Kyiv Post has interviewed Vitaliy Matvienko, the spokesman for “I Want to Live,” a Ukrainian intelligence project intended to encourage Russians who want to surrender to call the special hotline.
Please, tell us about the “I want to live” project. Russians – invaders who basically want to annex Ukrainian territories – can call and surrender?
Those Russians who do not want to take part in the war and do not support Putin’s regime can call and surrender. Mobilized Russians as well, or those who have not yet been transferred to the territory of Ukraine and don’t want to fight, have the opportunity to surrender voluntarily. They save their lives, and fewer will be at the front.
When was this project established, and how many applications have you gotten so far?
The military intelligence project “I want to live” was created based on the coordination center for the treatment of prisoners of war. The project was launched on Sept. 18, two months ago, and during this period, we have received more than 3,500 appeals both in our Telegram channel and on the telephone hotline.
The project has a chatbot called “I want to live bot.” It is easy to find, and there is a questionnaire that can be filled out by a serviceman of the Russian Federation who has not yet been mobilized or has already been mobilized and does not want to fight against Ukraine. This is a preliminary surrender. In this way, he declares that he does not want to fight, and it is stored in our unified database. When he is on the territory of Ukraine, this information is pulled up, he calls the hotline again, and then the surrender procedure takes place.
Is this a unique project? Has never been anything like it in the world?
Yes, [it’s unique]. Many things that are happening in Ukraine are unprecedented. Many projects never tried in other countries have been created from scratch, and experience is gained here. Ukraine demonstrates to the whole world that we are people who want to live peacefully. As such, representatives of the aggressor country, Russian servicemen who do not want to fight, can surrender and in that way save their lives.
Who calls to the project’s hotline, and what questions are asked?
In the beginning, most of the calls were from the territory of the Russian Federation – civilians who were not mobilized and do not want to fight.
Well, the lights just went out – this is the atmosphere in Kyiv.
But this won’t stop us. We can adapt to new conditions and aren’t afraid of the enemy. Ukrainians have proved that we will fight for our future to the end.
Let’s continue our interview. So, at first, Russians who were afraid of being mobilized called, and then, perhaps, the mobilized as well?
Mobilized people who are still on the territory of Russia and the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and Crimea, as well, those on the territory of Ukraine directly at the front.
And from Belarus too?
We also have calls and appeals from Belarus. Belarusians do not want to participate in this war, but they understand that they are hostages, so they call and ask how to surrender to save their lives.
What questions do they ask first of all?
They ask about the process itself and how it happens. They also ask if it is really Ukraine. Are we calling there? Is it not the Federal Security Service of Russian Federation (FSB)? We answer that it isn’t the FSB, that it is Ukraine, that they’ve called the hotline of the “I Want to Live” project for voluntary surrender. When the first contact is made with a person, they are more or less calmed down, then the process of explaining how to surrender gets underway.
How exactly does this process take place?
The process goes in several stages: first of all, registration in the chatbot “I want to live” is a preliminary surrender. A person declares that he does not want to fight.
Is that like reserving a place?
At this stage, we understand that the person does not want to fight. We understand that war is quite a complicated process, and a person might not have the possibility to call from the territory of Ukraine, but we try to organize everything. Ukraine offers to save lives – we are responsible for these people who call us.
First, the person contacts the chatbot. Then the hotline gives all the necessary information so that the person is prepared when he or she is already in Ukraine. In any case, a person has to call – it is not necessarily a smartphone because smartphones are taken away from them in the army, and they are afraid to use it. An basic cell phone can be hidden or disassembled in parts – it is not a problem. The person who wants to surrender must provide it in advance.
When they are sent to Ukraine, they contact our specialists again, and we identify their location, then plan a program of safe exit from that territory. The special operations forces organize the safe exit, and the person finally reaches the territory controlled by Ukraine.
Do Russians worry about their safety in captivity? Do they ask about conditions?
Yes, there are questions. They worry about parts of their bodies getting cut off. They’re scared Ukraine is a democratic state, and we cannot be the same as an aggressor country. So Ukrainians treat those who surrender according to the Geneva Conventions and don’t torture anyone, don’t mutilate, and provide comfortable conditions, with three meals a day and medical care if necessary. Also, Russian prisoners can contact their relatives in Russia and legal representatives. They are in much better conditions than our defenders in Russia – this is evident from the exchanges.
When was the peak of calls to the hotline?
We got many requests after the announcement of mobilization in Russia. Many people in Russia understand that Putin’s regime is a tyrannical. Given that Russians in their country cannot do anything to demolish this regime and cannot leave the territory of Russia, they are hostages in this situation. Some Russians manage to escape, but most don’t. They understand that they will be mobilized, and calling us is an option to save their lives, so our project is called “I want to live.”
Do only ordinary Russian soldiers apply to the “I want to live” project, or are there commanders as well?
It’s a mix. There are ordinary soldiers and officers as well who have called.
It is a serious indicator.
Do you also take part in the process of prisoner-of-war exchange?
Yes, the coordination center is engaged, we have a large number of activities, and the main task is to help the families of Ukrainian servicemen. It’s like a window. Relatives of POWs come here and receive all the necessary information and advice. We have representatives of all government structures, and psychologists who help give support in certain cases, because we understand that it is psychologically challenging. Our consultants listen to the stories of everyone who comes, and we are very happy when there is an exchange.
Recently 107 prisoners of war were exchanged.
Yes, 107 defenders returned to the territory of Ukraine.
In what condition do our POWs return? You said the conditions in Russia are worse. How much worse?
You can see from the videos that our defenders are returning in a bad condition. They are exhausted from hunger and torture.
What is the biggest challenge in the process of exchanging POWs?
The coordination center is a unique organization. We hold many meetings with NGOs, consult with the families of servicemen, explain and advise. The position of President Volodymyr Zelensky and the head of the military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, is that we will bring everyone back.
The organization of such exchanges is very delicate and challenging, especially during the war. Have such exchanges ever been conducted during the war in the past?
Yes, it is atypical, and this is the difficulty. We had an exchange yesterday (Nov. 3) and a week ago. We are doing everything possible to bring back our defenders, even those in captivity since 2014.
Whom do the Russians exchange more willingly, and whom do they want to return?
I cannot comment on the details of the negotiations for security reasons, but the procedure is quite complicated. Each situation is different. It depends on what the other side wants and who we want back. “We offer all for all,” Kyrylo Budanov said. So, we are open.