Commentary by Daniel Fata
For more than 16 months, the world has witnessed the suffering of the Ukrainian people as the Russian military has intensified their devastating invasion. The international community has seen the mass graves, the suffering from blackouts and power outages, and the flight of thousands who never thought they would be refugees. Yet less obvious—but perhaps far more insidious—are the indiscriminate bombings, fierce firefights, and traps planted by retreating Russian soldiers who leave behind untold numbers of anti-personnel mines, anti-vehicle mines, and unexploded ordnance (UXO) across Ukraine.
Per the UN Human Rights Commission and the International Committee of the Red Cross, these mines, plus unexploded—but still live—munition rounds are causing tragic loss of life across the country among civilians and soldiers alike. Already they have likely killed more than 200 people, with thousands more hurt and maimed, including the elderly as they walk in the forests to go mushrooming, children as they play on abandoned school yards, and farmers trying to clear their fields.
Yes, the G7 nations are rallying Ukraine’s cause against Russia, offering significant financial resources to Kyiv to keep the lights on, pay government salaries, supply food, provide farmers with seed, purchase generators, and, of course, ensure the military has the means to fight the invaders. Yet when talk of reconstruction for Ukraine happens, the discussion focuses on priorities other than mines and UXO.
Per a recent assessment by the Ukrainian prime minister, 174,000 square kilometers—or nearly 40 percent of Ukrainian territory—contains unexploded mines and munitions. Lives literally depend on making the ground in Ukraine safe. Yet the urgent task of demining is consistently either overlooked or understated.
Ukraine government teams are doing the detonation now, but they are a comparatively small group of trained professionals (some being trained on the job) who are doing the best they can against an ever-increasing tide of new mines and munitions. These ongoing efforts are nowhere near the scale required.
Since February 2022, the U.S. State Department has awarded less than $100 million toward demining Ukraine, out of the billions in assistance made available. The HALO Trust, a notable British NGO that specializes in this mission, is helping the cause in Ukraine. It has received some funding from private companies, other NGOs, and foreign governments. There are some recent UN and Ukrainian Ministry of Economy estimates that it may cost more than $30 billion and perhaps decades to safely clear what has already been dropped and left behind in Ukraine.
The demining effort in Ukraine must quickly become an urgent whole-of-world effort that is comprehensive and well-resourced. An opportunity presents itself to achieve just this: on June 21–22, representatives from Ukraine, the European Union, the United Nations, the world’s governments, NGOs, and the private sector will gather in London for the latest convening of the Ukraine Recovery Conference. This will be the second forum and the third major international conference of its type since the war broke out. Demining has not been a top priority for these conferences. This needs to change.
The conference should make the demining of Ukraine a priority and urge the following actions:
Raise awareness at the highest levels of government, the private sector, and the NGO communities. Unexploded weapons pose a significant danger to the safety and livelihoods of Ukraine’s peoples and those who intend to return to the country to live and work, including those in the rebuilding efforts. Demining should be seen—and stated by senior government leaders—as an obvious prerequisite to any reconstruction efforts in Ukraine.
Set goals and a timetable by which the world community can hold itself accountable. As has been seen before, even the best of intentions can be overtaken by the next crisis. Ukraine needs sustained, focused attention by a specified group of government officials, corporate experts, NGO leaders, and resource managers dedicated to this mission. The U.S. government, the G7, and Ukraine should build a comprehensive multiyear postwar demining plan that brings all capable parties into the fold. Such a plan should be prepared for release at the September 9–10 meeting of the G20 in India.
Fully fund the demining effort to address mine and ordnance mapping, detonation, clearing, and removal. There is a lot of money available for Ukraine across the U.S. and allied governments to invest, and that can be used on battlefields and sunflower fields. U.S. monies need to go to the State Department and federal government agencies to put more companies under contract and to prepare to use skilled civilian and military workforces, and so that other countries and organizations —both public and private—can contribute to this effort. A global “fund” should be created exclusively for this demining mission that can work in parallel with the newly created Ukrainian government special fund.
Build a plan to expand the set of experienced players set to go as soon as hostilities end. Many companies and government agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, have vast experience with such a mission. Sadly, the world is all too familiar with the harm that was done to innocent civilians by mines left in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Bosnia, and parts of Africa—and which efforts to this day continue to rid those countries of unexploded devices. The commercial sector has an interest in being able to safely move around Ukraine and to have agricultural products planted, harvested, and transported. Some creative thinking is underway within big agricultural firms about both how to expand the set of actors who can assist on the ground and how to collectively fund such groups. This should be further explored and magnified across other industry sectors.
Leverage existing commercial and government technologies and invest in new ones. This way, technology can be used to better identify where the mines are as well as safely expedite their destruction and removal. The commercial sector and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been providing demining and UXO services for decades and continue to invest in new technologies to conduct these missions more safely. The use of robotics, light detection and ranging (LIDAR), and drones have provided some compelling improvements in this mission. These need to be funded, fielded, and utilized now.
The vast amount of Ukraine’s physical reconstruction cannot begin until the roads, fields, and areas around destroyed infrastructure are cleared of UXO and mines. The emotional and psychological recovery of the Ukrainian people cannot happen until they know they can safely walk in forests and let their children play outside, and farmers know they can sow their fields without fear of explosions.
Saving Ukrainian lives, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and restarting the agricultural economy all start with the freedom of safe movement by foot and by car. This month’s Ukraine Recovery Conference in London offers the opportunity to properly prioritize demining in Ukraine.
Daniel Fata a senior adviser (non-resident) with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is the former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO policy from 2005–2008.