Ukraine is now the most mined country on Earth, surpassing even Syria and Afghanistan, according to a report called Walking on Fire: Demining in Ukraine, issued last month by Globsec, a think tank in Slovakia.
The Ukrainian government has been managing risks associated with unexploded ordnance since the First and Second World Wars, but the current full-scale invasion has brought a whole new level of complexity, according to the UN.
Since February last year, more than 30 per cent of Ukraine (more than 175,000 square kilometres – about the size of the US state of Florida) has been “exposed to severe conflict and will require expensive and extensive clearing operations”.
These ravaged lands, largely in the east but also in regions near Kyiv, were formerly Ukraine’s heartland. Experts believe the effort to clear Europe’s second-largest country, after Russia, could take decades and cost billions of dollars. The scale is unlike anything seen in the 21st century.
While both sides – Ukrainian and Russian – have laid mines, Russia, anticipating Ukraine's spring counteroffensive, mined their front lines.
Landmines are designed to inflict pain and suffering, to maim and kill. The brutality of these weapons cannot be underestimated. The US-made cluster munitions, while badly needed to bolster the Ukrainian counteroffensive, will add to the misery.
Between the beginning of the war in February last year and July this year, the UN estimates that there have been 298 civilian deaths in Ukraine due to explosive “remnants of war”. Of those, 22 were children. There have been 623 "civilian injuries", which usually means the horrific loss of limbs.
According to a recent report in The Washington Post, two kinds of mines were included in US aid packages to Ukraine. One was the remote anti-armour mine systems that use 155mm artillery rounds to create temporary minefields, which are programmed to self-destruct, and the other were the M21 antitank mines, which “require hundreds of pounds of force to detonate but do not self-destruct, leading to concerns about later removal”.
When triggered, a landmine unleashes agony. It destroys limbs and projects metal and debris into the wound, causing infection as well as burns, blindness and life-long injury. Jody Williams, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and head of the International Commission to Ban Landmines, said in her 1997 acceptance speech: “Landmines distinguish themselves because once they have been sown, once the soldier walks away from the weapon, the landmine cannot tell the difference between a soldier or a civilian – a woman, a child, a grandmother going out to collect firewood to make the family meal."
The commission reports that 61 countries are contaminated with landmines. Thousands of people, it reports, continue living with the daily threat of losing life or limb. “In addition, emplaced landmines deprive families and communities of land that can be put to productive use, such as agriculture,” it adds.
Among the many tragedies of the Ukraine war is the loss of income for farmers, leading to food insecurity. The World Food Programme estimates that about 45 per cent of the Ukrainian population is worried about finding enough to eat. The food insecurity has reverberated further abroad: food supply chains have dried up.
Huge swathes of rich farmland are now used as battlefields; ports are seized and blocked. The rich, black Ukrainian earth produced harvests of wheat, corn and sunflower that made the country the breadbasket of Europe.
A report in the Financial Times explained that the war has left a global supply gap due to Ukraine accounting for 8 per cent of the global wheat exports; 13 per cent of corn and more than a third of the trade in sunflower oil. "Normally, the country exports 40 million to 50 million tonnes of cereals every year, but Russia’s invasion has meant export volumes in March were a quarter of those in February, according to the Agriculture Ministry.”
The croplands that are mined have had a devastating effect on the farmers. Some decided they could not wait for the demining teams to arrive and began to dangerously clear their own land by hand before planting season. Some used metal detectors and then dug up anti-personnel mines, carefully removing them from the soil.
Experts and NGOs that deal with demining are beginning to examine how post-conflict Ukraine will look, and the long, laborious task of clearing the earth. Much of it has to be started now, while the war is going on.
According to the Ukrainian Armed Forces' official media centre, Ukrainian sappers have already defused 45,000 explosive devices during the past year. The Halo Trust, the world’s largest mine clearance organisation, currently employs 700 staff in Ukraine. They will nearly double by the end of the year.
“The scale of contamination is huge, and it’s spread across the country,” Mairi Cunningham, who runs the Halo Trust demining task force in Ukraine, said recently on CNN. “The scale of the problem, it’s not for one organisation, it’s a national effort.”
Looking ahead, it will take years to clear Ukraine’s land and restore it to pre-war conditions. Past conflicts and their success stories of clearing mines could aid the process – countries such as Chile have successfully removed all their landmines.
Cambodia, which once had the terrible sobriquet like Ukraine, of being the most mined country in the world (at one point in the 1990s, the estimate was between 8-10 million land mines) has been successful in entire regions removing mines.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which is working inside Ukraine as the lead mine co-ordinator, has stressed the importance of achieving zero landmines by targeting local communities and national governments, and emphasising the task of working together.
By June 2023, the UNDP reported that 540,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance have already been cleared. But they also agreed that making Ukraine safe is a difficult and very expensive long-term prospect. Almost 10.7 million people are in need of mine action services, the UN says. The World Bank estimates that the full demining package will cost more than $37 billion.
In future wars, we might well listen to the International Commission to Ban Landmines, which has been campaigning for decades to end the use of landmines. Although no wars are just, there are ways to wage war that do not specifically aim to cruelly maim and kill. As the report details: “Landmines are inhumane because, by design, they inflict brutal damage to the human body that kills or create life-long injuries. Once planted, landmines don't go away until they are removed.”