Can you change a Russian's mind about the war with a phone call?

ukraine
Can You Change A Russian's Mind About The War With A Phone Call? Can You Change A Russian's Mind About The War With A Phone Call?
The Russian narrative of the war is something that has deep roots and goes far beyond the annexation of Crimea in 2014. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
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Kenneth Fox

As the war in Ukraine reaches its eight-month, there is no sign that we are any closer to peace talks.

As Russian president Vladimir Putin recently signed treaties to illegally annex parts of Ukraine, President Zelenskiy said: “We are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but… with another president of Russia.”

Yet the Russian narrative of the war has deep roots and goes far beyond the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Paulius Senūta one of the founders of Call Russia — an initiative based in Vilnius, Lithuania — is fully aware of this.

The aim of Call Russia is to connect Russian-speaking volunteers around the world with people back in Russia to give them reliable facts about the war in Ukraine.

The idea for Call Russia came from one of Paulius' friends who found phonebooks with Russian phone numbers online. They thought if they could change the minds of Russian people, maybe they could change the war.

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That is much easier said than done, and as Paulius has found out from making hundreds of calls, it does not work if you are confrontational.

Building rapport

"We actually spent a lot of time working with psychologists and testing various ways of approaching it.

"Initially, we just started ringing up people, but now we have a process that we go through and train our volunteers," Paulius says.

They are told to initially build a rapport with the person for the first five to seven minutes. Then they talk about their own connection to Russian heritage.

When talking about the war in Ukraine they are told to ask them what they know, and then suggest things they could look up afterwards that may give them a different point of view.

Initially when the invasion began there was a media blackout in Russia, so people were ringing them to find out reliable information about the war.

That curiosity turned to scepticism as the war progressed and the Russian narrative became more set in stone.

Paulius says Russian views on the war are conflicted.

"On one side there is the ideology side - who is right and who is wrong. In their mind we need to fight them (Ukrainians) because they are undermining our country, and they are the enemy.

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"The other side of their brain is the humanitarian side, people dying and women being raped and the children being killed."

You can't have a conversation with them based on their ideology.

He says the goal is not to change their mind on the call but to lead them down a path where they might be open to changing their mind.

One of the things they have found to work is to say they want to hear what Russian people think because they are often not heard when it comes to the war.

He says: "We might say 'Oh that is interesting, can you please share a source about that' and we might tell them something they did not know."

Russian casualties

Russians who ring the group often ask them about the real number of Russian casualties because they do not trust the Kremlin figures.

Paulius says they are often shocked to find out the real number of deaths because the Russian Government severely downplays them.

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He says the one thing the Russian public does trust from the Kremlin is the justification for the war.

Paulius says there is a long-standing animosity amongst Russians for Ukrainians.

"There is a legacy from USSR where Ukraine was considered a backward republic and Ukrainians inferior people.

"Now it has to do with eight years of conflict and I think it is just a way to belittle your enemy.

"Initially they were not fighting Ukrainians, but Nazis in Ukraine (to free Ukrainian people) and now that they are fighting Ukrainians - they are belittling them."

He says of course not every Russian feels this way, but for those who do that is their justification.

While the group has received financial support from companies, their primary source of revenue is donations from people around the world who support the cause.

Over the past two months they have been able to hire two fulltime staff members.

Paulius says the initiative is working and they have made over 167,000 calls.

"There is a whole cycle they go through, they deny things initially but if you engage them and provide provocative information they will go and do their own research.

"These are people in the process of changing their minds. It does not happen during the call, but sometimes you just need to point them in the right direction."

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