Truth About the Wild Drug-Taking and Illegal Booze on Ukraine’s Front Lines

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

KHARKIV, Ukraine—Fighting on the front lines has taken a disastrous turn for the worse after Russia broke through Kharkiv’s line of defense on May 10. Throughout Eastern Ukraine, the brutal repercussions of the six-month-long pause in new U.S. aid led to massive losses on the battlefield. Ukrainian soldiers risking their lives for their country are suffering from physical and psychological trauma. With few ways to decompress from the all-encompassing effects of war, many are turning to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope, which has plunged the military even deeper into darkness.

Alcohol is banned in Donbas, the region that has been the epicenter of the war, and all stores and restaurants are forbidden from selling it, but still it makes its way to the front lines via off-rotation soldiers, volunteers, smugglers who charge outlandish prices, or journalists, who bring it in as a peace offering before they begin their interviews.

Multiple soldiers who spoke to The Daily Beast claim that some of those defending Ukraine are also abusing illegal substances that they buy through shady online businesses run by the country’s mafia. Some, they say, are drunk at military positions. The men claim that some of their comrades have been so drunk or high that they have killed civilians, soldiers, and animals in a blind rage or while driving under the influence.

Between February and April, three Ukrainian soldiers sat down with The Daily Beast for formal interviews on the effects of drugs and alcohol use in the country’s military, corroborating a dozen or more informal interviews and observations over the past 12 months which have highlighted the scale of the problem on Ukraine’s frontlines.

Loss of Hope

Ukraine’s armed forces grew significantly in size after Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022 invasion. Some Ukrainians, who had never fired weapons before, joined the ranks of the territorial defense along with seasoned soldiers and managed to push Russian soldiers out of key cities like Kharkiv in the east, Odesa in the south, and the capital, Kyiv. At the beginning of the war, there was a national sense of pride and comradery, with gains that saw the liberation of occupied areas and Ukraine’s unlikely success in warding off Russian advances.

However, over the last two years, the war has significantly changed, and currently, the energy on the front lines has diminished. Amidst the sixth-month U.S. pause in delivering new aid, some soldiers told The Daily Beast they had not been taken off of frontline rotation in eight months, while others said they have no ammunition or fit infantrymen left, with many being badly injured or killed. Ukraine is desperately trying to find new recruits to join the military. Last month, Ukraine’s parliament adopted a new law to mobilize hundreds of thousands of new soldiers, lowered the mobilization age from 27 to 25, and put pressure on men living abroad to return home, which included the suspension of civilian services such as passport renewal.

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In Kyiv—far from the front lines—nationalism and the belief that Ukraine will win the war are ever-present, but in Donbas The Daily Beast has witnessed a far darker mood where drunken soldiers aimlessly wander the markets in Kostyantynivka, dead dogs line the streets, and some soldiers say Ukraine is headed for defeat.

Outside of the Donbas city Lyman, one soldier The Daily Beast spoke to, who asked for complete anonymity, said Ukraine’s military is split between people who wanted to fight and those who had no choice. “The people who were forced to go, they don’t know how to do anything, and they get into a crisis situation,” said the soldier, who added that his comrades need to relieve some of the stress of constant battle.

“They drink because when you go out on direct fire, you see a threat, the question immediately arises—not just [who] to kill, but to stay alive. You [return] and begin to relieve stress. The price [of alcohol] no longer matters,” he said.

Drugs on the Front Line

The soldier said that, for the most part, men drink while they are at their military bases. He said he has never witnessed men drinking while fighting in the trenches but believes that around 40 percent of Ukraine’s military is consuming alcohol while on active duty. The soldier said he heard of one instance at the beginning of 2024 where a member of Ukraine’s military in Lyman killed two civilians and a police officer while he was drunk but he declined to go further into detail. In other cases, according to the soldier, some are consuming amphetamines or methadone to have the stamina to stay awake for days at a time during their rotations.

In Kharkiv, a soldier who only wanted us to use his first name said that he never drank alcohol in the trenches where he was fighting, but he has heard stories of soldiers lashing out when they are drunk. Valerii, 32, claimed that last summer, one soldier shot and killed two colleagues and a dog while he was drunk. Although he did not drink in frontline positions, Valerii said that he did use amphetamine, a drug he has been abusing since he was 18, to stay awake.

“Everyone used it there, every day. You have to stay awake for a long time,” said Valerii.

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The price of the drug varies in different regions but can range from 1,000 to 2,000 hryvnias, between $25 and $50 per gram. Valerii said he could take up to half a gram, 500 milligrams daily. The recommended controlled amphetamine prescription in the U.S. would be from 5 to 30 milligrams.

He added that he felt he did not have a choice but to take a large amount of amphetamines saying that his rotation could be anywhere from five to 25 days without rest. Valerii said he thought 11 of the 92 people in his unit used amphetamines, while another ten were on MDMA. The soldiers buy the drugs through online shops throughout Ukraine, which Valerii believes could be owned by Ukraine’s mafia.

In August 2023, the New York Times estimated that the number of dead soldiers had surpassed 70,000, and casualties had reached as high as 131,000. This February, Zelensky said that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the last two years and that it is unclear how many are missing or injured. The true number of deaths and injuries remains unknown. The soldiers The Daily Beast has spoken to over the last few months have said that the halt in new aid from the U.S., which recently ended on April 20, was in part to blame for a larger amount of injuries and deaths on the frontlines as soldiers had run out of ammunition to defend themselves.

