Sea mines: the mortal danger lurking in Ukrainian waters | Ukraine

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On June 11, a 50-year-old man entered the calm waters from a beach in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. Every weekend in the summer, he bathed in the shallow sea and searched for sea snails, a local delicacy.

But on this occasion, he was not to return. A mine exploded, killing him instantly, as his family watched horrified.

The Black Sea is infested with hundreds of mines dropped by both sides in Russia’s war against Ukraine, posing a serious threat to populations and the reopening of grain transport routes interrupted by Moscow’s maritime blockade .

“It’s a really big deal,” said Vladlen Tobak, a former Ukrainian navy diving instructor and founder of a diving school in Odessa. “These mines are there with other unexploded ordnance from World War II, which we continue to find. The main concern is that we don’t know how many mines were dropped during the naval blockade. It will take a long time to clear the waters from these devices.

Kyiv and Moscow blame each other for dropping mines in the Black Sea. The extent of the mining operations remains unknown, but Sergey Bratchuk, spokesman for the Odessa regional military administration, claims that between 400 and 600 mines were launched into Ukraine’s maritime zone by Russia.

In March, Russia’s Defense Ministry and state security agency, the FSB, warned of “deployment of Ukrainian mines off Odessa”, believed to have drifted after a storm. According to Moscow, the Russian military has mapped around 370 Ukrainian sea mines.

People swim in the sea off Odessa, where the Ukrainian government has banned coastal swimming. Photography: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Sea mines, designed to explode when a ship’s hull comes into contact with them, are anchored to a steel cable to keep them underwater. However, they can become detached during storms and drift long distances in ocean currents.

Sea mines are not banned by international agreements, unlike land mines. However, international humanitarian law prescribes certain rules. For example, states can place them in their territorial waters to defend their coasts from external attacks. The Hague Convention prohibits the use of drifting mines in international waters.

In June, Ukraine publicly admitted to having “installed naval mines in exercise of its right to self-defence as stipulated in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter”. The government simultaneously banned coastal swimming. But with temperatures reaching 35°C (95°F), many people are ignoring the restrictions and flocking to the beach.

Roman Kostenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and commander of the Ukrainian special forces, confirmed to the Guardian: “We mined the coast and some areas closer to the coast to prevent a Russian invasion by sea. However, we do not know the exact extent and location of the Russian mines.

The presence of sea mines also poses a serious threat to other countries bordering the Black Sea. Bulgarian authorities have warned citizens living near the coast to watch out for mines, while Romania is working to defuse devices found in its waters, according to reports. As for Turkey, at least two mines appear to have drifted to the coast, prompting Ankara to discuss the matter with Moscow and Kyiv.

On Friday, a floating anti-ship mine ran aground in the Odessa region, the press service of the Ukrainian Navy reported. “Defense forces found another floating anti-ship mine in the Black Sea near the shore in the Odessa region. The dangerous discovery was quickly defused by a naval unit of the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” he said on Facebook.

Ukrainian MP Roman Kostenko
Ukrainian MP Roman Kostenko said there were only the outlines of a plan to clear the Black Sea. Photography: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

At least two Ukrainian men have died in sea mine explosions in recent weeks. “It’s not about the shock wave itself,” said Oleg Solokha, a former Ukrainian military diver. “When a mine explodes, even if you are not very close to it, you can pass out or experience vertigo. You lose your spatial orientation and your mind does not understand where is up and where is down. It is very dangerous.You can easily drown because of it.

It is still unclear what kind of mines are floating in the Black Sea. A Ukrainian Foreign Ministry official told Reuters in March that 372 sea mines laid by Russia were of the “R-421-75” type, which were neither registered nor used by the Ukrainian navy.

“There are different types of sea mines,” Solokha said. “There are contact mines and magnetic mines, and modifications of those with vibro-sensors. In 99% of cases, mines are simply blown up, because the older trinitrotoluene in a mine becomes unstable over time and can explode on its own. Another reason they explode is that the activators (the tips of the mine) are impossible to disconnect if the mine sits in the water too long.

With changing tides and storms, the breakdown of anchored devices complicates clearance attempts. Experts agree clearing the Black Sea could take years and any attempt would be the biggest since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Ukrainian official said authorities were planning demining using robots, but it would take months before it could be put into operation. Kostenko confirmed the existence of a demining plan, but said for now it was only a draft.


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