Ukraine is the most mine-contaminated country on earth. Red warning signs bearing skulls and crossbones litter the fields and forests of liberated territories, whilst civilians are still falling prey to explosives long after the fighting in these areas has ended.
Estimations have varied as to how much of Ukraine is mined, with the Ukrainian Government putting the figure at 160,000 square kilometres, over 25% of Ukraine’s territory. But the truth is more nuanced and in reality, the full extent is unknown.
“You need to understand that this 160,000 sq km is not contaminated. This is the area that is under high concern and requires appropriate survey activities to define the presence of explosive ordnance contamination and its impact on communities,” Aleksandr Lobov, a mine action specialist for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), told bne IntelliNews in an exclusive interview.
“It's possible to say 160,000 sq km, as it's the area where fighting took place and most likely could be contaminated,” he added.
Lobov is involved in the demining campaign around the de-occupied Kyiv region. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy accused Russian forces of planting tens of thousands of mines as they retreated last April and the laborious demining operations are still ongoing, even one year after the occupation. On the day of the interview, an exhausted Lobov had checked 27 houses for unexploded devices.
It is an immense, laborious task. First, specialists must gather evidence as to where mines are located, using reports from local authorities, eye-witnesses, social media videos and any other available data to determine a suspected hazard area. Next, deminers use detecting equipment to locate each mine and map the perimeter of the contaminated zone, before the clearance process can begin. Depending on the size of the area, the whole process can take months or years.
It is unlikely that Ukraine will be completely mine-free in our lifetime and the process will burden future generations of deminers and sappers for decades, with the Ministry of Economy recently stating that it may take up to 70 years to clear. For now, mine specialists are making liberated territories habitable so that daily life and businesses can resume.
“The main objective is to reduce risks from landmines and explosive remnants to a level where people can live safely and in which economic and social (...) development can occur free from constraints imposed by landmines and explosive remnants,” Lobov stated. “The most important thing is to protect people.”
In the Bucha region, the most contaminated of Kyiv’s suburbs, state emergency services successfully created a safe environment in just over a month. Lobov explained that the first step is to ensure the clearance of infrastructure, allowing access to water and electricity, so that residents can once again return. However, the total resumption of businesses and industry takes far longer.
“In terms of economical development it takes years,” Lobov explained.
Mines are wounding Ukraine’s economy, particularly the agricultural sector, with Russian troops launching waves of explosive devices into fertile farmland. A recent report from Ukrainian scientists said land area devoted to grain crops could be reduced by 45% after two years of war, as explosives create hazardous conditions for agricultural workers and Russian troops currently occupy 20% of arable land.
In addition, power lines go through contaminated agricultural fields, affecting the energy sector. Russian troops are also occupying thousands of Ukraine’s rich natural resource deposits, including coal, gas and oil deposits, that could also be littered with mines. Deciding which sectors should be cleared first is another difficult judgement Ukraine must make.
With the conflict ongoing, it is difficult to determine how much Russia’s mining operations have cost Ukraine’s economy. However, the UNDP will conduct a land impact survey to assess the fiscal damage and find solutions. The survey will also calculate a budget for demining and where to focus international investment.
Lobov believes that the demining process will cost several billion dollars but said that the World Bank's estimation of approximately $73bn over several decades is far higher than the actual cost. He emphasised that international funding needs to be spent responsibly and also take into account the needs of victims as well.
“There is a kind of dilemma on how to prioritise international investments,” he said. “We need to conduct clearance, but first maybe we need to provide assistance, medical treatment and provide medical support. In mine action, we need to think about people.”
Moreover, Lobov stresses the need for mass education on explosives remnants to avoid further casualties. Whilst Russia has mined rural land, explosives have also been discovered in houses, washing machines and the toys of children, according to Deutsche Welle.
In just under a year of the full-scale war, the UN recorded 632 civilian casualties caused by mines and explosive remnants, amounting to 219 deaths and 413 injuries. However, the actual number is likely higher, as the UN only records deaths that have been confirmed by government institutions, which is not possible in all cases.
“We will be suffering because of mines today and for many years ahead, but we need to develop the cultural level of people. They need to understand this is really dangerous, not just to provide information,” Lobov said.
Organisations like the Danish Refugee Council and the International Red Cross are focused on risk education and informing the population on how to react if they find mines and other explosive devices. Learning this life-saving information will have to become a part of Ukrainian culture.
The international effort for demining and education is huge, with organisations from the US, UK, Denmark, Norway and Switzerland all participating in the process alongside national NGOs. With no end to the war in sight and Russian troops continuing to mine Ukrainian land, allies are funnelling more money into demining operations and training.
Last month, the European Commission announced a further $25mn in support, with Josep Borrell, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, saying that demining action is “crucial” to save the lives of civilians and allow people to “return to a normal life”. Moreover, the US will allocate part of its $10bn package to clearing contaminated areas.
The world’s largest demining charity, the Halo Trust, recently announced that it will increase the number of staff in the war-torn country to 1,200 by the summer as part of an expanded training programme and encouraged the British government to back the effort.
Nevertheless, Kyiv has emphasised that more support is needed and has established the Interagency Working Group on Humanitarian Demining to organise rapid humanitarian demining. Speaking at the Humanitarian Demining Conference in Kyiv on March 3, First Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine and Minister of Economy Yulia Svyrydenko called for a co-ordinated effort in the Ramnstein format to decontaminate territories as quickly as possible.
“We need a ‘demining Ramstein’, constant and long-term co-ordination with donors in many areas – financing, technical equipment, methodological assistance, etc.,” Svyrydenko stated.
“The task of demining such areas is extremely difficult, but we must solve it as a matter of priority,” she added.