Six days after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, there is mounting evidence that its military is committing war crimes with deadly attacks on civilians and the use of cluster munitions .
Eliot Higgins, the founder of investigative journalism site Bellingcat, said there was evidence Russia was causing “civilian harm”, including through the use of “cluster bombs in civilian areas”, from credible videos and still images of the conflict.
Images of an attack on a parking in Kharkiv on Monday, described by a Bellingcat researcher as a cluster bomb attack, shows residents walking through a nearby park just as the sequence of bombs detonates. The neighborhood looks residential.
Dashcam pictures, assessed by the Russian Conflict Intelligence Team allegedly shot down in Kharkiv, reportedly shows a cluster bomb landing on a road last Friday. The driver makes a hasty U-turn as explosions rain down around the car. Given the lack of aircraft noise, the bomb was likely fired by a Russian Grad rocket system, the researchers conclude.
Cluster munitions, which indiscriminately scatter small bombs over a wide area, are banned by more than 100 states, including the UK, France and Germany, due to their lack of precision. But neither Russia nor Ukraine (or the United States) has signed a treaty first introduced in 2008 that bans them.
New evidence of cluster munition use has emerged, including the remains of a rocket engine from a Russian BMP-30 cluster munition found on the road to Kharkiv Friday, and video of a similar bomb party landing in Buchanorthwest of Kyiv.
Several NGOs zeroed in on an attack on a kindergarten in Okhtyrka, about 60 miles west of Kharkiv, on Friday, the second day of fierce fighting. Drone footage taken in the aftermath shows several blacked-out explosion points, and people dead or seriously injured at the entrance.
Three civilians were killed, including a child, Amnesty International said. “Nothing justifies the dropping of cluster munitions in populated areas, let alone near a school,” said Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
Intentionally targeting civilians or civilian buildings is considered a war crime under international humanitarian law, as are attacks on military targets that cause excessive civilian casualties, according to the United Nations. Russia regularly denies having participated in unlawful attacks.
Roos Boer, project manager of the Pax peace project in the Netherlands, said: “If you are unsure whether a target is military or not, you should assume that it is civilian. Indiscriminate attack is therefore illegal.
Video evidence suggests the Russian missile strikes on the eastern city of Kharkiv were launched with little regard for the impact on civilians. A missile strike tuesday – maybe a Kalibr cruise missile – on the regional government building in the center of Kharkiv was filmed as it is.
At least 10 civilians were killed in the morning attack in the heart of the industrial city of more than one million inhabitants. Hours later, Russia said it would engage in what it called “high precision” strikes on official buildings in Kyiv.
Monday videos showed serial explosions of several rocket launch systems (MLRS) on other buildings in Kharkiv. One showed the distinctive 13-story Diamond City tower clearly visible in the foreground. Bomb fragments were seen on the roads in Kharkiv and rocket parts in apartments and dead civilians in the streets on a day when at least nine were killed.
But despite concerns raised by Western intelligence, clear evidence has yet to emerge of Russian forces using destructive thermobaric weapons (although Ukraine has claimed capture of a TOS-1A flamethrower) or incendiary cluster bombs of the type his forces were accused of using in Syria during the siege of Aleppo.
On Monday evening, a Western official said there was “an obligation to record and capture” attacks on civilians, while another said: “I think we will be very watchful and alert to crimes of war or violations of international humanitarian law in that conflict”.
But while governments talk about taking action, researchers are already playing their part. Higgins said that unlike other recent conflicts – such as the war in Syria – “an open source intelligence community” collecting and studying video and photographic evidence had emerged “from day one”.
Aided by the willingness of Ukrainians and others to document the conflict on their phones, independent researchers such as Bellingcat were able to quickly geotag and document evidence that could be useful in the future.
Bellingcat has also set up a partnership with Mnemonic, an NGO dedicated to the archiving of evidence collected on social networks and mobile phones, which aims to secure the material at the level of evidence. “The day may come when all of this will end up in the International Criminal Court,” Higgins said.