As Russia continues to bomb Ukraine, are its weapons of choice getting worse?

Analysis: Russia’s indiscriminate use of weaponry has already led to high numbers of civilian deaths

A Russian tank is filmed firing on apartments in Mariupol; evidence emerges that a cluster bomb was used to strike against the train station in Kramatorsk and concerns surface about the possible use of phosphorus in Ukraine’s cities.

Moscow’s forces have been repeatedly accused of using indiscriminate weapons in cities throughout the seven-week-long Ukraine war, a disregard for civilian life that has already almost certainly led to thousands of unnecessary deaths.

A preliminary war crimes assessment, conducted on behalf of 45 members of the OSCE, concluded that Russia had engaged in “a clear pattern” of war crimes, targeting, for example, hospitals, schools and places of shelter during the seven weeks of fighting.

Had Russian forces avoided such tactics “the number of civilians killed or injured would have remained much lower,” the OSCE monitors observed.

At its simplest level, Russia is accused of using unguided bombs – heavy artillery, Grad multiple rockets, air dropped bombs – on urban areas by the OSCE monitors. “A majority of Russian attacks in populated areas have been conducted with unguided artillery,” was their grim conclusion in a 99-page report.

It is a war crime to target civilians directly, and to engage in an attack on a military target that is expected to cause a loss of civilian life excessive in relation to the battlefield gain – regardless of the weapons used.

Film shot by the Associated Press in Mariupol last month, for instance, shows a Russian tank shooting at an apartment block from some distance. In that city, scene of the worst urban fighting in the war so far, the office of the UN’s human rights commissioner has already concluded “126 multi-story residential buildings were damaged and 65 were destroyed”.

That includes a maternity hospital in the southern city and its theatre, where it is estimated that 300 died following an air strike on a site where trapped civilians were trying to shelter from the fighting.

Certain weapons are also considered particularly egregious and in some cases are banned by treaty. Cluster munitions, which indiscriminately scatter small bombs over a wide area, are banned by more than 100 states, although neither Russia nor Ukraine (or the US) have signed up to a treaty first introduced in 2008.

Evidence gathered by the BBC strongly suggests that the Tochka-U missile which struck Kramatorsk railway station earlier this month, killing 50, was a cluster munition. Eye-witnesses reported hearing multiple explosions, and the broadcaster’s site investigation revealed a scattered pattern of smaller bomb damage nearby.

Over the weekend, the mayor of Kharkiv reported that Russian forces were dropping a new type of bomb on the city “by parachute”. Ukraine’s Centre for Defence Strategies said the shells contained cluster bombs, some of which had thermal homing, but most simply scattered around causing damage in the local area.

These are far from isolated episodes. The OSCE monitors said they had received reports of 134 incidents of alleged cluster munition use; multiple uses were recorded by Human Rights Watch, an NGO, in the southern city of Mykolaiv, including an attack on 13 March that killed nine civilians waiting in line for a cash machine.

Concerns too circulate about an escalation of the conflict through the use of other banned weapons – but this is less certain. Britain’s Ministry of Defence is still investigating a report from earlier this week that chemical weapons – “a white smoke” – were used by Russia in Mariupol affecting three people.

Victims said they suffered from tinnitus, tachycardia (a fast heartbeat), inflamed eyes and problems with balance, before gradually recovering. But experts were not immediately convinced and the reports are unlikely to be verified because it is not possible for third party chemical weapons investigators to reach the besieged city.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, also warned in an address to the Estonian parliament on Wednesday that Russia was also using “phosphorus bombs” although there was no immediate evidence to back up the claim. Britain, too, warned earlier this week that phosphorus could be used to break resistance in Mariupol.

White phosphorus is used by militaries as a smokescreen or to illuminate targets at night, but is highly dangerous if it used against people. Like napalm, it causes extreme burns if it touches skin and is almost impossible to put out; it dissolves in body fat and can cause serious internal damage to the heart, liver and kidneys.

In any event, it is already the tragic case that the indiscriminate use of weaponry, largely by Russia, in the war in Ukraine has caused excessive civilian harm. Iain Overton, the director of the NGO Action on Armed Violence, said: “Years of research show that when explosive weapons are used in towns and cities, nearly 90% of the victims are civilians.

“But in the case of Ukraine it may be significantly higher than that, closer to 97%, because of the scale of the shelling and air strikes in towns and cities. We do not yet know how many civilians died during the bombing of Mariupol – it may be 10,000 or more.”


Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor

The GuardianTramp

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