Why Russia seems to be pivoting its Ukraine strategy — toward killing more civilians

The Kharkiv opera house, an once-hulking postmodern rectangle that hosted productions in four different languages, is now rubble after being bombed by Russian forces, and at least nine people are dead. That bombing came as part of a series of attacks against civilians — attacks that experts warn could be a pivot toward more widespread damage in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

“Nobody will forgive. Nobody will forget,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said after the attack on the cultural seat of the country’s second-largest city. One of the biggest city squares in Europe, the area contained no military targets, Zelenskyy added.

While it’s difficult to get a comprehensive picture of which weapons the Russians are using or what their objectives are, in recent days experts say they’ve seen the invaders take aim at more civilian targets and take up weapons more likely to hurt bystanders, in what could be a worrying shift in strategy — spurred, in part, by frustration that Ukraine has not failed as quickly as the attackers hoped.

“(The Russian military) can adjust and they are now adjusting,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, an expert on Russian foreign politics and military who is also a senior research scientist at CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organization devoted to American security.

“From a casualty and damage perspective, it’s likely to get worse in the coming days unfortunately.”

Here’s what we know about what weapons Russia is using, how that is shifting and why that matters.

What weapons has Russia been using?

In the first days of the invasion, Russia used hundreds of ballistic missiles to destroy targets in Ukraine. One example is the Iskander missile, one of the new weapons they developed to replace the Scud missiles the Soviet Union widely used during the Cold War.

“It was clear that initially they were not doing the usual Russian thing of indiscriminate shelling of anything and everything,” Gorenburg said.

Russia claims that this missile can hit targets that are between 50 and 500 kilometers away with a margin of error of less than 10 meters, and that the area of ​​destruction is about 25,000 square meters, or two European football fields.

Is that beginning to change?

Russia’s stockpile of precision-guided munitions “isn’t vast,” as Ankit Panda puts it.

A senior fellow in nuclear policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, Panda says that as time has gone on, Russia has begun to use less precise artillery, which has begun to hit civilian infrastructure more often.

“Where Russia has used precision systems, they appear to have used low quality intelligence to guide their targeting, resulting in some missiles hitting low-value targets (such as aircraft that wouldn’t be airworthy anyway) or missing some targets,” he said in an email.

Scarcity of precision-guided attacks aside, Gorenburg said part of this shift in tactics is likely strategic.

“The initial campaign was really predicated on this idea that the Ukrainian government would fail quickly. They thought that they would get a friendly reception from a significant section of the people, so they were trying to not hit civilians,” he said. That, of course, has not been the case.

“So now they’ve realized that they are going to have to engage in urban warfare. And the way they do urban warfare is not like US urban warfare, where you go in and try to flush out the enemy. They tend to just hit it with artillery. That’s where you end up with a lot of civilian casualties.”

Amnesty International said it is documenting the use of “indiscriminate” targeting of regular people and infrastructure and has urged United Nations member states to condemn the aggression: “Strikes on protected objects such as hospitals and schools, the use of indiscriminate weapons such as ballistic missiles and the use of banned weapons such as cluster bombs, may all qualify as war crimes.” Canada has also pushed for the International Criminal Court to probe allegations that Russia has committed war crimes in Ukraine.

So what are they using more of instead?

According to Guardian, the missiles that fell from the sky onto people’s homes in Kharkiv were Grad missiles, nicknamed for the Russian word for hail. They’re an older, more traditional type of weapon in that they can be quickly launched — they’re loaded onto the back of a truck and someone sitting in the cab can fire them — but aren’t very precise.

To hit a specific target, the strategy is just to fire a bunch of them. Rights groups have called out what they say is cluster bombing.

footage verified by CNN this week has also raised fresh fears of what else Russia may have up its sleeve. The video shows seen a new type of missile mounted on a tank, which is in turn perched on top of a truck, all trundling down a road near Kharkiv, which is just 40 km over the border.

Called the TOS-1 flame-thrower system, it is among the most feared of Russian weapons. A wide front-facing surface launches rockets — for this reason, it’s also known as the Buratino, for the Russian equivalent of Pinocchio, and his signature big nose.

These rockets, however, are thermobaric, meaning they suck up oxygen from the surrounding area to power a high-temperature explosion with a longer-than-typical blast wave. They’re also known as vacuum bombs.

If precision weapons are designed to minimize casualties, this is designed to do the opposite; the New Scientist reports that blast from a thermobaric weapon can go around corners, negating efforts to seek cover, and devastate lungs.

“They’re considered particularly inhumane,” Gorenburg said. (Social-media posts from Ukraine suggest these weapons have already been used there, but that hasn’t been verified.)

Gorenburg added that the Russian air force largely sat out the early days of the invasion. There are some signs that it could be mustering, which would make bombing runs from the air a possibility.

What does this escalation mean for Russia’s nuclear weapons?

Over the weekend Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he was putting its nuclear forces on “special alert.” While this does not mean he intends to use these weapons, the US promptly called the move “unacceptable.”

Any conflict involving a nuclear power has the potential to see those nuclear weapons used, Panda pointed out. According to the Federation of American Scientistsnine countries are known to possess nuclear warheads, though about 90 per cent of those are in the possession of either Russia or the United States, both of whom have about 4,000 stockpiled.

However, Panda said their use right now “is neither probable nor likely given where things are.”

Putin’s televised address was more about warning western countries to back off, Panda said. “But we could see this change if Russia’s conventional efforts go poorly.”

What does this mean for days to come in Ukraine?

Russian has shown itself more willing to put civilians in the line of fire. What’s unknown is, will they put this into practice in more cities in the coming days?

Another big question is how much longer Ukraine, a David which has battled mightily against its Goliath neighbour, can hold out.

“Before the war, we all thought the Ukrainian military wouldn’t really be able to last a week, Gorenburg said. “I clearly think they’ve done better and the Russians have done worse. So that’s heartening.”

“But in the long range, they’re going to have to transition to some kind of insurgency-type resistance. I don’t think they are going to be able to keep up with matching the Russian forces.”


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