A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 20, 2022

The Reason Russia's Ukraine Strategy Is Dependent On Banned Weapons, Tactics

Russia's profligate use of weapons banned by international treaties - such as cluster bombs - and of tactics such as targeting civilian areas with no military usefulness, in addition to the widespread reports of murder and rape by Russian troops, suggests Russian leadership doesn't care what the rest of the world thinks, doesn't believe it can or will be held accountable - and that this is an effective means of winning. 

That it may be having the opposite effect by stiffening Ukrainian resistance and western resolve to support Ukraine does not yet appear to have occurred to Russia's leaders. JL

Danielle Ivory and colleagues report in the New York Times:

Reflecting a barbaric, old-fashioned wartime strategy, Russian forces have pummeled Ukrainian cities and towns with rockets and other munitions, most of which are crude relics of the Cold War, and many of which have been banned under international treaties.The attacks have made repeated and widespread use of weapons that kill, maim and destroy indiscriminately - a violation of international humanitarian law. It has formed the backbone of the country’s strategy for war. "And it’s how Russia views the likelihood that it will be held accountable for its actions.”

Reflecting a shockingly barbaric and old-fashioned wartime strategy, Russian forces have pummeled Ukrainian cities and towns with a barrage of rockets and other munitions, most of which can be considered relatively crude relics of the Cold War, and many of which have been banned widely under international treaties, according to a New York Times analysis.

The attacks have made repeated and widespread use of weapons that kill, maim and destroy indiscriminately — a potential violation of international humanitarian law. These strikes have left civilians — including children — dead and injured, and they have left critical infrastructure, like schools and homes, a shambles.

The Times examined more than 1,000 pictures taken by its own photojournalists and wire-service photographers working on the ground in Ukraine, as well as visual evidence presented by Ukrainian government and military agencies. Times journalists identified and categorized more than 450 instances in which weapons or groups of weapons were found in Ukraine. All told, there were more than 2,000 identifiable munitions, a vast majority of which were unguided.

The magnitude of the evidence collected and cataloged by The Times shows that the use of these kinds of weapons by Russia has not been limited or anomalous. In fact, it has formed the backbone of the country’s strategy for war since the beginning of the invasion.

Of the weapons identified by The Times, more than 210 were types that have been widely banned under international treaties. All but a handful were cluster munitions, including their submunitions, which can pose a grave risk to civilians for decades after war has ended. More than 330 other weapons appeared to have been used on or near civilian structures.

Because of the difficulties in getting comprehensive information in wartime, these tallies are undercounts. Some of the weapons identified may have been fired by Ukrainian forces in an effort to defend themselves against the invasion, but evidence points to far greater use by Russian forces.

Customary international humanitarian laws and treaties — including the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their protocols — demand that the driving principle in war be military necessity, which mandates all combatants direct their actions toward legitimate military targets. The law requires a balance between a military mission and humanity. Combatants must not carry out attacks that are disproportionate, where the expected civilian harm is clearly excessive, according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, to the direct and concrete military advantage that would be anticipated. Combatants must consider distinction, that attacks are directed only toward lawful targets and people and are not applied indiscriminately. And they must not use weapons calculated to inflict unnecessary suffering.

“The Russians have violated every single one of those principles almost daily,” said Mike Newton, a Vanderbilt University law professor who frequently supports efforts to prosecute war crimes all over the world.

“The law of war is far more demanding than the rule of simple expediency and convenience,” Professor Newton said. “Just because I have a weapon doesn’t mean I can use it.”

What follows is an analysis of the visual evidence The Times examined in its investigation.

Unguided Munitions

A vast majority of the weapons identified by The Times were unguided munitions, which lack accuracy and, as a result, may be used in greater numbers to destroy a single target. Both of these factors increase the likelihood of shells and rockets falling in areas populated by civilians.

Russia has relied heavily in Ukraine on long-range attacks with unguided weapons, like howitzers and artillery rockets. By comparison, Western military forces have almost entirely converted their arsenals to use guided rockets, missiles and bombs, and they have even developed kits that can turn regular artillery shells into precision weapons. Russia may be limited by sanctions and export controls affecting its ability to restock modern weapons, and much of its precision-guided arsenal may now have been exhausted.

These Cold War-era, unguided Russian weapons have the capacity to shoot well beyond the range of the human eye — many miles past the point where a soldier could see the eventual target. To use these weapons lawfully at long range, Russia would have to use drones or soldiers known as “forward observers” to watch where the weapons hit, and then radio back corrections. There was little evidence that they were doing so until recently.

“I think what we’re seeing here with the Russians is kind of like what you’d see back in World War II, where they just bomb the hell out of people,” a senior American defense official said in an interview.

