Advertising campaign recruits contract soldiers from across Russia to fight in Ukraine
Online job postings emphasize recruiting soldiers from regions with ethnic minorities
BANNER: A 2018 photo of a Russian conscript wearing a military uniform. (Source: Reuters/Anton Vaganov)
An active recruitment campaign of contract soldiers has been underway in Russia since mid-March 2023, with a strong focus on regions beyond Moscow. The DFRLab found more than seventy job postings across Craigslist-like platforms attempting to recruit contract soldiers across Russia. The DFRLab also uncovered a coordinated advertising campaign targeting the Udmurt ethnic minority in their native language. On April 3, Moscow opened a new recruitment collection point for contract soldiers to enlist to fight in Ukraine. As Russian armed forces intensify efforts to recruit contract soldiers and volunteers, the ads could be seen as an attempt to replenish troops and avoid another wave of mobilization.
On March 24, Bloomberg reported that Russian armed forces seek to enlist up to 400,000 contract soldiers to bolster their efforts in Ukraine. Additionally, Radio Svoboda reported that Moscow has established quotas of contract soldiers to avoid resorting to mobilizing its reserve forces. A British Intelligence report posted to Twitter on March 30 also indicated that Russia is focusing on recruiting volunteers and contract soldiers to tame “domestic dissent.”
Throughout March 2023, rumors of a second wave of drafts supporting Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine spread across Russian opposition media, sowing fear amongst the country’s population. Initial reports indicated more than forty-three regions in Russia had observed a rise in summons to military commissariats. Officially, however, men were invited to provide updates to “clarify their data,” though it remains to be seen whether this data will be used to draft them into the military. On March 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an executive order announcing the beginning of Russia’s yearly spring conscription. According to the decree, the conscription would muster approximately 147,000 men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-seven beginning on April 1 and would run until June 15.
The DFRLab gathered information about posts attempting to enlist contract soldiers on the Craigslist-like websites farpost.ru and superjob.ru. We also investigated a Telegram-based advertising campaign to recruit contract soldiers across Russia. These campaigns suggest that the Russian armed forces are emphasizing recruitment from regions, many of which are home to Russia’s ethnic minorities, beyond the metropolitan areas of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The job postings also indicated that Russian armed forces could be focused on replenishing troops in military units where entire brigades have been decimated in Ukraine.
Job listings for contract soldiers
Between March 24 and March 30, 2023, the DFRLab observed more than seventy job postings recruiting contract soldiers to fight in Russia’s self-described “special military operation” in Ukraine. To identify these postings, the DFRLab queried the phrase “Военнослужащий по контракту” (“contract soldier”) and “Военнослужащий по контракту на СВО” (“contract soldier for the special military operation”) on both SuperJob and FarPost. To refine the results, the DFRLab retained only the postings with wages superior to RUB 180,000 (USD $2,300) per month and ensured these were indeed dedicated to the special military operation by looking for the phrases “Специальная военная операция” (“special military operation”) or “СВО” in the description of the posting.
Of these, sixty-four were posted on SuperJob by a single account listing itself as the FKU (federal state institution) Military Commissariat of Sverdlovsk Oblast, located in Yekaterinburg, in central Russia. Military commissariats (военкоматы) are the first link in the chain of recruitment for both mobilized personnel and contract soldiers to register and enlist in military service. Although the postings came from an account based out of Yekaterinburg, they listed multiple collection points around Russia, including the cities of Kaliningrad, Rostov-On-Don, Yaroslavl, and Tyumen, none of which are within the jurisdiction of the Sverdlovsk Oblast military commissariat.
According to the account’s details, the Sverdlovsk Oblast Military Commissariat account has been active on SuperJob since 2022; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine commenced on February 24 of that year.
The military commissariat distributed job postings across several Russian regions, focusing on the Volga, Ural, Central, Southern, and Far-Eastern Federal Districts. At the time of writing, no postings were reported in Moscow or Saint Petersburg.
The DFRLab noted multiple ads with nearly identical titles and job descriptions posted in the same city, indicating duplicated posts. Job postings were duplicated three times in the cities of Voronezh and Samara and in the Siberian cities of Krasnoyarsk, Omsk, and Novosibirsk.
