Thousands of Russian soldiers have desperately contacted Kyiv officials via a bespoke hotline to offer to surrender, calling on Ukraine to “save our souls”, the defending nation’s government has claimed. The “I want to live” hotline, established on September 15, six days before Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the mobilisation of 300,000 military reservists, has received 6,543 calls from Russian personnel up to January 20. Vitaly Matvienko, spokesperson at the department for prisoners of war, said those who made contact through the service had been verified, using personal data and service number, as Russian troops.
The call centre, led by 10 operators, is said to have been moved to a secret location to avoid Moscow interference amid an influx of calls.
Earlier this month, there were fears, which still prevail, that Putin would announce a second mobilisation in time for the anniversary of the “special military operation” on February 24.
Mr Matvienko said the 24/7 hotline received between 50 and 100 calls, with messages also sent to the service’s Telegram channel.
The call centre was moved a month ago from the department’s Kyiv offices to a secret location due to fear of it being targeted by Russian attacks, he added.
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Mr Matvienko declined to comment on the number of completed surrenders but described the service as “totally successful”.
The spokesman described the two stages of surrendering in an interview with the Guardian, saying: “The first stage is Russian soldiers who are mobilised, partly mobilised, not mobilised yet, call to this hotline to this chatbot and say: ‘I’m going to surrender,’
“After that he is obligated to leave his personal data. After the soldier reaches Ukrainian territory, it’s obligatory for him to call again and say, ‘I’m going to surrender’ and Ukrainian operators help him to reach a safe place where he meets Ukrainian special forces.”
Speaking about the calls received from Russians in Kherson during Ukraine’s sweeping counter offensive in November last year, he said there were soldiers begging to be “taken from this mess”.
Mr Matvienko said: “We had calls from Russians and they told us: ‘Just save our souls because we got stuck somewhere in the mud, our battalion is totally crashed, we have 10 soldiers left, please take us from this mess.’”
One of the staff at the call centre, 25-year-old Oksana, said the volume and content of the calls gave her hope that the Russian resolve was weakening.
She said: “Some people call and say, ‘I’m somewhere in the military. I want to surrender,’ others say, ‘I am afraid to be mobilised in Russia, what do I need to do’.
“And some of them tell me, ‘I’m on the territory of Ukraine, I want to surrender.’ They are afraid and they don’t know what to do.”
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Those who hand themselves in are offered the opportunity to be part of prisoner swaps for Ukrainian soldiers captured by the Russians.
Mr Matvienko said a total of 1,646 Ukrainian personnel have been released by the Russian government as part of such swaps, the most recent of which included 50 people from each side exchanged on January 8.
It is not standard policy to report the number of Russian soldiers returned in prisoner swaps.
Mr Matvienko said he personally passes on “I want to live” business cards to the Russian released prisoners, however, in case they are redeployed to the battlefield, which is not uncommon.
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