Erin Hunt is the co-director of Mines Action Canada.
The one-year anniversary of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is approaching, and many of the predictions made at the war’s outset have clearly been proven wrong. Kyiv has not fallen; Moscow has not swept to a quick victory. Unfortunately, for those of us who documented or lived with Russia’s involvement in Syria, our predictions about how it would fight this war did come true.
Since the start of the war on Feb. 24, 2022, hospitals, schools, grocery stores, theatres, shopping malls, essential services, homes and playgrounds across Ukraine have all been targets of Russian bombs or missiles, while entire cities have suffered under siege. This blatant disregard for the lives of civilians and the rules of war may have shocked the world, but it is a repeat of Moscow’s actions in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, where Russian bombs have been raining down on civilians for years. Those same tactics are now being used in Ukraine, and with similarly deadly consequences.
In addition to reported war crimes, such as the targeting of civilian infrastructure, there is evidence that Russia has been using banned weapons in Ukraine. When Ukraine liberates territory that was occupied by Russia, they are finding heavy contamination from landmines that Russian troops have left behind, including anti-personnel landmines, which are banned by 164 countries. While Moscow itself has not banned such landmines, the international norm against their use is strong, and any use of these horrific weapons should be condemned.
Since the invasion began, there have been hundreds of landmine casualties in Ukraine; farmers and agricultural workers have been particularly at risk. The weapons have contributed to disruptions to Ukrainian agricultural exports, which has had a devastating effect on global food security.
Russia (and, to a lesser degree, Ukraine) has also reportedly been deploying cluster munitions, which have also been prohibited by the majority of the world’s countries because of their humanitarian impact. The vast majority of cluster-munition casualties are civilians; in 2018, they made up 99 per cent, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. That same observer group reported that there were 689 casualties from cluster munitions in Ukraine between the start of the war and July, and that the weapons are still being used to this day.
Cluster munitions are dangerous even after they’re used because their submunitions frequently fail to detonate; this leaves unstable explosives scattered over areas the size of a football field. These failed submunitions then become de facto landmines that pose a risk to anyone who disturbs them – except that, as a weapon designed to destroy armoured vehicles, they are typically even deadlier than landmines. Russian cluster-munition strikes on cities and towns have left unexploded submunitions in backyards, playgrounds and parking lots, as well as in farmland.
As Ukraine continues to liberate its territory from Russian occupation, allies such as Canada need to be preparing for the reconstruction to come. Rebuilding damaged or destroyed cities and towns is going to require extensive support, especially if the many Ukrainians who have fled hope to return. But before they can do so safely, the landmines, unexploded submunitions and other failed explosives will have to be found and cleared.
Canada has been a global leader on supporting both Kyiv and humanitarian organizations in carrying out landmine and explosive ordnance clearance in Ukraine. Thus far, the federal government has supported civil society organizations to do clearance-and-risk education, and provided equipment to the Ukrainian State Emergency Services to increase their capacity for clearance.
Those injured by mines and cluster munitions will also need assistance for rebuilding their lives after their devastating and often debilitating injuries. To meet the challenge, international NGOs, the Ukrainian government and international donor states are going to have to work together to allow displaced people to return home, farmers to safely produce food for the world and cities to rebuild.
As the Ukrainian military continues to work to liberate the country and reconstruction becomes a focus, there are two options for the future. Either the mines and unexploded ordnance are found and destroyed by demining teams, or they are found by civilians – a farmer working their land, a child playing soccer or a displaced person returning to their home – with deadly results. The second one is unacceptable.
Canada and other allies need to allocate new sustainable funding to support landmine clearance over the next five years, so that Ukraine can rebuild safely and efficiently.