As demining teams carry out lifesaving and dangerous work ridding several countries of the deadly legacy of landmines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) laid in successive wars, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has become the latest theatre where this menace has already contaminated 300,000 sq km of Ukrainian territory – an area larger than the UK. It will take many years to clear.

According to Human Rights Watch, Russian-laid landmines – including at least seven types of banned antipersonnel (AP) mines – are causing thousands of civilian casualties since the Russian invasion in February 2022. In Landmine Use in Ukraine, based on information from witness accounts and its researchers in Ukraine, Human Rights Watch report that many Ukrainian civilians and soldiers were killed by IEDs left by Russian forces as they retreated from northern Kyiv.

UXO is disrupting production of food, infrastructure, urban and rural transportation routes, and an entire economy continually wracked by a war that shows no sign of ending. Even when war ends, UXO seriously hampers reconstruction and prevents a return to anything resembling normal life.

While both Russia and Ukraine are depositing anti-vehicle mines, Russia is the sole perpetrator of AP mines, which violate international humanitarian law because they do not discriminate between civilians and combatants. Thousands of lives and limbs have been lost worldwide through their use, with agricultural land and properties rendered inaccessible for many years.

Russia’s earlier legacy

Russian forces laid landmines in Donetsk and Luhansk from 2014 to 2015, with an estimated 2 million people already at risk of landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) in eastern Ukraine prior to the 2022 invasion. In all, UXO taints at least six regions – Donetsk, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Kyiv, Odesa, Sumy, and Zaporizhzhia. According to UNICEF, by 2017 Eastern Ukraine was already one of the world’s most mine-contaminated areas.

Russia has not ratified the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which as well as banning AP requires destruction of stockpiles, clearance of mined areas, and assistance to victims. Ukraine signed it in February 1999 and became a state party in June 2006.

New, old and varied mines

As well as Soviet-era munitions, in the current conflict the Russians are also using newly manufactured, remotely delivered mines along with mechanically laid landmines and VOIEDs – victim-operated (booby-trap) IEDs. Booby-trapped MON-series mines have been emplaced in Bucha in Kyiv region. Among the seven types used, the MON-series of hand-emplaced directional fragmentation munitions which when deployed in victim-activated mode by a mechanical pull, tension release, or seismic fuze are prohibited by the Mine Ban Treaty.

In a typical incident involving Soviet-era ERW, a farm worker was injured when his tractor detonated a Russian TM-62 anti-vehicle mine. Two men were killed by an OZM-72 command-detonated or victim-activated mine that Ukrainian police said was emplaced by Russian troops in a field. At least 10 reports of tractors detonating landmines were in the Kyiv region.

Improvised mines

Russian forces were filmed using improvised POM-2 mines near Horlivka in Donetsk region. Russia-backed forces are combining the POM-2 with the rocket motor of an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) to create a short-range, remotely-delivered AP system.

The rocket-deployed POM-3 antipersonnel mine, made in 2021, launches to a 1-1.5-m height then detonates in mid-air, producing lethal fragments at a 16-m distance. Fitted with a sensitive seismic fuze that will detonate when approached, a self-destruct feature also sets the mine to explode after a certain period. Areas close to the capital are also contaminated by banned cluster munitions.

Demining efforts

It is not possible to carry out full-scale humanitarian demining during a conflict, but coordinated efforts have begun to conduct searches, identify and, where possible, remove UXO. By mid-May Ukrainian authorities said nearly 80,000 mines and IEDs had been removed.

National authorities work with UN agencies and international and local mine action organisations. The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) has developed Ukraine’s Information Management System for Mine Action (IMSMA) from 2012. The IMSMA serves as an emergency coordination platform to assess and share masses of UXO data for national authorities to map threat-ridden areas and plan EOD and humanitarian demining operations.

In June, the UK Mines Advisory Group charity, which employs 5,700 staff in 27 countries and has significant expertise in clearing mines in Iraq and Syria, sent a team to Ukraine to work with local people and the Ukrainian Deminers Association to begin mine and IED disposal. Survey and clearance work is expected to begin later in 2022, as well as advising on how communities can cope with the scourge of UXO.

Family members are warned not to return home because of possible IEDs. Identifying the areas and extent of contamination and types of UXO will help to speed up recovery so that civilians can return to their homes and land safely. However, with an estimated 10-30% of explosive weapons deployed by the Russians abandoned in various locations over a huge area, a large portion of UXO is likely to remain a threat to the Ukrainian population long after the fighting is over.

POM-2 antipersonnel mines and their KPOM-2 dispensers cleared by Kharkiv emergency services from areas around villages in the Kyiv region, Ukraine on 17 April 2022.
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