Even though an end to the conflict appears distant, Ukraine’s forces aim to rotate this winter, when violence is expected to slow. Ukraine has launched a new psychological op to defeat Putin.
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According to The Daily Beast, Ukraine is covertly initiating a military psychological training program to tackle the anxiety, agitation, and breakdowns plaguing its soldiers as they fight a hard battle against Russia in the hopes that it will lead to more successes on the battlefield.
The military psychologist in charge of the program, Rodion Grigoryan, said in an exclusive interview that the program’s focus is on teaching Ukrainian soldiers to identify signs of combat stress in their comrades and equipping them to deal with mental health crises as the brutal invasion approaches its eleventh month.
“When full-scale invasion started lots of people who had no previous military experience they enrolled. And so they have no military nor psychological training. Their stress resistance, resilience, was really low,” Grigoryan, accompanied by a translator, told The Daily Beast on a phone call this month. “People have had no understanding of the mental state they could get into during combat.”
He claimed that Ukrainian soldiers have had poor access to mental health care for long time, and Grigoryan has had a first-hand view of the issue. He had previously served in Ukraine’s national guard and had volunteered to fight in the territory defense forces during the early stages of the conflict.
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Many of the Ukrainians fighting Russia are volunteers, which means they entered the horrors of battle with little to no training in stress management. Since the war began in February, even veterans have experienced difficulties due to a lack of mental health support, according to Grigoryan.
“Some people who had previous combat experience, they already had their own experience, some understanding of what the states could be, what reactions can be felt in combat,” Grigoryan told The Daily Beast. But “when I ask them about the experience, I learn that the help they are getting is not effective enough.”
Despite a string of military triumphs in recent weeks, the program’s establishment demonstrates that authorities are well aware of how combat pressures can impede successful warfighting. With Russia’s manpower on its side, Ukraine cannot afford to have soldiers break apart on the battlefield.
“Men can be frozen,” if they are not equipped for these circumstances, according to Grigoryan, who added that “this psychological training is very much needed.”
According to Neil Greenberg, a PTSD and military mental health expert who has taught Ukrainian troops, mental health measures made during the conflict can benefit Ukraine in the long run as they may reduce the number of Ukrainian combatants who later have PTSD.
“If you don’t address or properly address the psychological challenges of what they’re doing now, then you’re going to get troops more likely to develop mental health problems, like depression and substance misuse and PTSD,” Greenberg, a professor at King’s College London, told The Daily Beast. “That’s going to degrade your capacity to keep on fighting.”
Although the rationale for the training courses appears convincing to military strategists, gaining permission for the program has not been straightforward. Grigoryan has encountered considerable pushback from both the military and the soldiers themselves, who have been embarrassed to ask for assistance in some situations, he added.
“There are some stereotypes and biases in this society about psychological help,” Grigoryan said. “There’s a common thought that if you are addressing a psychologist, that you’re not normal, something is wrong with you. We had people who were shy and nervous about how that would impact their reputation and their social status.”
According to Grigoryan, the first portion of the training includes a discussion about breaking down certain stigmas. A second component of the training includes practical exercises, studying the many types of mental combat strains and their symptoms, and instruction on how to intervene with people who are in crisis.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is assisting in the coordination of the program with financial and programmatic support, a step NATO made after Ukraine requested assistance in developing stronger military psychological resilience, according to NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu.
“Following Russia’s invasion and at the request of Ukraine, NATO has put in place assistance to enhance the psychological resilience of military service personnel and develop a mental health system for Ukrainian combatants and veterans,” Lungescu said.
According to Greenberg, who helped implement a similar program in the United Kingdom’s armed services, the peer-oriented structure Ukraine is developing is tried and true in several areas. Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) focuses on mitigating the long-term detrimental effects of combat situations for soldiers by training military peers to recognize how traumatic events might affect people’s mental health and to intervene when necessary.
With this program, “the evidence we gathered while researching at King’s College London shows you’re more likely to go and seek professional help, you’re less likely to have problems, you’re less likely to have degraded performance,” Greenberg told The Daily Beast. “These peer support systems like trauma risk management, (TRiM), are really a useful tool to help the military keep on going when they’re facing difficult situations.”
The characteristics of the Ukrainian conflict have left some particularly severe scars. According to Greenberg, Russia’s lack of precise military technology makes dealing with strikes challenging.
“[I] hear from the battlefield… things are horrible out there and particularly when it comes to artillery and these drone attacks, it’s the unpredictability of warfare that causes the most psychological difficulties,” Greenberg said. “Artillery and drones and unpredictable, non-defensible attacks are much more psychologically difficult because you could be the best soldier in the world, but if an artillery shell lands somewhere near you, there’s nothing you can do about that.”
While immediate involvement is critical, preparation for Ukrainian combatants’ reintegration into society after the battle is also critical. According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Veterans Affairs, Kyiv is currently striving to create mental health support for veterans following the war.
However, in many circumstances, soldiers will not be returning to stable environments. According to Greenberg, their family members may have suffered or witnessed atrocities themselves, which may make rehabilitation and reintegration difficult for some.
“They’re not flying into a war zone during the battle and then coming home to normality,” Greenberg said. “If the soldier comes back to a family that had some of the kids that have been killed by rockets or there’s been atrocities where they are, that’s going to also affect the soldiers’ mental health.”
According to Aditi Nerurkar, a doctor who specializes in stress and resilience, significant mental health issues for Ukrainian war survivors undoubtedly lie ahead, between dealing with the stress of endless missile attacks and the trauma of horrible torture sessions.
Ten months into the conflict, the stress experienced by Ukrainian soldiers is chronic rather than acute, according to Nerurkar. Nerurkar cautioned that even while some of the soldiers might appear to be performing well right now, they might lose control once they are out of the combat zone.
“We as humans are incredibly capable and we have this ability to rise up to meet the moment so you might not see a bunch of the mental health challenges or symptoms. It might look like they really have it together,” Nerurkar told The Daily Beast. “But often immediately afterwards—when they are out of harm’s way, their stress response starts to go down, they feel a sense of safety again—is when a lot of these mental health issues come up.”
Even though an end to the conflict appears distant, Ukraine’s forces aim to rotate this winter, when violence is expected to slow, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense. As a result, many combatants will be able to rest and process their wartime traumas.
“From a clinical standpoint I am deeply concerned… we are going to see a tremendous amount of fallout from this,” Nerurkar added. “If we think of the brain as a tea kettle, where’s that valve to release that steam? There is none. It’s been ten months. There is no respite. We need that respite.”