In January, Valerii was injured in a blast wave from a Russian tank explosion and broke his back. He is currently unable to fight and was discharged from Ukraine’s military. Although injured in combat, Valerii said that he is not being given any money for being an injured veteran. “They just write in the military ID that I participated. There are no military cards, no medals to give me with a certificate. They have no payments or [government] benefits,” he said, but he said he got a 75 percent discount on his utility bills and at some stores.

The military told Valerii that they would pay for surgery to correct his back but that type of procedure only gives him a 50 percent chance of being fixed up. The alternative—more expensive—option of having laser treatment has a higher chance of healing Valerii but it would cost over $6,000 and is not covered by the military. He would have to pay for the procedure himself.

With no money, Valerii said that he has been in constant pain and has been drinking heavily to cope. “It helps me relax. To calm down and forget [combat]. The hardest part is when friends are killed.”

The Repercussions

Inside a clinical psychiatric hospital ward in a decrepit building in Kharkiv, injured Ukrainian soldiers lie in cot-style beds and roll their wheelchairs down the wide corridors. The atmosphere is dull and gloomy, and doctors, nurses, and patients all carry out their activities in hushed voices so as to not disturb those around them.

The ward makes up three floors in a city hospital, and soldiers from Ukraine’s frontlines frequently end up there, sitting in beds for hours at a time, only distracted by their phones or smoking cigarettes in the stairwell with other patients or the doctors and nurses. One soldier stands in the stairwell, wincing in pain as a surgical drainage device extracts liquid from his bandaged hand into a plastic pouch.

This ward is where Andrey, 38, who agreed to an interview using only his first name, has frequently lived over the last few months after he was injured in a mine explosion that resulted in him losing both of his legs at the end of the summer of 2023

Confined to the small hospital, Andrey said that he has little to do, and over his time there, he has often slipped MDMA into the facilities. Andrey has long been a drug addict and has used substances ranging from heroin to marijuana, the latter of which he used while at military bases on Ukraine’s frontlines.

Andrey likened his use of MDMA to that of American veterans who returned from Vietnam and used LSD and said that he has heard of similar stories of U.S. soldiers using the drug now.

Emotional trauma and active combat have long gone hand in hand with one another. World War I was when the psychological trauma of warfare was widely recognized by both psychologists and the rest of society, and the term “shell shock” became widely known. Over the last 100 years, veterans returning home have faced numerous hardships, including loss of limbs, a lack of governmental stipends, and PTSD that has made it hard for them to reintegrate into society.

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The brutalities of war—the suffering, near-death experiences, and the loss of friends are in part to blame for why soldiers are turning to substances to help them cope with their trauma, explained Andrey. That grief and loss, paired with a lack of psychological support for losing both of his legs at once, is partially why he turned to drugs in his psychiatric ward.

On a park bench outside of the hospital center in late April, Andrey said he joined the military at the beginning of the war to defend Kharkiv, his hometown, from Russian soldiers trying to gain control of the city. At first, he fought alongside a local Kharkiv military unit and then in a second stint he was deployed as a driver on the frontlines.

Andrey said he does not remember the exact month that he lost both of his legs but that it was at some point in August or September. At the time, he was driving soldiers to a frontline position when his car met a landmine on the road. The car was set ablaze by the mine, and as the soldiers and Andrey escaped, he stepped on two more landmines, which immediately shredded his two legs, parts of his face, and the skin around his collarbone. For 30 minutes, Andrey bled out at the site of the attack while his fellow soldiers tied tourniquets around his legs and frantically called for an ambulance to come to collect him.

After the initial four days in a hospital, Andrey was transported across Ukraine as doctors assessed his injuries and decided what to do next. He still had both of his legs, but his bones were shattered beyond repair.

Throughout this year, Andrey came and went from the psychiatric ward in Kharkiv as he awaited various surgeries and prosthetic legs, which he now has. In the hospital, he is often stuck in his twin-sized bed in a room he shares with four other injured soldiers for hours at a time. Andrey spends the time playing video games on his phone and using MDMA, which he said has helped him relax from a concussion he received during the time he lost his legs and the post-traumatic stress disorder he developed over his time as a soldier.

The soldier also has tinnitus from being in the military and said that it always sounds like there is static from the TV in his ears. The MDMA, he believes, helps him escape from his problems for some time, and he is not alone; other men in the hospital also take drugs to cope; Andrey said the doctors and nurses turn a blind eye and let them bring in the illegal drugs.

Kindness of Strangers

As Andrey speaks on the park bench, a man approaches him with 500 hryvnias [$12] in his hand. “Please, take it. I’m very grateful to you,” said the man. At first, Andrey protested, saying that he did not need the money but eventually accepted it. After the man left, he said that he had been offered money three times since he lost his legs by civilians who were grateful for his sacrifice in defending Ukraine. One woman gave him a bar of chocolate and candy as a way of saying thank you.

“I find it pleasant. Because the person says that it’s not because [I’m] disabled, he says thank you for being there, here’s what I can, I just want to help,” said Andrey.

It’s a lovely gesture, but the kindness of strangers can never replace the real support Andrey needs.

For the last week, he says he has been sober after a bad MDMA trip , adding that he does not want to take any substance right now and that it makes him tense. “The hardest thing [in combat] is the fear. It never goes away. There should be more psychological assistance. I haven’t received any,” said Andrey.

When asked what he would like people to understand about the drinking and drug taking in Ukraine’s military, he said, “There are, of course, some shitty people. There are those who [are] everyone’s for themselves. And they are also friends to me. I still communicate with them to this day. And those guys who died, of course, it’s very hard.”

“I would like people to just understand that there are really guys who went there voluntarily, not forcibly, but went,” he added. “Maybe I’ll even return. I’ll do whatever I can to help. I love the city of Kharkiv. I would like to hope that at least the city of Kharkiv remains intact.”

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