Decades and billions of dollars. When will Ukrainian fields and cities be cleared of mines?

​​Throughout this year, 185 civilians were killed by landmines in Ukraine, and several hundred were injured. Photos of tractors that have run over a projectile during harvesting are often seen on social media.

These are the realities of liberated regions. Ukraine is now one of the most mine-contaminated countries in the world, and this problem is going to last decades.

It only takes a few days of shelling to make an area inappropriate for growing crops, and it takes months for bomb disposal experts to remove explosives from it.

Currently, Ukraine has neither the time nor a sufficient number of specialists. To continue harvesting, farmers hire bomb disposal experts on the black market, often leading to tragic accidents.

Farmers are not the only ones who suffer. During their retreat, Russian forces often mine communications and critical infrastructure in cities to make it difficult for Ukrainian businesses and local residents to return.

Completely clearing the country of all landmines will cost billions of dollars and will require a lot of equipment and specialists.

A problem for decades to come

According to the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, in August 2022, Russian troops fired 40,000-60,000 shells at Ukrainian positions every day. Some of them did not explode.

According to various estimates, up to 20% of the ammunition released does not work. Moreover, if the Russians stay in a certain area for a long time, they place mines in forests and fields.

In Ukraine, all areas where fighting took place are considered to be contaminated with explosives. According to the estimates from the Bomb Disposal Experts Association, this amounts to 139,000 square km. In other words, one-fifth of the country's territory needs inspection.


Fields near the village of Dovhenke in Kharkiv Oblast


According to the assessment by the Ukrainian Agrarian Business Club, about 2 million hectares of fields have been mined in the liberated regions. Each year that these lands lay idle will cost the country's economy up to US$800 million. There are six million hectares under temporary occupation, which will also require inspection after the area’s liberation.

Mine clearance does not guarantee that farmers will return to work on these lands. The soil still needs to be levelled and recultivated, in order to restore soil fertility. In June, the Kyiv School of Economics estimated the total cost of such works at US$40 million.

The Kharkiv holding company Agrotrade (cultivates 70,500 hectares, the owner is the commander of the Khartia volunteer unit Vsevolod Kozhemiako) said that reclamation of a hectare of land after mine clearance costs an average of US$100.

Livestock was also affected by the war. The lack of safe land to grow fodder is forcing farmers to reduce livestock and lay off employees. It will take years to restore the industry.

It is more difficult to deal with mines in regions that have been under Russian occupation for more than half a year. For instance, in Kherson, Russian forces laid mines at critical infrastructure and communications facilities and even at civilian buildings.


Interactive map with accident density


Ukrainian bomb disposal experts have to check every metre of the land that has been liberated before it becomes usable. Until then, businesses will not be able to work on it.

Complete clearance of landmines in Ukraine may take decades. After the Yugoslav wars, Albania was able to clear its territory of landmines only ten years later. This is despite the fact that 15,000 square km were considered dangerous in that country - ten times less than now in Ukraine.

Another example is Croatia. In the 1990s, 13,000 square km were considered dangerous there. The country still cannot completely clear its land of explosives.

Shortage of bomb disposal experts 

Mine clearance for civilians is divided into two types: operational and humanitarian.

Operational mine clearance is the clearing of areas where explosives have been found by bomb disposal experts of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, the National Guard or the Armed Forces. This type of mine clearance is suitable for emergencies.

Humanitarian mine clearance is the inspection of all potentially dangerous areas in accordance with international standards, the destruction of explosives and quality control.

This is a complex, time-consuming and expensive process, but it is the only one that guarantees the safety of landowners.

In Ukraine, humanitarian mine clearance is carried out by eight operator organisations. Over the past year, many specialised organisations have emerged that want to work in Ukraine, but they have to undergo a complex certification procedure. This slows down the entry of new operators into the market.


The head of one of the subsidiaries of Ukroboronprom, a conglomerate of manufacturers of weapons and military hardware in Ukraine, has said that certification takes 6 to 12 months. During this time, operators collect documents, train bomb disposal experts, buy equipment, and work out the rules of operation. The long certification process is only the beginning of the difficulties, as humanitarian demining is expensive.

The Mine Clearance Association says that clearing a square metre of land can cost US$3-4. No farmer is able to finance such work.

"One farmer said: even if we sow this land with marijuana, we won't be able to recoup the costs of mine clearance in a few years," said Tymur Pistriuha, head of the Mine Clearance Association.

According to Ruslan Berehulia, head of the Ministry of Defence's Environmental Safety and Mine Action Department, the government has not yet allocated money for humanitarian mine clearance, so the cost of this is being covered by foreign donors.

The cost of complete humanitarian mine clearance in Ukraine is difficult to calculate. The media talk about US$400-900 billion. However, this would be the cost of humanitarian mine clearance if all the potentially dangerous 139,000 square km were covered with mines.

In reality, this figure is much lower. The cost of mine clearance is determined after a non-technical examination, and not all Ukrainian fields are densely covered with mines. Some of the land may not require the work of bomb disposal experts.

In the summer of 2022, the Military Feodal project, which aggregates information for humanitarian mine clearance, gave a more conservative estimate of about US$5 billion. Now this amount is higher.


Ukraine’s State Emergency Service bomb disposal experts at work


Meanwhile, the amount of foreign aid to Ukrainian operators in 2022 was measured in millions. This is not enough to expand the staff of bomb disposal experts, buy equipment and speed up the process.

