Ukraine is fast becoming the biggest minefield on the planet. But the use of mines on the battlefield often gets short shrift when it comes to attracting attention, something not particularly surprising because with few exceptions, mines are static devices and not often responsible for the sort of instant gratification footage so common in an era of social media. Nowhere is this more readily observed than in the Russian-Ukraine war, which is about to mark its one-year anniversary since Russian president Vladimir Putin launched a major invasion of Ukraine, something Putin euphemistically but steadfastly refers to as a “special military operation.”
While military action often takes center stage, another type of war is going on in Ukraine being “fought” by personnel from the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, (Ukrainian: Державна служба України з надзвичайних ситуацій – ДСНС) known in English by the initials DSNS. These professionals encounter mines, booby traps, and unexploded ordnance at a staggering rate, and they are paying for it with their lives.
Mines – History and Law
Anti-Personnel landmines (APLs), are one of two basic categories of mines, the other being anti-vehicle mines, but the use of land mines actually dates to the Civil War, and is credited to Confederate General Gabriel J. Raines, who used them to defend positions in the Battle of Yorktown in 1862, even patenting the device. In WWI, usage expanded greatly and the rest, as they say, is history.
The well-regarded non-governmental organization HALO Trust estimates that as of December 2018, “60 states and territories were known to be affected by landmines,” with the most severely impacted countries including Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Iraq, Libya, Sri Lanka, Syria, Yemen and Zimbabwe. Although the war is still ongoing, Ukraine will surely join that list. Indeed, HALO Trust is already actively engaged in demining work in Donetsk and Luhansk.
For its part, recognizing the carnage caused by the use of mines, the U.S. has pledged $89 million in demining aid for Ukraine, a figure that is sure to rise the longer the conflict endures. U.S. Department of State (DoS) funds (which will not go directly to the government of Ukraine) will help fund, train, and equip approximately 100 de-mining teams over the next year according to a recent DoS release, as broadcast by Voice of America.
Current U.S. policy is not to use so-called persistent landmines, which effectively means a U.S. commitment to avoid mines that do not incorporate self-destruct and self-deactivation features.
The Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, commonly known as the Ottawa Convention, requires states parties to stop the production, use, and transfer of APLs, as well as to destroy all stockpiled APLs, except for the “minimum number absolutely necessary” for training purposes. Interestingly, the Ottawa Convention only includes APLs, not other types of landmines, such as anti-vehicle landmines like the Russian TM-62. A number of large landmine-producing countries, including the U.S. and Russian Federation, have refused to sign onto the provisions of the Ottawa Conventions, although on June 21, 2022, President Biden announced that excepting the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. will essentially honor the other Ottawa provisions. Ukraine however, is a signatory of the Ottawa Convention.
Another key treaty is the United Nations (U.N.) 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) Because of concerns about the growing global problem with landmine usage, the U.N. sought to amend a critical element of the CCW; Protocol II, which dealt with Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices. The process to amend the CCW began in 1996, and ended with the convention coming into force on December 3, 1998. Although the amendment bars use of non-self-destructing and non-self-deactivating mines outside fenced, monitored and marked areas, the Russians are clearly unconcerned about the treaty they signed if Ukraine is any indication. This is not particularly surprising though, as the former Soviet Union was known to boobytrap children’s toys and even items like soap, pens, and chewing gum with explosives, in violation of another provision of the original Protocol II, which prohibits the use of booby-traps and other devices in the form of apparently harmless portable objects, such as children’s toys, specifically designed to contain explosive material.
The CCW currently has a total of 126 States Parties and 4 signatories, to include both Russia and Ukraine, but it is important to recall this convention only regulates the use of APLs: it does not ban them. In the interest of fairness, it is worth noting that while the U.S. has signed Additional Protocol II, it has never been ratified by the Senate, because of U.S. concerns Protocol II excludes conflicts in which armed groups “occupy no significant territory but conduct sporadic guerrilla operations;” in short the sort of actions committed by terrorist groups like Al-Qa’ida, ISIS, and Boko Haram.
An American in Ukraine
SFC (R) Ryan Hendrickson knows a thing or two about explosives. A retired 18C series Special Forces Engineer Sergeant with multiple combat tours in Afghanistan, he personally appreciates the dangers of emplaced explosive devices, as he was seriously wounded in Helmand Province Afghanistan during his first deployment as a Green Beret back in 2010, when he stepped on a pressure plate, triggering the device and nearly severing his leg. Although his leg was gravely injured, he was able to beat the odds and return back to service as a Green Beret, later going on to be awarded a Silver Star for his actions in 2016 during a 12-hour-long firefight in Baghlan, Afghanistan while leading an Afghan IED clearance unit.
I had a chance to talk with Hendrickson about his experiences in Ukraine, which began in March 2022, when “on a whim,” he traveled to Poland and then Ukraine to perform missionary humanitarian work with a group called YWAM, helping to evacuate people out of hotspots. Once Russian forces left Irpin and Bucha, he started delivering food and medical aid. As civilians trickling back to their homes, he began hearing reports about people encountering booby traps, cluster munitions, etc., even hearing the explosions personally. As Russian troops advanced east in the Donbas region, he rolled forward with his group to help villagers with food deliveries and other humanitarian work, but everywhere he went he saw signs of mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO).
