by Dr Peter M. Wagner, Director/Head of Service, Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI), European Commission, Brussels
A sad reality
Several people killed and injured by mines and explosives near their homes on a single day – this is the new sad reality in Ukraine. A reality, in which people, in fear of mines and explosives, are unable to use their gardens and work their agricultural land, accepting the severe impact this has on agribusiness, household income and global food security. As a result of Russia’s war of aggression, Ukraine is now the most mine-contaminated country since the second world war. When fleeing during and after the Ukrainian counter-offensive in summer 2022, Russia mined Ukrainian land with land mines of all available kinds and ages, often in several layers.
Ukraine’s mine threat did not just start with the full-scale invasion in February 2022: since the beginning of Russia’s aggression in 2014 the country was one of the most mine-contaminated areas in the world and while new contamination is ongoing, Ukrainian deminers still find unexploded ordnance from the second world war.
Just two of the many figures: approximately 170,000 km2, which is over 30% of Ukrainian land, are currently at risk of landmines and other explosive ordnance contamination. That’s about the size of Austria and Portugal or of Ireland, Latvia and Croatia put together. Much of this is agricultural land, now lying unproductive for fear of mines and explosives. The second World Bank-EU Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment presented in February 2023 estimates the cost of survey and clearance of explosive ordnance at around €5.3bn in the short-term.
International support to address the mine threat
The sheer size of the problem and what is at stake in Ukraine requires an efficient and comprehensive mine action strategy, decisive action, and continued international support to help Ukraine tackle this challenge. The overall priority is clear: to safely return as much land back to civilian use as fast as possible. This is a crucial pre-condition for economic activity and for people to return to their homes and communities; to live their lives without fear. This will require innovation in analysis, processes, technology, and financing.
The international community stands by Ukraine in its effort to rapidly address the mine threat. French specialists train Ukrainian mine divers in tackling underwater mines. Cambodian demining experts, financed by Japan, train Ukrainian colleagues in Poland. EU Member States and the EU are contributing with equipment and numerous mine action activities. In 2023, the EU and its Member States are providing more than €110m to support humanitarian demining in Ukraine. This includes more than €43m financed through EU rapid response and humanitarian assistance.
During his visit to Ukraine at the beginning of 2023, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell visited a mine action site and confirmed the EU’s commitment to stand with Ukraine on its mine action challenge.
Cornerstones of a mine action strategy
There are five important elements that are often forgotten in a public debate that often focuses on the provision of heavy demining machines and overall costs:
- The size of the problem in Ukraine is enormous. There is no previous experience from another country that could be copied. This is why international support and advice are crucial. Supported by its international partners, Ukraine will have to develop and implement its own strategy.
- Once this strategy has been agreed, it is important to define and implement the right governance system. The many actors (including the ministries of defence, the interior, and the economy) must closely cooperate. Ukrainian institutions, commercial providers, international NGOs – anyone qualified and certified should be able to contribute to the demining challenge.
- The focus on machines and efforts to demine must be embedded in an efficient national system to first analyse evidence and assess land to determine which territories show no evidence of mines and can already be put into use. Only areas where direct or indirect evidence of mines is detected should be subjected to non-technical and technical survey, and, only where necessary, clearance activities should be deployed.
- Traditional means to finance demining, such as donations and grants, will not be enough. We need innovative approaches not just for processes and technology, but also for financing.
- There are no shortcuts and there is no silver bullet. A lot of dangerous and expensive work is ahead of us. Risk-management and long-term commitment will be required.
Implementing the strategy on the ground
Ukraine can count on the support of the EU and its Member States to deal with mine threats. In the European Commission, support is coordinated by its Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI). This coordination includes different EU services supporting mine action activities as well as Member States and involves close contact with other international partners, notably the G7. The Commission’s support follows five main axes:
- Funding international NGOs and organisations such as the UNDP, active since 2014 in Ukraine. This support contributes to survey and clearance operations, informs communities about the risks linked to mines, and helps victims of mine-related accidents.
- On request from Ukraine, EU Member States provide demining equipment and training via the EU Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM).
- Increased EU funding for the procurement of demining material. While supporting the purchase of heavy machinery, the Commission also delivers smaller demining and protective equipment items, vehicles and communication means. These are much needed to make the work of the brave men and women working in Ukraine’s state demining teams safer and more effective. We are also looking into the scaling up of Ukrainian production capacity and the certification of equipment “Made in Ukraine“. Much of the demining effort is concentrated in newly liberated areas. Ukrainian deminers work close to the frontlines, exposing them to risks not just from mines, but also from ongoing shelling. It’s crucial that equipment to improve safety of mine action can be procured rapidly and as locally as possible.
- The EU is a leading supporter of Ukraine’s coordination, regulatory, and governance work. The funding of Ukrainian and international experts will strengthen Ukrainian institutions. The Commission has nominated the heads of the FPI and the Directorate-General for Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO) as their representatives in the Advisory Board of the newly created Centre for Humanitarian Demining.
- Finally, mine action is considered in the framework of the forthcoming Ukraine Reconstruction Facility, where the European Parliament and Council are currently discussing the Commission proposal from summer 2023. This €50bn proposal may, in particular, facilitate the use of innovative financing mechanisms.
As Ukraine continues to battle its mine action challenge, it can count on the support of the EU and its international partners to make its land safe again.
Dr Peter M. Wagner
is the Director and Head of Service of the European Commission’s Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI), the EU’s lead service on mine action. The author is writing in his personal capacity.