Energy Drinks Boost Ukraine’s Soldiers, and Its Economy

On a sunny morning, deep in the forests of western Ukraine where the war barely reaches, 16,000 cans of a new energy drink, Volia, rolled off the assembly line every hour at the Morshynska beverage factory.

Several hundred miles east, driving toward the front line, the sweating coolers at the minimarts and gas stations are loaded with Volia and an array of other energy drinks: Burn, Monster, Non Stop, Hell, Pit Bull and of course the eye-widening veteran of them all, Red Bull.

By the time one reaches the trenches, where thousands of troops are dug in, trying to survive, the supremacy is complete: Ukrainian soldiers will pass up coffee, Coke, even water in favor of the liquid jolt they need to keep going.

“In the morning, when I wake up, I drink an energy drink. When I head out on patrol, I drink an energy drink. Before an attack, I drink an energy drink,” said one Ukrainian soldier who identified himself by his call sign, Psycho, according to military protocol.

“Let me explain something as a reconnaissance person,” Psycho continued. “When you have to walk three, four or seven kilometers. And you’re carrying 40 kilograms of gear. And you’re covered in sweat. And you haven’t eaten much or slept in three days. If you don’t drink this stuff, where are going to get the energy for that final push?”

Ukraine is in the throes of its hardest moment since the early months of Russia’s full-scale invasion more than two years ago, and its forces are struggling in face of sustained assaults across the 600-mile front. Depleted and exhausted, frontline troops are hooked on a growing constellation of highly caffeinated, shrewdly marketed energy drinks, some specially made for this war.

Sales are surging. Energy drinks have become one of the few bright spots in the Ukrainian economy. New varieties and crazy flavors keep appearing — cotton candy, cactus, even cannabis — with names like Jungle, Boost and Stalker.

You see the cans everywhere. Tucked into ammo vests. Jangling around backpacks with bullets. On the back of tanks. Crushed empties piled in trenches next to dead Russians.

Ukrainian companies market these drinks to appeal to frontline troops and the fighting spirit they embody, giving them camouflage labels or patriotic mottos and names such as Volia, which means, loosely — there’s no direct translation ­— freedom and will.

“We wanted a slice of the action,” said Marco Tkachuk, the chief executive of IDS Ukraine, the owner of the Morshynska bottling plant and Volia brand.

Morshynska is a water company, based about 45 miles south of the city of Lviv. It made its mark years ago by tapping into natural springs in the Carpathian Mountains and packaging the water in 1.5 liter plastic bottles that have become ubiquitous across Ukraine.

But in 2022, Mr. Tkachuk, along with other Ukrainian beverage executives, realized something significant was happening as the strains of war intersected with the global energy drinks craze.

Russia’s invasion had upended every aspect of life in Ukraine, intensifying the demand for a quick hit of caffeine that didn’t require a cafe, boiling water, a coffee mug or a tea bag. And it was not only soldiers who craved it.

“The civilian population’s heightened need for energy sources arises from constant missile attacks, anxiety and lack of sleep,” said Taras Matsypura, a vice-president at Carlsberg Ukraine.

And so last year Carlsberg, a major international player, also began manufacturing an energy drink in Ukraine — Battery.

The market, Mr. Matsypura said, was “booming.”

Even with the economy suffering and millions of Ukrainians having fled the country, the sale of energy drinks in Ukraine has surged nearly 50 percent since the start of the war, according to industry surveys.

Individual soldiers, their units and civilian volunteers who bring essentials to the front line are buying truckloads. Some beverage makers like IDS Ukraine provide it for free. And a Ukrainian supply chain has swung into action to move it.

Big trucks, little trucks, soldiers’ cars smeared with army green paint, motorcycles and bicycles journey through a landscape of blown-up buildings and downed bridges to carry cases hundreds of miles from factories in central and western Ukraine to trenches in the east.

“Before the war, no one was buying it at this scale,” said Serhii Parakhin, a shopkeeper. “Except truck drivers.”

The best-selling brands are cheaper Ukrainian varieties such as Non Stop and Pit Bull, but imports like Red Bull (from Austria), Monster (from the United States) and Hell (from Hungary) are also popular.

What distinguishes an energy drink from other soft drinks is its high level of caffeine, along with additives like taurine (an amino acid), B-12 (a vitamin) and guarana extract (from an Amazonian fruit). All are believed to boost flagging energy levels.

Many of these drinks pack in around 100 milligrams of caffeine per can, about the same as a cup of coffee. But for coffee you need hot water, and for that you need to light a fire or plug into some electricity, and when you are hunkered down in a muddy trench, those are not easy things to do.

Of course, there are health concerns about consuming too much caffeine, which can lead to shaky hands, high blood pressure and stomach issues. A 2018 study of American soldiers found that high level use of energy drinks was “significantly related” to depression, anxiety, aggressive behaviors and, paradoxically, fatigue.

Bacha, a Ukrainian infantry sergeant, said that one of his older soldiers, who had a heart condition, had died last winter; the unit wondered whether it might have been connected to his habit of drinking 10 cans a day. Bacha said the man was found slumped in the toilet, with an energy drink in his hand.

Psycho dismisses the medical risks. Before the war, he said, he was a paramedic, fitness freak and taekwondo champ. In prewar pictures, he looked like a cross between a Calvin Klein underwear model and Mister Universe. He has been decorated with several medals and was recently wounded in the leg.

“I’ve been drinking these since I was 14,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with them.”

IDS Ukraine, one of Eastern Europe’s biggest bottlers, said it was donating as many as 40,000 cans a month to Ukraine’s military. Soldiers have been part of their process from the beginning, starting with the label: an ancient Ukrainian soldier — a Cossack — glaring over a handlebar mustache.

When the company rolled out its product last year, it asked military units to test it. Mr. Tkachuk explained that their formula was concocted a little differently — it’s based on mineral water and uses fructose and glucose instead of regular refined sugar. (“They say sugar works better for uplift but we found some examples in China that used fructose and glucose,” he said.)

The soldiers liked the taste, and the result was a drink that Mr. Tkachuk conceded was not necessarily healthy but “healthier.”

Some soldiers said they would rather carry energy drinks into battle than bread. Others said they had become frontline currency.

“Energy drinks in the army are not just a drink but the most popular gift,” said Anton Filatov, a film critic turned soldier.

(The Russians have their own favorites, including some patriotically packaged with a red star.)

Last August, Psycho took a piece of shrapnel a millimeter above his eye. He was disoriented, bleeding and in shock.

“I crawled back to a position and found a can of Burn,” he said.

He guzzled it and said he felt better immediately.

“In war you’re trying to value these little things,” Psycho explained. “Imagine. Just a can of Burn. But my mood was so happy.”

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn, Katya Lachina and Julie Creswell contributed reporting.

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