Two years after Russian invasion, landmines plague one-third of Ukraine

Two years after Russian invasion, landmines plague one-third of Ukraine

WASHINGTON — Two years after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the country has become one of the most mine-littered nations on the planet. Eleven of Ukraine’s 27 regions are strewn with mines, according to Human Rights Watch. All told, about 30% of Ukraine’s territory is infested with land mines, an area roughly equivalent to the state of Florida.

The range of hidden weapons lurking underfoot includes powerful anti-vehicle mines that can blow up a tank or a large bus, smaller anti-personnel mines designed to kill or maim anyone who triggers it, as well as improvised booby traps and unexploded munitions.  

Nearly 1,000 civilians in Ukraine have been killed by mines since the war began, according to aid groups. And most of those civilian casualties were caused by anti-vehicle mines planted in areas where Ukrainians were trying to return to and revive their farms. 

Worldwide, land mines killed approximately 1,600 people, the vast majority of them civilians, in 2022. They infest roughly 50 countries, endangering local populations for decades after conflicts end.  

“The land mines impact every aspect of our life as a country,” Anastasia Radina, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, said in an interview with NBC News.

“It is a huge issue for farmers,” she added, “and it’s also impacting civilians, literally kids going to the park or to the forest, they can actually encounter landmines in many territories of Ukraine.”

Russian forces in Ukraine have deployed a deadly new type of anti-personnel mine, known as the POM-3, which is designed to detonate when someone walks nearby, using seismic sensors. The Russian innovation makes the weapon more difficult to locate and disarm, and more challenging to remove once combat has ended.

The POM-3, about the size of a soft-drink can, is usually launched by a rocket before it parachutes to the ground, where it sticks a small probe in the dirt. When the seismic probe detects a person walking nearby, it fires an explosive that detonates in midair, spewing metal fragments.

Mines planted by Russian forces have hampered attempts by Ukrainian troops to liberate captured territory, killing soldiers, slowing ground offensives and wrecking armored vehicles. Ukraine’s military has had to mount elaborate and time-consuming efforts to clear mines and carve out assault lanes for its armored units.

Ukrainian troops have also employed mines to roll back Russian forces. Last year, Ukrainian troops repeatedly used rocket-fired anti-personnel mines while attacking Russian forces occupying the city of Izium, according to a report from Human Rights Watch. 

Ukraine’s government told Human Rights Watch it could not comment on the types of weapons it is using until the war is over and its sovereignty restored.

To date, 164 nations have signed a 1997 international accord, the Mine Ban Treaty, which bars the use of anti-personnel mines. Ukraine signed the agreement but Russia, the United States, China and roughly two dozen other nations have not.

The $95 billion U.S. aid package to Ukraine currently under consideration by Congress includes a provision that would fund land mine clearance in the country. If passed by the House and Senate, $100 million of that aid would go toward removing land mines. 

The HALO Trust, a humanitarian organization that rose to prominence when it caught the attention of Princess Diana in the 1990s, is one of at least four nonprofit groups working to remove land mines in Ukraine.

The CEO of the HALO Trust, retired British army officer James Cowan, told NBC News that his staff trains 1,200 employees, 98% of them Ukrainian, to safely demine the country’s liberated cities.

Cowan said that 20,000 mines have been cleared by the HALO Trust, 8,500 of which were anti-tank mines, since the start of the war. The United Nations Development Programme, with the financial support of Western countries, funds nearly 80% of Ukraine’s demining efforts.

Women comprise nearly half of HALO’s staff, Cowan said, in part because men between the ages of 18 and 60 are obligated to conscript in the military. “Women are very meticulous deminers, they’re courageous people,” Cowan said.

Olena Boryslavska, a 46-year-old former consultant, is one of them. Before the war, Boryslavska spent 12 years helping various industries adopt new technologies, most recently agriculture.

“I couldn’t stay in my comfort zone. It’s like I had an internal calling,” she told NBC News in a phone interview.

After Boryslavska saw multiple advertisements, including one showing women demining terrain in Sri Lanka, she applied. “I figured it was safe enough if women were doing it all over the world,” she said.

Though the risks are high, Boryslavska loves the work. “It’s obviously not the profession I dreamed of when I was a young girl,” she said. “But with HALO, every single minute of my job yields a result I can see and feel, every land mine I remove from the ground I know is one step toward a free Ukraine.” 

Cowan, the head of HALO, traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to lobby members of Congress to support the Ukraine aid package.

“I actually think our cause, which ultimately is about stopping someone being blown up by a land mine, is very bipartisan,” Cowan said. “Who on earth wants to see a child lose its legs from a land mine?” 

In 2018, members of Congress formed the bipartisan Unexploded Ordnance and Demining Caucus to help highlight the use of American tax dollars for demining efforts worldwide.

As Congress now debates sending additional support to Ukraine, some pro-Trump Republicans argue that economic assistance, which includes funds for demining efforts, is unnecessary. Other Trump supporters in Congress have ruled out sending what they refer to as a “blank check” to Ukraine, claiming that much of the aid is lost to corruption.

Radina, the Ukrainian Parliament member, denies the corruption allegations and says more U.S. aid is desperately needed. Ukrainian refugees who want to return home are hesitant to do so because of the continuing threat of land mines.

“How are they expected to return to their normal lives if there is no normal life?” she said.

Cowan worries that the U.S. could cease military and economic support for Ukraine altogether. “I think the world is very prone to move from one crisis to the next and to lose interest,” he said. “We’ve got to stay patient and persistent in our strategy.”

Cowan said untrained Ukrainian civilians are increasingly desperate to reclaim their land. “They want to plant a crop. They want to go to school. They want to get to work,” he said. “But if you do take matters into your own hands, you’re going to risk your life.”

Julie Tsirkin

Julie Tsirkin is a correspondent covering Capitol Hill.

Dan De Luce

Dan De Luce is a reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit. 

Kate Santaliz

Kate Santaliz is an associate producer for NBC News’ Capitol Hill team.

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