Ukraine is staring down a massive humanitarian challenge — now and into the future.
ukraThe sign is red, marked with a skull and crossbones and a warning: “Danger mines!” In parts of Ukraine that were contested or controlled by Russian forces, these are reminders that even in territory Ukraine has defended or retaken, the land itself is not fully liberated from war.
Russia’s full-scale invasion has made Ukraine one of the most mined countries in the world. In less than two years, the conflict has potentially created one of the largest demining challenges since World War II.
This includes anti-tank mines, which target vehicles — though if triggered, they do not distinguish between a battle tank and a school bus. There are also anti-personnel mines, which are intended to kill or hurt people, and more makeshift explosives, like booby traps, that serve similar aims. Unexploded artillery and cluster munitions also litter the landscape. Both sides have been firing off tens of thousands of rounds of artillery each day. Even if only a small percentage of those are duds, they can still detonate, maim, and kill, sometimes long after the fighting.
About 174,000 square kilometers of Ukraine is suspected to be contaminated with mines and unexploded ordnance, called UXOs. It is an area about the size of Florida, about 30 percent of Ukraine’s territory. This estimate accounts for land occupied by Russia since its full-scale invasion, along with recaptured areas, everywhere from the Kharkiv region in the east to areas around Kyiv, like Bucha. According to Human Rights Watch, mines have been documented in 11 of Ukraine’s 27 regions.
Still, the 174,000 square kilometer figure is likely an overestimate, experts and international deminers say. Russia would not have the time, ability, or need to mine every inch of contested land. But until deminers or officials can confirm areas suspected of contamination free from it, the outcomes look the same. That land is off-limits.
“For every football pitch that is contaminated, there’s probably 100 football pitches that are not,” said Paul Heslop, chief technical adviser and program manager for mine action at the United Nations Development Program in Ukraine. “The humanitarian impact comes from the land that is contaminated because obviously you don’t get hurt if you walk through a minefield that isn’t a minefield,” Heslop added. “But the economic impact, and perhaps the social impact, and the impact on the global economy, on global food security, is coming from the 100 minefields that are not minefields.”
What is known — that Ukraine is heavily mined and polluted by unexploded remnants of war — and what is not — where, exactly, these dangers exist — are twin problems Ukraine faces. It takes resources, people, and time to declare places largely free from hazards.
And, right now, a lot of Ukrainian land is still inaccessible, under Russian control or too close to the front lines. That makes it unsafe for humanitarian deminers and vulnerable to recontamination. In the areas deminers can access, it takes even more resources and time to map those locations and then undertake the meticulous and perilous process of clearing mines and returning the land, fully, back to Ukraine.
But until either happens, it deepens and compounds the crisis for Ukrainian civilians in wartime. If a power station is suspected of being mined, technicians might not be able to quickly restore electricity if it goes out. An ambulance might have to take a longer route to the hospital to avoid particular roads.
The scale of the problem is so vast in Ukraine and the resources so finite — even with increasing international assistance and support — that authorities must prioritize. What can’t be investigated or cleared immediately may get cordoned off and marked with a warning sign.
The risks remain. As of this summer, the HALO Trust, an international demining NGO, recorded at least 700 civilian casualties because of land mines, likely an undercount. In 2022 alone, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines recorded more than 600 casualties from mines in Ukraine, a tenfold increase from 2021. The Ukrainian government said in November that mines and explosives have killed 260 civilians in 20 months of war. These mines and other unexploded devices will continue to complicate any rebuilding efforts and will injure and kill civilians now and potentially long after the hostilities end.
Even when the guns have stopped firing, said Erik Tollefsen, head of the Weapon Contamination Unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross, “the land mines remain active.”
This is a long-term challenge. Deminers are still clearing mines and cluster munitions from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia used by Americans in the Vietnam War. Farmers in Belgium and France, even now, find unexploded World War I shells buried in fields.
Ukraine already had demining operations ongoing before Russia’s full-scale invasion, to find ordnance from World War II and from Russia’s 2014 incursion. Deminers in Ukraine are still finding munitions from the WWII era now, as they begin, bit by bit, to rescue territory from the ongoing war.
