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How Ukraine is using US mines to decimate Russian tanks

Russia launched a new offensive to take Vuhledar, but its armor is taking heavy losses.
Nicholas Slayton Avatar
DONETSK OBLAST, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 14: Ukrainian soldiers load ammunition to tanks on the frontline near the towns of Vuhledar and Marinka as Russian-Ukrainian war continues in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on February 14, 2023. (Photo by Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

One year into the war in Ukraine, the conflict does not appear closer to ending, and Russian tanks appear no better at avoiding destruction. Armored forces attempting to take the Ukrainian town of Vuhledar are being decimated by landmines. 

It’s been this way for much of February. Videos taken by Ukrainian fighters and shared online have shown Russian tanks attempting to cross fields and roads, only to crash to a halt as a mine blows up beneath them. And it appears to keep happening, with Russian forces unable to avoid the mines.

Fighting around the town has been ongoing since March 2022, but has been escalating since Jan. 24 when Russia launched a renewed offensive. It’s seen as the first part of an expected spring offensive, and so far is not going well.  Exact losses are unconfirmed; Ukraine’s military claims that in mid-February Russia lost 36 tanks. British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace claimed, citing reports, that a Russian brigade was “effectively annihilated” and 1,000 fighters killed between Feb. 14-15. Despite those losses, Russia is continuing its push, and with that still trying to move its armor forward, directly into Ukrainian landmines. And the results are the same. Videos show lead tanks getting disabled and the following tanks struggling to maneuver without meeting the same fate.

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Along with its own Soviet-era mines, Ukraine has a supply of American remote anti-armor mine systems, which the United States provided approximately 6,000 of in late 2022. Right now, Ukrainian forces at Vuhledar are outnumbered when it comes to armor — the first Leopard tanks donated by Poland arrived in Ukraine on Friday — but the last two weeks have shown its mines are enough to hold back Russian tanks, at least for now. 

Mines have played a key role in the fighting in Ukraine over the past year. After their initial invasion last year failed to take Kyiv, Russian forces pulled back, mining roads and fields. Groups are working to de-mine those areas to make them safe for civilians. 

Russia’s attempts at an offensive near Vuhledar, as much of the fighting in the Donbas region turned into an effective standstill, with neither side able to break through. In the fall, after losing swaths of land in Ukraine’s east, Russia tried to take the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, three hours south from Vuhledar. That has turned into a battle of attrition, with trench warfare and devastated no man’s land straight out of World War I. Despite heavy amounts of artillery, armor and drones, neither side has been able to break through the other’s lines.

Bakhmut is also where the Kremlin-aligned mercenary organization the Wagner Group has been leading the push, suffering heavy losses along the way, many of which are from the convicts recruited into the group. Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin is currently in a war of words with the Russian military, accusing it of not supplying his organization with ammunition. As part of that conflict, he is posting photos of dead Wagner soldiers in Bakhmut, giving a glimpse at how severe Russian losses are in the battle. The town itself has been shattered by the fighting, with buildings bombed out and streets abandoned.

Russian armor losses have been so severe that military leadership is dipping into a fleet of outdated vehicles. The military mobilized an unspecified amount of BTR-50 armored personnel carriers, which have been spotted in Russian-occupied territory. The vehicle was initially introduced by Soviet armed forces in 1954. Despite having a huge advantage in armor when the war broke out, severe losses have weakened Russia’s forces. Ukraine meanwhile is receiving a variety of Western vehicles, including Leopard 2 tanks, and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles.

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