Russian troops have used a number of weapons widely banned across the world, which have killed hundreds of civilians in the Ukrainian region of Kyiv, research by the Guardian suggests.
Evidence collected during a visit to Bucha, Hostomel and Borodianka, where Russian occupiers have been accused of atrocities against residents, showed that Russian troops had used cluster munitions, cluster bombs and extremely powerful unguided bombs in populated areas, which have destroyed at least eight civilian buildings.
Bellingcat, a nonprofit online journalism collective dedicated to war crime investigations, which has reviewed some of the pictures collected by the Guardian, confirmed the presence of tail fins of RBK-500 cluster bombs with PTAB-1M submunitions and cluster rocket, launched by BM-30 Smerch.
Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians and has said Ukrainian and western allegations of war crimes are concocted.
However, Russia’s withdrawal from the areas of the Kyiv region that it occupied until early April has revealed signs of cluster munitions on the wreckage of cars, streets, civilian buildings and dead bodies, too. Cluster munitions, banned by most of the world under a 2008 treaty called the Convention on Cluster Munitions, were unleashed in areas where there were no military personnel and no military infrastructure.
Cluster bombs are designed to release dozens of smaller bombs, called submunitions, over a wide area, but the smaller munitions do not always explode, posing a future risk to civilians. The bombs were banned under international law by the 2008 treaty, which has been signed by more than 100 countries – although not Russia or Ukraine.
According to the New York Times, Ukrainian troops used a cluster munition rocket in early March in Husarivka, a village in the east of the country that they were trying to retake.
The wrecks of dozens of cars in Bucha and Borodianka, seen and photographed by the Guardian and reviewed by experts, show the characteristic holes caused by submunitions from cluster bombs used by the Russian military. The use of cluster bombs and cluster munitions has also been widely reported in other areas of Ukraine. On 4 April, as a team from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) entered an oncology hospital in Mykolaiv, south-east Ukraine, several explosions took place in close proximity to the staff.
“No large crater was visible,” reads a statement from MSF. “In the wake of the explosions, our team saw numerous small holes in the ground, scattered over a large area. These elements could be consistent with the use of cluster bombs.”
The Guardian found a Russian cluster rocket used to prop cluster munitions near a farm village in Hostomel and allegedly launched by a BM-30 Smerch.
Much of this evidence on the use of these types of internationally banned weapons has been collected by Ukrainian prosecutors and will soon be forwarded to the international criminal court (ICC), which has launched an investigation into possible war crimes, or crimes against humanity, in Ukraine.
“Russia is applying forbidden means and methods of war – in particular, it is using prohibited ammunition, cluster bombs and cluster artillery ammunition,” Oleh Tkalenko, the Kyiv region’s deputy head prosecutor, said.
“In the town of Borodianka, during its occupation, Smerch system cluster ammunition was used, which is forbidden. Apart from that, the civil objects were bombed by FAB-250 bombs (this information was provided by the specialists). Eight buildings were destroyed.”
FAB-250 is a very inaccurate, Soviet-designed, 250kg airdropped bomb, largely employed by the Soviet Union in its war in Afghanistan and by the Russian Federation in Syria. The FAB-250 descend in freefall from planes and have been exclusively designed to hit military targets, such as destroying enemy-fortified facilities, surface fortifications, like depots storing certain equipment, or bunkers.
Although Russia says it is trying to destroy military targets, evidence collected or reviewed by the Guardian and independently verified by weapons experts shows these bombs were dropped on residential buildings and civilian infrastructures. A residential building in Borodianka that housed hundreds of civilians was hit by a FAB-250 and was gutted and split in two pieces. Most residents died.
“You don’t have to be an arms expert to understand that Russia ignored the rules of war in Bucha,” Bucha’s mayor, Anatoliy Fedoruk, said. “Bucha was turned into a Chechen safari, where they used landmines against civilians.”
An official worker in the prosecutor’s office in Kyiv confirmed: “There are many cases in Bucha and Irpin where they leave the mines in private homes.”
Tkalenko said forensic doctors were analysing every single body found in mass graves, on streets, in basements or buried in rubble, and that fragments of cluster bombs and cluster munitions had been found.
“Small objects are found in bodies,” Tkalenko said. “So, the process is organised like this: the bodies are dug out, the forensics are appointed and the experts are working on it. I can’t give any more precise information, because thousands of reports are being written, it is all being collected and will be classified.
“Every kind of ammunition will be classified. We are preparing for [a future war crimes investigation at] The Hague. So, this work is done by two specialists: one finds the objects, another takes them out and appoints the expertise. The task of a prosecutor is to make sure that the law is obeyed.”
“What I can tell you is that in 20 years of my career, I have never seen such horrors, as I have seen since 24 February up until now, and never have I seen such horrific events,” Tkalenko added. “War, it is very scary. That’s all.’’
Additional reporting by Dan Sabbagh