Mental Scars of War: Addressing PTSD in Russian Soldiers Returning from Ukraine

Why do soldiers continue to kill after returning from the front?

by Sededin Dedovic
Mental Scars of War: Addressing PTSD in Russian Soldiers Returning from Ukraine
© John Moore / Getty Images

The return of Aleksandr Mamayev from the front lines in Ukraine ended in tragedy. During a celebration, the 44-year-old got drunk and stabbed his wife in front of their children, thinking she was reaching for money in his pocket.

People who know Mamayev, who comes from Zavolzhye in the Nizhny Novgorod region of Russia, testified in court that before the war he was a quiet person who "wouldn't even hurt a fly." This is just one example of the crimes committed by participants in the Russian invasion of Ukraine upon their return home.

According to the Russian online media "Verstka," which was launched abroad in 2022, war participants committed 190 crimes over two years, including 55 murders. Most perpetrators were intoxicated. Later, they claimed they couldn't control themselves.

According to psychologists, these are signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Reports indicate that many crimes in Russia were committed by former mercenaries of the private army "Wagner Group," reports DW. The Russian authorities have launched a treatment program for participants in the Russian invasion of Ukraine returning from the front lines and suffering from stress disorders.

The need is so great that not everyone affected can be helped. Additionally, many military personnel with PTSD refuse assistance.

Mental Problems

One of the most common issues soldiers talk about are nightmares and constant flashbacks—traumatic experiences that keep returning.

For example, they feel like they are being shot at far from the front, usually in places with many people or vehicles. Others lose their nerves when they see fireworks or are afraid to go outside without a weapon. "In the war, you think everything is fine with you.

But then you return to civilian life and realize how much you have changed inside," a war returnee told DW. Twenty-three-year-old Andrei (name changed) is a Russian contract soldier. He has changed a lot over the past two years of the war, says his wife Svetlana.

Andrei used to be talkative and cheerful, but now he is withdrawn and aggressive. This year the couple had a baby girl, but Andrei did not visit his wife and child during his last leave. "Once he wrote unpleasant things, even about our child.

I thought our relationship was over. But the next day he apologized in a voice message and said he had gone mad," says Svetlana. This young woman hopes that the thought of becoming a father will help Andrei find stability in life.

Back to the Front

According to a study by the Bechterev St. Petersburg Psychoneurological Research Institute, PTSD can develop in three to eleven percent of war participants. Last year, the institute sent treatment methods to various institutions, and the Russian authorities announced the creation of appropriate rehabilitation centers.

Heavily-armed troops displaying no identifying insignia and who were mingling with local pro-Russian militants stand guard outsi© Sean Gallup / Getty Images

According to data from the Russian Ministry of Health, in the first six months of 2023, 11,000 Russian military personnel who participated in the war against Ukraine, as well as their family members, sought psychological help.

But Health Minister Mikhail Murashko had to admit that in 2023 only 15 percent of those affected could receive treatment. Some soldiers diagnosed with PTSD even had to return to the front lines. This happened to 25-year-old Aleksandr Strebkov, who, despite a doctor's diagnosis that he should not be given a weapon, was sent back to the war zone.

Warning of Subsequent Errors

During major military conflicts like the invasion of Ukraine, the number of mental disorders among military personnel could be significantly higher than stated in the Bechterev Institute study, says a Russian psychotherapist who wished to remain anonymous.

He cites the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which estimates the incidence of PTSD among military personnel in various conflicts to be up to 29 percent. The therapist therefore expects an increase in crimes in Russia attributable to PTSD among soldiers.

He warns that untreated PTSD can cause subsequent disorders, such as "alcohol or psychotropic substance addiction, which creates problems in society." According to him, families suffer the most from this, harming children's mental health.

Heroization or Insight?

Treatment is based on reliving traumatic experiences, says the therapist, who emphasizes that an average of ten sessions over six months is required for recovery. Some psychologists who treat soldiers with PTSD try to glorify male experiences.

"While this can provide emotional support during therapy, in terms of human values, it can lead to violence and aggression being perceived as normal," warns the therapist. Instead of illusory heroization, those affected should be helped to understand their situation—and feelings of guilt should be addressed.

He cites Germany after World War II as an example. At that time, there was no term for PTSD, nor any treatment, but German society reassessed its attitudes. The main task of therapy is to normalize the patient's life so that they understand their mistakes and build a new life, to which every person is entitled," says the therapist.

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