Extensive minefields laid by Russian forces are proving among the toughest obstacles facing Ukraine’s counteroffensive, and the tools that Kyiv’s military has for removing them are inadequate, according to experts.
Russia has deployed minefields in “innovative ways” as part of multiple lines of defense, according to Rob Lee, a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. In the initial phase of Kyiv’s counteroffensive, which began in early June, Ukrainian forces took significant casualties and were slowed in part because of those minefields.
There followed several weeks in which Ukrainian infantry troops sometimes advanced on foot in what Mr. Lee described as “very, very intense combat.” He said that in recent days Ukraine had brought the bulk of its reserve troops into the counteroffensive in southern Ukraine, as well as tanks and mine clearing vehicles, echoing the assessment of two Pentagon officials.
Still, the pace of Ukraine’s advance has so far continued to be grindingly slow. In the last week, Ukraine has claimed incremental gains of around five square miles in the south. But since declaring on July 27 that it had recaptured the village of Staromaiorske, the ninth small settlement in the region since it launched the offensive, the Ukrainian military has offered few details about the state of the fighting.
When Ukrainian forces have deployed mine clearing vehicles to clear a path through the fields, Russia has brought to bear its antitank capabilities, Mr. Lee said, exposing a vulnerability for Kyiv’s forces.
Mine clearing technology has not evolved as fast in the last few decades as other areas of warfare, such as the use of drones and precision guided missiles, according to Mick Ryan, a retired Australian army major general who is a fellow at the Lowy Institute, a research group.
“Ukraine needs a Manhattan Project for mine clearing,” he said, referring to the program employed by the United States during World War II to build an atomic bomb.
To overcome disadvantages in troops and weapons, Ukraine is attempting to advance on three fronts — in two southern sectors as well as outside Bakhmut, the eastern city that fell to Russia in May — and aiming to force Russian commanders to choose where to commit their forces, according to military experts.
“They are trying to create a problem for Russia, a dilemma, where they have to commit reserves in different directions,” said Mr. Lee, who recently returned from a trip to Ukraine during which he spoke to military commanders.
But he added that “if Ukraine is only able to have success in one direction and it appears only one of those axes of advance is the main one, then Russia can potentially deploy reserves there.”
Marc Santora contributed reporting.