KYIV, Ukraine — Tens of thousands of drones have been employed across Ukraine to kill the enemy, spy on its formations and guide bombs to their targets. But this month the Ukrainian military began a program to use drones in a more unusual role: to guide Russian soldiers who want to surrender.
The program had its genesis in late November, when the Ukrainian military released footage of a Russian soldier throwing his weapon to the ground, raising his hands and nervously following a path set out by a drone overhead, leading him to soldiers from the Ukrainian army’s 54th Mechanized Brigade.
A few weeks later, the Ukrainian General Staff released an instructional video explaining how Russian soldiers can surrender to a Ukrainian drone, and it is now part of a wide-ranging effort by Ukraine to persuade Russian soldiers to give up. The program, called “I want to live,” includes a phone hotline, a website and a Telegram channel all dedicated to communicating to Russian soldiers and their families.
It’s too early to know whether the drone effort will lure Russian deserters in any meaningful numbers. But it adds another avenue for Ukraine to recruit Russian deserters, this one with a distinctly modern twist to the age-old tactic of informational warfare. And if nothing else, it may further the erosion of Russian morale on the battlefield.
Russian defeats have already provided an opening for Ukraine to exploit that low morale, especially in the months after the Kremlin’s September mobilization, which has sent thousands of new recruits into fierce battles with little training and scant supplies.
Petro Yatsenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for Treatment of Prisoners of War, said in an interview Monday that Ukraine has had more than 4,300 direct requests for information on how to surrender through the “I want to live” program. It is not possible to independently verify the claims.
Mr. Yatsenko said the military would not release information about the number of Russians in Ukrainian captivity for security reasons.
Andriy Yusov, who represents the intelligence department in Ukraine’s ministry of defense, said Ukraine had received 1.2 million inquiries about the programsince it was set up on Sept. 18. Most of the queries are coming from Russia, he said, and the vast majority involved appeals from “people who are studying for themselves or their relatives the possibility of saving life in the bloody and unjust war.”
For the past ten months, both Russia and Ukraine have engaged in robust informational campaigns targeting enemy soldiers with leaflets, social media posts, radio appeals, text messages and television campaigns, all dedicated to convincing them to surrender.
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In May, when the Russians were laying waste to towns and cities and beginning to gobble up land in eastern Ukraine, not all the guns were loaded with explosives. Some Soviet-era self-propelled howitzers had shells set up to explode in the air and scatter leaflets over Ukrainian-controlled territory, according to Zvezda, a Russian state-owned nationwide TV network run by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
“We give the last warning to the Ukrainian Nazis to surrender,” an artilleryman named Vadim told the station.
More recently, the Russians announced that its drone operators were sending SMS messages to Ukrainian mobile phone subscribers telling them to lay down their arms. There’s no evidence Russia’s “text-to-surrender” drones have had any impact.
The Ukrainian campaign has featured both high-tech and low-tech means of communicating. Artillery units routinely use Vampire multiple-launch rocket systems to fire projectiles filled with 1,500 leaflets each across Russian positions.
Hanna Malyar, a Ukrainian deputy minister of defense, said this was one way to give “Russian occupiers one last chance to yield themselves” when there was no internet connection.
“Otherwise, the only thing that awaits them on the Ukrainian land is death,” she said.
Mr. Yatsenko, the spokesman for the prisoner of war group, said that Ukrainians were also giving captured Russian soldiers who are released as part of prisoner of war exchanges e-cards with information about how to surrender. That way, he said, if they are thrown back into the fight they know how to give themselves up.
When Ukraine captures Russian soldiers, it sends them to prisoner of war camps. The main one is in the northwest, near Lviv.
Ukraine has allowed some tightly controlled media visits inside that camp. They also allow routine visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The most far-reaching Ukrainian effort is the “I want to live” program, which includes a Telegram channel in Russian that now has more than 40,000 subscribers, mainly in Russia or Russian-controlled territories. Phone operators also work around the clock at an undisclosed location in Kyiv taking up to 100 calls daily, Mr. Yatsenko said.
But just as surrendering was considered one of the most dangerous acts on the battlefield of the First World War, the same is true in Ukraine today.
With a frontline sprawling over hundreds of miles and the lands between the trenches a treacherous wasteland of mines watched over by snipers and subject to near-constant bombardment, arranging a surrender presents dangers for all involved.
That is where drones come in.
The surrender that was caught on the video released in November and geo-located by military analysts to the eastern Donbas region was an accident of sorts, Mr. Yatsenko said. It was not planned and the fact that it worked — with all the possible things that could have gone wrong — made the Ukrainian military think that it was an idea that could be expanded on, he said.
The Ukrainian General Staff set about producing a slick video with instructions for how Russian soldiers can surrender to a drone that was ready by early December.
The first step is to call the “I want to live” project and receive instructions and coordinates. “It is important to arrive at the indicated point on time, and wait for the appearance of the quadcopter, after which, raise your hands,” the video informs Russians.
“After the drone shows the vector of movement, the prisoners must follow the drone,” they are told. The drone will fly at “walking speed” and “guide you to Ukrainian positions.”
If the drone’s battery fails, then the soldier must wait for a new one to arrive to continue moving.
Mr. Yatsenko said the “how to surrender to a drone” program is only in its infancy. He would not offer precise numbers for Russians who have surrendered to drones so far, but said it was more than a handful.
The Ukrainian program, Mr. Yatsenko said, is the first one designed to use drones on a broad scale as part of a coordinated operation to encourage surrender.
“We are giving them a last chance to save their life,” he said.