Dnipro – Ukraine says its counter-offensive is making slow but steady progress. The Ministry of Defense in Kyiv says that more than 11 square miles of territory have been recovered fromin the past week in the south and east of the country.
But that’s slower progress than many expected. The plodding progress has been blamed on the extent to which Russian forces have managed to dig in and strengthen their defensive positions – including through extensive use of land mines.
Men of the 35th Marine Brigade in Ukraine told CBS News that the retreating Russians have laid land mines everywhere, which commanders say are the biggest obstacle in their week-long effort to break through Russian defenses.
The “sappers” of the 35th brigade, as the sappers are known, gave CBS News a demonstration of how they methodically scour and clear a path only a few yards wide, gradually widening so that troops can and equipment to move through the minefield.
But even when a path is cleared, the danger can return: Russian forces have been known to fire rockets containing smaller mines, known as petal mines or butterfly mines, to effectively re-mine a cleared area.
Apart from the huge number of mines left by the Russian forces, there are mines of all sizes and types. Sapper “Mr. Brown,” call sign, showed us examples – from large anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, to cluster bombs and IED’s – that his unit had found and defused.
“These were all taken off the road,” he said. “All the Russian posts were removed. Every single mine is a trophy.”
There are many trophies to be recovered, for those with the skills to risk it. Mr. Brown said as the Russian forces are being pushed back, “they want everything, with everything they have, both old and new.”
They even booby-trap tank mines with grenades, so if someone lifts up one of the grenades to remove it, it blows up the bigger mine.
Another device they showed us was a mine that rises from the ground to a height of about four feet — chest height — and then sprays 2,500 fragments 50 yards in every direction.
When asked which type scares him the most, Mr. Brown told CBS News that it is a rare type of device that uses a three-wire trigger.
“If the tripwire is activated, you can die on the spot,” he told us. “Those are the scariest ones. Six of our greenies have lost their legs with it. Because they’re mostly made of plastic, it’s hard for metal detectors to pick out in a field littered with artillery pieces. “
Using metal detectors is not only dangerous work in a mine field, it is also extremely slow.
What the 35th Brigade really likes is more of the machines that can do their most dangerous work, such as the American-made Mine Clearance Line Charge, or MILICICS, which can cover a path of 100 yards cleaning in one great stroke.
Ukrainian troops say equipment such as US-supplied Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, built to withstand anti-tank mines, have saved lives on the battlefield. But as soon as soldiers step outside the walking armored vehicles, they are vulnerable again.
“Odesa,” another soldier’s call sign, told CBS News that he lost most of one leg and a few fingers to a mine. But he was back in the post when we got him.
It takes “a lot of training,” he said, “because one wrong step left or right can always be the last one.”
“Where others fear to go, we go, so that in the future, [others] get there safely,” said Odesa, “We do this with enthusiasm, and with God’s help.”