Investigation: Hitting civilian areas in Kharkiv with Russian cluster munitions

On February 28, the Russian military fired missiles containing cluster munitions at Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. Amateur videos filmed in the city that day show several explosions over a commercial district, and missile debris in a residential area in the southwest.

By pinpointing the exact location of the explosions and debris, France 24 monitors traced a path leading to the missile’s origin: 30 km northeast of Kharkiv, within Russia.

Such indiscriminate attacks on civilians are considered a war crime.

Russia has been bombing Kharkiv since at least February 25, 2022. On February 28, the city was hit by rockets containing cluster munitions and several IEDs designed to spread over a wide area and inflict extensive damage. The production and use of cluster munitions is prohibited by the 2008 convention that has been signed by more than 100 countries (but not by Russia, China, or the United States).

Cluster munitions are contained in a larger projectile such as a rocket, missile, or bomb. When the projectile hits the target, it disperses smaller devices – cluster munitions – across a wide area. In cases where a cluster munition is launched by a missile or missile, the non-explosive part of the missile or missile often continues its trajectory, hitting the ground behind the target.

Russian-made 9M55K missile. The shaded part in yellow is designed to carry cluster munitions. © Arms Research Service (ARES) The Russian-made 9M55K missile is launched from a wheeled launch vehicle known as the BM-30 Smerch. Smerch launchers can fire a barrage of 12 missiles at a time. The 9M55K missile has a range of 20-70 km.

A video showing debris from these missiles was filmed on February 28 in Kharkiv (see our article) and was shared on social media and messaging apps such as Telegram. Video #1 below shows the back of a missile embedded in the center of Vasilia Stosa Street (exact location 50° 00’12.1″N, 36°19’58.7″E).

The missile was filmed on Vasilia Stusa Street from a distance of tens of meters, and the details of its structure are not clearly visible. Another tail section was filmed on February 28 near Hvardiitsiv-Shyronintsiv Street (Video No. 2 below, exact location 50° 00’12.7″ N, 36° 19’50.7″ E). Rows of three holes can be seen on the tail, with the tail fins, more clearly visible, hinged. The holes and fins are compatible with 9M55K missiles.

Other residents of Kharkiv on February 28 photographed sites where cluster munitions had struck themselves. Video 3 below shows multiple explosions near the city’s Equator Shopping Center. The explosions took place in an area with car parks and car repair shops.

The International Criminal Court announced on March 2 that it was investigating possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in the conflict in Ukraine. ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan said in a March 3 interview with ICC Chief Prosecutor Mark Perelman: “What is very clear is that the use of large-scale, indiscriminate weapons, particularly those weapons in populated areas could lead to criminal liability.”

The 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits the use of such weapons.

Possible use of cluster munitions in Kharkiv. There was a video posted earlier showing a reinforced Smerch MLRS missile landing in Kharkiv, and it could carry cluster munitions.

– Rob Lee (@RAlee85) February 28, 2022 Video #3: This video, filmed in Kharkiv on February 28, 2022, shows a cluster munition strike. Google Maps indicates that the area includes car garages and auto repair establishments. We showed videos filmed on February 28 in Kharkiv by Alan Barlow, head of the technical support unit at the Conflict Armament Research (CAR) group. Regarding Video No. 3, which was filmed near the shopping center, he said that the video “clearly shows a series of small explosions in close proximity to each other…I would appreciate that this was caused by a strike by the submunition (cluster bomb)”.

We were able to check out another video, Video #4, which shows the same blow from a different angle.

The path leads to Russia

Our team then attempted to determine where the rockets came from, tracing a line from where the tail section of Vasylia Stusa Street was found (Video #1) to the impact site near the Equator Shopping Center to the northeast (Video #2). The extension of the line to the northeast of the city indicates a path coming from Russia, whose border is 31 kilometers northeast of the shopping center.

The path set by France 24 observers, runs a line back from the tail site of the missile above the site where the cluster munition was launched towards the launch source. © Google Earth Pro Michael Sheldon, a researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Laboratory, traced the same line as our team, and the second line from another strike to the west in the city on February 28. The two lines met at a distance of 40 kilometers northeast of Kharkiv, 8 kilometers inside Russian territory (see tweet below). Sheldon obtained a satellite image showing the same location a day earlier, on February 27. The satellite image shows a group of Russian vehicles with a plume of smoke from a missile that appears to be flying towards Kharkiv.

At one of these sites you can even see a smoke cloud from the recently launched MLRS, which leads in the direction of Kharkiv.

– Michael Sheldon (@Michael1Sheldon) March 1, 2022 The first image in this Tweet shows the trajectory meeting point of two missiles launched at Kharkiv, Ukraine on February 28, 10 kilometers inside Russia. The second images show a satellite image taken the day before, February 27, showing a plume of smoke from a missile launch. The non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch also documented the use of 9M55K rockets containing cluster munitions in Kharkiv on February 28, saying that the weapons killed at least three civilians, and Amnesty International reached similar conclusions, saying that three such attacks killed a total of nine civilians.

Cluster munitions used in Ukraine since 2014

Online investigators Bellingcathave also documented the use of cluster munitions in the current conflict since February 25.

Rocket engine remnants from BM-30 multiple launch rockets have been documented in various civilian areas, and given that they are typically associated with the use of cluster munitions, it raises concerns about Russia’s use of cluster munitions in civilian areas.

EliotHiggins February 25, 2022 Human Rights Watch documented the use of cluster munitions by Ukrainian government forces in the Donbass region in 2014. Neither Ukraine nor Russia has signed the treaty banning their use.

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