Peace Time: Lethal Leftovers In Ukraine


August 28, 2022: The United States is giving Ukraine $89 million for demining. Normally this means clearing landmines from what was once a combat zone. Ukraine is different. Few landmines were used but the Russians did leave many booby-traps behind when they retreated, they are still retreating, and that means more of these IETs (improvised explosive traps) are being placed in buildings, civilian vehicles, major appliances and under bodies of dead Ukrainians. There are also some naval mines to deal with in the Black Sea.

Even more numerous UXO (UneXplOded munitions) are the many Russian artillery shells and missiles that failed to detonate on impact. The percentage of Russian shells and missiles that become UXOs is much higher than for Ukrainian munitions. The Russians also use a lot more artillery and missile fire. Experience has shown that the fuzes of unexploded munitions sometimes function when anyone attempts to move them deliberately or accidentally (as in during construction or rubble clearance). Landmines are banned by the Ottawa Convention international treaty, but dud shells and improvised explosives UXO are not. The improvised explosive traps are a war crime and have always been. The hundred Ukrainian demining teams will consist of local volunteers trained by Ukrainian and foreign experts with experience in landmine and UXO detection and removal.

Finding and clearing landmines is relatively easy compared to non-landmine UXOs. These can be anywhere there was combat and have always been a more common problem. UXO from both World Wars and more recent conflicts are still a problem, requiring the maintenance of local emergency teams to handle old UXOs that are still being discovered. That will apply to parts of Ukraine for a long time. There are not many World War Two UXOs in Ukraine because there was not a lot of sustained combat on stationary fronts, and few aerial bombs compared to Germany, which was pounded for years by American and British heavy bombers. Currently about 160,000 square kilometers of Ukraine are contaminated, mainly with unexploded dud shells, rockets, hand grenades and some buried stockpiles of explosives. The longer the fighting goes on the more UXOs will be created.

Russia did not use landmines in Ukraine until the 2022 invasion and have been using them in any territory they retreat from, if they have time. These landmines are recently manufactured models that usually work, rather than turn into UXOs as many older or improvised landmines do. Russia denies this but the landmines found are easily identified as Russian designs. Leaving behind landmines and IETs indicates the Russians don’t believe they will reoccupy that territory anytime soon and don’t care about local civilians killed or wounded by these devices.

Currently Russian landmines and IETs are being used in Kherson province north of Crimea. The mines tend to be anti-personnel and anti-vehicle models delivered by rocket launchers. Landmines, emplaced manually by troops or engineers, are older models, some dating back to the 1950s that have been kept in storage ever since. Many of these prove to be duds used to slow down the advancing Ukrainians, who expect Russian landmines and have troops trained to uncover them so they can be destroyed from a distance.

Russians and Ukrainians living in Crimea and parts of Donbas occupied since 2014 fear that Russia will leave behind landmines and IETs if the Ukrainians liberate these areas and that is making the locals nervous. Russians are leaving because of that, as well as the increasing Ukrainian partisan activity in Crimea and Donbas. Ukrainian collaborators are also leaving, even if they are tolerated but not really welcome in Russia. The partisans often attack the Ukrainian collaborators using IETs planted in automobiles or just gunfire.

Some countries, especially the United States. believe the Ottawa Convention (that banned landmines) is largely a failure because landmines are still widely used. While 161 nations signed the Ottawa treaty, 36 did not, including Russia. Ukraine signed the treaty and is not believed to have used landmines. Other major military powers that did not sign the treaty include China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel (and the Palestinians), both Koreas, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Most of these nations still see a pressing need for landmines, although many are trying to find replacement weapons.

While landmines were outlawed in 1999, most of the nations that rushed to sign the Ottawa Convention either didn't have landmines or didn't have any reason to use them. While landmine casualties have declined from about 20,000 a year when the Cold War ended (1991) to about 5,000 now, that was largely due to the collapse of many communist governments, which were always the biggest landmine users, mainly to keep people from entering or leaving their territory. The fall of communism led to more open borders and a lot of mines were taken out of service. The treaty backers like to take credit for 87 countries destroying 46 million landmines. The reality was that most of those mines would have been destroyed anyway because of the collapse of the many communist governments which made most of those mines.

Despite the anti-landmine efforts, some countries still manufacture and use them. In the last few years Israel, Libya, Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Myanmar (Burma) planted new mines. Some nations which still use landmines, like Israel, have taken the lead in developing new technology and techniques for quickly clearing landmines, especially old ones whose location was never recorded.

