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98% of casualties from Russian use of explosive weapons in towns and cities civilians

New analysis by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has found that, since 2012, when Russian armed forces used explosive weapons in towns and cities 98% of the resulting casualties were civilians.

In just over a decade, it was also found that 84% of Russian explosive violence has targeted populated areas, especially urban residential areas.

The analysis by AOAV of English-language media reporting on global explosive violence between 2012 and October 2022, showed Russia to be repeatedly showing blatant disregard for civilian protection. 

Of the 15,391 casualties (killed and injured) from Russian explosive weapon use recorded in that time, as reported in single incident events by reputable media sources, 79% (12,114) were civilians. 

Moreover, 84% (1,477) of incidents of Russian explosive weapon use were recorded in populated areas – areas where 98% (11,014) of casualties of Russian explosive violence were recorded as civilians. 

The targeting of populated areas and essential civilian infrastructure magnifies tenfold the challenges of recovery, and amplifies the burdens on civilians and basic services. Where armed conflict generates humanitarian crises, the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities compounds and prolongs them.

AOAV has recorded 5,134 civilians killed and 6,980 civilians injured by Russian explosive weapon use globally since 2012. When just looking at where those civilians were harmed, 91% killed or injured by Russian explosive weapons happened in populated areas. 

Overall, almost two thirds of Russian global explosive weapon use – 60% (683) – was recorded in either urban residential areas or ‘multiple urban areas’. 

Those Russian weapons most injurious to civilians since 2012 were air-launched weapons. While accounting for 32% (554) of all recorded incidents, such air attacks caused 46% (5,630) of reported civilian casualties. Russian ground-launched weapons, which accounted for 60% (1,058) of all Russian recorded incidents, caused 44% (5,370) of those civilians harmed by Russian military action. The most harmful ground-launched explosive weapon was shelling, which caused at least 3,879 civilian casualties.

79% (435) of Russian air-attacks were recorded over populated areas, where 91% (5,115) of civilian casualties of these weapons occurred. Similarly, 87% (921) of incidents of Russian ground-launched weapon use were reported as occurring in populated areas, as were 90% (4,808) of civilian casualties of Russian ground-launched weapons. 

AOAV’s data is intended to capture the patterns of harm carried out by states and non-state actors. We do not claim to capture every civilian death or injury, but our consistent methodology of recording English language news reports is done in order to capture the repeated nature of Russian military tactics and harm.

Russia’s direct explosive violence footprint extends across two countries: Syria, and Ukraine. This is likely linked with Russia’s established strategy of leaning on local proxies and mercenaries, and the true extent of Russian-sanctioned explosive violence is probably much broader. 

The Syrian context is complex: Russia’s longstanding relationship with Assad’s government pits them both against multiple Arab and Kurdish opposition coalitions, some backed by Turkey or the US, as well as ISIS and nationalist jihadi groups. Within this volatile environment, AOAV recorded 6,888 casualties of Russian explosive weapons in Syria since 2012, 61% (4,179) of which were civilians. The majority of civilian casualties, 52% (2,162), were recorded in Idlib, and Maarat al-Numan (Idlib), where 275 civilian casualties were recorded, was the worst affected Syrian city for civilian casualties of Russian explosive weapon use. It’s followed by Arbin (Rif Dimashq, 187 civilian casualties), Aleppo (Aleppo, 182), Ariha (Idlib, 145), and Idlib (Idlib, 128). 

In Ukraine, Russia has long-standing ties with separatist groups in eastern Ukraine, notably in Donetsk and Luhansk, and Moscow has backed separatist violence in these regions since at least 2014. It’s within this context that AOAV has recorded 8,503 casualties of Russian explosive violence in Ukraine from 2012 to 2022, 93% (7,935) which were civilians. Donetsk was the region where the majority of civilian casualties, 35% (2,752), were recorded, while Kharkiv city, where 703 civilian casualties were recorded, was the worst affected Ukrainian city for civilian casualties of Russian explosive weapon use. It’s followed by Mariupol (Donetsk, 660 civilian casualties), Mykolaiv (Mykolaiv, 398), Chernihiv (Chernihiv, 238), and Kramatorsk (Donetsk, 232). 

Over ten years, Russia has repeatedly condemned and criticised US foreign policy, accusing the US of aggravating humanitarian crises, entrenching regional instability, and taking confrontational stances in international altercations. However, as the world becomes  increasingly outraged at Russia’s blatant and deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, within a context of growing regional volatility and a developing humanitarian crisis, it is becoming clearer that there is no comparison between the devastating footprint of Russian explosive violence abroad and that of the US. When it comes to widespread aggravation and civilian harm, Russia is in no place to criticise anybody.

Every civilian casualty is a tragedy, and the culture and policies within militaries that have made such tragedies, not only possible, but permissible and systematic, should be examined and overhauled. It must be acknowledged that the US has historically had a remarkably poor record of effective investigation and accountability regarding civilian harm. Over the years, however, investigations and publications by the New York Times and a variety of NGOs have pushed for the government to do more to prevent civilian harm. This has led to significant progress at the top-most levels of the US government, with a new action plan demonstrating the US’ willingness to prioritise civilian protection. As with all progress at the policy level, though, the true test will be in the implementation of these practices. Like all organisations focused on civilian protection, AOAV will be keeping a close eye.

There is little evidence of similar processes taking place in Russia. As recently as 8 September 2022, the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria, in Khmeimim Air Base, claimed the Russian Air Force destroyed a camp for “terrorists” in the Sheikh Youssef area of Idlib, northwest Syria, killing more than 120 militants. NGOs and human rights organisations on the ground, including the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, disputed these reports, having documented the death of seven civilians and the injury of 15 others in the Russian airstrikes, which targeted a workshop and a house at the outskirts of Al-Sheikh Youssef and Hafsarjah villages.

If anyone is aggravating humanitarian crises, entrenching regional instability, and taking confrontational stances in international altercations, Russia certainly is.