What do we know about ‘petal mines’ scattered in the streets of Donetsk?

Numerous photos and videos were posted on social media in late July showing dozens of small PFM-1 “petal” mines in Russian-occupied Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine. The posts were accompanied by comments expressing outrage and fear that the mines – hard to see on sidewalks or in the grass – would be deadly to civilians. But it remains unclear whether Ukraine or Russia was responsible for dispersing these controversial weapons. 

A video shared on Twitter on July 31, 2022 showed PFM-1 “petal” mines on a street in Russian-occupied Donetsk.
A video shared on Twitter on July 31, 2022 showed PFM-1 “petal” mines on a street in Russian-occupied Donetsk. © Twitter / JayInKyiv

PFM-1 mines, also known as petal mines or butterfly mines, are small, explosive antipersonnel mines that are generally scattered in large numbers in a warzone – and meant to detonate later on contact.

The mines are highly controversial. They are banned internationally under the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, signed by Ukraine but not by Russia. Some argue that they violate the Geneva Convention due to the risk posed to civilians. 

Soviet-placed PFM-1 mines in Afghanistan killed a number of civilians, particularly children who were liable to pick up the mines because of their unusual shape and small size. The mines react to pressure and can detonate from simply being handled.

Both Ukraine and Russia have accused the other side of using these mines to target civilians. Some media claimed that Russia was using the mines in the Kharkiv region, as early as late February. In July, the accusations turned towards Ukraine, with numerous social media posts saying the army had dispersed the mines that were found in civilian areas in Russian-controlled Donetsk. Others said this was a “false flag” carried out by Russia to blame Ukraine.

A video shared on Twitter on July 31, 2022 shows PFM-1 mines on the side of a street in Donetsk.
Photos shared on Twitter on August 1, 2022 show several petal mines on streets in Donetsk.

‘These mines can add up quite quickly and they can pollute an area’

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Mark Hiznay, associate director of the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch. The organisation has been keeping track of landmine use since the conflict in Ukraine began.

These mines are designed to be scattered in large numbers to deny area to an adversary. There are any number of ways to get them to the battlefield, either in close proximity or over a longer distance via aircraft. The delivery systems are numerous. They range from dispensers carried by individual soldiers and shot like a mortar, to being dispensed by a vehicle-mounted launcher or aircraft-mounted launcher – from a jet or helicopter. They can also be delivered by rocket artillery.

The Russians have classically used petal mines to cut off retreat, to make an adversary pay a cost in order to move through an area. They have used these mines in Afghanistan or Chechnya through routes where a force is retreating, to either slow them down or stop them.

They are mainly controversial because of their use in large numbers. The numbers of these mines can add up quite quickly and they can pollute an area. They’re usually scattered in unpredictable ways. Their colour helps them blend in with things like leaves, and they have odd shapes that can invite people to pick them up. They’re also very sensitive to disruption and liable to detonate just by picking them up. 

Despite their danger, videos on social media show people in Ukraine handling the mines, tossing tyres on them or trying to detonate them “safely”. Hiznay explained that since PFM-1 mines are hermetically sealed, detonation is one of the only ways to easily get rid of them – but it’s not the safest method.

A video shared on Twitter on August 13, 2022 shows people in Donetsk holding petal mines and tossing them in the street, causing them to explode.
A video shared on Twitter on July 28, 2022 shows a Ukrainian soldier detonating a PFM-1 mine by tossing a cinderblock on it.

‘Seeing individual mines in isolation is very suspicious and not natural’

In Ukraine, we saw them starting on day one of the invasion. But we have also seen videos showing people with them goofing around, throwing tyres at them or shooting them, putting them in their bags, all sorts of unsafe behaviours.  

In some photos and videos shared online, a single mine appears on the ground. According to Hiznay, these images could be manipulated since these mines are usually scattered in numbers:

The thing that has puzzled us is that there is always just one of them. That is unlikely when a rocket usually delivers 312 of them. A truck can dispense up to 11,000 of them. So seeing individual mines in isolation is very suspicious and not natural. Usually, with landmines, if there’s one of them, there’s a lot more. 

A video shared on Twitter on July 30, 2022 shows a singular petal mine on a street in Donetsk.

Who is responsible for dispersing the mines?

Both Ukraine and Russia are known to have stocks of the PFM-1 mines. Ukraine began destroying its stock of over 6 million petal mines after becoming a party to the Ottawa Treaty in 2006, a process that has proved to be difficult due to the risks posed by getting rid of them. The country still has around 3.3 million mines in controlled stockpiles. 

Russia is known to possess landmines, viewing them as “an effective way of ensuring the security of Russia’s borders”. German media Deutsche Welle specified in a March 15 article that the early reports of Russian petal mine use in Kharkiv were without pictorial evidence. However, Human Rights Watch has found evidence of Russia using “at least seven types of antipersonnel mines in at least four regions of Ukraine” since February 24, 2022. 

Ukrainian officials have estimated that up to 160,000 square kilometres in the country may be contaminated by unexploded landmines. 

Meanwhile, HRW has seen no evidence that Ukraine has used the mines, an action that would amount to a violation of the Ottawa Treaty. Still, accusations against both sides have flourished. 

Hiznay explained: 

There have been waves of allegations. It started out immediately and now there are clusters of spottings of mines and videos showing them. It got intense [in late July], with even Russian diplomats talking about it. There was a concerted effort alleging that Ukrainians were using them in Donetsk city itself. 

There is little chance of definitively determining exactly who placed the mines that have been photographed in Donetsk. The priority in the region has been to clear the mines – often in ways that make them unrecognisable, precluding identification through serial numbers or manufacturing indications.

The United States has allocated 89 million dollars to Ukrainian NGOs to help clear antipersonnel mines scattered since the start of the conflict.