Ukraine Symposium – The “I Want to Live” Project and Technologically-Enabled Surrender

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| Jan 13, 2023

Surrender

In their ongoing armed conflict, the Russian Federation and Ukraine have engaged in sustained information campaigns using leaflets, social media posts, radio appeals, text messages, and television spots to provoke surrenders. Further leveraging modern communications technology, Ukraine launched the “I Want to Live” Project in September 2022 to encourage, enable, and empower Russian military personnel to surrender to Ukrainian armed forces. Beyond communicating with Russian soldiers on where and how to surrender, the Ukrainian military has employed drones to guide Russians attempting to surrender.

This post discusses the project and technologically-enabled surrender through the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC).

The “I Want to Live Project”

The project allows Russian soldiers to contact a handler by phone, website, or messenger app to arrange their surrender to Ukrainian forces. There have been several thousand contacts thus far, most made during the evening hours when Russian soldiers have free time. Although all contacts are different, some Russian soldiers have called not to actually surrender but to learn how they might surrender, should the need arise in the future.

For security reasons, precise operational and logistical details of the project are sparse. However, Vitalii Matviyenko, who directs “I Want to Live,” has stated that the project is designed to save the lives of Russian soldiers. Given the highly precarious nature and circumstances of surrender, Matviyenko emphasized that Ukraine guarantees complete security of all conversations and correspondence with potential Russian prisoners of war. He emphasized that surrendering Russians are treated consistently with the Geneva Conventions. He further stated that treatment includes three meals a day, medical care, and the opportunity to contact relatives in Russia or the occupied territories of Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblast.

Not surprisingly, Russia has taken steps to disrupt the Ukrainian initiative. Among other measures, it has blocked phone numbers from being reached inside Russia and have threatened to harshly punish soldiers who contact the Ukrainians to surrender.

Enter Drones

Ukraine initiated the “I Want to Live” project at a particularly opportune time in the armed conflict, not only for Russian soldiers interested in surrendering but also for the Ukrainians who benefit from a technologically-enabled mechanism that promotes and facilitates increased capitulation of Russian soldiers. Worsening weather in Ukraine, coupled with Russian setbacks on the battlefield and the expanded use of military conscripts by Russia, will foreseeably lead an increasing number of soldiers and their families to contact “I Want to Live.”

In addition to “I Want to Live” and similar efforts using modern communications channels, the Ukrainian armed forces have used drones to facilitate the surrender of Russian soldiers. In late November 2022, Ukrainian armed forces released footage of a Russian soldier throwing his weapon to the ground, raising his hands, and following a drone to a point of capture. To facilitate such surrenders and to promote the “I Want to Live” project, the Ukrainian armed forces released an instructional video explaining how Russian soldiers can surrender to a Ukrainian drone.

Enter LOAC

The project and the use of drones are laudable efforts of modern communications and unmanned aerial vehicle technologies to save lives in complex and dangerous battlefield situations. Although there is currently limited information on its use and results, the project provides an opportunity to consider a bedrock LOAC concept: the rule of surrender.

The US Department of Defense Law of War Manual provides that “combatants placed hors de combat must not be made the object of attack” (§ 4.4.1; see also § 5.5.2). According to the Manual, the category of hors de combat includes persons who have surrendered (§ 5.9.3). To be effective, surrender must be: “(1) genuine; (2) clear and unconditional; and (3) under circumstances where it is feasible for the opposing party to accept surrender” (§ 5.9.3).

The roots of these longstanding LOAC rules of surrender run deep and featured in the Lieber Code, the Brussels Declaration, and the Oxford Manual. The Hague Regulations especially forbid killing or wounding a defenseless, surrendering enemy. Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions also prohibits attacks against persons recognized as hors de combat, making such attacks grave breaches. Similar prohibitions are reflected in Common Article 3 and Additional Protocol II to the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

Generally speaking, an individual combatant communicates the intent to surrender by laying down arms and raising hands. Both the Hague Regulations and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court mention laying down arms as an affirmative act that signifies intent to surrender. Some military manuals also cite waving a white flag as expressing an intention to surrender. Reflecting the customary international law standard, Additional Protocol I, Article 41(2)(c), which addresses safeguarding persons hors de combat, provides a person who clearly expresses an intention to surrender shall not be made the object of an attack.

