As Ukrainians slog through minefields, what they need most is time

Perseverance Europe

As Ukrainians slog through minefields, what they need most is time

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In the best of circumstances – without the burden of enemy artillery and airstrikes – advancing through minefields is time-consuming for armies. As Ukraine struggles to expel Russia, it hopes not to exhaust its allies’ patience.

The Ukrainians advanced – at high cost in both casualties and lost time – under intense artillery fire and airstrikes, through fortified positions that the Russians, over many months, had laced with layer upon layer of mines, booby traps, and remotely detonated explosive charges.

“It slows down our offensive work by at least 100 times,” says Pavlo, noting that an area of just 30 yards by 30 yards could overflow with more than 100 of the green PMN-2 mines. Never mind the larger explosives often set for Ukrainian troops when they capture Russian trenches.

“Every day you find out something new,” he says as his brigade pauses a few days from front-line duties to refresh soldiers’ trench-storming and anti-mine tactics.

“We are really surprised with how they put together these defensive lines,” says Pavlo. “What helps them is they have so many [mines]. They don’t have to deploy them smartly, just throw them out there.”

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The stakes could not be higher for Ukraine. It is aiming to reverse Russia’s continued occupation of some 20% of its territory before weariness with the war and its high cost jeopardizes support from Ukraine’s most generous allies in the United States and Europe.

The Ukrainian push down three axes along the 600-mile front line comes amid a missile and drone war that has seen Russia bombard cities across Ukraine daily, with particular targeting of Ukraine’s port and grain export facilities. That has been met this week by two days of drone attacks against Moscow.

“Ukraine is getting strong,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Sunday, “and the war is gradually returning to Russia’s territory, to its symbolic centers and military bases.”

Ukraine’s counteroffensive began in early June, but initial advances by relatively small units were hobbled by poor coordination, better-than-expected Russian defenses, extensive minefields, and improved Russian drone tactics. Initial Ukrainian losses of soldiers and materiel were far higher than expected.

Ukraine has now reportedly committed several thousand Western-trained troops to the broader assault, which is using billions of dollars of new military hardware, including rockets that have targeted Russian ammunition and logistics hubs far behind the front lines.

As it struggles, Ukraine also appears to have reverted, for now, to a fight of attrition, rather than the combined-arms approach taught by the U.S. and NATO. American officials say that a total of 17 brigades, with more than 63,000 troops, have been trained for this counteroffensive, 15,000 of them by the U.S.

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“It will go forward when we cut off their logistics, and then we will go all the way in,” says a Ukrainian military intelligence contractor with five years of experience, who gives the name Oleksandr and works along the Zaporizhzhia fronts. “I am confident it is moving in the right way.”

Russian forces “had enough time to prepare; there are a lot of mines – they are everywhere,” says Oleksandr. “They use a special tactic of putting remotely controlled mines in trenches. When they realize they lost them, they blow it up – with their guys inside, and our guys.”

Oleksandr says a lack of air support, a shortage of armed drones, and limited manpower have complicated Ukraine’s effort.

“There is no sense beginning a counteroffensive without outnumbering the enemy 3 to 1,” he says. “We don’t [have that advantage], but that doesn’t stop us. We know what we are fighting for, but the Russians don’t know why they are here.”

One push to the east has made gains around the hotly contested city of Bakhmut. In the southeast, two thrusts – one toward Melitopol and the other toward Berdyansk, on the Sea of Azov – have sought to cut off Russian resupply lines to troops occupying southern Ukraine and Crimea.

But gains so far on this southeastern front, at no point reaching more than 10 miles into Russian-occupied territory, are a fraction of the distance needed to reach their objectives.

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American Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has acknowledged the slow pace of the Ukrainian advance, saying on July 18 that war games had “predicted certain levels of advance … and that has slowed down.” He said that “the problem to solve is minefields,” and that the conflict is “going to be long; it’s going to be hard; it’s going to be bloody.”

Ukrainian Gen. Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, commander of the southern front, told BBC last week that “any defense can be broken, but you need patience, time, and skillful action.”

That is what Ukraine is increasingly bringing to the conflict, though it has not replicated the gold standard it set last autumn, when it recaptured vast swaths of territory in the northeast Kharkiv region in a lightning offensive and reclaimed the southern city of Kherson.

Guarded confidence is on display among the 128th brigade’s fighters, despite their losses and the monumental challenges that have decimated some other front-line units since June.

At another session on mines, another sapper who gives the name Oleksandr tests boot attachments made in Ukraine that elevate a de-miner several inches off the ground, to protect against cluster munitions. The boots would “definitely” have saved the legs of two sappers in the unit who lost theirs in the past two weeks, Oleksandr says.

Another mine instructor, also called Oleksandr, is missing three fingers on his left hand that he lost to a past mine incident. He tells the soldiers how to safely dispose of one variety of cluster munitions that can be piled up with gentle handling, doused in kerosene, and burned without exploding.

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Also refreshing his training is a sergeant who gives the name Rustam, who was part of the brigade’s assault group storming Russian positions. Rustam wears kneepads and a pistol on his hip, and he has a small, dirt-smudged skull patch on his hat.

“I was surprised by the amount of ammunition that the Russians had in their positions – with that, we would have held onto it for a week, but the Russians just ran away when they saw us,” he says.

He did not experience booby traps or rigged trenches and says the Russian troops left so fast that they did not have time to set up any surprises. But all the approaches were heavily mined, and his unit had to tread carefully to avoid small explosive cluster munitions that littered their path.

“Even after Ukrainians took Russian positions, the Russians could still fire cluster munitions, so the paths were mined again,” says Rustam. “There were cases where people were not so careful and would step on a mine, even if it had already been cleared. The Russians were trying to break our logistics lines, and it worked, a bit.”

In the latest counteroffensive, Rustam says Russian forces left behind wounded comrades. He tells of one Russian soldier now being held by Ukraine who had been shot in the leg and the clavicle, and asking him why he hadn’t fled.

“They have lines of people who shoot dead those who retreat,” he says the Russian told him, mirroring similar reports elsewhere along the front.

“We honestly thought it [our offensive] would be quicker,” says Rustam, “but even with such advances we are happy.”

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An instructor at the trench-clearing drills, who gives the name Andrii and is without hearing in one ear and sight in one eye from earlier battles, speaks of the current challenges.

Mines and booby traps can target three levels of the body at once, he says: If you step over a tripwire, for example, something else aims for the groin, and also the head.

“Our main task at the zero [front] line is to assault the Russian trenches, so we must be quick and smart,” Andrii says. “We put a lot of effort into training. … I lost some of my people, but I realize this is a war and losses are inevitable.”

Keeping those losses in check is why, during this counteroffensive, mine awareness is drilled into those at the front.

While sapper Pavlo uses a knife to dig a hole to demonstrate how Russian forces can hide a fragmentation grenade under an anti-personnel mine – to minimize chances of detection – another sapper, called Serhii, says failure to detect a similar set-up using an anti-tank mine means “you won’t exist anymore.”

“When you go there, you never know if you will come back,” says Serhii. He details the many precautions that must be taken to avoid catastrophe and that take time and patience.

Ukraine’s offensive is moving forward, he says, but preventing casualties is key: “We are not rushing there.”

Reporting for this story was supported by Oleksandr Naselenko.


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