Ukraine Has A Recruitment Problem — And Zelensky Doesn't Want To Talk About It
Some of the Ukrainian Armed Forces units are at only 70% of their intended strength. But President Zelensky is unwilling to raise the question of mass mobilization. The result is a parallel reality, with more recruitment coming from rural areas and lower classes, and some urbanites feeling victory is not too far, and their sacrifice is not needed.
Updated Nov. 16, 2023 at 6:25 p.m.
KYIV — Walking through the center of Kyiv in the fall of 2023 can make you feel like you’ve gone back in time. The atmosphere in the city seems to transport you to either a carefree past or a promising future.
You'll find bustling cafes filled with people enjoying oat milk lattes, business lunches, and people zipping around on scooters.
Amongst these images of ‘normal life’, the "Field of Memory" on Maidan Square, adorned with thousands of flags bearing the names or call signs of fallen soldiers, serves as a poignant reminder of the ongoing war. Lights and billboards of the Armed Forces of Ukraine beckon citizens to "join their ranks." But these often go ignored.
Military chaplain Andriy Zelinskyi has diagnosed this situation as "discursive incompatibility."
“An entirely self-contained and substantial illusion of an alternative reality has emerged,” he says. “A reality that acts as an escape from the pain, wounds, and losses of war. This alternative reality poses a significant threat to the unity needed to effectively resist Russia.”
One segment of society has been in the trenches for a year and a half, witnessing the daily horrors of destruction, injury, and the loss of comrades. Meanwhile, another segment lives on in cities like Kyiv, Lviv, or Odesa, offering donations, or just thinking about contributing, while attempting to distance themselves from the war as much as possible.
The government has also played a role in creating and maintaining this alternative reality. In its public communication, full-scale mobilization is a taboo. An honest conversation about mobilization as a guarantee for survival and eventual victory seems "out of place" when elections are looming.
Periodically, cracks in this alternative reality emerge. For instance, a publication in TIME magazine highlighted that in some military branches, personnel shortages were more critical than those of weapons and ammunition. The article was dismissed by Ukrainian authorities as nonsense.
In the meantime, without waiting for the transition to full-scale mobilization, some military units are taking matters into their own hands, actively seeking and motivating individuals who are willing to don a military uniform and bear arms.
The General Staff was not prepared to provide even an estimate of the monthly recruitment numbers or the overall manpower needed for the front. Among the reasons cited, aside from security concerns, was the likelihood that territorial procurement centers lacked a clear understanding of the available recruitment numbers in the country.
Battlefield losses, lack of training
Publicly, neither the political nor the military leadership addressed the shortage of personnel on the front lines and did not call for a mass mobilization effort.
Of the 12 soldiers in our group, only 4 remain
A serviceman from one of the experienced mechanized brigades, who requested anonymity, revealed that his battalion was currently at about 70% of its intended strength. He emphasized that, according to the Armed Forces' regulations, a unit with losses exceeding 30% was considered incapacitated.
"In our last assault, instead of the 12 people in our group, only 4 remained," the serviceman explained. “Reinforcements are being sent to us, but their numbers are insufficient. And these are individuals with only basic skills after 2-3 months of training, and they need additional training before they can be deployed to the front.”
A Ukrainian soldier walks past a memorial to fallen troops in Kyiv.
© Hesther Ng/SOPA Images via ZUMA
According to Dmytro Kukharchuk from the 3rd Assault Division, military recruitment in Ukraine seems to bypass residents of large cities. Many have managed to avoid it through financial means.
"Looking at other brigades," he says, “I can say that our recruitment primarily occurs in rural areas, and it seems to follow a class-based pattern. Among the volunteers, you'll find people from various economic backgrounds fighting in roughly equal numbers. In my battalion, there are individuals who led modest lives in civilian life, as well as those who owned hectares of fields."
Those who didn't want to go to war and had the financial means were able to avoid being called up.
Kukharchuk points out that one of the problems with the current mobilization effort is that those who didn't want to go to war and had the financial means were able to avoid being called up.
Another factor contributing to the ineffectiveness of the current mobilization, as Kukharchuk highlights, is the state's "victorious" information policy.
"When people are told that victory is just three months away,” he explains, “they do not think about mobilizing; they start making plans for the future. Really, this should only be done after achieving victory. Given the current state of affairs, victory remains a very distant prospect."
