A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 20, 2023

Ukraine Troops' Most Dangerous Job: Frontline Mine Removers, "The Fishermen"

Because Russian minefields are so extensive, but because the huge mine-clearing tanks designed for the job are easily detected and targeted by Russian drones, Ukrainian forces have come to rely on their combat engineers to remove mines by hand. 

The work is painstaking and dangerous. They got their nickname because like fishermen stalking an elusive catch, the job requires patience and skill. JL 

Isabel Coles and Ievgenia Sivorka report in the Wall Street Journal:

Armed with a metal detector, a shovel and a grappling hook, combat engineers - known as sappers - hunt for mines along the front line, while trying to remain undetected by the enemy nearby. The Fishermen were tasked with clearing a path through their own defenses without revealing where Ukrainian forces intended to attack. To keep the enemy guessing, the sappers removed explosives from mines they had laid while leaving the outer shell as a decoy. Ukraine has clawed back more territory since the start of the counteroffensive than Russia seized over the (winter). “There is always a risk.”

The Ukrainian soldiers set off in pitch black, stealing through shell-cratered fields to carry out one of the most important tasks of the counteroffensive—and one of the most dangerous.

Armed with a metal detector, a shovel and a grappling hook, the combat engineers—known as sappers—hunt for mines along the front line with Russian forces, while trying to remain undetected by the enemy nearby.

“You can’t afford to be nervous,” said a 49-year-old sapper with the call sign Fisherman who leads a group of 50 within Ukraine’s 68th Jaeger Brigade.

After an initial thrust using Western-donated tanks and other armored vehicles foundered in a Russian minefield in early June, Ukrainian forces turned to men like Fisherman to clear a way forward.

Russia built some of the most extensive battlefield fortifications seen since the World Wars during the months that Western forces were training and equipping Kyiv’s forces to go on the offensive. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has lamented that Western allies didn’t move faster, giving Russia time to mine an area larger than California.

Despite the challenge, Ukraine has clawed back more territory since the start of the counteroffensive more than six weeks ago than Russia seized over the same number of months. And Kyiv has yet to throw all its forces into battle, keeping back some Western-trained units to exploit any breach in Russia’s defenses.

But progress has been slower than Ukrainian and Western officials had hoped for, and Russia’s main line of defenses still lies ahead—beyond fields studded with both antitank and antipersonnel mines, concrete reinforced trenches, wire entanglements, dragon’s teeth and antitank ditches.


Engineering has proved to be one of the stronger branches of the Russian military, the U.K.-based Royal United Services Institute think tank said in a report earlier this year. Obstacles including mines are designed to slow Ukrainian forces down and channel advancing infantry into positions where Russian attack helicopters, artillery and drones can pick them off.

A Russian manual dated 2023 and obtained by a Ukrainian military officer set out guidelines for using mines to thwart Ukrainian mechanized columns. Some antitank mines are to be laid without camouflage to divert Ukrainian forces into areas where hidden mines are placed. Others should be planted in clusters beside obstacles such as disabled vehicles and destroyed tracts of road to ensnare Ukrainian forces attempting to bypass them.

Mine-clearing equipment was included in a $60 million package of military aid the U.S. provided to Ukraine last year.

Among the solutions are the Mine Clearing Line Charge, which launches a small rocket with a line of explosive charges across a minefield and is detonated to trigger any mines nearby. Ukraine already has a Soviet-developed equivalent.

One of the six Leopard 2R armored mine-clearing vehicles provided to Ukraine by Finland was destroyed in the early days of the counteroffensive and two were damaged, according to Oryx, an independent team of analysts tracking both sides’ losses in the war.

A satellite image on Fisherman’s phone illustrates what Ukrainian forces are up against: It shows a belt of antitank mines, five rows deep, in front of a Russian position. But before clearing a path through enemy mines, the sappers had to open a gap in their own.

An avid fisherman, Fisherman compares his hobby to his job, in the sense that both involve laying bait and waiting for a catch. He fought against Russia during an earlier phase of the conflict in 2015 but went back to work in the construction industry until the full-blown invasion last year.

After arriving on the front line near Vuhledar last year, his men, who call themselves the Fishermen, set about planting some 25,000 mines across an area roughly a quarter the size of Manhattan. It sometimes involved trudging several miles carrying multiple antitank mines, weighing 22 pounds each.

The mines the Fishermen laid tore up Russia’s 155th Naval Infantry Brigade, thwarting repeated assaults around the village of Vuhledar during a failed winter offensive. A video on Fisherman’s phone shows three unsuspecting Russian tanks advancing in single file along a track etched through snowy fields. Enemy sappers had previously cleared the route, Fisherman said, but his men went out under cover of night and mined it again. The footage shows the first tank rolling over a mine, triggering an explosion that prompts the rest of the convoy to turn tail.

As the offensive loomed, the Fishermen were tasked with clearing a path through their own defenses without revealing where Ukrainian forces intended to attack. To keep the enemy guessing, the sappers removed explosives from mines they had laid while leaving the outer shell as a decoy.

Ukrainian forces achieved some early tactical successes on the Fishermen’s front, retaking the eastern village of Blahodatne. But, like everywhere else, mines have proved a big problem. In one instance, Ukrainian forces overran a Russian position only to come under heavy artillery fire. While attempting to retreat with the wounded, they triggered an antipersonnel mine, said a sapper with a goatee with the call sign Buba.

“When we go into occupied territory, we are blind,” said Buba.

Wearing night-vision goggles, the sappers scan the ground in front of them with a metal detector. At times they get so close to Russian positions they can hear the voices of their enemies. When the metal detector picks up a signal, they probe the earth to establish what lies beneath. There is no room for nerves. “Your hands can’t shake,” said Fisherman, wearing a T-shirt with the words “Good evening, we are from Ukraine.”

Often the metal detected is harmless shrapnel that litters fields along the front line in southern Ukraine. But if it is a mine, the sappers uncover it using a spade with a short handle before attaching a grappling hook with a cord.

From a safe distance, they tug at the cord to dislodge the antitank mine. Russian forces often place an antipersonnel mine underneath, which is triggered when the antitank mine is removed. “There is always a risk,” said Buba.

Tripwires aren’t visible in the dark, so the sappers sometimes wait until dawn to go out and search for them. For that, Fisherman said, the best tool is a reed: taut but yielding enough not to trigger a trip wire. “Nobody has come up with a tool better than this,” he said, plucking a reed from the bank of a river flowing past. The men were on a break from front-line duties and were staying in a vacant house while awaiting further orders.

Sappers have a short life expectancy, Fisherman said. Despite that, he said he hasn’t lost a single man to a mine so far. That, he considers his greatest achievement.

“I didn’t come here to be a hero,” he said. “I just came here to do my job: to win the war.”


Post a Comment