“The most surprising thing is, I guess, their philosophy on trying to break the will or the spirit of the Ukrainian people by just leveling large sections or entire towns,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about assessments of Russian behavior in Ukraine. He added: “This is what war used to look like, and they just brought it back center stage. And people, I think, are horrified.”

Artillery rockets like the 122-millimeter Grad were fielded long before precision-guided weapons were invented. They were designed for something called “saturation fire” — in which a handful of mobile rocket launchers, each of which can fire as many as 40 rockets in about 20 seconds, can offer the same firepower as many dozens of larger towed howitzers. They can essentially flood an area with warheads exploding in rapid succession.

When fired in a barrage, the rockets make up for their comparative inaccuracy with sheer volume — blanketing their targets with explosions.

The warheads on these weapons can be devastating. When they explode, they produce a blast wave that can grow in intensity as it bounces off buildings, shattering concrete on neighboring structures and damaging internal organs of anyone nearby. The munition’s casing breaks into razor-sharp fragments that can penetrate bodies. Both the blast wave and the fragments can be lethal at various ranges. Here are three common types of weapons Russia has been using in Ukraine whose fragments can be dangerous to unprotected people at great distances.


Munitions and remnants of weapons have been found throughout Ukraine, and about one-fifth of those identified were located outside of the areas of Russian troop presence, according to a Times analysis. Though some of the munitions were almost certainly used in airstrikes, many were most likely launched at maximum range, meaning that estimates of troop presence during the span of the war may have underrepresented the extent of the threat to civilians and civilian structures.

In the early weeks of the invasion, Russia shifted many of its attacks to highly populated areas with civilian infrastructure, hitting churches, kindergartens, hospitals and sports facilities, often with imprecise long-range unguided munitions that could be heaved blindly from afar, causing wreckage well beyond the boundaries of occupied territory.

The top prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague has opened a formal inquiry into accusations of atrocities in Ukraine. Under international humanitarian law, combatants and commanders are supposed to take all feasible precautionary measures to minimize harm to civilians and “civilian objects,” like apartments, houses and other buildings and structures that are not being used for military purposes.

Targeting civilian structures or indiscriminately bombing densely populated areas, depending on the circumstances of an attack, could violate the laws of war, or even possibly be a war crime. And the burden of proof to show that an area was a justified military target and that the attack was proportionate, experts have said, generally falls on the aggressor.

A photo of a warhead spiking the center of a playground, though it may be upsetting, does not necessarily prove that a war crime has been committed. Details of each instance, including the intent behind an attack and the surrounding circumstances, must be thoroughly investigated. (For example, if a school was being used as a military command center, it could potentially be considered a justified target under international law, though that would need to be weighed against other factors, like determining whether an attack would be proportionate.)

Still, experts said documenting evidence of potential violations could be an important first step in that investigative process and could help tell the story of civilians struggling on the ground. And a pattern of widespread attacks involving civilians and protected structures, they said, particularly with imprecise weapons, should not be ignored.

“This is a window into the mindset of how Russia views Ukraine,” said Pierre-Richard Prosper, who served as U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues under President George W. Bush and who has also been a war crimes prosecutor. “And it’s a window into how Russia views the likelihood that it will be held accountable for its actions.”

“It’s emblematic,” he said, “of how the Russian government has been operating with impunity on so many fronts.”

Over and over, The Times found visual evidence that Russian forces fired on areas that were near easily recognizable civilian buildings. Hundreds of munitions were identified in or near houses and apartment buildings, and dozens were identified in or near schools. Weapons were also identified close to churches, cemeteries, farms, medical facilities and several playgrounds.

The Times found the distinctive remains of cluster munition warheads scattered across Ukraine — they were photographed sometimes where they landed, and sometimes where they were gathered in piles. The munitions are a class of weapon comprising rockets, bombs, missiles, mortar and artillery shells that split open midair and dispense smaller submunitions over a wide area.

Although some of the Russian submunitions used in Ukraine have been mines designed to kill people or destroy tanks, they usually take the form of small anti-personnel weapons called “bomblets” that are cheaply made, mass-produced and contain less than a pound of high explosives each.

About 20 percent of these submunitions fail to detonate on impact and can explode if later handled. Many of the solid-fuel motors tallied by The Times that were left over from rocket attacks might have carried cluster munition warheads, but it was unclear — meaning that the cluster weapon tally is likely an undercount.

A number of nongovernmental organizations have reported injuries and deaths in Ukraine resulting from cluster munitions. In February, Human Rights Watch said a Russian ballistic missile carrying submunitions struck near a hospital in Vuhledar, killing four civilians and injuring 10, including health care workers, as well as damaging the hospital, an ambulance and other vehicles.