In addition, there are three countries still manufacturing landmines (India, Myanmar, and Pakistan). Arms dealers still provide large quantities of Russian and Chinese landmines, many of them Cold War surplus. China, Russia, and other communist nations were the major producers of landmines during the Cold War. The mines were produced not so much for use against potential enemies but to aid in keeping the borders closed and prevent citizens from leaving these unpleasant dictatorships.

There has been a growing list of outlaw organizations that are ignoring the 1999 ban. The Taliban in Afghanistan (until 2021) and Pakistan are manufacturing landmines in primitive workshops and using them against Pakistani, Afghan, and foreign soldiers, as well as civilians who refuse to support Islamic terrorism. Rebels and gangsters have not signed the international agreement and find the mines a cheap way to control civilian populations and slow down the movements of the security forces. It takes more time, money, and effort to remove these mines than to place them.

Despite the 1999 treaty, landmines are still causing over 5,000 casualties a year worldwide. About 20 percent of the victims are killed and 90 percent of them are males. This is largely because men are more likely to be out in the bush or working farmlands that still contain mines. A third of the casualties are security personnel (police and soldiers). This is because in many countries rebels and criminals are still using landmines, either factory made ones from countries that did not sign the Ottawa Convention or locally made models.

Landmines are simple to make and workshops are easily set up to do it. There's no shortage of mines out there, despite the fact that so many have been destroyed in the name of the 1999 Ottawa Convention. There are believed to be over 100 million mines still in the ground and at least as many in military warehouses for future use.

The 1999 Ottawa Convention was supposed to have eliminated the threat of landmines. It hasn't worked because the owners of the largest landmine stockpiles, especially Russia and China, refused to sign. Chinese landmines are still available on the international arms black market. China is believed to have the largest stockpile, mostly of anti-personnel mines. The old ones are often sold before they become worthless. But even these mines, which go for $5-10 each, are too expensive for many of the criminal organizations that buy them. Land mines, competitive with the factory-built ones from China, can be built for less than $3 each. You can find all the technical data you need on the Internet.

Meanwhile, the most effective way to get the mine-clearing done is by training local volunteers to be part of the part-time mine-clearing teams. The government must provide training, pay (which should be good by local standards), and health and life insurance. When a new bunch of mines is found (usually by an animal coming across them), the team gets to work.

Landmines continue to be a nasty problem for many nations. This is especially true of countries in out-of-the-way places that rarely generate many headlines for any reason. A typical case is Tajikistan. One of the northern neighbors of Afghanistan, Tajikistan long had mines on its borders because of communist policies towards free movement (as little as possible). After becoming independent of Russia in the early 1990s, Tajikistan went through several years of civil war in which both sides planted thousands of Cold War surplus landmines. Russia helped settle that internal conflict and supplied peacekeepers, who also manned the Afghan border to try and keep the Afghan heroin and hashish out. This involved creating more new minefields along the Afghan border. There were also some mines planted on the new international borders (with other former parts of the Soviet Union).

While Tajikistan got some foreign aid to help with clearing all those mines, only about a third of the known minefields have been cleared so far. Fortunately, the mines tend to be planted in thinly populated areas, so only about 350,000 people live near enough to the mined areas to be in any danger. Thus, since 1991, 20-30 people a year have been killed by the mines, with another 30-40 wounded. Civilians are the most frequent victims of landmines.

India and Pakistan continue to maintain extensive minefields along their 900-kilometer border. Both countries still manufacture mines. Same deal with the two Koreas and Israel on its Syrian border.

The United States believes it cannot ignore this vital tool in conventional warfare. This is especially true in an increasingly unstable strategic environment. The ethical problem is an important one. Unilateral disarmament is a fools’ errand when likely adversaries won’t join in. Since 2016 the Americans have been developing landmines with a “self-destruct and self-activate” function. These landmines would be rendered harmless after a conflict. There are two approaches to the problem. First one aims to add additional sensors and connect smart mines into wireless networks supervised by a soldier who decides whether to detonate landmines or not. Meanwhile, the second way involves the addition of self-destruct and self-activate mechanisms that activate after a set time or when the battery power is exhausted.

There is still a problem because self-destruct mechanisms are not 100 percent reliable. International agreements allow a 10 percent dud rate. This could be higher due to the delivery method. The landmines are usually scattered by aircraft or artillery at a rate of thousands in a matter of minutes, with little precision. These are similar to cluster munitions, and some landmines might fail to arm or their self-destruct system is damaged. For example, Russia has used “smart” mines which are still dangerous in Chechnya many years after the conflict. Even more advanced networked minefields pose a serious danger for friendly forces passing through them when in “off-mode” as did dumb minefields during Gulf War of 1991.


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