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Russians defect to Ukraine by calling army hotline

Russian lieutenant Daniil Alfyorov accomplished what the rest of Vladimir Putin’s army failed to do when it launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine: he reached central Kyiv.

Speaking into a cluster of microphones while sitting between two Ukrainian military intelligence officers in October, the 27-year-old denounced his country’s unprovoked war and said he had surrendered voluntarily. 

The Moscow military school graduate also helped 11 Russian troops fighting under his command in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region to do the same.

The 12 men handed themselves over to Kyiv after calling the “I want to live” hotline, set up for Russian troops who want to defect and operated by Ukraine’s military intelligence unit (GUR). Their surrender — known as “Operation Barynya” by GUR in reference to a Russian folk dance — provided Ukraine with valuable battlefield intelligence.

As of December, more than 220 Russian soldiers had given themselves up through the hotline, Vitaliy Matvienko, a spokesperson for GUR’s department for prisoners of war, told the Financial Times. More than 1,000 other cases were pending, Matvienko added, disclosing both figures for the first time.

GUR set up the hotline in September 2022, just three days before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilisation. On top of the roughly 190,000 troops involved in the Kremlin’s initial invasion in February that year, Moscow was mobilising some 300,000 reservists. The “I want to live” hotline started ringing off the hook.

Many Russian men did not want to go to war, Matvienko said, citing conversations between newly mobilised Russian men and his 10 hotline operators.

The FT listened to a recording of one of the calls, which begins: “Hello, you called the hotline of the defence intelligence of Ukraine. Do you want to live?”

“Hello, yes,” came the answer. “Someone gave me this number. Can you help me surrender?”

Less than a month after its launch, the project secured its first successful surrender. Since then, about three Russian soldiers hand themselves over every week and are taken into Ukrainian custody as prisoners of war.

The hotline has so far received more than 26,000 calls via phone and an accompanying chatbot on Telegram messenger. Its website hochuzhit.com has been visited more than 48mn times — including 46mn visits from within Russia. The website was blocked inside Russia days after it went live but remains accessible via services that hide the user’s internet address.

Ukrainian soldiers load flyers urging Russian soldiers to surrender into rocket launch systems near Bakhmut, Donetsk region © Libkos/AP

Both Ukraine and Russia have employed information campaigns, or what Matvienko called “psyops”, meaning psychological operations. They target the other side with leaflets dropped from the air, mass text messages, radio and television ads, and even shouting from trench to trench. Not all efforts have been successful, but Matvienko said the hotline had paid dividends.

GUR sees the Russian soldiers as a currency with which it can buy back Ukrainian prisoners of war. Prisoner exchanges have occurred frequently over the course of the war, although the pace has slowed. 

Before the Russians are released Mativienko provides them with “I want to live” business cards to hand out to men in Russia who might be mobilised, in case they want to escape when they arrive in Ukraine. He calls this “preliminary surrender”, allowing them to jump-start the application process.

By the time a Russian recruit who opted for “preliminary surrender” arrives in Ukraine, GUR will have already processed his application and conducted a background check, shortening the time the soldier has to spend on the battlefield before surrender.

The “I want to live” hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week by 10 operators working from a secret location in Kyiv. The team is composed of military psychologists and analysts whom Matvienko said were specially trained to speak to the Russian soldiers.

Aside from the difficulty of finding a safe place to surrender, Russian soldiers live in constant fear of their own comrades turning their guns on them — as recorded in battlefield videos and phone intercepts consulted by the FT.

“When an enemy calls you in tears, saying that he wants to live, he needs to be calmed down,” Matvienko said.

Still, the soldiers often need some convincing. Many Russian troops believe what they see and hear from the Kremlin and its state media: that Ukraine is led by a “neo-Nazi regime” out to murder Russians.

Ukrainian authorities promise not only that they will live, but also will be treated well, in line with Geneva Conventions on the handling of prisoners of war. Other guarantees include medical care, three hot meals a day, communication with family back home and, of course, the likelihood of being exchanged for Ukrainian POWs and returning home to Russia.

For soldiers who fear their lives would be threatened if they returned to Russia, GUR offers some the possibility of applying for asylum in Ukraine.

Matvienko said the hotline had experienced several spikes in calls. The first came in November 2022, around the time that the Ukrainian military liberated the southern city of Kherson during a counteroffensive. Several Russian soldiers who found themselves stuck at their positions after being abandoned by their comrades called the hotline to surrender peacefully, he said.

Another wave came in spring, as Ukraine was gearing up for its latest counteroffensive. “In March 2023, we received almost 3,000 applications,” Matvienko said. “That’s compared to December 2022, when there were 1,500 applications.”

Ukrainian military officials and battlefield commanders say one reason Russian troops often abandon their posts and turn themselves over to Kyiv is poor treatment from their own commanders.

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby made a similar assessment in October. “We have information that the Russian military has been actually executing soldiers who refuse to follow orders . . . [or] seek to retreat from Ukrainian artillery fire,” Kirby said.

Reports from Russian military bloggers on Telegram have suggested that the brutal “human wave” type tactics used by Russian forces in Ukraine are also taking a toll on morale. “The Russian army is essentially a Soviet army. As you know, in the Soviet army, the price of a soldier’s life was zero,” Matvienko said.

Western estimates put Russia’s casualties at approximately 300,000 troops killed and wounded, compared with nearly 200,000 killed and wounded on the Ukrainian side.

Russian helicopter pilot Maxim Kuzminov, right, at press conference with two Ukrainian military personnel after defecting © Kirill Chubotin/Ukrinform/Future Publishing/Getty Images

One of GUR’s greatest defection success stories came in August, when Russian Mi-8 helicopter pilot Maxim Kuzminov changed sides.

Kuzminov had first contacted GUR agents in December 2022, saying he wanted to surrender in exchange for a large monetary reward and a new life for his family in Ukraine. Ukraine’s parliament has passed a law to attract disgruntled Russian troops, offering reward money of up to $500,000 to those who defected with valuable military equipment.

The operation, code-named “Synitsa”, took six months of planning. Kuzminov, formerly a captain in Russia’s 319th separate helicopter regiment, also had to keep it from crew with whom he was flying.

On August 9, Kuzminov and two crew members set off from Kursk airport in western Russia on what appeared to be a routine operation. Instead, Kuzminov crossed into Ukraine. The helicopter swept low over the Russian-Ukrainian border to avoid radar detection.

Kuzminov said during a press conference in September that Russian forces eventually caught on that something was wrong. They opened fire on his helicopter, wounding him in the leg. He flew on for another 20 minutes before landing in a grassy field in Ukraine’s central Poltava region.

The other Russian crew members were “eliminated” when trying to resist arrest, said Kyrylo Budanov, the head of GUR.

But Kuzminov handed over the helicopter and soon after received his reward money. He resides now with his family at a secret location in Ukraine, Matvienko said.

Speaking from Kyiv during the press conference, Kuzminov urged his Russian comrades to follow his example, saying: “You won’t regret it.”

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