lessons ukrainians learned from cold calling the enemy – interview
Vilius Petkauskas , Journalist Updated on: 08 August 2022
lessons ukrainians learned from cold calling the enemy – interview

Image by Shutterstock.

Though most would regard cold calling as an annoying nuisance, Ukrainians have been using the practice to penetrate the information walls the Kremlin has built around the Russian population.

Even though technology creates ample opportunities to spread disinformation, it also provides the tools to break through it. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Ukrainians have been trying to talk to Russians, who are seemingly unaware of the destruction being carried out in their name.

One of the disinformation fighters, Pavlo, launched the website callru.org that allowed him and a team of volunteers to use randomly selected phone numbers in Russia to reach out to the citizens of the country that invaded his.

Pavlo agreed to talk under the condition of anonymity, fearing for his family’s safety in Ukraine. There, he runs a ten-people-strong team of callers who trained themselves not to lose their cool when conversing with the aggressor.

We sat down to discuss why it is important to dispel Russian propaganda, how people react to cold callers from Ukraine, and the ultimate goal of trying to persuade Russians to start questioning what they are being told about the war by their government.

lessons ukrainians learned from cold calling the enemy – interview

Residential building in Kharkiv after a Russian attack. Image by Shutterstock.

What did you do before the war, and how did you start the cold-calling campaign?

Before the war broke out, I had been working in the education sector. Obviously, when the war started, everything changed, and we started looking for ways to make an impact. But at the same time, we also realized that what the Russians were being told in Russia was completely skewed. They’re getting a completely different picture. In many cases, they didn’t know exactly what was happening in Ukraine, and there was no way for them to find out.

We thought the best way to cut through that propaganda was by reaching out directly to Russian people in Russia. Not to shame them, not to tell them that they’re evil. I know many people feel that way, and part of me feels that way. But to have an honest and impactful conversation, we needed to start by asking them how they feel about what’s going on, seeing what they know, and then seeing what gaps in their knowledge we can fill.

For example, most of the Russians we’ve spoken to who support the war hinge [their opinions] on the Donbas. They’ll say that you’ve been bombing Donbas for eight years. But when you politely ask them how many civilians actually died there in all of 2021, they don’t have that information, or they think it’s a lot more than it has been. And we compare that to how many people perished in Mariupol in a couple of months, which could be up to 20,000. I think that’s the impactful conversation we’re looking to have. And often, they don’t know those types of facts.

Your project relies on people to call Russian citizens. Could you tell me a bit more about the callers?

When we started the site, we were looking to see if we could get volunteers to make the calls on their own, but we quickly ran into a few issues. We were worried that if people called from Western countries that are supplying weapons to Ukraine, people on the other side in Russia might get a little bit defensive.

Another thing is that it’s extremely difficult for Ukrainians to make these calls, especially for people directly impacted by the war. Sometimes the conversations are very unpleasant. We saw that some of our volunteers had had enough after a few calls.

“it’s extremely difficult for Ukrainians to make these calls, especially for people directly impacted by the war. Sometimes the conversations are very unpleasant,”

Pavlo told Cybernews.

So now we work with full-time callers in Ukraine who speak Russian very well. They’re very professional. They know how not to get caught up in provocations, and they’re the ones who can share their personal story. Some are based near the front lines and have experienced Russian shelling. So when Russian people on the other side ask what your experiences with the war are, our callers in Ukraine can be very honest about that.

Some of our volunteers have friends who live in Russia-occupied territories and speak about how the Russians are taking half of their grown produce. I know somebody who Russian soldiers robbed at gunpoint. Personal accounts probably go the furthest because it helps to foster an honest conversation.

In our email exchange, you said that in the beginning some volunteers found the work too challenging. Could you tell me why that is?

I think there are a couple of parts to it. Surprisingly, we get a much different picture of the people in Russia than we see in the media. We keep track of how everybody we called felt about the war. And what we are consistently finding is that there’s a substantial silent majority in Russia who would prefer not to say anything. The first thing our callers ask is “how do you feel about what’s going on in Ukraine?” and the majority respond by saying they would prefer not to answer.

That fraction has been going up, which to my mind suggests that many people don’t feel comfortable expressing their genuine opinion. We believe it is because they’re against the war and don’t feel comfortable saying that over the phone, since they can get in trouble for that in Russia.

