Troop-Starved Ukrainian Brigades Turn to Marketing to Attract Recruits

Skyscraper-sized billboards show assault troops in battle gear emerging from a ball of flames. On street posters, soldiers urge passers-by to enlist, proclaiming that “victory is in your hands.” Take a seat on a high-speed train and chances are high that a television will be advertising jobs for drone operators.

Slick recruiting campaigns brimming with nationalist fervor have become ubiquitous in Kyiv, the capital, and other Ukrainian cities in recent months. They are perhaps the most visible sign of a push to replenish Ukrainian troops depleted by more than two years of a brutal war — an effort that experts and officials say is crucial for fending off relentless Russian attacks.

But most of the campaigns are not the work of the country’s political and military leadership. They are the initiatives of troop-starved brigades that have taken matters into their own hands, shunning an official mobilization system that they say is dysfunctional, often drafting people who are unfit and unwilling to fight.

“These campaigns are much more effective because we’re getting exactly the people we need,” said Dmytro Koziatynskyi, a combat medic turned recruiter in the Da Vinci Wolves battalion, which started as a paramilitary wing of a coalition of far-right political parties after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

The battalion, which has now been absorbed into Ukraine’s armed forces, is currently seeking about 500 new members and has advertised jobs as varied as medics, mechanics and sappers, combat engineers who clear minefields. Recruiters conduct lengthy interviews, trying to find positions that match candidates’ skills. People can opt out after a few days of training if they do not like it.

“It’s like a date,” Mr. Koziatynskyi said in the battalion’s recently opened recruitment office in central Kyiv, which is covered with logos of three wolves baring their fangs. “We’re trying to explain as much as possible what we are expecting from those people, and what they can expect from us.”

That is a big change from the army’s mobilization process, which does not allow people to choose their position. Many Ukrainians fear that, if drafted, they will be sent straight into trench warfare without much training. Critics also say the official recruitment drive is too aggressive and mired in Soviet-style bureaucracy and corruption.

Oleksandr Pavliuk, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said last Sunday that criticism of the official mobilization process was unhelpful to the war effort. “We are changing, we see our shortcomings and we work every day to become better,” he said.

A senior Ukrainian military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, said that the brigades were free to run their own recruitment campaigns, but that the army monitored their activities.

In a war where soldiers are constantly under fire from drones and shells, the risks of fighting in frontline units like the Da Vinci Wolves remain very high.

But the brigade, like many others, has tried to allay people’s fears of what it means to join a military unit and appeal to their patriotism, using a public-relations campaign that has been far more extensive than the government’s few drab recruiting posters.

“It’s like a market,” said Myroslav Hai, an officer in charge of civil-military relations in the Ivan Bohun special forces brigade, which has fought on the front lines. “You must try to find people with marketing methods.”

Most of the brigades appear to support their advertising and recruiting activities by crowdsourcing appeals for labor and equipment. The Da Vinci Wolves brigade, for example, said it relied on a network of supporters to design and produce their ads and that its office was provided free of charge by the Kyiv City Council.

The need to replenish the Ukrainian armed forces has been evident for months. President Volodymyr Zelensky recently said that 31,000 soldiers had been killed in the war, a tally that most likely understates the true toll. Military commanders have urged him to increase the number of conscripts to make up for the losses and withstand another year of fierce fighting.

But a mobilization bill that could pave the way for a large-scale draft has been held up in Parliament for months.

Meanwhile, brigade officers have complained that the conscripts recruited by the official system are often too old, in poor health and unmotivated. Alina Mykhailova, an officer in the Da Vinci Wolves battalion, said that of the 200 conscripts the brigade had received, only 25 showed a desire to fight.

“Our task is to recruit volunteers faster, so that we get fewer of those people who are absolutely unmotivated,” Ms. Mykhailova said.

The unit’s Instagram page, followed by nearly 50,000 people, has been a key driver of that effort. In recent weeks, the Da Vinci Wolves have posted several videos explaining the work of sappers and drone operators, or featuring soldiers preparing for a ground assault.

A large poster of a former commander, Dmytro Kotsiubailo, who received a state funeral after being killed in fighting last year, hangs in the office alongside pictures of battalion members in civilian and military dress, suggesting that anyone can become a soldier.

Sitting at a desk, Evhenii Hryhoriev, a recruiter, asked Oleg Greshko, a thin 20-year-old with a small goatee, who walked into the battalion’s recruitment office on a recent afternoon, what he wanted to do. “Infantry,” Mr. Greshko replied quickly.

Another recruit, Maryna Kovalenko, who has been training with the battalion and plans to work as a clerk, said she had been drawn by the unit’s individualized approach. “Here, you have the opportunity to choose what suits you best and talk about it,” she said.

Many brigades have adopted this approach, mindful that as the war drags on people want to “choose and control their future in the army,” said Vladyslav Greziev, the head of Lobby X, one of Ukraine’s largest online recruitment platforms, which has created a special section for military jobs.

Mr. Greziev said that some 500 army units had posted jobs on the platform, with around 3,200 open positions and nearly 80,000 applications received. Candidates are invited to find a position that fits them by clicking on thematic hashtags that narrow down the search.

Brigades advertise many noncombat roles, such as a cook for military intelligence and a digital designer in an assault brigade, and have also promised good equipment and better training than conscripts receive.

Mr. Koziatynskyi, from the Da Vinci Wolves, said that “there is some competition” between units to attract the best recruits. He said that the Third Assault Brigade, a branch of Ukraine’s special forces, was “winning for now,” partly thanks to its strong presence on social media.

The brigade’s recruitment posters are hard to miss on the streets of Kyiv. They feature Ukrainian assault troops facing zombielike soldiers supposed to be Russians against a sunset backdrop. “Fight,” the posters read in large orange letters.

The unit has also tried to bridge the gap between civilians and military personnel, holding war games every few months with guns that shoot plastic projectiles outside Kyiv, where the public can mingle with brigade reservists and instructors.

Semen Gagarin, a 33-year-old manager at a honey-producing company, said he did not think the campaign would change the minds of those who refuse to serve.

But he acknowledged, standing by a recruitment poster in central Kyiv, that “it puts more pressure on everyone” and can convince people who have been hesitant about enlisting. Several friends at his gym have decided to join the Third Assault Brigade, he said.

“This is our chance to get motivated people,” Mr. Koziatynskyi said. “Everyone wants them.”

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