Online gambling surrounds Ukrainian soldiers

The situation of soldiers on the front lines gambling online to relieve stress is so serious that President Zelensky had to sign a decree prohibiting this activity.

Sergeant Pavlo Petrychenko last month sent a petition to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warning about “the dangerous problem of gambling spreading in the army”. Petrychenko said online gambling caused many soldiers to lose their entire salary, pushing them and their relatives into debt.

Some Ukrainian soldiers also sold military drones and thermal cameras for gambling money, “sacrificing their own safety to find opportunities to get rich later.”

Many relatives of soldiers say online gambling is widespread in the Ukrainian armed forces. The soldiers, exhausted after more than two years of fighting, used gambling as a way to overcome the pressure of constant enemy raids and being away from home for long periods.

“For many people, gambling has become the only way to relieve stress,” Petrychenko wrote in the petition, expressing his wish for President Zelensky to ban gambling in the military. In a few days, 26,000 people supported Petrychenko’s petition, enough for the President of Ukraine to respond.

On April 20, Mr. Zelensky signed a decree prohibiting soldiers from gambling online during the war period, restricting advertising of this form of business, launching a nationwide propaganda campaign about the harmful effects of gambling addiction and block all illegal websites. The Ministry of Health of Ukraine was ordered to develop a treatment strategy to deal with gambling addiction.

Sergeant Petrychenko died in action in Donetsk province 5 days before Mr. Zelensky signed the decree. However, his petition sparked a national debate about the psychological pressure Ukrainian soldiers are experiencing.

According to Ukrainian parliamentarian Oleksiy Goncharenko, 90% of the country’s soldiers on the front lines are addicted to gambling. “This is an evil that is destroying soldiers’ morale,” Mr. Goncharenko said.

“The parents and wives of many soldiers said they received quite high salaries when they went to the front line, but lost all this money,” said Oksana Syvak, Deputy Minister of Ukraine in charge of veterans’ affairs.

Assessing the scale of gambling problems in the Ukrainian military is difficult and there are no official figures, Ms. Syvak admitted. But the accounts of those involved partly reveal the extent of this situation.

Ivan Zadontsev, communications officer of the 24th Independent Assault Battalion of Ukraine, said a soldier in the unit won up to $1.5 million and then deserted.

Another soldier won $63,000 and immediately gambled with the money. “This soldier thought he could win more, but he lost almost everything, only 10 USD left,” Zadontsev said.

According to Zadontsev, Ukrainian soldiers receive relatively high salaries, up to 3,000 USD per month, 6 times the average in the country, which may be the cause of gambling problems in the military. “This could be the factor that makes them lose their sanity,” Zadontsev said.

Ukrainian soldiers on the training ground in Zaporizhzhia province on January 11. Photo: Reuters

Ukrainian soldiers on the training ground in Zaporizhzhia province on January 11. Photo: Reuters

Deputy Minister Syvak said that gambling problems in the Ukrainian army are a psychological consequence of prolonged fighting. “In such conflicts, soldiers often use alcohol, drugs, smoke marijuana or gamble,” Ms. Syvak said. “They see gambling as a way to avoid reality, a reaction to severe psychological trauma.”

Online gambling is a rare area of ​​development, while Ukraine’s economy is devastated by war. Billboards of companies providing this service are scattered in the center of the capital Kyiv.

A representative of the online gambling service business in Ukraine confirmed that the number of users is only equal to the pre-war level and said that companies in this field will pay 300 million USD in taxes in 2023.

This person also said that soldiers on the front lines cannot gamble “because there is no Internet, while the Starlink system is being used to operate drones and reconnaissance activities”.

However, in reality, Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines, where there is no network connection, often use Starlink’s system to access the Internet.

Advocates for controlling online gambling in Ukraine accuse companies in this sector of deliberately targeting soldiers, who are psychologically vulnerable and have relatively high salaries.

In his petition, Sergeant Petrychenko accused online gambling companies of “whitewashing themselves” with small contributions to the military. “We all understand that 20 pickup trucks are nothing compared to what they earn,” Petrychenko wrote.