Wearing helmets marked with Russian flags, the men jump out of tanks to a Daft Punk soundtrack made for a sci-fi movie, brandishing Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers.
Then comes a Hollywood-style voiceover: “State company Roscosmos calls on you to join the Uran volunteer battalion, training you for victory in this great war.”
The ad marks a new frontier for Roscosmos, Russia’s state space agency, a partner of NASA that regularly sends cosmonauts to the International Space Station — but now, according to the recruiting videos, is working with the Russian military to recruit, fund and equip space a militia to fight in Ukraine.
The contrast could hardly be greater, as Roscosmos has not faced direct Western sanctions. Three Roscosmos cosmonauts are currently orbiting the Earth alongside US astronauts, while Roscosmos militiamen are being called up to fight US-backed Ukrainian forces.
The recruiting ads placed the space agency, heir to the revered Soviet program that pioneered spaceflight, at the forefront of another state project: Russia’s shadow recruiting drive to bolster its combat power without launching another destabilizing round of conscription.
Ruslan Leviev, an independent military analyst and head of the Conflict Intelligence Team, said his team monitoring the Uran battalion’s recruiting campaign had not yet found evidence of its deployment to the frontline.
But an influential cheerleader of Russia’s brutal full-scale invasion of its neighbor has presented Roscosmos as an example of attracting frontline volunteers with “wonderful” videos and good terms.
“All this does not guarantee high efficiency of the unit, but at least it ensures an influx of volunteers, reducing the likelihood of a new wave of mobilization,” said a post on Mikhail Zvinchuk’s Telegram channel Rybar, a former news agency. secretary at the Russian Ministry of Defense.
After invasion forces stranded in Ukraine last year, Moscow quietly began mobilizing tens of thousands of volunteers to join front-line militias, forcing major state entities such as gas group Gazprom and Roscosmos to help recruit with ad campaigns and competitive salaries.
But many of the volunteer battalions fighting in Ukraine have remained independent of the military, with the founder of the Wagner paramilitary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, often enjoying criticism at the military’s top ranks. It has left a chaotic jumble of at least 40 different military forces that the Defense Department is trying to sort out.
The Uran Battalion, the Russian word for the planet Uranus, emphasizes its loyalty to the Ministry of Defense in all its materials. It promises its recruits will sign contracts with the regular army, making it a model example of how the Department of Defense would like such units to behave. Last week, the ministry set a July 1 deadline by which it wants all other volunteer units to be similarly incorporated into its structure.
A second recruiting video described Roscosmos as fulfilling “all the duties of the Department of Defense” by organizing, training and equipping the Uran militia. It is not made up exclusively of Roscosmos personnel, but “employees of the aerospace sector” receive special benefits and conditions, according to a poster shared on a subsidiary’s website.
The militia’s origins seem to lie outside the agency: a mixed martial arts club in Moscow that advertised military-style training for would-be soldiers. The battalion’s web page is owned by an “association of sports, patriotic and veteran organizations” founded in 2014 called The Shield and the Sword, a reference to the KGB’s logo.
But more recently, Uran’s glossy posters, which look like advertisements for a computer game starring heavily armed Russian soldiers, have begun to bear the Roscosmos logo and specifically advertise front-line fighters in Ukraine.
A poster shows soldiers photoshopped next to space shuttles celebrating International Day of Human Spaceflight.
Recruits receive a sign-up bonus of 100,000 rubles ($1,200) and a monthly front-line salary of 270,000 rubles, with payments from the Ministry of Defense and the battalion.
Roscosmos, like state-owned companies like Gazprom, has never acknowledged a role in supporting militias. The Roscosmos website makes no mention of the Uran battalion. The space agency did not respond to a request for comment.
But ads for Uran do appear on the website of a state-owned company that supplies the space agency, called Turbonasos, and on the social media page of Roscosmos subsidiary NPO Avtomatika, a manufacturer of space rocket hardware.
The recruitment campaign is also proving to be a company-wide effort. A video from the Uran Battalion shows advertisements being played on a large television screen in the lobby of an office. This is being done “in all 120 enterprises of the state-owned company Roscosmos,” the video claims, adding that it should “raise the general morale of its 170,000 employees.”
The entrance hall appears to be a Roscosmos building. On the wall are two clocks, one showing the time in Moscow, the other in French Guiana – an unusual addition in Cyrillic to an office entrance wall, except that Roscosmos launched rockets into space from the Kourou site in French Guiana, together with the European Space Agency.
The decades of close cooperation between Roscosmos, NASA and other Western space agencies was one of the success stories of the perestroika era. It ended the competition over space exploration that defined the Cold War, which also saw the Soviet space program—the forerunner of Roscosmos—send the first man into space.
Roscosmos announced its withdrawal from the ISS in 2021, marking the end of this period of international cooperation. But the relationship with NASA continued, albeit under some strain. Even after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the two agencies have regularly shared seats on missions to the ISS.
Unlike most Russian state entities, the space agency has not been the target of substantial Western sanctions since the invasion, despite the inflammatory pro-war rhetoric of its former head, Dmitry Rogozin.
Rogozin was relieved of his duties in July 2022, a few months after the full-scale invasion began. He has since gone out of his way to show his support for the war, traveling to the occupied Zaporizhzhia region of southern Ukraine and announcing himself as the leader of a front-line volunteer “military advisers” unit called “The Tsar’s Wolves”. .
Often dressed in camouflage during public appearances, he was injured in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine in December, struck by shrapnel while dining at a restaurant with a Moscow-appointed local governor.
One of the military call signs adopted by Rogozin in Ukraine: “Cosmos”.