People who give us their opinion fall into almost two equal groups. About half say they’re for the war, and nearly half say they’re against it. Some of those who support the war do get pretty aggressive.

And for Ukrainians, it is especially difficult to make those calls because they’re calling the invaders. They literally pick up the phone to call a society hell-bent on destroying their nation and culture and committing atrocities. To listen to somebody who supports that and remain calm is difficult. But our callers still try to keep their cool. They ask questions and provide the information they think might help to convince people that this war is not in Russia’s best interest.

lessons ukrainians learned from cold calling the enemy – interview

Residential building in Kharkiv after a Russian attack. Image by Shutterstock.

Have you noticed if there are specific arguments that help to convince people on the other side that what’s happening in Ukraine is wrong?

We are not doing this to convince people to change their opinion. We’re here to dispel Russian propaganda, which has been sowing much disinformation in the Russian mindset. We believe that we can push people to start thinking for themselves and questioning the war. Maybe they get a call from one of our callers and begin to wonder how many civilians are dying and start questioning whether this isn’t the war that we are being told it is.

Russians often bring up that Ukraine is “fascist” or “Nazi” at the beginning of the conversation but drop this at the end of it. We can dispel this for a number of reasons. The other day I spoke with a person who said Russia is trying to get rid of fascists in Ukraine and that the Russian language is being suppressed here.

We try to explain that we speak Russian with our family and friends. In some cases, professors in the universities will even ask students if they prefer to be addressed in Russian or Ukrainian. It’s perfectly acceptable to go either way. So, this idea that the use of the Russian language is being oppressed is not factual.

However, the strongest arguments I don’t hear enough from the Western media are about the eight years of war in Donbas. Very few civilian people died over those years, and then we look at the death toll in Mariupol in just a couple of months, and it’s in the tens of thousands. Another thing is that the eastern cities the Russians are shelling, such as Mariupol and Kharkiv, were mostly Russian-speaking. So, we try to explain to people that they’re killing Russian speakers in an attempt to protect the Russian language against non-existent suppression.

We don’t expect people to go away from that phone call thinking, “oh gosh, I’m going to change my mind.” I hope it gets them to think and then maybe do some of their own research and hopefully start to be a little more skeptical about what they hear on TV.

“We are not doing this to convince people to change their opinion. We’re here to dispel Russian propaganda, which has been sowing much disinformation in the Russian mindset,”

Pavlo said.

Did you notice any difference in responses you hear based on where people on the other side got their information from?

In most cases, we hear the two most common answers. The first is that they get their information from TV. If somebody says they support the war because Russian speakers are oppressed, we ask them how they know that and where they got their information about this. They often say they got it from the TV. Others say they simply think that without any source, it’s just something they’ve heard.

It doesn’t seem like the Telegram channels with millions of followers are all that commonly used in Russia. I think a small fragment of the population uses social media, and it’s probably the same number of users subscribed to the same Telegram channels.

Have you noticed if there are any differences in opinion on the war based on where the people are located in Russia? Is there a difference between urban and rural areas?

Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to tell where our calls are landing, so it’s a little hard for us to gauge that. What we find interesting is that while Russians we’ve called have misconceptions about what’s happening in Ukraine, they are well aware of other things.

For example, we started asking the people who supported the war if they knew how many Russian soldiers were being killed. I mean, even if they don’t care about the Ukrainians, at the very least they should care about how many of their Russian brothers, husbands, and fathers are being killed. And one of the most surprising things that we saw is that Russians who support the war estimate there are over 20,000 Russian soldiers dead.

Granted, that’s below Ukrainian estimates, but it’s pretty consistent with many Western estimates about how many Russians have died in this war. And they seem to know despite the Russian government not officially telling them that. It’s an important piece of information because it suggests that to make this war less popular, it’s not enough to let the Russian people know how many soldiers they’ve lost. Because those who support the war have a pretty good understanding of that.

From our standpoint, we believe so much in this project because we believe that the worst thing that can happen is if Russia mobilizes [fully], and every day we fear that is coming. We believe that it will further exacerbate the conflict and result in many more deaths on both sides. And the only reason we think that Putin has not mobilized is that he understands what we are seeing, which is that the vast majority of the population is against the war, even if they’re too afraid to say it. That’s why I think reaching out to people who support the war, and those who might be indifferent, is really important.

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