Upon Hendrickson’s return to Ukraine in August 2022, he knew what he needed to do, bring CIEA metal detectors with him hoping to help villagers in Kharkiv. He already had schoolhouse expertise in Russian mines as an “18C” Special Forces Engineer Sergeant and was determined to help even more. Talking with local farmers, they told of the need to demine the fields by themselves, if necessary, because of the upcoming September harvest, as there were not enough government forces to get the job done. After collecting information about the area and the landmine situation by speaking with Territorial Defense Forces (TDF), Hendrickson was advised the fields had been mined using mine-laying machines. After questioning the TDF about how they were disposing of mines, Hendrickson learned they were stacking the mines and fuses along the road for the military to recover, and they gave Hendrickson a demining key. Since surrounding fields were similarly mined and were being worked by Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) sappers – combat engineers – Hendrickson said he felt comfortable disarming the mines by removing their fuses. “You had to understand the situation on the ground,” said Hendrickson. “When it came to actually “safe-ing” a mine, that was my risk and I took it on myself.” In doing so, Hendrickson provided desperately needed help for the villagers to reclaim their land.
Hendrickson described the scope of his work as “removing landmines so innocent citizens don’t have to worry about their next step.” Continuing, he noted “civilians are caught in the middle and don’t have the choice.” Through his foundation “Tip of the Spear Landmine Removal” a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization, Hendrickson is getting badly needed equipment where it is needed most, including a Talon 4 tactical robot, so the Ukrainians can remotely investigate suspected explosive items or dangerous areas. Other key items include remote pull equipment, and CEIA detectors.
Historic Risks of Demining in Ukraine
Following the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) has documented UXO, mine, and other explosive objects as part of their regular reporting. In a series of reports covering between November 2019 through March 2021, civilian deminers from DSNS have been killed and injured doing such work, as have significant numbers of civilians, and even one SMM member. This was of course well before Putin’s February 24, 2022 invasion. The majority of casualties, 76, were due to mines, UXO, and other explosive objects. Russia stopped cooperation with OSCE on March 31, 2022, thus ending the OSCE SMM and any substantive outside scrutiny of Russian mines and UXO.
According to Hendrickson, he is not surprised to see casualties amongst the DSNS. “Just from my experience, it’s been pretty bad.” He said while he does not know exact figures, during his mission between November and December 2022, sappers and DSNS lost 12 personnel from mines. Exact figures on the number of civilians and UAF personnel killed and injured by mines are impossible to gather and will surely be the subject of threatened war crimes prosecutions against Russia when the war eventually ends.
DSNS, according to Hendrickson, have their own internal schoolhouses where candidates train for about a month on various skills, similar to what they would get through International Mine Action Standards courses, and they instruct both men and women deminers in the dangerous work. Hendrickson said it is a quality school, but there are gaps when it comes to training on advanced tactics like countering anti-lift and anti-tamper devices being added to mines by the Russians.
In a series of videos showing his foundation’s emergency response demining efforts, Hendrickson offers an insider view of the hazardous work and the gratitude of Ukrainian civilians who have been impacted.
Dirty Tricks or Just Standard Operating Procedures?
Hendrickson described a variety of mine usage by Russian forces, which he said varied depending on where you are in the country. In Hendrickson’s experience, high avenues of approach in fields are heavily mined, with TM-62-type anti-vehicle mines being the most prevalent. He also described the significant usage of POM -2 and POM-3s, (which claimed the lives of two of his Ukrainian friends), the PFM-1 “butterfly” Anti-Personnel Landmines (APLs), and cluster munitions as being very common, along with seeing some of the MON-50 “Claymore” style APLs, the latter of which he chronicled encountering in his Twitter feed (@tipofthespear42) when he was clearing a field previously occupied by Russian forces.
Russians Booby-Trapped Mines to Prevent Disarming Them
Hendrickson expressed no concerns about being personally targeted by Russian forces, as his organization stays neutral in the conflict. But he has seen specific efforts to target sappers, DSNS and deminers through the booby-trapping of devices. He described encountering booby-trapped mines and the use of APLs as being another increased hazard to the significant demining efforts going on in Ukraine due to the sheer volume amount of mine usage. “If the Russians believe that an area they plan to mine is going to be used by Ukrainian forces, they may try to target high traffic areas by using layers of anti-personnel mines to protect the anti-tank mines” Hendrickson noted. Russian forces are also using some of their most advanced mines in Ukraine, as evidenced by this April 2022 Twitter post by @blueboy1969, showing a PTKM-1R top attack anti-vehicle mine.
Hendrickson is fully aware of the Russian’s booby-trapping mines like the TM-62 by tampering with the fuse assemblies, and placing APLs or anti-tamper devices underneath such mines, like the MS-3. “Oh yeah. I’ve seen the devices. I’ve seen the tampering with fuzes. I’m tracking. We’ve heard about and seen evidence of using photo cells that can detonate them,” he said. Hendrickson noted that the tactic of boobytrapping mines by Russian forces in Ukraine is nothing new. If you look at past conflicts involving the Russians, the practice of booby-trapping mines seems to be a standard procedure. In researching this article, I found numerous YouTube videos showing how to boobytrap TM-62 mines, and how to use mine keys to disarm fuse assemblies, so the information is already out there.
The Future of Ukraine – The World’s Biggest Minefield
One day the war in Ukraine will end. Hendrickson stated when it does, in his opinion “Ukraine is going to be the most mined country in the world, and when the dust settles, what mines and explosives are there will take 50-100 years to resolve.”
Hendrickson was emphatic it is critical not to forget what is going on in Ukraine as the war drags on. “There are daily civilian casualties, and this is a situation the news is not really following anymore. It’s all about saving limbs and lives.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.