Do It For The Money! What's Behind A Strange New Series Of Russian Propaganda Videos
A video series appeared then vanished this week from Russia’s only authorized social media platform. Its purpose seemed to be to recruit men (of all ages) to enlist in the war, as a way to make money. But who exactly is behind the campaign? What was the ultimate objective?
There was an episode this week on the Russian internet that was as bizarre as it was telling.
A series of five videos of dubious quality appeared Monday on Vkontakte, Russia’s most popular and currently only legally accessible social network. Shared on the I Mobilized public forum, the videos used soap opera-like scenarios to urge Russian men to enlist in the army. But rather than the usual calls to patriotism or neo-Nazi accusations against Ukraine, the odd recruitment videos were all focused on a singular motivation to sign up for the war: money.
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Yet after just three days, the videos disappeared from the social network, and all the content and comments were deleted. The day before they were scrubbed from the web, the Russian publication Vazhnyye Istorii wrote about the videos, and managed to get in touch with a few of the actors who took part.
Still, it remains unclear who was behind the project, who paid for it, and what the ultimate objective may have been.
It comes as the Kremlin is currently insisting that it has the necessary troops to fight its war in Ukraine, even as both Russian families and military planners are increasingly wondering about the number of dead and injured soldiers that must be constantly replenished.
A screenshot from one of the videos in which an employee quits and goes to war in Ukraine
Plots that are almost comical
The ‘M’ word, “mobilization,” hangs over the nation as the prospect of a rapid victory has long since passed. In this light, the videos are noteworthy: their plots are almost comical, showing depressing scenarios and potential Russian recruits in an unflattering light.
In one video, a young man caught by debt collectors tells them that war veterans are entitled to vacation credits, and they proudly let him go to war wiping threats off his door for non-payment of debt.
The protagonist of another video is a young man working in a factory who cannot make ends meet. With friends, they remember that only in the army was life good and decide to reenlist to go off to war in Ukraine. His ex-girlfriend then regrets dumping him when he returns as a hero.
In another, a humiliated father who can’t afford to buy his daughter an iPhone goes off to war to get the money to pay for one. (Note: Apple left the Russian market after the invasion of Ukraine!)
Father of the Year - Russian recruitment video
A twisted bit of counter-propaganda?
Given that little-known actors were paid only about 100 euros for a role in the circa two-minute videos of medium production value, the first assumption is that this was a personal initiative of someone with a bit of money to spare trying to show off his patriotic stripes. Another theory is that the Kremlin or the Russian defense ministry may have green-lit the series in a ham-fisted attempt to better connect with the everyday situation of ordinary citizens.
Others, however, wonder if the operation was actually a twisted bit of counter-propaganda. In the comments below the video, Russian users wrote about how ashamed they were to look at these middle-aged men who could achieve nothing in life, and are now going to war because the state has given them no chance to live a decent life.
"What are you bragging about in this video!? Isn't there any work in the country other than killing Ukrainians?," one commenter was indignant. “They'll all return from the war invalids and still have to pay the mortgage.”
The longer the war carries on, the more the real lives of Russians will look like those desperate characters
No matter who was the sponsor or what was their intention (or even why the videos were taken offline) the episode reflects a reality about the recruitment process in a war that interested few but the most hawkish Russians, at a time when severe economic hardship is weighing on the nation.
On Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigun announced that in 2023 the troop level will rise to 1.5 million from just over 1 million today. In the same televised presentation, Vladimir Putin declared that there would be “no limits in terms of financing” of the military effort.
Of course, the nation’s economy is composed of both military and civilian population. And the longer the war carries on, and the more troops need to be replenished, the more the real lives of Russians will look like those desperate characters featured in this week’s video series seeking new recruits.
After the videos first appeared, Vazhnyye Istorii talked to several of the actors — and it turns out that they too were thinking about money. "I am only interested in royalties,” said one actor, when asked if he took the part for patriotic reasons. “It’s not because I'm greedy but because I need to live, and I can't live on my pension.”
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