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The Kremlin wants ‘real men’ to prove themselves by joining the fight in Ukraine

The ad comes as Moscow prepares for a counteroffensive expected to be launched by Ukraine this spring, having seen its own winter push falter.

Security guard, fitness trainer, taxi driver: All important jobs in peacetime but in wartime Russia, these are not for “real men.”

That’s the message the Kremlin hopes will help to boost recruitment efforts and replenish forces depleted by more than a year of grueling conflict in Ukraine.

The Russian Defense Ministry released a new advertising campaign this week centered on the idea, part of a broader push to entice military-age men to join the fight in large numbers and avoid the need for a new wave of conscription ahead of a widely expected Ukrainian counteroffensive.

A video that appeared across the ministry’s social networks Wednesday features three men going about their daily lives and working seemingly mundane jobs.

As dramatic music plays in the background, all three appear to ponder their life choices, imagining themselves instead in army uniforms, with an arm patch prominently featuring the letter “Z,” which has become the symbol of what Russia calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine. 

“Did you dream of becoming this kind of a defender?” the advertisement asks as it shows the security guard manning an entrance to a grocery shop, next to a produce stand. “Is your strength really in this?” it asks while showing the fitness trainer helping a client lift a weight. “Is this the path you wanted to choose?” it asks a taxi driver as he drops off a passenger. 

All three then appear looking stern while walking through thick fog in what appears to be a battlefield, wearing uniforms and carrying assault rifles in their hands.

“You are a real man. Be one,” a message on the screen tells viewers, before cutting to a graphic from the ministry that calls for men to sign up as contract soldiers with a promised monthly salary starting at 204,000 rubles (nearly $2,500) — a significant sum for most Russian families and more than triple the average salary, according to official statistics from 2021.

The ad comes as the Kremlin’s invasion is centered on the grueling battle for the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, in which ammunition and soldiers on both sides have been severely drained. Moscow is preparing for a counteroffensive expected to be launched by Kyiv this spring, having seen its own winter push falter.

Last week, Russian lawmakers hastily approved new legislation allowing authorities to deliver conscription notices electronically, making it almost impossible to avoid getting drafted. 

The law has raised fears that a second wave of mobilization for the war in Ukraine could be imminent. 

Russia called up some 300,000 men during the first wave last September, leading to protests and a mass exodus of men. 

Moscow has not said how many more men it might be seeking to recruit, playing down any fears of a new mobilization. 

Recruitment posters have been popping up around Moscow since the beginning of the invasion but have become more commonplace in recent weeks.

People walk past a desk promoting Russian army service in Moscow, Russia April 12, 2023.
A military recruitment sign in Moscow reads "Our profession - is defending Motherland." Ads like this have increasingly been popping up in recent months.Yulia Morozova / Reuters via Alamy Stock Photo

It is unclear whether the campaigns are having their desired effect.

Ivan, a 34-year-old Muscovite, told NBC News Friday that he'd noticed the recruitment posters around the capital but said they did not ignite any desire in him to serve.

The “real man” concept was strange to him, he said, adding, “It’s one thing to serve your family, and another — the way we serve in our army. Those are different things.”

Being a real man for him, he said, was protecting one’s family and doing something good in life, “creating something rather than destroying it.”

There are severe reporting restrictions in Russia, where many find it difficult to speak honestly about the war in public. NBC News chose not to use Ivan’s last name to protect him from possible punishment for speaking openly. 

Last month, Britain’s military intelligence cited Russian media reports suggesting President Vladimir Putin could be seeking to recruit another 400,000 troops. NBC News could not confirm those reports. 

During the first mobilization wave, some Russian media reported stories of newly mobilized soldiers lacking proper training and supplies, and being thrown into the thick of the fighting without much preparation. 

But the ad released this week appears aimed at luring contract soldiers specifically to avoid that controversy.

Its appeal for “real men” to join the fight plays into the stereotype of masculinity that has been venerated under Putin — who has admitted he himself once drove a taxi to earn extra money after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For more than two decades, the Kremlin has been cultivating the “macho” image of the Russian leader, who has often been photographed bare-chested, swimming in wild rivers and riding horses while on his summer vacations in Siberia. 

That narrative has been amplified and accelerated since the invasion, with many of the hawkish war supporters heralding him as a “real man” for invading his neighbor in the face of the perceived Western threat. 

It’s no wonder that in its latest recruitment campaign, the Kremlin is trying to tap into that kind of “emotional motivation” and appeal to the “inner macho” in Russian men, said Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

The use of the narrative dating from the Soviet era sounds “pretentious and noble, while hiding the necrophilic essence of using people as cannon fodder, without regard to the needs of the economy and the decline in the working population,” he told NBC News.

Abbas Gallyamov, a Russian political analyst and former Putin speechwriter, wrote on Facebook that the ad alluded to terminology used “in the criminal world, whose code of conduct is used by Russia’s ruling class.” In that world, he said, the word “muzhik” (meaning “real man,” in Russian) is synonymous with “the one who suffers and tolerates.”

“So this video turned out to be much more telling than originally planned,” he said. 

The ad also appears to reinforce an argument Putin himself made to a grieving mother last year that rather than dying from “vodka,” Russian men killed in Ukraine were not wasting their lives in vain.

However, some experts alluded to the fact that Russia was not unique in appealing to manliness as a recruiting tactic, and that a number of nations, including Britain, have employed the “real men” narrative, though perhaps largely decades ago.

The ad was met with ridicule by some media outlets in Ukraine. 

A bitterly sarcastic headline in the Kyiv Post on Friday read: “Russian Video Campaign Calls for ‘Real Men’ to Replace Enlisted Cannon Fodder.”

Meanwhile, the Unian news agency said on the Telegram messaging app Wednesday that the ad is the latest “cringe” from Russian propaganda and is trying to sell Russian men on the idea that it’s better to become a “corpse or disabled” than be a security guard or a fitness instructor.