they will serve.

    On city streets, billboards of Ukrainian soldiers implore citizens to join up and defend their homeland, offering QR codes for convenience. Online, the 93rd Mechanised Brigade assures countrymen that "Everyone can do it!" in a glossy video campaign showing civilians, such as a chef and tractor driver, switching to analogous army roles as battlefield cook and tank driver.

    Natalia Kalmykova, a deputy defence minister, said military planners recognised that in a democratic country, giving people some choice could be key in attracting them to the military.

    "The people who come to defend our country now are not those who chose the military as their career: it's civilians," she said during an interview in Kyiv. "And civilians are used to being able to choose."

    Kyiv is desperate to replenish its drained and depleted forces, which are vastly outnumbered and outgunned by Russia along a 1,000-km front as the war enters a third grinding year.

    The initial patriotic flood of volunteers who flocked to the army following the invasion of February 2022 has dried up. The government has acknowledged its conscription drive has run into difficulties, with thousands of people evading the draft and some seeking to flee abroad rather than risk the trenches.

    mobilisation law that comes into force next month obliges men to update their draft data with authorities, although it was stripped of tough punishments for draft evaders after a public outcry.

    Reuters is the first news outlet to detail the extent of the defence ministry's outreach plan, designed to combat public distrust about enlistment and plug a gaping hole in the military by offering recruits a greater sense of control over their fate.

    Thirteen of the new recruitment centres have been opened since mid-February and the government plans to expand the number to 30 by the middle of the year, said Oleksiy Bezhevets, a ministry adviser who is overseeing the drive.

    At the first centre, in Lviv, about 300 people visited in the first month, Bezhevets said, without specifying if any signed up. The defence ministry is also working with four private recruitment companies to fill military vacancies, he added.

    He conceded the plans were no "magic pill" for the military, though he said the range of roles needing to be filled was so broad that it didn't matter so much what people chose.

    "The main goal is to give people the opportunity to conquer their fears and enter into the military sphere," said Bezhevets. He was among more than a half-dozen people involved in the new drive for voluntary recruits who were interviewed for this article, also including recruiters and service members.

    Michael Kofman, a military specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank, said the recruitment drive was positive for the army but would not be a decisive solution to a severe shortfall of troops that could only be fully addressed by mobilisation.

    "It likely needs hundreds of thousands of men to sustain the fight - in particular infantry, which few are likely to volunteer for, because it's the most likely combat arm to suffer casualties," he added.


    Ukraine's conscription effort, launched in the wake of the invasion, has been hampered by local media reports of corruption, official abuse and administrative incompetence. Social media has been flooded with clips of officers corralling men off the street or barging into homes.

    Common concerns about military service include inadequate training, poor commanders and the fact that there is no cap on the length of service, according to a February poll, opens new tab by Kyiv-based research agency Info Sapiens for media outlet

    In the survey of 400 army-eligible men, only 35% said they were prepared to serve if called up.

    "Somewhere, at some stage, trust was lost," said Bezhevets, the defence ministry adviser. "Right now, our task is to renew it."

    Ukraine does not release figures on conscripts or voluntary recruits, which it deems sensitive information. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy nonetheless acknowledged shortcomings in mobilisation when he fired the heads of regional draft offices last August citing reports of corruption and official abuse.

    Bezhevets said the goal of the defence ministry's recruiting campaign was to triple the number of volunteers who join up. In the longer term, he added, at least a third of Ukraine's armed forces should be staffed through voluntary recruitment.

    As part of the hunt, the defence ministry has begun working with four leading job-search sites over the past six months, said Bezhevets, adding that so far around 100,000 applicants in total had replied to more than 10,000 vacancies advertised.

    Lobby X, one of the sites, offers a user-friendly platform that allows jobseekers to search through military branches, from the marines to military intelligence, and categories of jobs, from artillery gunner to cook or press officer.

    Like any ordinary job postings, the vacancies list responsibilities, requirements and benefits including monthly pay, which ranges from around $500 to $3,000. And voluntary contracts can be signed for specific terms starting from three years, or until the end of martial law.

    The goal, said Lobby X CEO Vladyslav Greziev, is to allow people to choose the exact unit they want to serve with and maximise the use of their skills.

    "Getting good weapons is great, but it's all used by people," he said.

    In March, Kyiv's top general said the military would need to mobilise fewer people than the initial target of up to 500,000 more Ukrainians, in part because of volunteers.

    "We expect that we will have enough people capable of defending their motherland," Commander-in-chief Oleksandr Syrskyi told the Ukrinform news agency. "I am talking not only about the mobilized but also about volunteer fighters."

    The official recruitment push has been matched on the ground by military units reaching out directly to civilians.

    A handful of brigades and smaller units are launching or stepping up their own public relations drives, with more billboards promoting individual units springing up across towns and cities.

    Among the most prominent is the elite Third Separate Assault Brigade, which has honed its recruiting tactics over the course of a war in which it has excelled on the battlefield.

    The all-volunteer outfit has become renowned for its sleek social media presence, which includes gripping first-person videos from the front and frequent speaking appearances by larger-than-life fighters with colourful stories to tell.

    Reuters accompanied some members on a leg of a multi-region tour of Ukraine last month aimed at promoting the brigade, educating civilians on military service and recruiting members.

    At a social services centre in the central Ukrainian city of Kropyvnytskyi, brigade soldiers took turns fielding questions from passers-by and prospective recruits, and offered them spots on a free training course to test their mettle.

    In two days in Kropyvnytskyi, about 20 people agreed to attend the week-long course, according to one of the soldiers who goes by the call sign "Loft", a heavily tattooed fighter who carries camouflage business cards with his personal number.

    At a high school across town, two other burly fighters regaled the young teenage crowd with comedy, but also warned of war's grim realities and emphasized the importance of discipline and preparation.

    One of them, who introduced himself by his call sign Bull, said the brigade's distinct nationalist ideology means its success in attracting recruits may not be easily replicable. But frequent and honest outreach would be key to making military service a desirable path for more Ukrainians as the war drags on, he added.

    "We're playing a long game."


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