Monitoring the publication dates throughout the last week of March, the DFRLab observed that the Sverdlovsk Oblast Military Commissariat account posted several identical ads in the same city. The postings appeared to be duplicated but were tagged differently on the platform. For example, one posting included a tag stipulating “No experience needed,” while a duplicate post did not use the tag.
Sometimes, there were differences in stated wages. For example, in one posting, the reported monthly payment for enlistment was between RUB 220,000 (USD $2,800) and RUB 260,000 (USD $3,300), whereas in a duplicate posting, the only figure listed was RUB 240,000 (USD $3,000).
The duplicate postings also inverted several sub-sections in the text advertising the contract soldier positions. The sections “advantages,” “obligations,” and “requirements” were ordered differently in various posts. This pattern was consistent on all the variations that the DFRLab examined.
The duration of the contracts on SuperJob typically did not exceed six months and mostly indicated a wage of RUB 240,000 (USD $3,100), which exceeds, by RUB 20,000, the standard salary amount for contract service, according to a 2022 report published in Russian media. Postings also mentioned the social and economic advantages of enlistment, including equipment, food, and active participation in the “special military operation.”
An April 2022 article published by the BBC’s Russian branch examined job postings posted in a coordinated manner between SuperJob and the Russian defense ministry in the months after the invasion. One year later, the defense ministry continues to recruit on SuperJob. All of the postings from the Sverdlovsk Military Commissariat were reposted on the Russian defense ministry’s jobs website, which uses the URL mil.superjob.ru. Notably, the postings from 2022 did not appear to advertise enrollment and participation in the “special military operation.” The DFRLab also concluded that postings present online before April 2023 seem to be constantly reposted by the ministry as their publication date is updated daily. This can be interpreted as a strategy to ensure that these postings always appear as the top results in SuperJob’s search engine.
In addition, SuperJob publishes research papers based on polls of the Russian labor market. In an article published in January 2023, the organization identified a rising trend in job postings related to military occupations. The authors reportedly correlated this trend to the war in Ukraine and the announcement of the “partial mobilization” that Putin enacted in September 2022. SuperJob was mentioned in an August 2022 Telegram post by the state news agency TASS after it listed four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine in its search engine, labeling the regions under the “Russia” section.
Job listings seek to replenish marine infantry recently decimated in Vuhledar
From March 24 onward, the DFRLab observed more than a dozen active job postings for contract soldiers on FarPost. Although the postings seem to target men living in Russia’s far east regions, in cities like Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Dalnerechensk, Amursk, and Ussuriysk, some postings also stated that “travel is free from any city of the Russian Federation to the collection point.”
Most of the postings were attributed to the account IrinaVahta, which was created in 2017. Before posting the recent job listings, its only activity on the platform was purchases made in Vladivostok, for which the account received buyer feedback. Notably, each job posting from the account appears to be signed “ИП Рогачев” (“IP Rogachev”). In Russian, “IP” is an abbreviation for “индивидуальный предприниматель” (“individual’nyy predprinimatel’” or “individual entrepreneur”), a designation for sole proprietorships registered with the Federal Tax Service of Russia.
One job posting said, “Only employment through us (through Moscow) will grant additional RUB 50,000 [USD $650] monthly.” This further suggests that these announcements may be centralized. Although all of the job postings’ headlines state that they are opening recruitment for “contract soldiers,” those mentioning Moscow as a recruitment center referred to a municipal law that applies exclusively to “mobilized personnel.” Language in the postings seemed to blur the line between the categories of “mobilized soldiers” and “contract soldiers.”
An archived job posting from March 13 also invited people charged with “minor to moderate criminal convictions” to apply; other postings included similar information. Although worded differently across postings, all of the ads by the account IrinaVahta listed “absence of criminal convictions for serious crimes” as a requirement.
Most of the postings filed under the job category “government service – non-profit” mentioned a Kremlin executive order for a one-time signing bonus of RUB 195,000 (USD $2,500) issued by the Russian Ministry of Defense. This strongly indicates that the postings are made on behalf of the Russian armed forces. Another posting indicated the applicant would take part in activities of the marine infantry brigade. The posting included the address Korabel’naya Naberezhnaya, 4 in Vladivostok. The DFRLab can confirm this address corresponds to the main compound building of the Russian Pacific Fleet. Within its body text, a second job posting named Military Unit 30926, which corresponds to the 155th Marine Infantry Brigade unit in Vladivostok.
