It was a horrific scene of bloody limbs and crumpled vehicles as a series of Russian mines exploded across a field in southern Ukraine.

One Ukrainian soldier stepped on a mine and fell on the grass in the buffer zone between the two armies. Other Ukrainian troops lay nearby, their legs in tourniquets, awaiting medical evacuation, according to videos posted online and the accounts of several soldiers involved.

Soon, an armored vehicle arrived to rescue them. A medic jumped out to treat the wounded and knelt on what he thought was safe ground – only to set off another mine with his knee.

Five weeks into a counteroffensive that even Ukrainian officials say has stalled, interviews with commanders and soldiers fighting along the frontline indicate that the slow progress is one major problem: land mines.

The fields that Ukrainian forces have to cross are covered with dozens of types of mines – made of plastic and metal, shaped like tins of chewing tobacco or soda cans, and with colorful names like “the witch” and “the leaf”.

Ukraine’s military is also hampered by a lack of air support and the deep network of defensive structures the Russians have built. But it is the vast array of mines, trip wires, booby traps and improvised explosive devices that have stranded Ukrainian forces just a few miles from where they started.

“I couldn’t imagine something like this,” said a Ukrainian soldier named Serhiy, part of a unit that rescued the soldiers injured in the blasts. “I thought mines would lie in lines. But whole fields are filled with them everywhere.”

Landmines have long been a staple of Russian warfare, widely used in Afghanistan and Chechnya and earlier phases of the fighting in Ukraine, stretching back to 2014. But the minefields in southern Ukraine are vast and complex, beyond what was previously known, soldiers who have entered them say .

“To clear mines, you should have a lot of motivation and a cool head,” said Major Maksym Prysyazhnyuk, a Ukrainian demining expert who slips into the fields at night before infantry advances. “It’s such a delicate job, like a surgeon’s, but at the same time it’s exploding around you” from artillery in battle.

Demining specialists go out with metal detectors and long, slender probes attached to poles, to carefully poke the ground to try to find buried mines without triggering them. “These are our tools – and an icon in the pocket,” said Major Prysyazhnyuk, referring to Orthodox religious images. He was at a medical stabilization point where soldiers wounded by mines appeared in a steady stream.

The minefields are routinely laid with trip traps and so-called anti-handling devices that cause mines to detonate if they are lifted, to deter demining teams. A common tactic is what Major Prysyazhnyuk called a “trick for idiots” – burying anti-personnel mines in front of a trip wire, to target a soldier who might try to disable the trip wire.

More advanced explosives include the so-called jump mines, which, when stepped on, pop up and spray shrapnel, hitting other soldiers nearby. Russia also uses mines triggered by slender, yellow-colored trip wires that extend a dozen yards, any one of which, when disturbed, can trigger an explosion and spray of shrapnel.

The demining teams work by clearing a path about two feet wide, allowing the infantry to walk forward. Then, the deminers work back down the path to expand it by another foot or more, to allow two soldiers to walk shoulder-to-shoulder carrying a stretcher for soldiers wounded in the battle. Last month a stretcher carrying an injured colleague triggered a mine because the path could not be widened fast enough.

Danger exists even after the paths are cleared. Russian forces often fire rockets that scatter small, hard-to-see green plastic “leaf” mines, also called butterfly mines, over the cleared area, Major Prysyazhnyuk said.

Volodymyr, who serves as a military doctor at the stabilization point, performs amputations on soldiers whose feet or lower legs have been cut off by mine explosions.

Mines, he said, surpassed artillery as the leading cause of injuries. Because some mines are plastic, to avoid detection by demining teams, the shrapnel they spray into soldiers can be invisible to medics in emergency rooms near the front, where medical teams use metal detectors to find and remove fragments, he said.

Like other soldiers interviewed, he spoke on the condition that he be identified by only his first name, for security reasons.

The soldiers are treated and sent to hospitals further away. Last week, Volodymyr said, he amputated both hands of a demining expert who was injured trying to defuse a trapped mine.

