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No Rest: As The War Drags On, Many Ukrainian Troops Have Spent Months On End In Combat 

A Ukrainian soldier rests near the front-line in the Donetsk region.
A Ukrainian soldier rests near the front-line in the Donetsk region.

KYIV -- Hanna, a combat medic, found herself attached to a mechanized infantry brigade in the eastern Luhansk region when Moscow launched its unprovoked invasion on February 24.

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“Our unit spent 27 days without rotation in one settlement there,” she told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. “Our losses were great during this combat deployment. Reinforcements were brought in, but the unit itself was never withdrawn.”

It was the beginning of months of long and grinding combat deployment that still has no clear break. After they left the first Luhansk region settlement, the unit was moved to another one, also on the front line.

“We stayed there with two other units for 21 days,” Hanna recalled. “Then our unit was withdrawn, but a week later it was sent on a third deployment in an area where the enemy was on the offensive. They tried to surround us, and our unit was the last one out of the encirclement, covering the retreat of the others.”

The unit was finally taken out of combat in mid-August, she said. But before that month was out, it was in yet another combat zone. Hanna was able to spend some time with her son at home, not on leave but because she had been wounded and then had fallen ill.

“The boys who serve with me have not been home for more than a year,” Hanna said. Like those of all the Ukrainian personnel in this story, Hanna’s surname has been withheld in keeping with military regulations.

Over the nearly 250 days since the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s military has demonstrated surprising successes on the battlefield throughout the war and particularly over the last month -- and military experts widely agree that the high morale and motivation of Ukrainian troops are keys to those successes.

But as the intense fighting persists with no sign of a let-up, Kyiv is increasingly confronted with the psychological hardships of keeping troops in combat without relief for such long stretches of time, while continuing to take advantage of their most experienced fighters.

Catching Courage

“Rotations from the front are an extremely difficult issue,” said Volodymyr, a member of a territorial defense unit -- a nationwide network of volunteer forces -- who said he has not seen combat himself.

“On one hand, fighters get tired and have the right to rest,” he said. “On the other hand, they have combat experience and many of them have, to use an expression, ‘caught courage,’ which can fade away along with the motivation to return to the front after even a short rest.”

Pavlo Horbenko, a psychologist at the mental health center of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in the capital, said the problem must be addressed now that it is clear that the war will not be a sprint, but “is more like a marathon.”

Spending months at the front without any leave can take its toll on the morale of Ukrainian troops.
Spending months at the front without any leave can take its toll on the morale of Ukrainian troops.

“For a long-duration race, you need to calculate your strength in different ways,” he said.

“If a unit remains on the front line for a long time, then its combat capability gradually decreases,” Horbatenko said. Much depends on the conditions of the deployment, he added, but research indicates that “combat capability can be maintained for about 40 days.”

“Even if motivation is quite strong, the physiological ability to make decisions will decrease due to combat fatigue,” he said.

Well-managed rotations can improve military effectiveness by reducing reliance on a relatively small number of highly stressed individuals, regardless of how well-motivated they are, experts say. Over time, rotations also increase the number of experienced fighters.

'We Are Still Here'

Olena has served with a territorial defense unit in the Kharkiv region since April 12.

“After we spent 90 days here, everyone expected a rotation,” she said. “It had already been announced that we would return home and another unit would take our place. But we are still here.”

“We were told to recover in Kharkiv and that then we would be sent to a new position,” Olena added.

Artem is a regular soldier whose unit is involved the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive, and he says talk of rotating experienced soldiers out of combat now is “rather strange.”

“A full-scale war is going on, and the regulations don’t provide for rotations,” he said. “The offensive phase is under way, and those currently in defensive positions need to hold on and wait for their part in the offensive.”

Many Ukrainians in the field have not seen their loved ones since before the start of Russia's invasion in February.
Many Ukrainians in the field have not seen their loved ones since before the start of Russia's invasion in February.

Psychologist Horbenko added that soldiers who do manage to get rotated home often experience mental-health issues that need to be addressed.

“Requests for help mention things like an inability to relax, depression, constant anxiety, inappropriate responses to the environment such as tremors, and so on,” Horbenko said.

It is possible to help with such issues, he added, saying that communities can help by creating centers for diagnostics and stress management.

“Many service members simply don’t know where to turn,” he stressed.

Lawyer and human rights activist Roman Lykhachov said there was currently no legislation regarding the rotation of troops. For now everything is in the hands of military commanders. Technically, soldiers are allowed to request family leave under certain circumstances, but commanders often reject such requests.

“A draft law is being submitted to the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) under which servicemen must be granted 10 days leave to rest and see relatives,” Lykhachov said. He added that “many soldiers” have appealed to his organization for help because they have been in the field and have not seen their families since before Moscow’s large-scale invasion in February.

RFE/RL’s Donbas.Realities and feature writer Robert Coalson contributed to this report.
  • 16x9 Image

    Oleksiy Vinohradov

    Oleksiy Vinohradov is a journalist with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

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    Mykhaylo Shtekel

    Mykhaylo Shtekel has been a correspondent in Odesa for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service since 2017. Shtekel, who began his career in journalism in 2003, has covered the Donbas conflict and issues related to the annexation of Crimea for various Ukrainian TV channels and has experience working in conflict zones.

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