The same month, according to the human rights organization, Russian forces fired cluster munitions into residential areas in Kharkiv, killing at least three civilians. Amnesty International reported that a cargo rocket dropped bomblets on a nursery and kindergarten in Okhtyrka, in an attack that was said to have killed three people, including a child, and to have wounded another child.

In April, Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General, which has been investigating potential war crimes, said a man in the village of Mala Kostromka picked up an unexploded submunition, which then detonated, killing him. In May, the office said Russian forces had used cluster munitions in a village in the Dnipropetrovsk region, possibly killing one person. Neither Ukraine nor Russia (nor the United States) have joined the international treaty banning the use of cluster munitions.

The military forces of both Russia and Ukraine are known to have used cluster munitions in Donbas during fighting in 2014 and to have used weapons in civilian spaces. But since the Feb. 24 invasion, with the exception of a single known use attributed to Ukrainian troops, evidence has pointed to nearly exclusive use by Russian forces.

The Times identified these weapons through photos of the skeletal remnants of empty rocket warheads as well as images of unexploded bomblets they left behind — some of which were designed to demolish armored vehicles and others to kill people.The Times defined civilian areas narrowly, as locations in or near identifiable nonmilitary or government buildings or places, like houses, apartment buildings, shops, warehouses, parks, playgrounds, schools, churches, cemeteries and memorials, hospitals, health facilities, agricultural structures and farms. Because some of the visual evidence — in both city centers and small villages — did not include clear examples of civilian buildings or landmarks, this tally is an undercount as well. The Times did not include infrastructure like roads or bridges.

The hand grenade in the first photo, disguised in a crumpled coffee cup, was found by Ukrainians near their home in Zalissya Village, near Brovary. The weapon potentially violates the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which restricts the use of booby traps in the form of seemingly harmless portable objects that can explode if disturbed or approached.

The POM-3 land mine in the second photo is also banned under international humanitarian laws; it can kill and maim civilians long after wars have ended. Ukrainian military officials reported that they found such land mines in the Kharkiv and Sumy regions. They are a new type of weapon, equipped with sensors that can detect when people walk nearby — unlike older types of land mines, which typically explode when people step on them or disturb attached trip wires. Ukraine is one of 164 nations that have signed a 1997 treaty banning the use of antipersonnel land mines and have pledged to purge their stockpiles, while Russia has refused to join it (as has the United States).

The POM-3 generally is launched by a rocket and then parachutes back to the ground. There, it waits until it senses a person nearby and then launches a small explosive warhead that can detonate midair. The fragments can be lethal to someone as far as 50 feet away. In April, the HALO Trust, a British American nonprofit that removes explosive remnants of weapons after armed conflicts, told The Times that “these create a threat that we don’t have a response for.”

The third photo shows small, hexagonal cylinders of thermite — an incendiary compound used in some Russian rockets and bombs that have been seen bursting open mid-air, streaming burning sticks of thermite onto the ground below. International law specifically prohibits their use near civilian areas.

The fourth photo shows a handful of flechettes, essentially tiny steel arrows released from certain types of shells. Using them does not necessarily violate international humanitarian law, but the weapons could potentially run afoul of the laws of war if deemed to cause unnecessary suffering or if used in civilian areas because of their indiscriminate, lethal nature.

Even guided munitions, which are not generally banned on their face, can potentially run afoul of international humanitarian laws if they are used to harm civilians or structures without a justified military target. The Times found evidence of more than a dozen guided weapons in civilian locations.

In April, HALO, which stands for Hazardous Area Life-Support Organization, told The Times that future efforts to remove explosives in Ukraine would require roughly the same number of workers as its current operation in Afghanistan, which has suffered decades of conflict.

Unexploded ordnance poses a serious and ongoing threat, even decades after wars are fought. In Syria, land mines, explosive remnants and unexploded weapons were a leading cause of child casualties last year, making up about a third of recorded injuries and deaths and leaving many children permanently disabled.

In Laos, where the United States used cluster munitions extensively during the Vietnam War, nine million to 27 million unexploded submunitions remained after the conflict, causing more than 10,000 civilian casualties, according to the Congressional Research Service. More than a full century after World War I, unexploded shells still litter parts of Europe where battles were fought. Some zones are still uninhabited because they are considered unsafe.

In addition to launching weapons that have failed to explode in Ukraine, Russia has also attacked local arms depots, causing fires and explosions that typically can fling hundreds of damaged and unstable munitions into surrounding areas.

Leila Sadat, a professor of international law at Washington University in St. Louis and a special adviser to the International Criminal Court prosecutor since 2012, said there was a “huge degree of weapon contamination that then Ukrainians have to address, assuming they can come back to these areas.”

“Ukraine,” Prof. Sadat said, “could become a wasteland."


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