If a military unit relies entirely on the "military commissars" to recruit on their behalf, they risk having to wait a long time for reinforcements. They then also receive people with insufficient skills and low motivation. Some commanders are therefore deciding to recruit fighters on their own back.
In August of this year, Serhii Ogorodnyk was tasked with recruiting people for his unit — the airborne assault battalion.
“I had to find intelligent people who have talent, strength, a desire to serve, to fight. Something was always holding them back and they were quite happy living on in civilian life,” explains Ogorodnyk.
But often the difficulty was not just in convincing people to join the army — it was contacting them in the first place.
"When I receive subpoenas, I ignore them" was a response Ogorodnyk heard far too many times. Ogorodnyk said that each time he responded by saying: "You do understand that sooner or later the war will affect you too? And it is better to choose a unit yourself and go through training than to be mobilized suddenly, in an emergency."
“But many people are embarrassed [that they are not in the Defense Forces],” Ogorodnyk said. “These people really just need some kind of motivational boost. And when they receive it, they come and join the ranks of the Armed Forces.”
“The recruiter's task is not just to recruit more people, some of whom will then think about how to get out of it,” explains Ogorodnyk. “The recruiter's task is to find people who will actually make a difference to the army. That is why I spoke frankly with people about a number of problems (in the army). About how to solve them, what we need to solve them, who we need to solve them.”
Knowledge conquers fear
The Allies recruitment campaigns during World War II had military personnel setting up portable stands to call up potential soldiers. This approach included details about available positions, the support individuals would receive, and the prospects that would open up for them in the future.
Oleksandr Kopil, co-founder of the PR and consulting agency K&K Group, which has worked on several army recruitment campaigns, believes that a similar approach would be effective today. He emphasised that “rational and explanatory campaigns that inform individuals of what to expect when joining the military” were the way forward.
He advocates for a more transparent approach, where people are aware that military service is not limited to immediate trench warfare but encompasses various roles, training, qualifications, and social protections.
“The goal is to help individuals understand the available positions and the teams they can join,” he says.
Messages that appeal to the individual's responsibility and self-development are more effective.
In the past, recruitment campaigns often featured iconic images, such as the pointing finger with slogans like "Your country needs you" or "The Motherland is calling." However, such messages, rooted in the 20th-century ideology of collective importance, may appear archaic today. The sociocultural context has evolved, and the perception of war and existential threats have changed.
Chaplain Andriy Zelinskyi believes that the recruiting rhetoric of the past was built on the belief that individual identity could only be realized within the larger collective.
“The present reality is different,” he says. “Messages that appeal to the individual's responsibility and self-development are more effective.”
Zelinskyi emphasizes that there is no text that can motivate a free person to willingly "die for Ukraine."
“Messages that create an image of the future as a threat can lead people to seek escape rather than service,” Zelinskyi said. “Military service should be presented as an attractive opportunity that allows individuals to discover their inner strength, become stronger, and achieve personal growth. Recruiting is not about coercion or fear but about upholding human dignity.”
The "alternative reality" problem
“It is essential to reestablish in people a sense of the existential challenge posed by the Russian invasion,” Zelinskyi believes. “It's not just a general threat but a threat to every individual.”
But is the government prepared to discuss mobilization even if it risks a loss of popularity? As of today, there are no indications of this. In recent months, President Volodymyr Zelensky has addressed mobilization only twice in his public communication.
On July 1, 2023, he said that "we do not need to involve all Ukrainians... It is the military that calculates how many forces they need."
On August 23, he reported that "the military has approached me, asking me to mobilize more troops. That's all, I can't tell you anything more at this time."
In both instances, the president stressed that mobilization fell within the military's responsibility, and that they were the ones initiating these measures.
The dilemma: speak the truth, or avoid rocking the boat
This creates a closed circle. To avoid societal unrest, the authorities seem to be pursuing the path of "gentle mobilization," using rhetoric that implies that "the situation is challenging at the front, but everything is under control."
The civilian population struggles to understand why full-scale mobilization is necessary or what existential challenges and threats they are facing, especially when they hear phrases like "we will not only defend ourselves but also respond," "full control over Crimea is only a matter of time," and "every day, forward, be it a kilometer or 500 meters."
President Zelensky thus faces a serious dilemma: to speak the truth, acknowledging all the risks and issues that Ukraine is currently facing, or avoid “rocking the boat" and perpetuate the alternative reality that has already absorbed much of the Ukrainian population, lulling them into a false sense of security.
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