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Frustration grows in Ukraine as casualties spike and Russia takes more territory

“The reality is different from the official comments,” said Luiza Dorner, whose husband is fighting in the Donbas. “Every day has a high price.”

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia’s invasion in February prompted a wave of public support for the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as millions of Ukrainians raced to help defend their homeland. Four months later — amid Russian advances and spiking casualties — anger and frustration over the handling of the war is swelling.

In interviews with Ukrainians who have family members fighting the invaders, many said they were upset with the military leadership for deploying inexperienced people to the front lines, and at times sending them into battle without as much as a medical or a psychological examination.

“I am ready to protest,” said Viktoriia Bilan-Rashchuk, 43, of Kyiv, whose husband, Volodymyr, a theater actor with no previous military experience, is fighting on the eastern front line in Sievierodonetsk. Last month, she said, she raised money to send his unit protective headphones — standard military equipment used to prevent hearing loss for soldiers firing off rocket systems.

“No one even taught him how to shoot.”

Olena Zhabyak-Sheremet

“The government isn’t doing enough to support them. The longer this goes on, the more people will become upset,” Bilan-Rashchuk said in Ukrainian, speaking through a translator.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. 

Since Russia invaded in February, thousands of Ukrainians with no military background have volunteered to fight. To boost its war efforts, the Ukrainian government has also banned men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country in case it needs to start a draft. In May, Zelenskyy said the country’s military had 700,000 service members, including women.

Through a relentless campaign of appearances, interviews and statements, Zelenskyy has fought to keep morale high among troops and the general public and plead the country’s case to the international community. But Russian artillery attacks have intensified in the east in recent months, pushing the Ukrainian military death toll to between 100 and 200 soldiers a day in combat, with another 500 injured every day, according to Ukrainian officials, the BBC reported earlier this month.

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CONFLICT
A soldier rests at a checkpoint in Sievierodonetsk in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has been especially fierce.Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP via Getty Images

In his daily address June 14, Zelenskyy called the losses “painful” but said Ukrainians “have to hold on.”

Despite the high death toll, Ukrainian officials have maintained that troops are well taken care of, with sufficient training, food, equipment and rest.

But as the war grinds on, what makes some Ukrainians especially angry is the lack of basic military equipment for those on the front lines. Some military families have been forced to organize donation drives to send medical supplies and military equipment to the front lines.

Svitlana Lukianenko, whose husband worked in information technology before the war but is now fighting near Sievierodonetsk, worries the Ukrainian military is not replacing the dead and injured soldiers fast enough, leaving her husband at greater risk with each passing day.

“The government needs to mobilize more people, but they also need to train them. There’s not enough training, and it’s a big problem,” she said. “That’s why we have such a high death toll.”

“We are angry for them,” Lukianenko added.

Zelenskyy has also dismissed reports that some front-line troops had poor protective equipment. 

“The reports I receive are significantly different from what is discussed by society,” he said in the same address.

“Today, everyone in the areas of hostilities must have everything they need to protect themselves,” he said. “The state provides such supplies.”

Luiza Dorner, 25, of Kyiv, whose husband is fighting in the Donbas region, said statements from Zelenskyy and other government officials have started to ring hollow. When she talks to her husband on the phone, she said, she can hear the fear and exhaustion in his voice.

Funeral held for Ukrainian soldiers in Kharkiv
Mourners cry during a funeral for two Ukrainian soldiers who died in Kharkiv. Russian artillery attacks have intensified in the country's east, pushing the Ukrainian military death toll to between 100 and 200 soldiers a day in combat, according to an aide to the president.Metin Atkas / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“The reality is different from the official comments,” she said. “Every day has a high price.” 

Igor Khort, who is in charge of training for the Territorial Defense Force, the volunteer unit of the Ukrainian army, said they only have the capacity to train roughly 120 people each week in Kyiv, the  capital and largest city. New soldiers get just five days of training before being sent to the battlefield, he said.

Retired U.S. Marine Col. Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called five days of training “woefully inadequate.”

“The Ukrainians are going to have to come up with something. This is a marathon and not a sprint,” he said.  For comparison, he said, Marines receive roughly 20 weeks of training before being sent into combat.

When asked whether it was responsible to send soldiers to the front lines without more training and preparation, Khort said, “They signed up themselves.” 

“And as John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural speech, ‘Don’t ask what the country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ And so they are doing the impossible for their country,” he added.

While softening public support for the government’s war response might be primarily a political problem for Zelenskyy for now, Cancian said it could impact the direction of the war if changes are not made.

“In the near term, it’s a political problem. If they do nothing about it, it will become a military problem,” he said. “Ultimately what matters is whether units are starting to crack — whether you’re seeing units that are withdrawing or refusing to fight, or if you start to see a lot of desertions.”

Soldiers sit atop a tank in the Donetsk region. To boost its war efforts, the government has banned men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country in case it needs to start a draft.
Soldiers sit atop a tank in the Donetsk region. To boost its war efforts, the government has banned men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country in case it needs to start a draft.Efrem Lukatsky / AP

The frustration with the government is particularly acute in the west, where many Ukrainians volunteered to serve in the relative safety of cities like Lviv. Some women have said their husbands joined the Territorial Defense Force with the expectation that they would serve in the district where they live, rather than on the front lines in the east.

Olena Zhabyak-Sheremet, 52, said her husband joined the force when the war started under the impression he would serve in the Lviv area working at checkpoints. But at the beginning of April, he was told to pack his bag to head east. If he refused, she said, commanders threatened to label him a deserter. She has not seen him since.

“No one even taught him how to shoot,” she said. “Out of the blue, he was sent into the thick of it.”

Zhabyak-Sheremet and other women in Lviv have written letters to government and military officials demanding answers as to why their loved ones were forced to leave their home districts, but she said they have not received responses.

She said the high death toll did not surprise her.

“They can’t push back the enemy because they have no training,” Zhabyak-Sheremet said. “And the result is heavy losses.”

CORRECTION (June 23, 2022, 12:35 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of Ukraine’s president. He is Volodymyr Zelenskyy, not Vlodymyr.