Turning to the “I Want to Live” project, an initial expression of an intent to surrender is made to the Ukrainian handler over the phone, through a website, or on a messenger app. Unlike the typical circumstances of surrender during land warfare, where the expression of intent and the actual physical surrender are close in time and space, surrendering prisoners using “I Want to Live” will coordinate a later time and place for the physical surrender.

Practically and legally speaking, a soldier’s expressed intent to surrender using “I Want to Live” does not render that soldier hors de combat. Suppose that soldiers rejoined their unit waiting for an opportune time to leave the unit and travel to a location where they will physically surrender. Despite the expression of an intent to surrender, those soldiers are not hors de combat and are still a targetable combatants. On the other hand, when a Russian soldier arrives at a pre-arranged designated location for the capture, the surrender will likely follow the normal affirmative acts constituting a surrender. In both cases, a common-sense application of the rule of surrender is straightforward.

Practical Precedent and Application

Issues related to technologically-enabled surrender, and specifically surrendering to aircraft, are not unprecedented. For example, during the First Gulf War, Iraqi soldiers surrendered to US Apache and Kiowa attack helicopters. The overarching issue in such circumstances is when the surrendering soldier is hors de combat. Returning to the Ukraine conflict and drone scenario, one might argue that a Russian soldier is expressing an intention to surrender at the time they begin to follow the instructions from “I Want to Live” and start moving to the designated coordinates. But that intentions is, in practical terms, only clearly expressed at the point when the Russian meets the drone, puts down their weapon, and follows the drone. If the defenseless Russian soldier abstains from hostile acts or attempts to escape, it is reasonable to conclude they are hors de combat from that time until the actual physical capitulation to Ukrainian forces.

This understanding is consistent with the US position on surrender. The US standard is rooted in a good faith assessment of the information available at the time and hinges on the feasibility of surrender (§ 5.9.3.3). Recall especially the Manual’s conclusion that “[f]or an offer of surrender to render a person hors de combat, it must be feasible for the opposing party to accept the offer.” This, of course, can be difficult in combat. Thus, the Manual provides illustrations to help explain what is and is not feasible including where an enemy soldier attempts to surrender to an aircraft. In another example the Manual notes,

a soldier fifty meters from an enemy defensive position in the midst of an infantry assault by his unit could not throw down his weapon and raise his arms (as if to indicate his desire to surrender) and reasonably expect that the defending unit will be able to accept and accomplish his surrender while resisting the ongoing assault by his unit.” (§ 5.9.3.3)

While recognizing acceptance of surrender may not be feasible in some circumstances, the Manual also makes clear that offers to surrender cannot be refused because it is militarily inconvenient or difficult to guard prisoners of war (¶ 5.9.3.3). Further, the Manual reinforces that the point of hors de combat status is to recognize a combatant’s defenselessness. When Russian soldiers drops their weapons, raise their hands, and follow a drone to Ukrainian forces to be taken into custody, it is clear they are making a good faith effort to surrender and accepting that surrender is feasible.

Conclusion

We leave other challenging LOAC issues involving technology-enabled surrender (for example, questions concerning perfidy, legal compliance, and reprisals) unaddressed in this post. However, our purpose in providing an analysis of the “I Want to Live” project and the rule of surrender is to illustrate how technology is impacting the Ukraine-Russia conflict and the importance of applying the law with rigor and fidelity to seemingly new circumstances. In doing so, we believe this post confirms that, while emerging technology is quickly changing the character of warfare, LOAC is, as we have previously written, “a dynamic and fluid regulatory framework capable of addressing the myriad of challenges presented” on the contemporary battlefield.

***

Brigadier General (ret.) David A. Wallace previously served as the Professor and Head, Department of Law, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, and has been designated a Professor Emeritus.

Brigadier General Shane Reeves is the 15th Dean of the Academic Board of the United States Military Academy, West Point.

The views expressed in this work are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Naval Academy, United States Military Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

 

Photo credit: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine (mil.gov.ua)

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