Ukraine’s pitch to new soldiers: ‘Choose your own adventure’

Dmytro Zolotoverekhky, a dentist from Kyiv, says he is “packed and ready to go” on his first deployment as a drone operator for the Ukrainian army.

Unlike most regular soldiers who have spent months if not years on the front with little time for rest and recuperation, he will be allowed to return to his practice in the Ukrainian capital every month, for two weeks.

Another draw for Zolotoverekhky was being able to choose his battalion, serving alongside friends and experienced fighters under an officer he trusts.

Ukrainian military units are trying to lure people such as Zolotoverekhky as they seek to raise hundreds of thousands of men needed to hold the line against a renewed Russian offensive.

“It is about control,” Zolotoverekhky said. “It is the knowledge that I have no stupid commander. I have heard of lots of not so fun stories. [But] there are many more motivated people there.”

A man speaks to staff at the recruiting centre for the Da Vinci Wolves Battalion in Kyiv © Andre Luis Alves/Anadolu/Getty Images
A soldier trains a civilian in Kyiv. Training exercises include weapons handling, mines and explosive ordinances and close-quarter combat © Dmytro Larin/Global Images Ukraine/Getty Images

Outmanned and outgunned by Russian forces on the battlefield, Ukraine’s army urgently needs fresh fighters, as more western military aid is expected to arrive in the coming weeks.

But the queues of patriotic volunteers who lined up outside recruitment centres after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022 have long since disappeared.

Recruitment efforts have been hampered by reports about shortages of ammunition, claims of corruption, incompetent commanders and inadequate training swirling on social media, as well as the lack of leave for frontline troops. A proposal to allow soldiers to demobilise after 36 months was dropped after army chiefs feared too many experienced troops would leave early next year.

Faced with modest volunteer numbers, the defence ministry changed tack. It started an advertising campaign making recruitment sound more exciting, by inviting men to choose their own unit and even their precise role.

A recruitment billboard for the Da Vinci Wolves Battalion that says ‘Everyone will fight’ © Christopher Miller/FT
Young soldiers in a training exercise. Some experts say voluntary recruitment alone will not get Kyiv anywhere near the 300,000 men it needs © Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images

“EVERYONE WILL FIGHT — choose your unit now,” says one billboard for the Da Vinci Wolves battalion. Officially known as the army’s 67th separate mechanised brigade, it started off as a nationalist paramilitary movement and has fought in eastern Ukraine for a decade.

A different one said: “Join the best team!”, in reference to the Achilles drone unit, part of the elite 92nd assault brigade.

“Every brigade is recruiting to some extent, it just depends on how developed their system is,” said Serhiy Kuzan, chair of the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center, a think-tank.

The idea is that by giving them a sense of control, Ukrainians can be persuaded to sign up for more prestigious and possibly better equipped units. Or that they will take specialised roles in the rear, in support of the frontline deployments.

The implicit message of some brigades is that if Ukrainians do not volunteer now they run the risk of being conscripted later into standard infantry formations under weaker commanders.

This new “pick and choose” approach is being rolled out in parallel to Kyiv’s regular mobilisation. The defence ministry described it as a “new opportunity for units to be filled with professional and motivated people” but it declined to say how many men it has raised.

“According to sociological surveys, many citizens of Ukraine are ready to join the army, but under certain motivational conditions,” a ministry spokesperson said. “One of the most important conditions is understanding where, with whom, how and in what position a person will serve.”

A billboard for the Achilles strike UAV battalion that says ‘Join the best team!’ © Christopher Miller/FT
Recruitment agency Lobby X said it is filling 1,000 army roles a month, including for drone operators © Denys Klymenko/Global Images Ukraine/Getty Images

The ministry is also using headhunters to fill essential roles.

Lobby X, a non-profit recruitment agency, has processed 80,000 applications for 3,200 vacancies in 500 units. The roles include IT specialists, drone operators, medics, communication technicians, drivers and press officers, as well as regular infantry. It said it is now filling 1,000 army roles a month.

“We are trying to engage partners. The needs of the army are huge,” said Vladislav Grezev, Lobby X chief executive.

The recruitment firm carried out a survey of 46,000 Ukrainians earlier this year to better understand what is holding back an estimated 3mn men of military age from signing up. Just 7 per cent of those surveyed were in the process of joining, while 23 per cent said they would serve only if certain conditions were met.

The biggest question potential recruits have is whether “their future commander will care about their life and health”, Grezev said. “It is not about fear of dying. It is about uncertainty. They want to control their future as much as possible.”

Zolotoverekhky’s part-time rotations are an extreme example of pick-and-choose military service. The unit he is joining is a volunteer battalion which offers much more flexible conditions than the regular army. But his strategy is risky. The defence ministry says it does not officially recognise volunteer units, so he could still be mobilised.

Franz-Stefan Gady, an associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank in London, said there was a risk that while elite units could attract motivated recruits they could also lure troops away from other units.

“If you concentrate all your best troops in just a couple of elite formations, these formations in a war of attrition tend to get [worn down] much, much faster.”

But voluntary recruitment alone will not get Kyiv anywhere near the 300,000 men it needs, Gady said. Soon, Ukraine will have to “make some tough choices” in order to replenish its forces.

Grezev, of Lobby X, said the military would always prefer a motivated volunteer over a reluctant conscript but “there’s always going to be a limit to the number of self-motivated people”, especially for infantry units.

“Mobilisation is necessary because this is about life and death for Ukraine as a country,” Grezev said.

Additional reporting by Christopher Miller in Kyiv

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