Ukraine is now the most heavily mined country on Earth and its army is suffering from a critical shortage of men and equipment able to clear the frontlines, the country’s defence minister has said, as soldiers spoke of heavy casualties in the engineering brigades.
In an urgent appeal to allies, Oleksii Reznikov told the Guardian his soldiers were unearthing five mines for every square metre in places, laid by Russian troops to try to thwart Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
He said the vast minefields could be traversed, but that it was critically important that allies “expand and expedite” the training already being provided by some nations, including Britain.
The number of sappers in the Ukrainian armed forces was nowhere near enough to get through the complex Russian defences on the vast 600-mile (1,000km) front, with mine clearing units targeted with heavy fire.
Defence ministry officials in Kyiv suggested there was an opportunity for countries such as Japan that do not want to provide lethal aid to offer support in the form of mine clearing equipment and training.
A member of Ukraine’s 35th Marine Brigade clears mines from a field in Donetsk. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Reznikov said: “Today, Ukraine is the most heavily mined country in the world. Hundreds of kilometres of minefields, millions of explosive devices, in some parts of the frontline up to five mines per square metre.
“Russian minefields are a serious obstacle for our troops, but not insurmountable. We have skilled sappers and modern equipment, but they are extremely insufficient for the front that stretches hundreds of kilometres in the east and south of Ukraine.”
Some of the mines littering the country have been laid by Ukrainian forces to protect their own defensive lines, but the vast majority are Russian.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy has complained that having to wait for western delivery of arms and delay the start of this year’s counteroffensive allowed Russia to lay millions of mines ahead of their positions.
Ukraine has five engineering battalions, divided into 200 brigades, which as of May, before the start of this year’s counteroffensive, were each 30 strong.
According to testimony from the front, the numbers of active mine clearers is now significantly lower. The killing of sappers and officers is said to be the most highly prized by the Russian forces.
One brigade active around Staromaiorske, a recently liberated village in the Donetsk region, said it was 30-strong on paper but that it had 13 men in reality, of whom only five were active as a result of injury. Two members of the unit lost limbs in the last fortnight.
Serhiy Ryzhenko, the chief medical officer of the Mechnikov hospital in Dnipro, where many of the most seriously wounded are treated, said he was receiving between 50 and 100 soldiers a day, with mines being second to artillery as the cause of their injuries.
A Ukrainian sapper trains soldiers of the 128th Brigade of the country’s territorial defence force on Russian mines in the Zaporizhzhia region. Photograph: Scott Peterson/Getty Images
At a meeting in July in Ramstein in Germany of the alliance of 54 countries supporting Ukraine, Lithuania, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark agreed train and equip Ukrainian mine clearing units. Other countries were invited to join.
Reznikov said the initiative had unlocked donations, but that more was desperately needed from a wider range of partners.
“At this stage of our de-occupation campaign we critically need more mine clearance equipment, from minesweeping trawls to Bangalore torpedoes,” he said.
“The de-mining equipment has long been unlocked and we are grateful to our international partners for the already provided support.
“An important step in this direction was the creation at the latest Ramstein meeting of the de-mining coalition at the initiative of the Lithuanian defence minister.
“It is also vitally necessary to expand and expedite the training of sappers. It should be fast and systematic. Sappers are needed here and now. Their work saves lives and ensures the advancement of our troops. The de-mining coalition is build on the principle ‘train and equip’. Its efficient implementation will bring Ukraine’s victory closer.”
Pete Smith, the Ukraine programme manager of the mine-clearing NGO Halo, and formerly an officer in command of all of the British army’s explosive ordnance disposal assets, said the level of mine contamination was “unrecognisable in modern history”.
He said: “What we’re witnessing is the heaviest landmine and unexploded ordnance sort of contamination seen certainly in Europe since the second world war.
“There’s considerable evidence of large linear minefields. The other day one walked along a 1.5km minefield with a TM-62 mine placed every 1 metre and that’s just one small part of Mykolaiv [a region in south Ukraine].
“Those were areas that were that were reoccupied by Ukraine quite quickly. Now, across that 1,000km frontline, and then layers and layers of minefields behind that, is something that has been quite unrecognisable in modern history.”
Smith said Ukraine’s depleted sapper units were facing a huge range of types of mine in the battlefield.
“And of course, there’s strong evidence of Russian forces booby-trapping mines and other bits and pieces to prevent the military themselves actually clearing the landmines, and that of course leaves the next few problems for organisations like ourselves,” he said.
Smith suggested that even with 10,000 mine clearers it would take a decade to decontaminate the country. Halo has 900, largely locally sourced, working in Ukraine and plans to have 1,200 trained experts operating in the country by the end of the year.