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Ukraine war: The surrender hotline for Russian soldiers

by Mahmmod Shar

By James Waterhouse

The Ukrainian government has said a scheme it created for Russian soldiers to surrender is getting up to 100 enquiries a day.

The “I Want To Live” project was started in September.

By calling a hotline or entering details through messenger apps, Russian troops can arrange the best way to surrender to Ukrainian forces.

Officials in Kyiv say they’ve had more than 3,500 contacts from invading personnel, as well as their families.

There’s been an apparent increase since Russian President Vladimir Putin mobilised hundreds of thousands of Russian men, and since the city of Kherson was liberated.

The BBC has been given recordings from some of the calls.

Short presentational grey line

As the dark hallways suggest, Ukraine’s headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War isn’t immune to the power blackouts which plague the country.

In a small office we meet Svitlana, not her real name, a Ukrainian call handler who speaks to Russian soldiers daily.

They can either get in touch over the phone or on most messenger apps, such as Telegram and WhatsApp.

She explains the evenings are busiest, when troops have more spare time and can sneak off and make a call.

“First of all, we hear a voice, mainly male,” she explains. “It’s often part-desperate, part-frustrated, because they don’t fully understand how the hotline works, or whether it’s just a set-up.

“There’s also curiosity because many call not to surrender but to find out how they could if needed. It’s different every time.”

Chats from the "I Want To Live" Ukrainian surrender hotline
Image caption,The BBC was given access to some of the calls made to the hotline

Svitlana isn’t allowed to tell us how many Russians she’s helped, or exactly how it happens. They’re just told to share their location before being given further instructions.

Some Russian soldiers also get in touch to provoke them, she says, although she doesn’t think all of them believe the Kremlin’s baseless claims that Ukraine is run by Nazis.

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“We can’t judge an entire country,” she says. “The majority of them are worried about their lives.”

Svitlana also recalls a call from one man who lived in occupied Crimea and had been mobilised to fight against his own family, and country.

It seems Moscow has now blocked the phone numbers from being reached inside Russia. Calls from either a UK or Russian Sim card are greeted with an error message.

Chats from the "I Want To Live" Ukrainian surrender hotline
Image caption,Staff at the I Want To Live project said each call is different

The dramatic voice-over in Ukraine’s “I Want To Live” propaganda video aimed at Russian soldiers asks, “Ask yourself a question: What are you fighting for?”

Before two phone numbers are displayed at the end, there are images of Russian soldiers seemingly surrendering in time to explosive music.

If they are too near the front line, they are even instructed to wave a white flag.

Of course, this is a battle in the information war. The method by which Ukraine tries to lower Russian morale.

Images of Ukrainian prisoners of war are displayed on the walls of Svitlana’s office. This hotline is a key component of Kyiv’s efforts to repatriate them because it is believed that they are all still alive.

Russian prisoners of war (PoWs) are exchangeable for cash once they are released.

The Kremlin is reportedly exchanging more prisoners of war in an effort to appease domestic critics, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

On each side, there are reportedly thousands of prisoners of war, but exact numbers are unclear.

Vitalii Matviyenko, who leads the I Want To Live project, says it was created to help save lives of those who surrender

“We especially want to target the partially mobilised who not only can’t fight but are thrown in as cannon fodder,” says Vitalii Matviyenko, who heads up the scheme.

“This project was created so their lives will be guaranteed if they surrender voluntarily.”

For outnumbered Ukraine, it’s also hoped it will soften the belly of their larger invader.

Additional reporting by Daria Sipigina, Hanna Chornous and Moose Campbell.

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