It was a gruesome scene of bloodied limbs and crushed vehicles as a series of Russian mines exploded in a field in southern Ukraine.
A Ukrainian soldier stepped on a mine and fell into the vegetation, in the middle zone between the two armies. Nearby, there were other Ukrainian soldiers, their legs tied with tourniquets, waiting for medical rescue, according to videos posted on the internet and military reports.
Soon, an armored vehicle arrived to rescue them. A medic jumped out to treat the wounded and knelt on the ground he thought was safe — but detonated another mine with his knee.
After five weeks of a counter-offensive that even Ukrainian officials say started hesitantly, interviews with commanders and soldiers fighting at the front indicate that the slow progress boils down to one big problem: landmines.
The fields that the Ukrainian forces must cross are lined with dozens of types of mines – made of plastic and metal, shaped like chewing tobacco cans or soda cans, and with curious names like “the witch” and “the sheet”.
The Ukrainian Army is also hampered by the lack of air support and the network of defensive structures built by the Russians. But it is the vast array of mines, booby traps and improvised explosive devices that keep Ukrainian forces stuck just a few kilometers from where they started.
“I couldn’t imagine something like this,” said a Ukrainian soldier named Serhii, part of a unit that rescued soldiers wounded in the explosions. “I thought the mines would be laid out in rows. But entire fields are full of them, everywhere.”
Mines have long been a staple of Russian warfare, used extensively in Afghanistan and Chechnya and in earlier phases of fighting in Ukraine, dating back to 2014. But minefields in southern Ukraine are vast and complex, according to soldiers who have entered them. .
“To clear mines, you need a lot of motivation and a cool head,” said Major Maksim Prisiazhniuk, a Ukrainian mine clearance specialist who enters the fields at night before the infantry advances. “It’s delicate work like that of a surgeon, but at the same time there are explosions all around you.”
Mine clearance specialists venture out with metal detectors and probes attached to cables to poke in the ground, trying to find buried mines without detonating them. “These are our tools – and an icon in your pocket,” Prisiazhniuk said, referring to the Orthodox religious imagery. He was at a medical aid point, where mine-wounded soldiers show up in a steady stream.
Minefields are set up with booby traps and anti-tampering devices, which cause the mines to detonate if they are lifted, to impede the work of demining teams.
More sophisticated explosives include so-called jumping mines, which, when stepped on, jump and scatter shrapnel, hitting nearby soldiers. Russia also uses mines triggered by thin yellow wires that extend for about a dozen meters – any one of which, when moved, can trigger an explosion and a hail of shrapnel.
The mine clearance teams work by opening a path about 60 cm wide to allow the infantry to advance. Then the soldiers widen it another 30 cm to allow two soldiers to walk shoulder to shoulder while carrying stretchers with wounded. In June, a stretcher bearer carrying an injured colleague triggered a mine because the path could not be widened quickly enough.
The danger exists even after the paths are cleared. Russian forces often fire rockets over areas where equipment has been removed that lay out small, hard-to-detect green plastic mines, also called butterfly mines, Prisiazhniuk said.
Volodymir, who serves as a military doctor, performs amputations on soldiers whose feet or legs have been blown off by mine explosions. Like other military personnel interviewed, he only wanted to reveal his first name for security reasons.
Mines have overtaken artillery as the leading cause of injury, he said. Because some are plastic to avoid detection by mine clearance teams, the shrapnel they throw at soldiers can be invisible to medics at first-aid posts near the front, where medics use metal detectors to find and remove fragments.
Soldiers are treated and sent to more distant hospitals. Last week, according to Volodymir, he amputated both hands of a mine clearance specialist who was injured while trying to defuse a mine.
In the south, Ukrainian troops are attacking in at least three places, but they have not broken through the Russians’ main lines of defense. Mines are not the only difficulty they face. As they advance, Ukrainian soldiers move out of range of some of their air defense systems and are vulnerable to Russian attack helicopters.
Last week, at the point where Ukrainian forces advanced the most, south of the village of Velika Novosilka, the Ukrainian army had covered about 8 kilometers. In the region where the soldiers came across a minefield, south of the city of Orikhiv, the advance was 1.5 km. To reach the Sea of Azov and cut supply lines to Russian-occupied Crimea, one of the goals of the counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces must advance approximately 95 km.
One bright spot, Ukrainian soldiers say, is the protection provided by Western armor. Where they have been used, the vehicles have saved lives with superior armor that protects against blasts.
Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, made in the USA, with aluminum and steel armor, pass over anti-personnel mines with impunity. They are immobilized by Russian anti-tank mines, hefty circular devices loaded with around 7 kilograms of TNT, often without seriously injuring the soldiers inside.
Denis, a military surgeon who works near the front, said soldiers injured by mine explosions when moving in Bradleys fared much better than those in Soviet legacy armored vehicles, and the main damage was a concussion rather than loss of life. of a member.
“The Americans made this machine to save the lives of the crew,” said Serhii, the soldier on the rescue team, who is now operating his third Bradley after two earlier vehicles hit anti-tank mines. The second explosion occurred when he and other soldiers were sent to remove wounded infantry in a minefield.