The Russian army is trying to attract volunteers in regions such as Rostov. Meanwhile, the Wagner group recruits prisoners

Russia calls on volunteers and mercenaries after Ukrainian counteroffensive

photo_camera PHOTO/REUTERS - Members of the Wagner Group in Donetsk in 2014

The latest advances by Ukrainian forces have forced Russia to resort to volunteers and mercenaries. The Russian army is trying to entice citizens to join the war in Ukraine in exchange for a salary of almost $3,000 a month - three times the national average salary - according to Reuters. To this end, Moscow is moving "recruitment trucks" to places such as Rostov in the south of the country.

"Military service with a contract: a real man's choice". This is the title of leaflets handed out by armed soldiers to passers-by in an attempt to mobilise more personnel for the war in the midst of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Russians and foreigners aged between 18 and 60 with at least a high school education will be eligible to fight in Ukraine, the officer in charge of the recruitment drive in Rostov told Reuters.

"Patriotic-minded citizens choose to sign contracts for three to six months to take part in the special military operation," said Sergei Ardashev, who also promised training for those who wish to join the invasion.

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Reuters has also spoken to one potential recruit, musician Viktor Yakunin, who said he had always been attracted to military service and was gathering the "necessary documents" to go to the front in Ukraine. Yakunin told the news agency that his parents raised him from childhood to "love the motherland and to protect the Russian world". "I believe that the power is with us," he added.

Once the required information has been submitted, volunteers must pass a psychological test, followed by a physical test of speed, strength and endurance.

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Russia has not updated the official number of casualties since 25 March, a month after the invasion began. At that time, Moscow reported 1,351 dead and 3,825 wounded. The current recruitment drive shows that Russian troops need more men to cope with the current Ukrainian advances. However, despite the counter-offensive, the Kremlin has ruled out a national mobilisation 'for the time being', spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced last week.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, new "face" of Russia's invasion of Ukraine

In addition to attracting volunteers, Russia is also recruiting prisoners through the Wagner group, a military organisation linked to the Kremlin. A few days ago, a video of Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Wagner and a businessman close to President Vladimir Putin, began circulating on social media, offering inmates in a Russian prison freedom in exchange for joining the war.

The footage was released by the team of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalni and is suspected to be from a prison in Mari-El, some 800 kilometres east of Moscow, according to the BBC, which has geo-located the images. The British media has also used facial recognition tools to identify Prigozhin, known as Putin's 'chef'.

British intelligence also suggests that the video "most likely" shows Prigozhin trying to lure inmates to join the invasion of Ukraine, stressing that he is only looking for "fighters for assault units"

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In the video, Prigozhin assures that, if they serve six months in Wagner, the inmates will be released. But he also warned that desertion would be punishable by death. "If you arrive in Ukraine and decide it's not for you, we will execute you," he said.

On the other hand, Putin's 'chef' has listed some of the rules. According to the businessman, alcohol, drugs, looting and "sexual contacts with local women, flora, fauna or men" are prohibited. The minimum age to join Wagner is 22, and the maximum age is 50. It has nothing to do with Afghanistan or Chechnya," he adds.

However, Wagner's recruitment is not new. According to Olga Romanova, head of the Russian prison monitoring NGO Russia Behid Bars, between 7,000 and 10,000 prisoners, including a convicted cannibal, have been recruited by the company since this summer, reports The Moscow Times

Wagner's prominence in the war has prompted several Russian netizens to call for the replacement of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu - whom they blame for the defeats in Kharkov - with Prigozhin. As the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) points out, Wagner's boss is 'establishing himself as the face' of the invasion of Ukraine. 

As Russia tries to mobilise more men, Ukraine continues its counteroffensive in Kharkov, which it is trying to extend into the Donbas and Kherson. President Volodimir Zelensky has vowed to continue until the country is completely liberated. Zelensky has also announced that Ukrainian forces have now crossed the Oskil River and control the eastern bank. Liman, some 50 kilometres from the newly recaptured Izium, is now one of the main targets due to its proximity to Lugansk.

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