As a result, there is a queue for free mine clearance. Not all farmers are eligible, as operators do not work within a 20-30-kilometre zone from the front line.

In addition, the fields for demining are chosen not on a first come, first served basis, but on a priority basis. Demining Solutions said that the priorities are determined based on the instructions from the National Mine Action Authority and proposals from local authorities.

Unable to wait for months for their turn, farmers look for bomb disposal experts themselves.

In the spring of 2022, Agrotrade Holding, which owns land in Chernihiv Oblast liberated in April, faced a problem: unexploded shells and mines were lying in the sown fields. They could have gone deep into the ground and become overgrown with rapeseed by summer. Then the fields would be unusable for years.

"The military was standing next to our fields and we asked them to clear the roads. Then we launched our spraying drones and used them to look for unexploded ordnance. The military blew it all up, and we cleaned it up," says Olena Vorona, Chief Operating Officer of Agrotrade Group.

The company thanked the military for their help with pick-up trucks and fuel. As a result, the cost of clearing 10,000 hectares of landmines cost the company about US$60,000. According to Vorona, other farmers did the same.

The company maintains that there were no accidents after such mine clearance.

A black market for explosives experts

Not everyone is that lucky. There have been incidents of farming equipment exploding after driving over mines in fields that were supposedly cleared from mines by uncertified explosives technicians.

"One man’s combine harvester blew up in Kyiv Oblast. He called us, complaining that someone had cleared his field from mines, but he still drove over one," members of the Military Feodal project said.


The remnants of a tractor that exploded while at work in a field


The urgent need to clear away mines across the territories that had seen the presence of Russian forces has resulted in the emergence of a black market for explosives technicians. Those who offer their services on this market act quickly, but there is no guarantee that they will carry out quality work. Farmers, however, are prepared to take the risk in order to save their businesses and jobs.

According to data released by an agricultural firm, uncertified explosives technicians on the black market charge around 5,000 hryvnias (approximately US$135) per hectare for inspections, and US$1,000–3,000 per hectare for clearing away mines, depending on the density of the mines.

Experts are sceptical about these black market technicians. "If a farmer hired someone on the black market and then wants to pass a compliance check or lease their land, they would not be able to verify that the land is safe," Military Feodal warns.

Legal market is shaping up

A legal market for experts in clearing mines is also beginning to take shape in Ukraine. Certified firms specialising in clearing away mines for a charge have started to appear. One of them is a subsidiary of Ukroboronprom.

Ukroboronprom told Ekonomichna Pravda that the prices charged for certified inspections and clearing away mines can vary wildly depending on the number of mines, the type of terrain, and the area’s safety.


The front of this tractor sustained serious damage after the tractor drove over the mine


Technicians from the state-owned firm will work nearly at cost. Still, not all farmers will be able to afford their services.

During the Traversing a Minefield conference, business owners proposed that the state share their costs. Otherwise, farmers would have to look for alternative ways to clear their property of mines.

What next?

The year 2022 was a difficult one for humanitarian mine clearance. The frontline kept shifting, there was a lack of funding, some of the technicians were studying for their certificates. Recently the process has picked up pace.

Before the full-scale war, only four mine clearance operators were registered in Ukraine. Now there are 10, two of which work to inform the public about mine risk and safety. Several other mine clearance operators are still in the process of being certified.

Agricultural workers sometimes take humanitarian mine clearance in their own hands. Nibulon, an agricultural firm, is currently working to register as a mine clearance operator, and is raising funds to buy the necessary equipment.

The number of experts in the field is growing. The State Emergency Service said that a year ago they employed 600 explosives technicians, and that currently the number stands 1,000. The SES plans to increase the number of technicians to 1,500.

Certified operators are also expanding. A year ago, Demining Solutions used to employ 10 technicians, and now employs 50. The Ukroboronprom subsidiary counts 30 explosives technicians among its staff, and hopes to increase their number to 100.


The Association of Explosives Technicians says that it will take dozens of year to clear the territory of Ukraine from mines


Still, there are not enough technicians to inspect all areas of concern. On the other hand, the growth of international support Ukraine has seen over the past year might speed things up.

The US government, for instance, has said that mine clearance in Ukraine is one of the greatest such challenges since World War II and has allocated US$11 million to mine clearance efforts. Canada has allocated US$11 million, and the EU has allocated €25 million (approximately US$26 million). The money will be used to purchase equipment, train expert teams, and offer grants to certified operators.

Farmers’ problems will gradually be solved. Experts at Demining Solutions say that the Ukraine’s National Mine Action Authority [established in November 2021 – ed.] has said that clearing farming lands from mines would be its top priority in 2023.

Farmers have to submit a request on the Military Feodal website, which will forward the information they provide to the relevant authorities. Mine clearance experts will use this information to schedule their work.

The Association of Explosives Technicians believes that it might take dozens of years to clear the territory of Ukraine of mines. However, the expertise gleaned from other countries, such as Croatia, and modern technologies can significantly expedite the process.

The government faces several tasks: to find additional funding, such as charitable donations, to purchase equipment; to reinforce control over illegal and uncertified explosives technicians; to establish clear rules for operators; and to shape the humanitarian mine clearance market and make it accessible to farmers and agricultural firms.

Bohdan Miroshnychenko for Economichna Pravda

Translated by Elina Beketova, Anton Strii and Olya Loza

Edited by Dasha Narog and Susan McDonald