Prominent Ukrainian army unit launches own recruitment drive to strengthen ranks

Ukraine is struggling to overhaul mobilisation and broaden recruitment as the second anniversary of Russia's invasion approaches

Dan PeleschukReuters
Published : 16 Feb 2024, 11:32 AM
Updated : 16 Feb 2024, 11:32 AM

A year after the founding commander of Ukraine's Da Vinci Wolves Battalion was killed fighting Russian forces, his portrait adorns an airy new recruitment office in Kyiv casting a watchful eye over would-be members.

With its military ranks wearing thin, Ukraine is struggling to overhaul mobilisation and broaden recruitment as the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion approaches.

For the Da Vinci Wolves, led by war hero Dmytro "Da Vinci" Kotsiubailo until his death near the eastern town of Bakhmut last March, it means relying on a well-honed public image to attract new recruits.

"We're looking particularly for people who want to fight, want to join our unit (and) understand what they're headed for," said the unit's new commander, Serhii Filimonov, while unveiling the office recently.

They also want to show draft-eligible Ukrainians that it is possible to choose where and with whom they serve, part of a broader official effort to improve military enlistment.

Ukraine failed to make significant gains in a counteroffensive launched last June and faces Russian assaults along much of the front line.

Its mobilisation drive has been complicated by corruption allegations and frequent media reports of heavy-handed draft officers barging into homes or pulling men off buses.

Parliament is considering a bill that would lower the draft age to 25 from 27 and toughen punishment for evasion. The defence ministry has also turned to private recruiters for help.

The Da Vinci Wolves, a volunteer force that has fought across much of the front, is running its own recruitment as it reforms under the 59th Motorised Brigade and hopes to attract new members through its reputation as an experienced and motivated fighting unit.

Kotsiubailo had fought Russian forces since 2014 as part of a nationalist unit and was named a Hero of Ukraine in 2021 by President Volodymyr Zelensky, who attended his funeral. His call sign was a nod to his art education.

Filimonov, who is also well-known in Ukraine as a nationalist leader and activist, said the battalion contained other public figures - from actors to politicians - with large followings who "carry weight in society".

"Thanks to this, we're able to communicate what we want through the internet," Filimonov told Reuters, adding that Kotsiubailo's legacy is central to attracting recruits.

Some other high-profile units, such as the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, have invested similarly in recruitment, producing sleek media content and hosting events to popularise army service.

'THE BEST'

The Da Vinci Wolves have received more than 1,000 applications and are seeking around 500 new members, Filimonov said. Service members in other units have also shown interest in transferring, he added.

Candidates include Anatoliy Kvasha, 48, who said he wanted a greater say over where he ended up after facing bureaucratic headaches at his local draft office.

"I just don't trust draft officials, however good or bad they might be," said Kvasha, who has expertise as a mechanic.

Recruiters said they would be mindful of how they communicate with newcomers who arrive at their office in central Kyiv, just steps away from European embassies.

"If you see a person is tense and it's uncomfortable for them... then of course you need to draw them in a bit so they relax - so that I understand them and they understand me," said private first class Maksym Kyrychenko.

Candidates must pass an interview and medical exam before they are sent for training. The battalion has also opened an office in the western city of Lviv.

Another potential recruit, who asked to be identified only as Andriy, said he was drawn to the battalion because he respected the peacetime activism of some of its current members.

"I want to be with those who are motivated, the best," he said.