"Do I have to get on my knees when the Ukrainian military comes? How do I surrender?" asks a trembling man on the phone. He had been drafted and would soon be sent to Cherson. He was part of a whole group that wanted to surrender, but they were told they could go to prison in Ukraine for 10 years. "If you surrender voluntarily, you will be registered as 'captive on the battlefield'. You can keep your belongings," explains a woman in a friendly voice. "Is there a guarantee that I will not be filmed? And not beaten?"
Conversations like this one, which the British "Guardian" published, are currently being conducted dozens of times a day by the employees of a call center in Ukraine, according to their own statements. In September, the capitulation hotline "I want to live" went online. This is where Russian soldiers can call who want to surrender because they don't want to be part of the aggressive war against the neighboring country. The hotline was set up in response to Russia's partial mobilization, which saw nearly 300,000 Russians conscripted.
Allegedly, more than 6,500 Russian soldiers planning to desert have already reported, according to the Ukrainian Prisoners of War Office. However, this number cannot be independently verified.
Vitaly Matvienko, spokesman for the Office of Prisoners of War, explains that the people who contacted the service were checked on the basis of their personal data and their service number as members of the Russian armed forces, the "Guardian" reports, among others.
In order to surrender, two stages of surrender were necessary. "The first step is for Russian soldiers who are mobilized, partially mobilized or not yet mobilized to call this hotline and say, 'I want to surrender,'" Matvienko said. "After that, he has to leave his personal data. Then, when the soldier enters Ukrainian territory, he has to call again and say: 'I want to surrender'. Then staff members help him to reach a safe place where he meets Ukrainian special forces."
Those who are interested in the offer and why are very different. "During the liberation of Kherson, we got phone calls from Russians saying, 'Just save our souls. We're stuck in the mud here somewhere, our battalion's totally battered, we've got only ten men left. Please get us out of this shit '" said the official spokesman.
A call center worker said each case is different, but she has hope that Russia's war effort is beginning to weaken. The calls come in different situations - some soldiers are already on the battlefield, others are still in their hometowns with the fear of being drafted soon. But they all have one thing in common: "They are afraid and don't know what to do."
How successful the hotline actually is cannot be independently verified, nor can the alleged thousands of Russian soldiers who are said to have already reported to surrender. However, the hotline seems to be well known among the troops. As the "Guardian" reports, the propaganda website of "I want to live" recorded almost two million visits in December alone - 1.6 million of them from Russia. Apparently enough, according to the BBC, that the Russian government is trying to ban them. Just like the hotline itself. In some cases, it should not be accessible via Russian SIM cards.
As charitable as the offer may seem, "I want to live" is part of Ukraine's information war. If the hotline is in fact as successful as the Ukrainian authorities claim, it is by no means a concession to the Russian armed forces. Rather, it is yet another attempt to break troupe morale. In addition, POWs have become an important currency for both parties to bring their own soldiers home and maybe even send them back into battle.
Russia in particular has repeatedly shown willingness to exchange prisoners in recent months. The renowned "Institute for the Study of the War" sees this primarily as an attempt to appease the growing dissatisfaction among the Russian population. A total of 1,646 Ukrainian employees were released by the Russian government as part of such an exchange, Matviyenko said. The latest agreement was finalized on January 8, when 50 people were exchanged on both sides. Negotiations for more people are ongoing.
Sources: The Guardian, BBC, Der Spiegel, homepage "I want to live"