Ukraine’s military has yet another issue to deal with — problem gambling among its soldiers | CBC News

Amid its all-out war with Russia, Ukraine’s government is facing another, unexpected foe — problem gambling in the military.

The issue was thrust into the spotlight when a Ukrainian soldier put forward a petition calling on Kyiv to address concerns about gambling among its battle-worn soldiers.

Pavlo Petrychenko said veteran soldiers have turned to online gambling to cope with their stress. He warned of soldiers who had fallen into debt; of gambling firms using patriotic-themed advertising and tactics to target soldiers’ business, and of possible security threats from Russian casino sites.

His petition drew thousands of signatures and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has since ordered officials to ban soldiers from all gambling activities and to put Ukraine’s gambling industry under tighter control.

Gambling is an issue that has long been present in army life, as soldiers look for ways to cope with wartime pressures.

“Military life generally has been described as long hours of boredom punctuated by a few minutes of terror, and I think that’s a very apt description,” said Nigel Turner, a scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto.

Soldiers under stress

Ukraine’s soldiers have been harshly tested by Russia’s all-out invasion, now in its 27th month.

The prolonged conflict has forced Kyiv to make hard choices about how to boost its troop count, but it also faces pressure to give respite to some of the longest-serving army members who have been on the front lines for more than two years.

Turner says that kind of stress could leave some soldiers more vulnerable to problem gambling.

“Most people who gamble don’t have a gambling problem, but it’s elevated amongst veterans and I suspect it’s elevated, generally, amongst soldiers, partly because they have these very strong risk factors,” namely, the stress of being in combat, he said. 

And for Ukraine’s front-line soldiers, there’s a lot to be stressed about — whether the hovering drones threatening them overheadthe ammunition shortages, or the existential threat to the country should they lose the war.

WATCH | Russian focus on Chasiv Yar: 

If this Ukrainian city falls, 4 others could, too | About That

Russian forces have set their sights on capturing the small Ukrainian city of Chasiv Yar. Andrew Chang breaks down its strategic value and why both countries have tight deadlines in the fight.

“This is a consequence of war… gambling is a break from reality, a secondary reaction to a severe trauma,” said Ukraine’s deputy minister of veterans affairs, Oksana Syvak. 

“During such hostilities, very often people use alcohol, drugs, smoke weed or … abuse gambling,” she recently told the Agence France-Press agency

Yet not all are convinced the gambling is as severe as is being presented in media reports.

Anton Kuchukhidze heads the Ukrainian Gambling Council, an industry group he says represents about four-fifths of operators in Ukraine’s legal market.

He expresses skepticism about the stated extent of gambling in the armed forces, citing accounts from friends serving on the front lines that, he says, would make it difficult.

But, he says, Zelenskyy cannot be seen as inattentive to the troops.

Cars are seen driving in Kyiv, near a large advertising placard promoting a Ukrainian online casino brand called "Pin-up."
Cars drive through Kyiv last week, near a large billboard promoting a Ukrainian online casino brand called ‘Pin-up.’ (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

“The president must react [to such concerns],” Kuchukhidze told CBC News over WhatsApp.

Some armed forces members have expressed similar skepticism. Stanislav Bunyatov, an armed forces commander, told France’s Le Monde newspaper last month he believed most problem gambling involved soldiers far from the front lines “who play with their pay because they have nothing to do.”  

An old problem

The issue of soldiers gambling during downtime is one that armies have been dealing with for centuries. 

“Soldiers certainly have always participated in gambling,” said Turner, who pointed to a story from the Crusades, when King Richard I is said to have enacted gambling restrictions for his men, more than 800 years ago.

Yet banning soldiers from accessing gambling platforms in the modern day comes with particular challenges.

Ukrainian lawyer Alina Plyushch says “from a legal perspective, it is not that hard to ban online casinos.”

“Problems arise when it comes to the technical implementation of such a decision,” she said via email, noting that banned online casinos could use VPNs or mirrored sites to circumvent a law and allow soldiers to access their services.

But she and others have suggestions.

“We believe that providing soldiers’ families and military commanders with the right to report soldiers for inclusion in the restricted gambling register may have an effect,” said Plyushch, a partner at the Sayenko Kharenko law firm in Kyiv, where she leads its gambling desk. 

Kuchukhidze, from the industry council, has likewise supported the idea of allowing military commanders to report individuals — though he says some soldiers have told him that other people shouldn’t be telling them what they can do with their money.

Ukrainian veteran Viktor Kovalenko says a lot has changed since he served in the armed forces a decade ago. He says today’s troops are better paid and live in a world where gambling is easy on modern smartphones.

“This newfound financial freedom, especially for poor mobilized Ukrainian men from rural areas, has downsides,” he said via email. “The allure of spending money on other things, such as online gambling, has become more tempting.” 

A Ukrainian soldier sits in a military vehicle, near a front-line area in the Donetsk region.
A Ukrainian soldier sits in a military vehicle, near a front-line area in the Donetsk region, on Monday. (Oleksandr Ratushniak/Reuters)
Latest news
Related news