This spring there is a new campaign in Russia that is looking for recruits to replenish its troops in the war in Ukraine. The ads promise cash bonuses and enticing benefits. Recruiters call suitable men unannounced. Recruitment offices work with universities and social service agencies to win over students and the unemployed.
As fighting stalemates in Ukraine battles like Bakhmut and both sides prepare counter-offensives that could cost even more lives, the Kremlin's war machine is in dire need of fresh recruits.
The mobilization of 300,000 reservists in September - portrayed as a "partial" call to arms - sent panic across the country because most men under 65 are technically part of the reserves. Tens of thousands fled Russia rather than report to recruiting offices.
The Kremlin denies that another call-up is in the offing for what it describes as a "special military operation" in Ukraine, which has lasted for more than a year.
But amid widespread uncertainty about whether such a mobilization will take place, the government is enticing men to volunteer, either with makeshift recruitment centers in various regions or with phone calls. That way he can "avoid declaring a second wave of formal mobilization" after the first was so unpopular, according to a recent report by the Institute of the Study of War, a US-based think tank.
A Muscovite told The Associated Press that his employer, a state-funded organization, collected the registration cards of all male employees of combat age and said it would get them deferments. However, he pointed out, the situation scared him.
"You feel nervous and scared, nobody wants to suddenly end up in a war with a gun in their hands," said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "The special operation is dragging on somewhat, so any surprise from the Russian authorities can be expected."
It's been more than a week since he turned in his card, he said, and exceptions are usually resolved within a day or two, which has triggered his anxiety.
Russian media point out that men from all over the country receive summonses from enlistment offices. In most cases they are simply asked to update their details, in others they have been ordered to participate in military training.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week that responding to subpoenas to update data at enlistment offices is "regular practice" and "continuing work."
Other unconfirmed media reports say authorities have told regional governments to round up a certain number of volunteers. Some officials announced they would open centers to get men to sign contracts allowing them to be sent to fight as professional soldiers.
Ads have appeared on government sites and on social media accounts of state institutions and organizations, such as libraries and high schools.
One of them, shared by a local government in the western Yaroslav region, promised a one-time bonus of about $3,800 for enlistment and a monthly salary of up to $2,500 for those envoys to Ukraine, plus about $100 a day for "participation in active offensive operations" and 650 dollars "for each kilometer of advance in assault teams".
The ad added that the soldier would also get tax breaks and loan repayments, his children would get preference in college admissions and there would be generous compensation for his family if he was wounded or killed in combat. He would also gain veteran status, which carried even more advantages.
In the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, authorities have asked universities and vocational training centers to publicize the campaign on their websites, said Sergei Chernyshov, founder of a private trade school in the city.
Chernyshov shared the announcement on his social media account "so that the whole world knows what our council is up to," but told the AP he did not plan to put it on the school's website. "It's weird" to target professional school students, he said.
As part of the efforts, recruiters meet with college students and unemployed men, or call men to volunteer.
A Muscovite who spoke on condition of anonymity for his own safety said he had received one such call and was surprised by how kind he had been. "After my 'no' there were no threats or (attempts to) convince me, (only) 'thank you, goodbye'."
There have been isolated cases of recruiting officers who did pressure men to sign up, said Grigory Sverdlin, founder of a group called Go Through the Woods that helps men avoid mobilization.
The group receives up to 100 messages a day from men seeking advice on how to handle subpoenas, he said, compared with dozens of inquiries a day in recent months. In most cases, officials want to update their records with addresses and phone numbers, and may try to recruit you in the process. But Sverdlin said some cases draw attention.
In the Vologda region, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of Moscow, the group received messages that almost everyone who went to the office after receiving a summons "is forced to sign a paper prohibiting them from leaving the region. ", said.
Lawyer Alexei Tabalov, who heads the Recruit School legal aid group, believes there is nothing unusual about authorities handing out subpoenas now. Some are common before the spring recruitment campaign, which would begin on April 1 for those who have to do mandatory military service.
All Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 must serve a year in the military, though many avoid it for health reasons or receive study exemptions. The proportion of men who avoid being drafted is especially high in Moscow and other large cities, and many people simply shy away from officials carrying conscription summonses.
Tabalov said some men have said they went to the offices to update their details but found officials "distracting and proposing the idea of signing the contract, talking about one having to love one's homeland and defend it."
He doubted there was anything that would make it attractive to volunteer after 13 months of a war with tens of thousands of dead and wounded.
"People already understand what it means to sign a contract," he said. "Those who got burned once are unlikely to fall into the same trap."
Tabalov said his group continues to receive messages from soldiers who want to cancel their contracts, but that is not legally possible until President Vladimir Putin ends the partial mobilization, which began in September, with a new decree.
"Leaving the war means automatic criminal charges," Tabalov said, adding that there has been a succession of criminal charges since December and soldiers who desert or go AWOL have been prosecuted.
The Mediazona outlet counted 247 verdicts in 536 cases on these charges and other similar ones and noted that a third of those convicted received suspended sentences, which allows the authorities to send them back to the front.
The current recruitment drive is similar to the one conducted last summer before the September mobilization, said Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russian analyst at the Institute of the Study of War.
The authorities also used financial incentives then and formed volunteer battalions, but the initiative was clearly not enough, because Putin later resorted to partial mobilization.
"They have already recruited a considerable part of the people who had financial incentives last summer. And they had trouble doing it last year," Stepanenko said.
The current recruitment campaign shows that the army is aware of its personnel needs in Ukraine.
"What the 300,000 military mobilization campaign told us is that it is not enough to form a strike group sufficient for Russia to go ahead with its offensive operations," he said.
According to the criteria of The Trust Project