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Ukraine changes combat bonus system, soldiers warn it might lower morale

by Igor Kossov March 31, 2023 5:01 PM 10 min read
Ukranian soldiers walk to towards their positions in Kostiantynivka, Ukraine on February 27, 2023. A new system for calculating combat bonuses for Ukrainian soldiers may drastically cut the incomes of everyone who does not spend every day on the front line. (Ignacio Marin Fernandez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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An overhaul of how the military determines bonus pay may cause more harm than good, six servicemen from multiple brigades told the Kyiv Independent.

This change, which came into force in February, takes away the money that many service members need to both support their families and get vital military gear, they said. As a result, some are concerned, disillusioned or considering going back to a civilian job.

Soldiers said that their units track where they serve in paper journals, which officers don’t have time for in the midst of combat. This may lead to confusion and inconsistency with how bonuses are paid out.

Some are still waiting for their bonuses from as early as November or December.

"It’s a shame," said Syla, a territorial defense fighter based near Luhansk Oblast, whose callsign means “Strength” in English. "People would come to me and say 'I feel like I'm an object that was used and thrown out.'"

To avoid backlash for speaking against the decision, most service members only agreed to be identified by their callsigns or remain anonymous. The Kyiv Independent also spoke to one soldier who thought the new system is fine, but he also declined to provide his name.

The payment overhaul came into effect in the eleventh month of Russia's full-scale invasion, affecting many service members who had been fighting nonstop for close to a year. The changes threaten to unravel the morale of Ukraine's exhausted volunteer warfighters.

Previously, soldiers, members of the Territorial Defense forces and police got an extra Hr 100,000 ($2,700) per month if they served in a designated active combat zone – a significant bonus in a country where the official average salary is just under Hr 15,000 ($400). Those who served outside active combat areas got an extra Hr 30,000 ($800) per month.

But starting February, only people in direct enemy contact are entitled to get up to Hr 100,000. People in combat zones, some distance away from the front line get up to Hr 30,000, while everyone who is outside an active combat zone gets no bonus at all. Rather than counting an entire month, bonuses are tallied by the day, soldiers said.

In comparison, base military salaries tend to be less than Hr 30,000 for most troops.

Base salaries were raised as part of the overhaul. According to Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, a basic rifleman’s pay went from Hr 13,000 to Hr 20,000. However, people whose bonuses change still stand to lose a huge part of their total income.

The Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.

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According to a statement by the Defense Ministry, these changes were prompted by last year’s orders from the Cabinet of Ministers and the Economy Ministry to optimize expenditures and standardize the bonus payment system.

Defense Minister Reznikov told Ukrainian media outlet Ukrainska Pravda that the overhaul was partly done in the interests of fairness to those who are fighting on the front lines.

"This is a question of fairness and, at the same time, budgetary capacity," Reznikov said. “Fighters who are really on the ‘front,’ in the most intense places, say: we go there and those who do nothing… get the same money – it’s unfair.”

Most of the service members that spoke to the Kyiv Independent for this story, both on the front lines and in the rear, didn’t consider the change to be fair or desirable either.

Reznikov also cited the budget, saying that many businesses are closed and not paying taxes but the military needs to buy everything it needs to equip the troops.

Yet service members said that because of bureaucracy and delays, they often can’t get the gear they need on time or at all. As a result, many pay for their own uniforms, tools, cars, fuel, and spare parts. The old bonus made this shortcut feasible. Now, some have to choose between sustaining their families and buying the gear they need. Or relying on volunteers.

Soldiers who spoke with the Kyiv Independent said that as a result, some of their fellows are thinking of leaving or are deeply preoccupied with their future.

Being preoccupied in combat is fatal, said Glen Grant, a British former military officer and defense expert who has a close understanding of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

"Soldiers who are worried about their wives or worried about money die," said Grant. "You're sending someone off to die because their brain is not with them. He'll miss small things because at a crucial time, he'll be thinking about the wife who just called and said we have no money to pay the bills. That's it, he's a dead man."

A question of fairness

According to the Defense Ministry, “The decision to change the approach to accruing additional monetary rewards… was made to comply with the principles of fair incentives for soldiers of the security and defense forces of Ukraine.”

There is a strong incentive for people to stay on the front line for as long as possible to keep getting the highest bonus, especially if they’re the sole breadwinner or their family, and especially if the family had to flee the war and live abroad as refugees.

But soldiers don’t actually get a lot of choice in the matter.

“Our minister Reznikov said soldiers (can earn if they want to) – that's not how it works. A soldier can't just decide that he wants to go somewhere. It's not about what he wants but what the battalion commander wants to fulfill an assignment,” said callsign Karat, a platoon commander from Syla’s brigade.

Soldiers said the new system can push people into the lower bonus, even if they spend time on the front or at least in Russian weapon range.

When asked if he’s still entitled to Hr 100,000, a battalion officer who fights in Donbas, who declined to identify himself for security purposes, wrote: “Nope. ‘Cause we don’t have direct confrontation with the enemy, such as using rifle fire to deflect the enemy… so it’s +30k for us.”

“That’s a quote from the explanation provided to us by the chief accountant,” he added. “For now, they only feed us with promises (that) they’re gonna fix the situation and pay us the bonus money we didn’t get in previous months.”

