Explosive violence is steadily spreading in eastern Ukraine. A reported air strike this week in the urban heart of downtown Lugansk, in which civilians are thought to have been killed, is the latest and perhaps most alarming escalation in the crisis. While the exact causes and casualties from the 2 June incident are still unclear at the time of writing, the use of heavy explosive weapons among a civilian population is a concerning development. Civilians are likely to be increasingly caught in the crossfire, and pressure must be brought to bear on all parties to the Ukraine crisis before it escalates further.
Lugansk air strike
At 4pm on Monday 2 June, a sequence of rapid explosions hit the regional administrative headquarters in the centre of Lugansk, an eastern city of Ukraine which is home to over 400,000 people. The building is said to have been occupied by opposition fighters at the time. Latest evidence suggests that a Su-25 fighter jet fired unguided rockets at the building, although this has been denied by the Ukrainian government itself.
While the number of casualties from the 2 June strike is still unconfirmed, civilians are thought to be among the dead. Graphic video from the site of the attack showed a number of bodies scattered around the ground, and people with serious injuries.
The air strike is significant not only because of the damage and deaths that it caused but because this is the first time that the Ukrainian Air Force is reported to have fired explosive weapons into a densely-populated area within its own borders. Other recent air strikes have hit bases and roadblocks on the outskirts of towns and cities.
States do not normally resort to using explosive weapons amongst their own people for maintaining security. The area-effects of these weapons mean that the risk of unintended harm to civilians is too great. That Ukraine seems prepared to fire unguided rockets within populated areas is a worrying indicator of a rapidly-worsening crisis.
May mortar fire
Lugansk does not mark the first time that the Ukraine military is thought to have fired explosive weapons into a populated area. While the use of air power is new, mortar shelling has been frequently reported in and around the flashpoint town of Slovyansk since AOAV reported on the first fatalities from explosive weapon use at the start of May.
Both the government and separatist rebels have been reported to have fired mortars, with the Ukrainian military basing itself on a hill above the city.
Government shelling was first reported in the outskirts of the city on 12 May after a regional referendum was held by separatist rebels. C.J. Chivers, a reporter for the New York Times, witnessed several 120-mm mortars falling among residential homes in the city. In a prescient warning, Chivers said that; “with heavier and potentially indiscriminate weapons like 120-millimeter mortars beginning to be used, the conditions are in place for killing on a large scale, which could pull eastern Ukraine toward civil war.”
Over the course of the past month there has been a rapid increase in shelling frequency. Most recently five civilians were injured by shelling on 1 June in the city suburbs, in attacks which also damaged a children’s home.
“You can hear them banging away now”, Oleg Romanika, whose house in Slovyansk was damaged in shelling, told the New York Times on 12 May. “They bang away in the direction of a populated area. Nothing will stop them.” Parties to the conflict in eastern Ukraine are growing more and more prepared to launch rockets and shells into populated areas, putting civilians in the vicinity at considerable risk.
Can the Security Council do anything?
Russia’s ambassador to the UN Security Council has recently called for Ukrainian forces to stop “heavy and indiscriminate shelling of residential areas” and urged the Security Council to take action in the crisis. Given Russia’s role in fermenting dissent and supporting separatists in Ukraine’s eastern regions, the move has been greeted with scepticism by other members of the council. As is often the case, conflict lines on the ground are reflected in divisions among Council members, and action seems unlikely.
However, with a new Ukraine government forming after the 25 May Presidential election, there is a window of opportunity for states to urge the new leadership to show restraint in the use of explosive force which will only lead to further civilian casualties.
AOAV has previously called upon the Security Council to include specific recommendations for civilian protection from heavy explosive weapons, as it has done recently in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya. It would be a strong sign of leadership if it were to do so again with reference to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
As violence escalates in Ukraine, AOAV urges all parties to refrain from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. AOAV is a founding member of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), which calls for immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
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