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Land mines create a deadly legacy for Ukraine and possibly beyond

Both sides in the conflict have used them with prevalence, threatening to undo a trend toward greater regulation

A member of a bomb disposal team conducts a controlled explosion in an area where Russian mines were discovered in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on April 11. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)
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As the focus of Russia’s war in Ukraine shifts east the terrain is being littered with land mines, threatening to upend broad international efforts to regulate such weapons in that region and beyond, military analysts and human rights groups say.

Russian troops have scattered mines like breadcrumbs along their path of retreat from northern Ukraine, including variants capable of detecting seismic activity and being timed to explode. That many have been placed indiscriminately around populated areas is evidence, observers say, of Moscow’s intent to sow destruction and fear. And they worry other countries are taking note.

“This is going to legitimize the use of land mines, if militaries see that they’re effective,” said Ken Rutherford, a political science professor at James Madison University who is both an expert on such weapons and a survivor of a land mine blast in Somalia in 1993. “What we’re seeing now is the unleashing of moral restrictions … because these are professional armies, not ISIS.”

Since 1997, the type of land mines designed to kill people — known as anti-personnel land mines — have been outlawed by most countries. The Ottawa Convention that banned their use has been signed by more than 160 nations, though notably, not by major military powers like Russia, the United States and China. Anti-vehicle mines, however, are a common feature in the arsenals of militarized nations and not considered illegal unless they are repurposed to target civilians.

In Ukraine there is evidence Russia has used anti-personnel mines and retrofitted anti-vehicle mines in residential and agricultural areas, U.S. officials and military analysts say. Ukraine has employed antitank mines to hold back the Russian advance around key cities but officials say there is no evidence its forces have targeted Russian troops with anti-personnel mines in violation of its obligations as a party to the Ottawa Convention.

As the world watches the war unfold, various countries are drawing unique conclusions about the use of land mines.

Ukrainian military forces performed controlled detonations of mines in the eastern city of Kharkiv on April 11. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

President Biden’s top military adviser, Gen. Mark A. Milley, told U.S. lawmakers last week that land mines “are important in order to shape enemy operations.” In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Joint Chiefs chairman said, “We need to look no further than what’s happening actually in Ukraine, the land mines are being effectively used by the Ukrainian forces to shape the avenues of approach” by Russia.

“Antitank or anti-personnel mines,” Milley concluded, “are effective for use in combat.”

The United States’ posture on land mines is that anti-vehicle and anti-personnel mines serve complementary functions, and are most effective when used together. Yet the United States has not employed anti-personnel mines since 1991, with a single exception in Afghanistan in 2002, according to researchers. For at least as long, the United States has used “smart” weapons with preprogrammed end-dates that cause them to self-neutralize as not to pose indefinite danger to civilians.

By and large, experts say, those are not the kinds of land mines being used in Ukraine.

In 2014, the Obama administration introduced a formal policy explicitly banning the production or stockpiling of anti-personnel land mines, in an effort to align U.S. conduct with the key tenets of the Ottawa Convention. That was the same year in which Russian and Russian-backed forces seized the Crimean peninsula and Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, liberally mining the latter.

That war triggered fears the United States might feel a need to beef up its land mine capability “to fight a near-peer adversary in high-intensity, cold war, armored-vehicle conflict,” said Mark Hiznay, associate arms-division director at Human Rights Watch. That became the genesis, he added, of President Donald Trump’s decision in late 2020 to relax U.S. policy on land mine use by removing all geographical restrictions for where anti-personnel mines might be deployed by U.S. forces.

Although Biden promised to reverse the policy upon taking office, thus far he has not. A senior U.S. defense official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter is deemed sensitive, said the administration’s review is ongoing and that it is too soon to say whether Ukraine’s experience with land mines may shape U.S. perspective.

In the meantime, whatever success Ukraine demonstrates could inspire other nations to seek similar weapons, observers say.

“Everything that we’re doing, that the Ukrainians and Russians are doing, is setting a precedent — and not just land mines but sea mines as well,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a former Green Beret and Afghanistan war veteran who is among those in Washington demanding the Biden administration to do more to arm the Ukrainians. Taiwan, Waltz noted, has taken an active interest in mining its coastal areas to ward off encroachment from Chinese naval vessels.

The greater danger, observers say, is if Russia’s more indiscriminate use of land mines also proves successful in slowing Ukrainian forces and in turn inspires nations seeking to exert dominance over others.

Independent reporting from inside Ukraine indicates Russian forces have scattered mines in a haphazard and disorganized fashion across civilian regions. The practice, when taken alongside allegations of war crimes and what the Pentagon has called Moscow’s record of brutality and “utter disregard” for civilian life, is nothing short of “evil,” said Frederick Kagan, a military expert with the American Enterprise Institute.

But while “I think the Russians undertook to commit evil,” Kagan added, “I don’t think they were sufficiently good at it that they set a model for anybody else to follow.”

“I took all of that mining activity as well as the retreat and the current situation writ large to mean the Russians have no serious intention of restarting a move toward Kyiv anytime soon,” Kagan said, noting that retreating forces had left regions they exited so heavily mined that they would risk blowing themselves up if they tried to reenter.

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ukrainian personnel have sought to clear Russian anti-personnel land mines from the suburbs north of Kyiv, the senior U.S. defense official said. The United States and its allies also contribute several hundred million dollars annually toward global land mine removal.

But experts say it will take years — and sums of money that dwarf the cost of mines — to undo the damage wrought on Ukraine as a result, costs that will only become steeper if their use proliferates elsewhere.

“Our grandchildren will be talking about land mines in Ukraine,” Rutherford said. “It’s going to take decades to clear those land mines.”

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

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