GLOBSEC. Walking on Fire: Demining in Ukraine

2023-06-20 | Expert publications, Military assistance

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Executive Summary

  1. About 30% of Ukraine’s territory (174 000 has been exposed to intense combat operations. This area requires survey and clearance from the vast amounts of explosive ordnance left by the invaders. Ukraine is consequently the largest mined territory in the world surpassing such former frontrunners as Afghanistan and Syria. The area requiring clearance is still very difficult to assess or indeed access as fighting is still ongoing: around 18% of Ukraine’s territory remains under occupation. To date, the Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts remain the most contaminated regions of all the liberated territories, as Russian forces had been present there for a longer period of time. The nature of the demining challenge is different to the pre-Feb 2022 situation: first, fighting has been heavier and longer in duration; second, a far greater range of explosive ordnance has been deployed, and, finally, the area of potentially contaminated territory is 10 times greater.
  2. Russian troops are infamously creative in leaving mine-traps: they plant victim[1]activated devices on animals, dead-bodies, as well as double and even triple booby-traps on roads, fields and forests. It has been reported that the Russians have also deliberately targeted farming areas and agricultural land for contamination in order to deny its use for future economic activity in Ukraine.
  3. The pace of demining work is very slow. Since February 2015 16 000 in Donetsk and Lugansk regions required clearance, of which 7000 on Ukrainian-controlled territories. Actual size of territories cleared in 2015-2021 was 414,56 sq km (which is only 5,9% of the potentially contaminated territories in controlled areas and 2,5% of the potentially contaminated territories in both controlled and non-controlled areas). All the operators combined cleared on average 64 sq km per year, with most of the work being done by the special services of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine and the Ministry of Interior. International non-governmental operators combined (the HALO Trust, DDG and FSD) had been doing on average 1,89 sq km per year.
  4. Having engaged in demining in the eastern territories since 2014, Ukraine has obtained the necessary expertise and skills for that work. It has also enabled the setting up of an initial coordination system among Ukrainian authorities and mine-clearance experts. However, a proper structure and strategy for demining has not yet been developed. Currently Ukraine has an embryonic development (as compared to its needs) of all mine-action pillars. There is an acute requirement for assistance from Ukraine’s partners, especially in the following areas: (1) clearance (including survey and land release); (2) mine risk reduction; (3) victims’ assistance; (4) advocacy; (5) stockpile reduction.
  5. Most people do not understand the difference between combat, operational and humanitarian demining. They have little idea of the laborious nature of the work and costs that lie ahead to clear a given area and make it safe to use. Combat and operational demining is conducted by special military units (engineers, also called ‘sappers’), police and emergency services. This is relatively fast as they concentrate only on selective demining of high-priority areas – houses and residential buildings, main roads and access routes to places of common use and infrastructure. Humanitarian demining comprises the largest part of mine clearance. This implies a complex, non-selective systemic survey of entirety of a potentially contaminated territory, mostly on land, but also in and around lakes and rivers. Once the clearance work is completed it is inspected by a competent state authority and is officially certified as a “land safe to use”.
  6. With a war-torn economy, and confronted by so many challenges, Ukraine is very much reliant on international assistance from donors in every aspect of life. In demining international assistance is essential. The country will find it extremely difficult to allocate USD 3.7 bn annually for demining from its own resources. For 2023 alone, the World Bank has estimated needs of more than USD 397 million, for which Ukraine has already attracted only USD 16 million of international technical assistance and secured preliminary agreements on another USD 73 million.
  7. There are around 500 different demining teams or up to 5000 military engineers/ deminers operating in Ukraine. This number of operators would take around 20 years to clear 4700 Provided all of the territory of 174 000 of Ukrainian territory which has seen combat is contaminated, under the given human resource capacity it would take 757 years to clear all of the affected areas of the country.
  8. Private operators are limited in their capacity to hire, train and equip new staff without significant financial investment. International and local NGOs, whose non-profit demining work is financed by international donors/ partner countries, are seemingly in a better position and hence are more visible and better equipped for their activity. While there seems to be no difficulties in recruiting people for this work, retention is an issue as many of Ukrainians (especially, males) are subject to conscription/mobilization and are regularly called up to the UAF.
  9. It is hard to determine the exact quantity and type of demining equipment currently available for Ukraine to undertake the necessary work. Ukrainian decision-makers stress that the existing stock remains very scarce and is even not enough to equip existing deminers.
  10. At an average rate of USD4 per square meter, an area of 10 000 hectares (100 would cost USD400K to clear. This is clearly unaffordable for farmers or indeed urban households. Given the shortage of deminers in Ukraine, farmers could find themselves waiting for an indefinite period of time until their requests are considered or met. Accordingly they resort to accepting offers from uncertified so called “dark deminers”, who promise to survey land at a more modest rate, using primitive equipment and without supplying any kind of reliable certification that ‘land is cleaned and safe to use’. The problem of ‘dark deminers’ has become ever[1]more acute with the sowing of seeds in Spring 2023. The Ukrainian government admits the existence of the problem, but has been less forthcoming with solutions.
  11. Ukraine’s Law on Anti-Mine Action makes the Сabinet of Ministers of Ukraine responsible for the implementation and regulation of demining in Ukraine. However, the law assigns no responsibility for the development of a National Strategy. To date (April 2023) the Government of Ukraine has neither mid- , nor long-term national plans. It managed to develop and adopt a plan in April 2022, which is written in vague language, covering the main mine-action activities as defined by UNMAS. However, the government intends to develop a new national policy on demining in 2023. A new Plan of Action on De-Mining of Agricultural Lands seemed to be a first step in this direction.
  12. The division of responsibilities of the various institutions responsible for demining is unclear as is the answer to the question ‘who retains overall responsibility?’ The demining environment is therefore highly competitive and potentially open to institutional conflict. The future ‘Ukrainian Center for Humanitarian Demining’, announced by the Prime Minister Denys Shmygal in February 2023, does not have a clear place in the hierarchy of relevant institutions in Ukraine. Further there is the potential for conflict with the MoD chairing the National Demining Authority.
  13. Ukrainian authorities have however been successful in setting up a working information system concerning mine[1]awareness (complete with a disaggregated interactive map of mines). Ukraine has been relatively successful in its mine-hazard awareness social campaigns, using its famous deminer-dog Patron as a mascot and symbol. However, Ukraine is still struggling to develop a coherent government policy and communication campaign on mine[1]education. Various mine-awareness and mine-education campaigns conducted by many certified operators in Ukraine do not meet the needs of the situation, and accidents still occur every day.
  14. The government of Ukraine is currently considering a number of options as to how to cope with scaled tasks and develop the necessary capabilities, especially on: (1) new technologies with the use of IT; (2) incorporating the private sector particularly with respect to supporting startups; (3) enhancing capacities for the production of demining equipment in Ukraine.