The problem of gambling addiction is as prevalent in the AFU as it is in the whole of Ukrainian society but the potential for harm goes beyond the threat for individuals.

According to the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU), the annual turnover of gambling in online casinos, is estimated at Hr.150 billion ($3.8 billion) or more than Hr.400 million ($10.1 million) a day. By comparison, the total value of donations to the AFU in 2023 was around Hr.46 billion ($1.2 billion) a third of that spent on gambling.

The concern that too large a proportion of this is being spent by military personnel. As a result a soldier of the 59th brigade, Pavlo Petrychenko, raised a petition registered on the website of the President of Ukraine proposing restrictions on online casino operations. The request gathered the required 25,000 signatures needed to begin government consideration in just one day.

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Kyiv Post has carried out an investigation into the extent of this issue.

How common is the problem?

Data compiled by KRAIL, Ukraine’s Gambling and Lottery Regulatory Commission, has registered  only 3,871 “gambling addicts,” but every one interviewed suggests that is just the tip of the iceberg. Posts on Telegram and mainstream media outlets have suggested that it is particularly acute among the military personnel. Troops from a number of units who have spoken to Kyiv Post confirming there is an issue but that it may not be as widespread as the media suggests.

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A military instructor said, “There were no such individuals in my group. In my previous brigade, I heard about ludomaniacs [a popular term for gaming addicts] in a neighboring unit.”

“There were two individuals in my division who were quite active players until they accumulated significant debts. They suffered, paid off their debts, and now they gamble less,” an officer from a unit located in the East of Ukraine told Kyiv Post.

One of the Border Guard fighters said there was a distinction between those who play occasionally for small amounts and those who genuinely suffer from gambling addiction. He told Kyiv Post:

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“When there is an important sports event, for example, when the Ukrainian national team plays, the participation rate is high. Some bet UAH 100, others bet something else; I am not very aware of the specifics. However, those who consistently and systematically participate are few, comprising up to 10 percent.”

Why is this happening?

Military psychologist Andrii Kozinchuk thinks the primary mechanism that causes addiction is stress relief, for civilians as well as for servicemen.

But he suggested that frontline troops receive relatively high combat pay, currently as much as Hr.100,000 ($2,500) a month in addition to their normal salary. Gambling and the thrill of winning causes a rush of serotonin, the “happiness hormone,” that instantly makes the individual feel better.

“You feel as if you've discovered a new source of income and will continue to earn money. Despite losses, individuals persist, seeking another serotonin boost,” Kozinchuk said.

Andrii Kozinchuk. Photo from social media

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How bad can losses get?

Maksym Nesmiyanov, a volunteer who served at the front in 2022, said that some individuals in his unit regularly lost and won substantial sums.

“For instance, one person recently lost Hr. 600,000 (over $15,000). However, half of that amount was his winnings, and the other half was what he [had previously] lost at the casino,” Nesmiyanov said.

Maksym Nesmiyanov. Photo from social media

He said that such individuals are easily identifiable, even if they try to conceal their problems.

“Yesterday they received their salary, and within two days, they [need to] start borrowing money. I have one such person right in front of me claiming to have won Hr.200,000, but I understand he's not being truthful. He claims it's his last time and that he'll quit. Of course, that's not true either,” Nesmiyanov said.

Why can this be dangerous?

While it is legal for anyone above 18 to gamble and manage their own money, there can be consequences other than just losing money.

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Some of these online casino programs are of Russian origin and pose a security threat when downloaded onto an individual’s cellphone which is linked to other members of the unit.

“When someone starts gambling, spam, junk information, and ads for these casinos start flooding everyone's phones nearby simultaneously,” Nesmiyanov said.

Individuals who fall into or develop a dependency on gambling may become a target for recruitment by the enemy, according to Sergeant Yuri Gudimenko, who cited examples from within Russia.

Gudimenko wrote on Facebook: “I will not be revealing any secrets if I say that some events that take place on the territory of the Russian Federation (I'm not talking about Crocus) are committed by Russians themselves, who are in debt and are ready to do anything just to close them... And our debt fighter is just a gift for them.”

What can be done?

All of the sources interviewed by Kyiv Post agree that closing illegal online casinos should be the first step, especially those that are based in Russia.

“Such casinos have no restrictions on winnings or losses, allowing individuals to lose any amount of money,” Kozinchuk said.

The second aspect is to provide support to individuals with ludomania. Kozinchuk said that coercion is ineffective, that blocking accounts or confiscating cards does not solve the problem.

“Instead, they should be given small tasks, gradually increasing in difficulty, which they can accomplish. Praising them upon completion will stimulate dopamine release, serving as a substitute for serotonin,” the psychologist said.

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Meanwhile, the parliament has initiated reforms in the regulation of online gaming. On April 4, a committee of the Verkhovna Rada supported a bill to transfer the functions of the Gambling and Lottery Regulatory Commission to the Ministry of Digital Transformation, citing the former's ineffective performance.

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