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Russia Is Seeding Ukraine’s Soil With Land Mines

Removing mines will be a long and costly operation.

By , a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
A boy walks past destroyed buildings in Ukraine
A boy walks past destroyed buildings in Ukraine
A boy walks past a destroyed building in the town of Makariv in Ukraine's Kyiv region on Sept. 15. Sergei Chuzakov/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine has been raging for nearly seven months—and even if Kyiv wins, the wounds will remain. While Ukrainians try to keep life going despite rockets flying overhead, Russian forces have hidden land mines across the country, keeping refugees from returning home and endangering farmers planting their crops. Already, Ukrainian troops are discovering explosives left by retreating Russians in newly liberated territories in the Kharkiv region.

Ukraine is party to the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel mines—bombs that are designed to kill and maim individuals who stumble across them, as opposed to mines designed for tanks or other vehicles—and since the earlier phase of the war began in 2014 has made no documented use of the weapons. On the other hand, Russia is not a party to the convention and has been documented making ample use of these horrific explosives. Both countries have employed anti-vehicle mines, which are legal under international law.

Last month, the United States announced it would spend $89 million to help train and equip Ukrainians to conduct demining operations over the course of the next year—an important step, since the sooner mines can be cleared, the sooner Ukraine’s more than 10 million displaced people can return home to rebuild. But the dangerous process of finding and disposing of land mines will take years. In Vietnam, more than 100,000 people have been killed or injured by land mines and unexploded ordnance since the U.S. war there ended in 1975. True long-term support will be crucial to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to Ukraine.

Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine has been raging for nearly seven months—and even if Kyiv wins, the wounds will remain. While Ukrainians try to keep life going despite rockets flying overhead, Russian forces have hidden land mines across the country, keeping refugees from returning home and endangering farmers planting their crops. Already, Ukrainian troops are discovering explosives left by retreating Russians in newly liberated territories in the Kharkiv region.

Ukraine is party to the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel mines—bombs that are designed to kill and maim individuals who stumble across them, as opposed to mines designed for tanks or other vehicles—and since the earlier phase of the war began in 2014 has made no documented use of the weapons. On the other hand, Russia is not a party to the convention and has been documented making ample use of these horrific explosives. Both countries have employed anti-vehicle mines, which are legal under international law.

Last month, the United States announced it would spend $89 million to help train and equip Ukrainians to conduct demining operations over the course of the next year—an important step, since the sooner mines can be cleared, the sooner Ukraine’s more than 10 million displaced people can return home to rebuild. But the dangerous process of finding and disposing of land mines will take years. In Vietnam, more than 100,000 people have been killed or injured by land mines and unexploded ordnance since the U.S. war there ended in 1975. True long-term support will be crucial to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to Ukraine.

Global support for rebuilding Ukraine if it wins the war is strong, but no real transformation of the country into a modern European state can take place if it remains littered with Russian deathtraps.

Chris Whatley, executive director of the HALO Trust USA, an organization that has worked on demining in Ukraine since 2014, said the explosive remnants of Russia’s war will remain for decades, but investment now can make sure Ukraine bounces back much faster. “The task of getting people back in their fields so they can feed the world and drive the Ukrainian economy, the task of clearing towns and suburbs and cities and villages, that can be accomplished in a much shorter period of time,” Whatley said.

“The key is to start it now and invest heavily on the front end so that civilians have confidence they can go back home,” he said.

Mines are also exacerbating the global food crisis fueled by Russia’s war. As a critical supplier of grain that numerous countries, especially in the global south, rely on, Ukraine has been working to revive its agricultural sector and get its goods to market. Russia is hampering these efforts, though, turning crop fields into minefields. Farming in Ukraine has become a high-risk activity as farmers trying to sow their crops inadvertently hit Russian mines, with at least 10 incidents of mines meant for tanks hitting tractors instead.

After their unsuccessful attempt to conquer Kyiv, Russian forces were being pushed back through the suburbs of Ukraine’s capital. As they retreated, they left an untold number of victim-activated anti-personnel mines, booby traps designed to be detonated by someone accidentally hitting a tripwire or stepping on them.

According to one U.S. official, these traps were hidden in food facilities, car trunks, washing machines, hospital beds, dead bodies, and even toys and shiny objects designed to attract children’s attention. A 10-year-old girl’s piano was found rigged with an explosive, discovered after the girl’s family realized some keys weren’t working. In Bucha, Ukrainian officials had to drag dead bodies using cables in case the corpses were rigged to explode.

There are also disputed claims that Russian forces have scattered thousands of so-called butterfly mines, whose deceptively harmless appearance caused appalling casualties during and after the Afghan War.

The East Europe Foundation, a Ukrainian nongovernmental organization, is partnering with the Ukrainian government to craft public awareness programs for civilians to know how to spot unexploded ordnance and created an app where they can report explosives to Ukraine’s State Emergency Service, which can then safely dispose of them. According to the service’s deputy head, Roman Prymush, the agency is disposing of approximately 2,000 explosives each day and has destroyed 200,000 devices since February.

Prymush said Russian troops have contaminated other territory with the same kinds of explosives found in the liberated areas around Kyiv, something Ukrainian troops retaking territory in the Kharkiv region are discovering. “We see situations that are close to Kyiv,” Prymush said through an interpreter, “where we see heavy mining as well as torturing people.”

The United States has taken the lead with its announcement of the $89 million commitment to fund 100 demining teams operating in Ukraine over the next year. It will also help the Ukrainian government identify the areas of greatest contamination, with Ukraine currently estimating that around 70,000 square miles are riddled with land mines and other unexploded ordnance.

Demining efforts are taking place now, with major operations occurring in recently liberated regions such as those north of Kyiv. The HALO Trust estimates that it will take three years and $100 million to fully demine the three regions north of Kyiv alone. The $89 million from the United States goes a long way in helping this effort, but a fully liberated Ukraine would require much more.

If the international community wants to make a difference, Ukraine’s friends need to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to creating long-term programs to identify and map mined areas, educate the Ukrainian public on what to look for and what to do if they find unexploded ordnance, and create a robust network of demining experts. Global supporters should also recognize that Ukraine already has skilled organizations working on this issue, and they should prioritize investing directly in them instead of letting Washington’s so-called Beltway bandits eat up funding.

While Ukrainians should be prioritized, support for demining in Ukraine is a critical humanitarian effort that should attract global investment and training. Organizations such as HALO train and equip locals to help clear their communities of mines, and groups including the East Europe Foundation are working with the government to give Ukrainians the tools they need to spot and report explosives. The app they’ve created for reporting mines has already become an important database of incidents, something that will be important in the future as Ukrainians seek justice for the war crimes committed against them.

It’s already clear it will take decades to fully clear Ukraine of mines, and each day of the war only makes it worse. “One day of war means we need to spend a month of demining,” Prymush said. Russia’s war in Ukraine has been raging for over 200 days.

“It’s important not to get intimidated, though,” Whatley said. “It’s true it will take a long time, but when it comes to clearing the most important infrastructure … as long as the international community stays on it and doesn’t move on to the next shiny thing, those things can get done. They’re essential.”

Ukraine’s armed forces have spent the last week liberating huge swaths of territory, and more liberated territory means more land to clear. But Ukraine has a plan to get the job done—it just needs the long-term support to make sure it succeeds. More victories like the liberation of large parts of Kharkiv oblast will keep the war moving in the right direction for Ukraine, and demining efforts will be critical to ensure that Ukrainians displaced by the war can finally come home safely.

Doug Klain is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.  Twitter: @DougKlain

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