The front line in the Ukraine war may be the the most heavily mined terrain on the planet. Russian troops built a formidable defensive belt, laid and relaid, that stymied Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
Ukraine, too, has laid anti-tank mines to slow Russian advances, and Western partners — including the US — have transferred anti-tank mines to Ukraine. Human Rights Watch has also alleged that Ukrainian troops fired anti-personnel mines near the town of Izium, in the Kharkiv region, which it recaptured from Russia last year. Ukraine is party to the 1997 convention that bans the use of anti-personnel mines (Russia is not), and Ukrainian authorities have said they will investigate.
The Ukrainian front line extends hundreds of miles, a daunting minefield. But the boundaries are clear and have been largely static, especially in the past year. Deminers know mines will be found here when the war ends.
The challenge exists when mines are not placed in patterns or appropriately mapped (as militaries are supposed to do), and instead are laid haphazardly or in a rush — or with the intention of terrorizing, as Russia has done in its withdrawal from parts of Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities have reportedly found mines in refrigerators or in toys. Russian troops have planted booby traps or grenades rigged with tripwires, making them even trickier to remove. Retreating Russian forces have booby trapped the bodies of dead soldiers. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Russia of mining the bodies of people killed.
“The Russians are incredibly crafty when it comes to placing booby traps, and they do it to catch out the unwary,” said Col. Bob Seddon, former head of bomb disposal in the British Army. “It’s not always to catch out the military that we’ve seen. In some of the villages and towns that the Russians have abandoned, they have left booby traps in civilian dwellings to catch out civilians returning.”
Mines are only one slice of the larger problem of UXO contamination. “It’s the artillery shells, and then it’s everything that is used in the course of the battle and is potentially hazardous because it’s explosive, and it hasn’t already exploded,” said Suzanne Fiederlein, director of the Center for International Stabilization and Recovery at James Madison University. Cluster munitions, which the US started sending to Ukraine this summer, release dozens of bomblets when fired, which scatter about and don’t always immediately explode as they should. But these cluster bombs, along with other kinds of artillery, can still be triggered later, detonating if they’re just slightly disturbed or picked up or moved.
“Just everywhere you can imagine, these things are just lying in wait,” said Col. Matt Dimmick (Ret.), Europe Regional Program Manager for Spirit of America, describing the aftermath of combat.
Military deminers and combat engineers must clear mines quickly, often under fire, so troops can advance. It is not about removing every single explosive, but instead creating a safe path to breach defensive lines.
[In the video above, the Ukrainian band Океан Ельзи has made a music video for its song “I’m going home” that follows the training and journey of a deminer.]
Humanitarian demining and clearance operate under a different set of rules. The standard is clear everything, with as much confidence as possible. Ukraine also has its own national mine action standards, developed from its robust experience of clearing ordnance from World War II and the 2014 conflict in the Donbas.
The first step is determining where the mine or ordnance contamination might be. Right now, Ukraine is working with that wide, wide net — basically, anywhere Russian troops entered or held — and needs to whittle away from there. The process begins with a nontechnical survey, which is a kind of fact-finding mission. Some places are easy to pinpoint: If active fighting occurred or a land mine or bomb goes off, it is a pretty sure sign the land is hazardous.
It can also mean scouring social media posts and local news reports. “This is people with binoculars, people going out with rudimentary search equipment to try and determine where the limits of explosive ordnance contamination exist,” Seddon said.
Teams will interview locals, the mayor, policemen, or even the military to try to gather more information. Satellite imagery helps, as do evolving technologies like drones and thermal imaging.
As the potential contaminated area narrows, the techniques become more precise: teams on the ground using metal detectors or dogs. (Patron is Ukraine’s official mine-sniffing mascot.) The goal of all of this is to reduce and reduce the area to what actually needs to be cleared to finally allow teams to go in and start to remove the mines.
Except, right now in Ukraine, not every mine and unexploded ordnance can be removed. It is an active conflict, and an overhead strike or heavy shelling can recontaminate the land almost instantly. Ukraine does not have the resources, equipment, or people to remove every land mine right now.
Ihor Bezkaravainyi, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Economy who oversees land mine clearance, said Ukraine is prioritizing “demining for civilian needs.” The aim is to make the land as usable and as safe as possible until everything can be cleared at a later time. “We can’t demine all dangerous parts of Ukraine at the same time,” he said.
Critical infrastructure is Ukraine’s top priority, such as roads, electricity lines, gas and water pipes, and power stations. So is civilian safety, making sure people can return to schools or hospitals safely. Then comes areas that intersect with Ukraine’s economy, specifically the grain fields that underpin the country’s agricultural sector.