Syla said his unit is regularly near the front line in Luhansk Oblast. However, it is quartered a short distance away, in Kharkiv Oblast, very close to the border that divides the two regions. Luhansk Oblast is considered an active combat zone while Kharkiv Oblast isn’t.

He said the new system made it ambiguous how their bonuses would be calculated and no one has been able to explain how it works. The change can lead to troops who serve in an active combat zone seeing severe cuts to their bonuses. Furthermore, just because soldiers are not on the zero line, doesn't mean they're safe.

“You can’t say that you went 2-5 kilometers away from the line and you’re all good there,” Syla said. “Everything that flies there can reach you, including 120 millimeter mortars. I’m not even talking about howitzers.”

Days after he said that, everyone in his brigade was promised they would qualify for the maximum bonus of Hr 100,000 per month. But they have yet to see it and they still don’t know how it will work.

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It isn’t always straightforward what ‘on the front line’ means. For example, medics that are constantly ready to drive out to recover wounded are at high risk – but technically, they spend very little time on the actual zero line, compared to the infantry. These decisions are down to the commanding officer.

Karat said how much the soldiers are paid depends on factors outside their control.

“We don’t usually count the hours (they’re there), we count by the day, so it becomes very unfair and it all depends on the honesty of the platoon commander,” he said.

Soldiers’ locations are supposed to be recorded on paper, in battle logs, by commanding officers. Commanders have no time to do this on the front line. The logs are usually filled out later, from memory.

Grant said that this system hurts the military by forcing officers to waste time ticking boxes when they have to fight.

"Filling in reports on paper, who's everywhere — this should be on a tablet,” said Grant. “This sort of thing exposes the weaknesses in policy and thinking."

Multiple soldiers said all of this is very confusing and is causing morale to drop.  Some, who have fought hard but now get less money every time they're not on the front line, feel betrayed.

A sniper with the callsign Lawyer said the bonus cuts look especially bad against the background of recent alleged corruption scandals in the Defense Ministry. He said it almost gives the impression that “they want to solve their own financial issues at our expense.”

Staying alive

Ukraine’s need to save money is just as critical as fair treatment of the troops. The country has to squeeze the most out of every hryvnia to equip its warfighters. Foreign financial aid cannot be used for the military.

However, the official system for issuing gear to troops can be slow and inefficient. It’s easier to just give soldiers money and let them buy the things they need. Many service members said this is why they buy a lot of their own equipment.

The list is formidable. Soldiers said they buy drones, anti-drone guns, binoculars, thermal visors, soap, shampoo, household cleaners, kitchenware, generators, power banks, Starlink terminals and more. A lot of money is also spent on the vital personal vehicles, as well as fuel, parts and maintenance for them.

“The ZSU (Armed Forces of Ukraine) issues gear of course but it’s not issued on time,” said an officer with the callsign Instructor, who is currently in the rear. “Let’s say you need some kind of footwear. You’ll get it in a month, even though you need it today.”

Lawyer added that the system for replacing lost or damaged gear involves filing lots of paperwork and undergoing an internal investigation for each lost or destroyed object, "from socks, to flasks. I'm not even talking about weapons." The paperwork has to go through officers at the platoon, company, battalion and brigade levels and checked off before a replacement can be authorized, he said.

This is too slow when lives are at stake.

"The fact that they were paying soldiers to buy what was needed was a clever way of making things work," said Grant. "Take the money away and you are actually moving into a gray area because the system doesn't deal (well) with this."

Instructor said that soldiers who go to the rear lose their bonuses precisely when they need them to replace lost or damaged equipment and prepare themselves or their units for a return to the front. Prolonged stays in the rear can be financially crippling.

"The maximum pay I get as an officer for one month is Hr 25,000 ($670)," said Instructor. "I send Hr 10,000 to my wife for rent, spend Hr 10,000 on living expenses and I have Hr 5,000 left. And a backpack for carrying a Starlink costs Hr 6,000."

Service members have also been hit with growing prices. Viktor Shepelya, a junior sergeant with the 4th Rapid Response Brigade of the National Guard, said that between work and personal purchases, he didn’t know how he would last the entire month on his base pay alone.

“Luckily, my family consists of one person," he said. "If I had children, I would have already thrown myself out the window."

Others aren’t so untethered. Karat has a wife and mother-in-law living in Poland — the wife was fired in January and now depends on him. Lawyer has to support three children, a wife and a mother who cannot work.

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These people had higher-paying professional civilian jobs before they volunteered for the Armed Forces.

When soldiers lose the ability to reliably sustain their families, some look for a way out of the military.

“Very many people resign,” said Instructor. “They’re looking for an excuse to resign, like to take care of a grandma, or a disabled relative, whom they had before the war.”

According to Lawyer, a quarter of the people in his unit have talked about leaving. In the hospital where he was recovering from a wound in January, it was closer to a third.

“I’ve seen someone who had to work during medical leave to pay for his child’s kindergarten. Of course his morale plummets,” said Shepelya. Because of the special nature of his brigade, they were supposed to keep the Hr 30,000 bonus, but that hasn’t happened, he said.

“He goes in, understanding that a fast response brigade always goes into the hardest battles, he knows he can die any day and he can’t pay for his child’s kindergarten. That’s nonsense.”

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