The DFRLab previously reported on soldiers from Russia’s far east, who took part in various unsuccessful assaults on Vuhledar, at the junction between the Donbas and Zaporizhzhia fronts. News reports in mid-February 2023, based on information about war prisoners from Ukrainian General Staff, indicated that the 155th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade was decimated in battle.
Archived job listings in FarPost suggest it has been used as a recruitment platform since October 2022. All postings offered wages exceeding the amounts published on local government websites, with some postings doubling the stated salary. In August 2022, independent Russian news outlet Sota mentioned FarPost in a story about the website hosting recruitment ads for security personnel for schools in the Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine. At the time, three postings were attributed to two security companies. The first, “Strazha,” operated exclusively out of Russia’s Primorsky Krai region. The second, “Okhrana,” founded in 1993, was connected to the late-Soviet Ministry of Medium Machine Building Industry.
Recruitment campaign on Telegram targets Russian minorities
The DFRLab also observed a contract soldier recruitment campaign taking place on Telegram and in local press in the Udmurt language. The campaign targeted Udmurts, an ethnic minority of the Ural-Volga region, with an ad that included a QR code that redirected the user to the website of Russian resource portal Ob’yasnyayem (“We explain”), as detailed below. The ad appeared in the March 23 edition of Udmurt Dunne, the Udmurt national newspaper.
The campaign slogan, “Есть такая работа” (“There is this sort of job”), is a reference to the well-known Soviet-era film “The Officers.” The ad adapted the original quotation, “There is this sort of profession; protecting the Motherland,” to “Contract service, there is this sort of job in the Russian army.”
The campaign promoted enrollment using the minority Udmurt language. On March 30, the campaign expanded with the launch of a new Russian-language website named “Contract service in Udmurtia.” The domain name, деломужчин.рф, translates to “a man’s job.”
The website contains information regarding alleged financial bonuses awarded to soldiers during service in the “zone of the special military operation.” The website states that the minimum monthly payment for a contract soldier, depending on rank, ranges from RUB 170,000 (USD $2,100) to RUB 200,000 (USD $2,500). An additional daily RUB 8,000 (USD $100) bonus is awarded for “participation in active offensive actions.” In addition, RUB 50,000 (USD $640) is awarded “for every kilometer of progression as part of the assault squads.” An additional bonus, ranging from RUB 50,000 (USD $640) to RUB 1,000,000 (USD $12,800) is reportedly awarded “for the destruction or seizure of enemy weapons or military equipment.”
As mentioned above, the original advertisement’s QR code redirects the user to Ob’yasnyayem, which aggregates information on military recruitment opportunities and Russian citizenship for Ukrainian regions currently under Russian occupation.
Along with this site, the DFRLab reviewed twenty-nine affiliated Telegram channels targeting different regions across Russia.
In a March 31 video interview, the head of the Udmurt republic Alexander Brechalov advertised the signing of contracts for volunteers seeking to enroll in the army. He said enrollment was possible “beyond the scope of the spring and fall conscriptions” and that “not all of them are sent to the zone of the special military operation.” The video was reposted to the affiliated Telegram channel Ob’yasnyaem.Udmurtia with a link to деломужчин.рф.
The Telegram channel Ob’yasnyaem.Udmurtia, which targets Udmurt recruits, was created in March 2020 with the handle @covid19udm. As the name suggests, the channel previously focused on COVID-related information. At one point early in the pandemic, the channel debunked COVID-19 misinformation. The channel was then repurposed to be part of the Ob’yasnyayem initiative.
Overall, the DFRLab’s investigation indicated the involvement of local military commissariats and other entities in a recruitment campaign targeting regions across Russia. The DFRLab assessed that Russia ran a targeted campaign advertising contract soldier positions in Udmurt throughout March 2023. The examples covered here, which remained active at the time of publishing, confirmed ongoing attempts to recruit ethnic minorities in Russia. What remains unknown is the intent and why these efforts are focusing on smaller regions rather than large metropolitan areas such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
Cite this case study:
Valentin Châtelet, “Advertising campaign recruits contract soldiers from across Russia to fight in Ukraine,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), April 4, 2023, https://dfrlab.org/2023/04/04/advertising-campaign-recruits-contract-soldiers-from-across-russia-to-fight-in-ukraine/.