Demining Ukraine: How Geography Affects Military Tactics in the Breadbasket of Europe

In the view of former Green Beret Ryan Hendrickson, Ukraine is today the largest minefield in the world. The malign impact of this new reality not only has global repercussions, but it will also extend for decades into the future.


“Much of the conflict in Ukraine today revolves around landmines,” Hendrickson explains. Millions of these devices are planted, and landmines will likely remain life-threatening even decades after the war ends.


While many landmines are planted in urban areas, Hendrickson’s personal focus is on the impact of landmines on agriculture. Unfortunately for the world’s food supply, the geography of Ukraine dictates that combatants will put enormous effort into planting landmines on agricultural land.


According to HALO Trust, more than 10% of Ukraine’s productive agricultural land can’t be farmed today because of landmines. Some landmine experts believe Russia has systematically mined farmland to weaken Ukraine economically. Forty-one percent of Ukraine’s $68 billion in exports depends on agriculture, which means attacking Ukraine’s ability to produce food is a major threat to Ukraine’s economic survival.


As a former military man, Hendrickson has a different take on why agricultural lands are targeted: this is where geography comes into play. The major Ukrainian farming areas are large and flat. While this makes them ideal for mechanized farming, this flat land is also ideal for tanks and other military vehicles to traverse.


Why would military vehicles prefer farmland to roads?


To answer this, imagine you are a Russian military officer. You know your Ukrainian opponents want to move tanks and other mechanized equipment to retake a military objective, like a railway hub or a strategically important town.  You and your fellow officers already have a grid representing the coordinates of every four-way intersection or other possible bottleneck on the roads the Ukrainian mechanized equipment will use.


When you know a convoy is approaching, you dial in the coordinates to your artillery, and you have an excellent chance of causing major damage to the convoy.


Now, switch sides and imagine you’re a Ukrainian officer. You know that the Russians have mapped out every possible choke point, and their artillery is waiting for you. At this point, it would normally be far more effective to drive your equipment across the flat agricultural land where the Russians can’t simply dial in the coordinates and take you out.


Now, back to the Russian military planner: You don’t want your opponents to have the option of driving across the fields. So to prevent this, you deliberately “seed” the fields with almost uncountable numbers of anti-tank mines. When a tank drives over one of these, death follows.


Your goal is to slow down what would otherwise be a high-speed attack. Landmines ensure that Blitzkrieg warfare is no longer possible.


Still, as the Russian invader, you deliver the landmines by dropping tens of thousands from helicopters. Or you use the new Russian Zemledeliye vehicle that can shoot hundreds of rockets, each with a payload approaching 100 landmines. Your Zemledeliye vehicle can be on the road ten miles away from the field you want to contaminate with land miles, and you simply dial in the coordinates of the fields and fire.


The Ukrainians will be left with these mines when the war ends, and demining the agricultural land will be slow and arduous.


As Hendrickson recalls, “Last August, two Ukrainians and I removed 449 anti-tank mines on one farm. We did it using metal detectors, and it took three days to clear roughly 50 acres.” For him, it was beyond satisfying, at the end of the job, to see the farmer get into his tractor and go into his fields, once again able to farm.


For Hendrickson, this work is a calling. He knows that for an individual farmer, it means being able to earn a living. For the country, mine-clearing helps with economic survival. For the world, it can help some of the world’s most populous countries, like Egypt, Bangladesh, Indonesia, or Pakistan, to avoid famine.


Hendrickson started a charity that enabled him to continue his demining efforts.  The charity buys demining equipment. He brings the equipment to Ukraine, teaches people there to become proficient in it, and when he leaves Ukraine, he donates all the equipment to the people who now know how to use it. The efforts of Hendrickson and the many humanitarian volunteers are only made possible by the vocal and financial support of the world. For those of us who can’t be boots on the ground, this is a way we can still ensure our support is felt in the breadbasket of Europe.


Mitzi Perdue

Harvard graduate Mitzi Perdue is a writer, speaker, and author of the award-winning biography of Mark Victor Hansen, the Chicken Soup for the Soul co-author. All royalties for this book will go to supporting humanitarian relief in Ukraine.

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