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Is Russia using butterfly mines in Ukraine?

Wulf Wilde | Rachel Baig
March 15, 2022

PFM-1, known as "butterfly mines," look like toys and are therefore particularly dangerous for children. Russia has been accused of using the weapons in the war against Ukraine, but is there evidence for this?

Hammelburg | Close-Up einer Butterfly-Mine - Sicherheitskurs für Krisengebiete
Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

It is a serious accusation: According to various media and social media posts, so-called butterfly mines were found in several conflict-ravaged regions of Ukraine. The small, internationally banned anti-personnel mines are said to come from the Russian army. These mines are considered a particularly insidious weapon that is primarily aimed at the civilian population — and use of them would be "terror against the civilian population," according to a military expert from the University of the Bundeswehr in Munich, Carlo Masala, in his podcast with the German weekly magazine Stern.

DW's fact-checking team investigated whether butterfly mines were used by Russia in Ukraine. So far, there is no evidence for these claims. The images circulating online at the moment are not from Ukraine and are outdated.

When did the claims first emerge?

On February 26, 2022, several news websites reported on the use of butterfly mines in Ukraine for the first time, including Ukrayinska PravdaPolish News and Perlid. At the same time, social media posts on the subject also appeared on Twitter, most of which refer to or link to the media reports mentioned.

In all cases, a Facebook post by Ukrainian Prosecutor General Irina Venediktova from the same day is cited as the source.

Referring to the Ukrainian military, Venediktova warns against the use of such anti-personnel mines in the Kharkiv region: "A message from Kharkiv!!! Right now!!! Attention — 'Petal''!!." She also writes: "Cassette bombs with 'Lepestok' mines are being dropped." According to "Polish News," the General Staff of the Ukrainian Army confirmed the discovery of such mines.

In the following days, other media picked up the news, such as "Euromaidan Press" on February 28. This report also refers to Venediktova and the Ukrainian General Staff. Additional or new information going beyond the first reports is not mentioned. In addition to that, all the articles and social media posts use the same images of the butterfly mines. However, this photo is not current, but at least six years old, as a reverse search on Google shows. Among others, it was used in an article by the Ukrainian news website "novynarnia.com" in 2016.

Then, in the second week of March, reports emerged of the use of butterfly mines in the areas of the embattled cities of Sumy and Mariupol. Political scientist Masala discussed the claim in his podcast for the German weekly Stern on March 9. On March 10, the US magazine Forbes also reported about the use of PFM-1 mines in the Mariupol region on its website. They were said to have been used to block evacuation routes out of the besieged city, wrote Forbes, citing the International Red Cross (ICRC).

Infografik Karte Ukraine Russische Truppenbewegungen Stand: 13.3.2022 EN
Reports of the use of butterfly mines in the cities of Kharkiv, Sumy and Mariupol have emerged

What evidence is out there?

There are no current images or videos of PFM-1 mines from the war zone, not even on social media. This was corroborated by the Bellingcat research network when asked by DW. The use of cluster munitions in Kharkiv, however, has been documented several times in posts on Twitter or Telegram. When it comes to claims of butterfly mines, such pictorial evidence is absent.

When asked by DW, security expert Masala also said that he had not yet received any reliable evidence. In his podcast, he therefore only expressed himself very carefully and with reference to the corresponding reports.

The same goes for the Forbes article from March 9. In his report on the mined evacuation route from the city of Mariupol, the author first linked to the article in "Ukrayinska Pravda" of February 26, which is about the use of "butterfly mines" in the Kharkiv region. The author claimed that PFM-1 mines were used in the Mariupol area, citing a BBC interview with ICRC director Dominik Stillhart. However, Stillhart only said that a Red Cross convoy was forced to turn back due to mines on the road. He did not specify which type.

An ICRC spokesman declined to comment to DW on the specification of the mines discovered by the convoy. "All specifics regarding the conflict will be discussed confidentially by the ICRC with the parties to the conflict," the spokesman said.

Why are PFM-1 mines banned by most nations?

The name of the anti-personnel mine is derived from the shape of the land mine, which is reminiscent of a butterfly with its two small wings that are used to slow down its fall. They can be dropped in large numbers from airplanes, helicopters, artillery rockets, or mortar shells using special metal containers.

Two models, in particular, are known: The US mine BLU-43/B, also called "Dragontooth," which the US Army last used in the Vietnam War, and the PFM-1, an almost exact replica of the BLU-43/B Soviet production, which the Red Army used extensively, especially in Afghanistan.

The PFM-1 is primarily made of plastic, is about 12 centimeters long (about 4 inches) and 6 centimeters wide. It is mostly dark green, which is why it is also called the "green parrot." In Russia and Ukraine, it is also known as "lepestok," or "petal."

children with stuffed animals
Due to their shape, butterfly mines are are often mistaken for toys by childrenImage: Yomiuri Shimbun/AP/picture alliance

Butterfly mines are considered insidious because, due to their nature and shape, they are not immediately recognized as a weapon or explosive — and can easily be mistaken for toys. In addition, because they are equipped with a cumulative pressure fuse, they do not necessarily detonate on first contact.

In Afghanistan, many civilians were killed by PFM-1, especially children who died or were maimed because they mistook the mines for toys. As a result, among other reasons, the so-called Ottawa Treaty was signed in 1997. Anti-personnel cluster landmines such as the PFM-1 were internationally outlawed with the treaty, which is known formally known as the  Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction. 

So far, 164 states have signed the international treaty, including Ukraine which signed in 1999, but Russia is not at signatory.

Twitter Screenshot | Fake News zur Nutzung von Butterfly Minen durch Russland in der Ukraine
Image: Twitter/Dean Gloster

In terms of military tactics and strategy, butterfly mines have no "added value," said Masala in his podcast: "They are aimed specifically at civilians." In this respect, many legal experts argue this violates the Geneva Convention for the Protection of Civilians.

No reliable evidence against Russia

As of March 14, there is no reliable evidence that butterfly mines are being deployed in the war in Ukraine. There is only one source for their use in the current conflict, the Ukrainian attorney general, and this source is beholden to one of the two conflicting parties.

Since there is no independent confirmation of the accusation nor verifiable recent images, a final assessment on their use is not possible. 

This article was originally written in German. 

This article was updated on September 20. An earlier version had incorrectly claimed that Ukraine had not signed the treaty banning the use of butterfly mines. Ukraine is a signatory of the treaty.