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This Ukrainian hotline helps Russian soldiers surrender

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Morale has proven to be a critical issue for Russia as it aims to take and hold territory in Ukraine. Estimates of Russian troop casualties number in the thousands. And now, mobilized Russian reservists are being sent to the front lines. NPR's Nathan Rott reports on a Ukrainian effort to get Russians to lay down their arms.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The phone calls often sound like this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED RUSSIAN SOLDIER: (Speaking Russian).

ROTT: A Russian man, a soldier, calling from the Kherson region, saying he wants to surrender.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

ROTT: The woman on the phone, working for Ukraine's Ministry of Defense, asks whether he's been conscripted or if he's part of the Russian military.

UNIDENTIFIED RUSSIAN SOLDIER: (Speaking Russian).

ROTT: "Yes," he says, "I have been conscripted already. Soon I will be sent to Kherson" - a city that Ukraine has since retook.

This digitally altered recording and others provided to NPR by Ukraine's Ministry of Defense, which NPR was not able to independently verify, are part of a program launched by Ukraine earlier this fall.

PETRO YATSENKO: We started our project with a telegram channel, (speaking Russian) - I want to live.

ROTT: Petro Yatsenko is a spokesperson for Ukraine's Coordination Headquarters for Treatment of Prisoners of War (ph).

YATSENKO: We have two main aims - first of all, to decrease the number of Russian soldiers.

ROTT: Second, he says - acknowledging this is Ukrainian propaganda - is to give Russian men an opportunity to return home without being killed.

YATSENKO: And maybe then, after that, they'll understand what to do with their power, with their authority because, in case they will not, it will continue.

ROTT: It being the war. Yatsenko says thousands of Russians have called their hotline or use the I want to live chatbot, the program made on telegram. And he says those numbers surged, causing the program to expand after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of Russian civilians for the campaign, 87,000 of whom, Russia's defense ministry says, are believed to already be fighting in Ukraine. But more than 100,000 Russian men have also popped up in the Middle East and Asia.

YATSENKO: They say, I don't want to kill somebody. I don't want to go out to the front line. I want to surrender just immediately.

ROTT: The process is complicated. Yatsenko says they instruct Russian soldiers to call the hotline when they reach a frontline area in Ukraine. They're promised that they'll be treated as if they surrendered during a fight, grouped in with others who did fight and surrendered. They'll be held as prisoners of war and could be exchanged for Ukrainian POWs. And the Ukrainian Defense Ministry says it could be given the option of eventually staying in Ukraine. But there's a lot of distrust.

Oksana, who takes some of these calls and won't use her real name for security reasons, says many Russians worry the hotline is a trap set up by Russian intelligence.

Has doing this changed your perspective on the war at all?

OKSANA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ROTT: "We have only one attitude to the war," she says. "We wish it didn't exist. We want peace."

But then, she continues.

OKSANA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ROTT: "Honestly, sometimes I feel sorry for them," she says. "Sometimes you realize that people are so blind and brainwashed by propaganda, you start to sympathize or something. This is one of the ways to reach peace," she says, "because if we have these feelings of hatred and hostility, it will only inflame more."

Nathan Rott, NPR News, Kyiv, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
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