DESNA, Ukraine — In a military training class north of Kiev late last month, volunteer instructor Viktor Mosgovoi led 30 would-be officers through hours of jumps, breathing exercises and group massages — Ukraine’s first mandatory psychological training for recruits.
“How do you feel? You feel uplifted!” Mosgovoi drilled the group of men in heavy boots and fatigues. Most of them followed along with blank looks or smirks on their faces. A few erupted into giggles. “Sing a song about what you see,” Mosgovoi suggested as a way to beat the battlefield blues. “And don’t drink.”
In nearly a quarter-century of independence, Ukraine’s military has seen so little combat that the country’s defense minister estimated the nation had only 6,000 battle-ready troops a year ago. Over the past 10 months, the Ukrainian army has drafted almost 70,000 soldiers in a war against pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country. And most of the fighting has been carried out by recruits and volunteers with no prior combat experience.
Since the hostilities began, Kiev has scrambled to train tens of thousands of soldiers on how to fire weapons, take orders and internalize what commanders and enlistees refer to as a patriotic call to arms. But despite continued warnings from inside and outside the country about the war’s mental toll, it was not until the latest mobilization, which began a few weeks ago, that Ukraine ordered new recruits to go through a short psychological training course. It is run by a battalion of hastily retrained, unpaid civilian professionals.
“It’s all volunteers. Unfortunately, the government doesn’t support any of this,” said Valentina Neikova-Mohova, a volunteer crisis psychologist who also works with returning soldiers exhibiting signs of post-traumatic stress and other related disorders. “We lack the military specialists. We lack experience in this field.”
Neikova-Mohova is one of thousands of psychologists who offered their services, just as other civilians provided money, food and arms to a sorely under-supplied military when the fighting began.
But with no post-Soviet combat experience, and a military structure that officials say was intentionally wizened under years of pro-Russian leadership, very few people had any practical experience with war trauma.
“We practically do not have military psychology in this country,” said Elena Stupak, 46, who founded the Psychological Crisis Center — a group that began by working with civilians stricken by the violence during demonstrations on Kiev’s Independence Square last year. As some of those civilians moved eastward, making up the pro-Kiev volunteer battalions that fought alongside the military last summer, those in her organization began to focus on mental fitness in wartime, looking to international experts for advice, taking online courses and sharing what they learned with other volunteers as quickly as they could grasp the new information.
“Everyone is trying to do something,” Stupak said, explaining how newly minted psychology graduates with almost no field experience were being prepped to train soldiers and visit them on the battlefield. “It’s a very hot topic, and a lot of people are trying to get involved. But unfortunately, to do it right, we need time.”
There has been little time, however, as Ukraine’s attention has shifted from the battlefield to the negotiating room amid hopes for a peace agreement to alleviate the death toll from the conflict, which has claimed more than 6,000 lives.
For soldiers emerging from demoralizing setbacks, such as when troops were surrounded and forced to retreat in Ilovaysk last summer and Debaltseve just last month, the mental stress is one of the first things they talk about, especially when asked what advice they would give new recruits.
“If they were serving in the army before, they will be ready — potentially,” said infantryman Grigory Korumchak, 25, nursing a concussion in the hallway of a hospital in Artemivsk last month, fresh from fighting in Debaltseve. “If they are just coming right away though,” he added, his head shaking, “psychologically, they won’t be ready.”
“Your task in war is to survive,” said Pavel Kovalsk, 24, in the same hospital, his voice starting to break and his leg beginning to shake. “The physical wounds will heal; those just need time. But other wounds, they will remain.”
Before the war, few Ukrainian men had ever heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological shock or mental trauma — or would openly discuss such afflictions.
“I had never heard of such a syndrome,” said Oleksandr Kazbanov, 39, a soldier who was eventually diagnosed with PTSD after returning from the battlefield with a concussion and a spinal injury last summer. He described headaches, sleeplessness, partial amnesia, aggression, acting like a loner — and the acute sensation that no one else around him knew what was wrong, either. He is now one of Neikova-Mohova’s patients.
He knew when he signed up that he might get killed or wounded, he said. “But not this.”
Volunteers are trying to use the example of soldiers like Kazbanov — who signed up before volunteer squads of psychologists started testing their palliative and preventive services with willing military units — to impress upon the newest recruits why they should take seriously the six to eight hours of mental health instruction they get as part of their month-long training course.
“If I went into the street and told people to do these exercises, it would be quite weird,” said Vasily Kalashikuh, a 43-year-old judge with no army experience who was drafted as an officer after Mosgovoi’s class. “But the knowledge is quite interesting.”
Not everyone is as impressed, however, with the quality of the instruction.
“We had much better training from Canadian instructors in Lviv,” Aleksandr Malatyuk, 28, said of Mosgovoi’s class, recalling his time as a paratrooper in the Ukrainian army — a special forces division that receives specialized training, he explained, including mental health. “They know more because they know the realities of war much better.”
Officials say the Defense Ministry is building an in-house program of paid psychologists. But many volunteers express doubts. The pay is so little, they say, that no experienced psychologist would take the job — even though some are already devoting 20 volunteer hours a week to the cause.
“We can’t do it in just a month or two or three,” Sergey Gryluk, a colonel with the Ukrainian military’s social-psychological center, said of the ministry’s efforts. Convincing the commanders that such counselors will improve and not interfere with the war effort has taken some work, he admitted, though he is optimistic that the situation is changing.
“We never had such an experience before — and now we have a war going on,” Gryluk said. “For that, we will find the weaponry. The main thing is to prepare people mentally.”
Natalie Gryvnyak contributed
to this report.