Under stress of war, gambling grips Ukrainian soldiers

Hurriyet Daily News
Under stress of war, gambling grips Ukrainian soldiers
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Ukrainian army junior sergeant Pavlo Petrychenko warned President Zelensky about a dangerous vice: online gambling among soldiers, causing many to lose their salaries and putting them and their families in debt.

Some were even selling off army drones and thermal imaging cameras to feed addictions, compromising their own safety for a long-shot chance to strike it rich.

Exhausted by more than two years of war, campaigners say online gambling is rife in the Ukrainian armed forces, a coping mechanism and dopamine hit for fighters under constant fire and far from home, their families and loved ones.

"For many, gambling has become the only way to deal with the stress," Petrychenko said in a petition to Zelensky that called for a ban on soldiers gambling.

His appeal received 26,000 backers within a few days — enough to require a formal response from the president.

On April 20, Zelensky obliged, signing a decree banning military personnel from online gambling during wartime, restricting advertising, launching a nationwide campaign on the damage of gambling addiction and blocking all illegal sites.

The health ministry will also create a treatment strategy to combat severe gambling addiction.

 'Lost everything' 

Petrychenko, the soldier who had sounded the alarm, was killed in action in the eastern Donetsk region just five days before.

But his petition triggered a nationwide debate on one way the psychological pressure of war is hitting Ukraine's stretched forces.

Lawmaker Oleksiy Goncharenko claimed that nine in ten frontline soldiers were gambling addicts.

"This is a problem that is right now destroying morale in the military," he said in a post on Telegram.

"There are many complaints from parents and wives that the guys get paid quite well for being on the front line, and they lose this money," Ukraine's deputy minister of veterans' affairs, Oksana Syvak, told AFP.

Assessing the scale of the problem is tricky, with no official statistics, she said. But personal testimonies point to the sums at stake.

Ivan Zadontsev, a press officer for the Aidar battalion, told AFP one soldier in his unit won 2.5 million hryvnias ($63,000) — only to immediately gamble it away.

"He believed he could win even more — and that's why he lost everything, down to 400 hryvnias," he said.

Another soldier won a 60 million hryvnia ($1.5 million) jackpot and then deserted.

Zadontsev said relatively high salaries for soldiers — six-times the national average at 120,000 hryvnias ($3,000) a month — were likely a cause.

"This may be a factor that makes people's heads spin," he said.

For Syvak, it is the psychological impact of the conflict, now in its third year.

"During such hostilities, very often people use alcohol, drugs, smoke weed or ... abuse gambling."

"This is a consequence of war ... gambling is a break from reality, a secondary reaction to a severe trauma," she said.

 Security risk 

Online gambling is a rare boom industry at a time when the war has wrecked swathes of the Ukrainian economy.

Billboards for major firms pepper the city centre of Kiev.

But there are also security concerns, including from within the industry, about the growth of illegal companies.

Anton Kuchukhidze, chairman of the Ukrainian Gambling Council, estimated there are 1,200 illegal sites, of which 300 to 400 are Russian companies.

But he said there was no research to support claims of widespread addiction among Ukrainian soldiers.

"When a person is in a trench, they can't gamble because there is simply no Internet, and the Starlinks that are available are used for drones, for reconnaissance — definitely not for online gambling," he said.

There is no mobile internet in front-line areas, but soldiers often use their phones when Starlink satellite dishes are online.

Gambling firms paid 12 billion hryvnias ($300 million) in taxes last year, Kuchukhidze said, adding that the number of players at online casinos was only just approaching prewar levels.

Gambling control advocates nevertheless say the industry is deliberately targeting soldiers, preying on their psychological vulnerabilities and bumper salaries.

In his petition, Petrychenko also accused the sector of "whitewashing" by making small, highly public donations to the army.

"We all understand what 20 pickup trucks mean, when they are earning real money," Zadontsev said.