Status: 03.10.2023, 07:13 a.m.
By: Karsten Hinzmann
Against Russia's supremacy, Ukraine continues to rely on improvisation. Successful. A farmer rolls across his field with a converted tractor – to clear mines.
Kharkiv – David defies Goliath with inventiveness. He is "farmer's smart" – even when it comes to dealing with mines. In the Kharkiv area, farmers are now advancing against mines in their fields with converted tractors. The principle of their do-it-yourself solutions has been tried and tested: the front of a vehicle carries a tiller, i.e. a rotating device consisting of chains and solid steel balls or similar impact elements, on an extended arm, with which the buried mines are detonated, destroyed or thrown to the side. Russia's invading army has entrenched itself behind thousands of mines. Ukraine is cleaning up. Slowly – but now also safer?
Ukraine's counteroffensive had begun much later than planned, giving Russian invaders time to build up their defenses behind deep-layered minefields. "Ukraine is now the most heavily mined country in the world," former Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told the Guardian in August 2023. According to his estimates, there are up to five mines per square meter on some sectors of the front.
Do-it-yourself solution against the Russian invading army: do-it-yourself tractor for clearing mines of Ukraine (symbolic image). © Screenshot Facebook@Юлія Свириденко
German Colonel Jörg Tölke also paints a gloomy picture of the situation in the Bundeswehr podcast Nachgefragt: "If you're spiteful, you could say: After the lockdown is before the lockdown – we're talking about a depth of three kilometers in the lockdowns," reports the head of the Department for Early Crisis Detection and Global Threat Assessments at the Ministry of Defense. Ukraine has been receiving "Wisent 2023" mine-clearance tanks since March 1 - so more than 40 mine-clearing tanks are to be delivered from Germany alone, apart from reinforcements from other NATO countries. Far too little. Ukraine, meanwhile, is helping itself; as with its drones, it relies on remote-controlled solutions from the do-it-yourself kit.
Mines injure 50 to 100 soldiers a day in Ukraine
Manual solutions take a frighteningly high toll – especially among Ukrainian pioneers: Serhiy Ryshenko, the chief physician of the Mechnikov Hospital in Dnipro, complained to the Guardian that 50 to 100 soldiers are treated every day – injuries from mines are the main cause of injuries after artillery. Civilians are excluded from the statistics. Ukrainska Pravda is currently reporting on a farmer who tried to clear mines while sitting on his tractor and was killed. I'm sure it's one of many. In any case, clearing the mines is a battle in which Ukraine seems to be in a losing position, as Kyiv Independent writes.
Its horror story deals with the Russian "ISDM Zemledeliye system", a truck-mounted mine launcher that spits out 100 missiles in one and a half minutes; and each of these missiles, in turn, 312 anti-personnel mines in the form of a butterfly made of plastic. To capture the horror more vividly, the Kyiv Independent even gets a little lyrical: "These mines are green or olive and very easily recognizable by their special shape: like the propeller-shaped seeds, they screw down from maple, ash or mulberry fig." At the same time, these "butterflies" are extraordinarily narrow and light: each only ten centimeters wide and filled with only 40 grams of explosives.
Russian invasion: Kilometre-wide web of deadly butterfly wings
The Russian mine launchers stretch a net of butterfly wings in the air, which then settles on the Ukrainian soil and are themselves about five to 15 kilometers away. In the Kharkiv area, strips of up to 25 kilometers in length are said to be mined. Pioneers are still clearing mines on all fronts, mainly by hand. In the meantime, dogs are being trained to detect mines, drones are being used – but everything seems of infinite slowness compared to deploying the explosive devices. Anti-personnel mines are never used to kill people. Their perfidious purpose is to mutilate in order to subsequently tie up aid workers and break the morale of the population.
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And to bleed the enemy, as around Kharkiv, in the Ukraine war also economically. In an interview with the taz, Ukrainian agricultural entrepreneur Oleg Girman criticized his government for refusing to recognize the villages around Kharkiv as a theater of war, which is why local farmers are denied tax breaks: "We have to pay the normal minimum tax rate, but we can't use the fields because of the mines. That means: no revenue, tax debts, confiscation of agricultural machinery, bankruptcy. I don't see any other way out than to make my fields safe again at my own expense," he says. In the Ukrainian counteroffensive, too, progress through technology applies.
It claims to have taken him a week to convert his first mine-clearing tractor with a roller and remote control and to have invested around 35,000 dollars. 1,000 hectares of farmland are now free of mines, Girman told the taz: "Unfortunately, the state cannot help us. That's why I invested my private money in mine clearance. I realize that this demining process can take five to ten years. But if we don't, no one does."
A tractor like this can cover 15 hectares a day, he says; but only if he escapes without damage. Whatever a matter of luck is. In any case, Oleg Girman reports that his tractor survived four mines. Four touches would have shredded the roller. A fifth mine would have missed the roller. One of the wheels had rolled over it. The tractor flew around his ears. Two more conversions are in progress.