This kind of mine clearance is what Heslop called “outcomes driven.” Full clearance — that is, removing every single mine — is not feasible with stretched resources and a fluid conflict. Instead, deminers may clear an area around a power station so workers can access it for necessary repairs and maintenance, but marking off the rest for future operations. Teams might remove mines so a farmer can plant at least some of his acreage, but not all of it. In a war, those are the trade-offs Ukraine has to make.
“We cleared this area and the power transformer was installed and 5,000 people got electricity. We cleared this area and a bridge was rebuilt, which took down the travel time to a hospital from four hours to 15 minutes,” Heslop said.
“Every task we do — because we’ve got so few people at the moment — has to have impact, has to have a positive outcome, has to be helping Ukraine in some way,” he added.
Ryan Hendrickson, a retired Green Beret for the US Army Special Forces and founder of Tip of the Spear Landmine Removal, has been working with a team with on mine clearance in Ukraine. He said in early 2022, when Russia started leaving places like Bucha and Irpin to focus on the Donbas, people slowly started returning to their homes. It reminded him a bit of the aftermath of a hurricane or flood: people returning to see what’s left.
As they returned, so did the risks of land mines and other munitions buried among the ruins. The fear is that people, lives already disrupted by war, cannot wait for demining operations. Residents want to restart and rebuild, so they will move and sort through the rubble themselves. Farmers want to plow their fields, and so they’ll rig up makeshift machines to try to pull mines up themselves.
“People just can’t wait for the scarce resource, the clearance resources, so they take matters into their own hands, and perhaps put themselves at risk, but they need to pay the bills and feed their families,” Alex van Roy, of the Fondation Suisse de Déminage (FSD), said.
Education and awareness campaigns attempt to mitigate this risk. In Ukraine, announcements warning of land mines broadcast on the radio and blast out across social media. Animated ads run on trains, especially important to warn any Ukrainians who may be newly returning to their homes. Kids get coloring books, warning them not to touch things that look like mines. Patron, Ukraine’s mine-sniffing dog, visits schools and stars in music videos. Teams go door to door. There are murals everywhere. “It looks like propaganda, but we need to do it because it’s simple rules, and all Ukrainians must know about it,” Bezkaravainyi said.
[Patron’s theme song is shown in the video above.]
These tools fill the gaps until Ukraine can scale up, which can probably only happen on a large scale when the fighting ends. The US has pledged more than $182 million for humanitarian demining efforts, and other international donors and organizations are dedicating resources there. Ukrainian groups and figures sometimes crowdfund on social media, like Ukrainian comedian Mark Kutsevalov, who is raising money for demining equipment, documenting his efforts on Instagram.
But the World Bank estimates it will cost about $37 billion to demine Ukraine. Even with assistance and expertise from international NGOs and other organizations, much demining is done by Ukrainians themselves — school teachers, taxi drivers, and moms who are trained in the incredibly dangerous work. Ukraine has about 3,000 demining specialists, with plans to train more, though Ukrainian officials have said they need thousands more.
Ukraine’s deep experience with demining has also become something of a hindrance, as rules put in place to protect safety procedures and processes add to the bureaucracy and red tape. Officials in Ukraine are aware of these challenges, but changing the laws requires acts of Parliament. Some of it, too, is Ukraine’s desire to show its population that demining is a priority and that the government is capable of delivering to its population.
This is a problem for Ukraine now, as the war, and if and when the fighting ends. This isn’t a new lesson of conflict; the world’s experiences with the long-tail dangers to civilians from mines and artillery led to global conventions banning anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions. But the efforts to protect civilians, in the near- and long-term, often collide with the realities of the battlefield. Militaries use land mines because, on the battlefield, they believe they work in combat.
But the weapons themselves do not discriminate between tank or ambulance, soldier or civilian. Which means, in Ukraine, some cities and towns exist in a precarious limbo, free of Russian occupation, but not its remnants. “I used to go here before February 24. I could go over here,” Hendrickson said, describing the frustration of some Ukrainian communities. “Why can’t I go there now? Why is there red tape and a mine sign in front of this? I want my land back. I want my home back. I want — boom.”
Translation and additional reporting by Olena Lysenko.
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