The past month has been a terrible, difficult phase of the war for the Ukrainian army, which is under pressure to move forward quickly and demonstrate to Western allies that Ukraine’s policy of arming can turn the tide.

In his late-night speech on Friday, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy again defended the pace of the counteroffensive, saying Russia was throwing “everything they can” at Kiev’s troops, and that “every thousand meters of advance” deserved gratitude.

In the south, Ukrainian troops are attacking in at least three places but have not broken through the main defense lines of the Russians. Mines are not the only difficulty they face. As they advance, Ukrainian soldiers move out of range of some of their air defense systems and become vulnerable to Russian attack helicopters.

Until this week, at its furthest advance, south of the village of Velyka Novosilka, the Ukrainian army had pushed a thicket about five miles deep into Russian lines. At the point where the soldiers got stuck in a minefield, south of the city of Orikhiv, Ukraine advanced about a mile. To reach the Sea of ​​Azov and cut supply lines to Russian-occupied Crimea, a target in the counteroffensive, Ukraine must advance about 60 miles.

One bright spot as they battle through the minefields, Ukrainian soldiers say, is the protection provided by Western armored vehicles.

Where they were used, these vehicles did not enable the Ukrainian military to cross minefields, but they saved lives with superior armor that protects against the explosions.

The American-made Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, with laminated aluminum and steel armor, roll over anti-personnel mines with impunity. They are immobilized by Russian anti-tank mines, powerful circular devices that are loaded with approximately 15 pounds of TNT, often without causing serious injury to the soldiers inside.

Denys, an army surgeon at another stabilization point near the front, said soldiers injured by mine explosions while riding in Bradleys fared much better than those in Soviet legacy armored vehicles, and that the main consequence was concussion rather than the loss of a limb. .

“The Americans made this machine to save the lives of the crew,” said Serhiy, the rescue team soldier who is now operating in his third Bradley after two earlier vehicles hit anti-tank mines. The second occurred when he and others were sent to evacuate wounded infantry stranded in a minefield.

The series of explosions was filmed by a Ukrainian drone and the footage posted online by a Ukrainian journalist. The episode was also described to The New York Times by Serhiy and other witnesses.

Driving into the minefield, the Bradley crew could hear over the rumble of the engine the pop of the less powerful anti-personnel mines exploding harmlessly as the tracks of the vehicle ran over them. To avoid anti-tank mines, they tried to follow tracks left by other vehicles that drove into the field, but it was difficult.

After they reached the wounded soldiers, a gunner, Serhiy, and a sergeant, also named Serhiy, focused first on firing back at Russian machine gun positions in a distant tree line that fired on the soldiers pinned down in the minefield.

The doctor, meanwhile, jumped into an artillery crater, apparently assuming that the crater was free of anti-personnel mines. He knelt down and started one, blowing off part of his leg.

The drone footage shows the doctor applying a tourniquet to his crippled leg, then crawling back toward the Bradley, where another doctor helps pull him aboard, leaving a streak of blood on the ramp.

Inside the Bradley, other doctors applied a second tourniquet, Sergeant Serhiy said. During the ordeal, which extended to three hours, he had to leave the vehicle sometimes to carry victims.

“It was scary going out when you’ve just seen someone blown up on a mine,” he said.

As they moved out of the field, the Bradley hit an anti-tank mine and skidded to a stop. The explosion damaged the rear ramp, so the crew opened a hatch on the roof and lifted the wounded through it, then lowered them to the ground. They then helped them limp towards another Bradley who moved them to safety.

Sergeant Serhiy returned to the site a few days later with an armored tow truck to retrieve the Bradley. As it was pulled, the Bradley rolled over another anti-tank mine, causing more damage.

The vehicle is now in Poland for repairs, Sergeant Serhiy said. He was given another Bradley to continue the attempted advances over the minefields.

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Orikhiv, Ukraine.

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