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Invasion of Ukraine sees 90% increase in ground-launched explosive weapons in towns and cities – new research

A shift to Russian ground-launched weapons in towns and cities a major feature of current Ukrainian war compared to previous conflict, AOAV’s new analysis shows

There has been a 90% proportional increase in the use of ground-launched explosive weapons in Ukraine’s towns and cities, as cities like Mariupol come under intense bombardment in recent months, analysis of latest data coming from the conflict has revealed.

A comparison of explosive violence patterns and trends in the seven years prior to the February 24th 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces with the events following, has found that in the pre-invasion hostilities – carrying on since the annexation of Donbas and Crimea in 2014 – 42% of explosive attacks in populated areas were using ground-launched weapons.

Since 2022, though, 80% of all explosive incidents in towns and cities were using ground weapons such as Grads and mortars – a 90% proportional increase in such usage, the research by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) discovered.

The data, collated over a decade using English language media sources by the London based research charity, also showed that the percentage of explosive weapons used in populated areas almost doubled from the pre-invasion violence (before 43% of all explosive incidents in Ukraine occurred in populated areas; since the invasion this has risen to 79%).

In short, the war in Ukraine has shifted more towards cities, and more towards the devastating use of ground and air weaponry systems in these urban areas.

AOAV’s data reflects a wider narrative of news reporting: the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on 24th February 2022, has precipitated acute shifts in the patterns of transfer, access, and use of explosive weapons in Europe. Untold Russian military explosive weapons continue to strike civilian infrastructure throughout Ukrainian territory.

AOAV has been collecting data on the impacts of explosive weapons in Ukraine, as reported in English-language news sources (such as the BBC, AP and Reuters), since 2010.  We do not claim we have captured every explosive incident, but our data is comprehensive enough to reveal patterns of harm over time.

Iain Overton, AOAV’s Executive Directors, said of the findings: “When explosive weapons are used in towns and cities – on average – 90% of those killed or injured will be civilians.  This marked shift from the pre-invasion low-simmering violence that stretched over years often in lesser populated areas, to high-intensity barrages against towns and cities by Russia troops is the hallmark of Putin’s terrible war and reflects the sort of tactics seen by his Armed Forces in Syria.”

Laura Boillot, the coordinator of the International Network on Explosive Weapons, a pressure group, said of the data “Bombing and shelling in towns and cities is a major cause of harm to civilians around the world. We see this now in Ukraine, as well as in Ethiopia, Myanmar and Yemen.”

Referring to a new draft international agreement at the UN designed to lessen the use of indiscriminate bombing in cities, which statistics show overwhelmingly leads to the death of civilians, she said “It is urgent States agree new standards to avoid use of explosive weapons when they have wide area effects in populated areas”.

Populated Areas

Reported incidents of explosive violence in populated areas have increased by 84% since February 2022. Since the invasion started, 93% (1,605) of civilian deaths from explosive violence have been in populated areas. This is a marked shift from the earlier, lower-intensity violence.  

From 2014 to February 2022, AOAV recorded a total of 1,225 incidents of explosive violence in Ukraine; 43% (525) of these occurred in populated areas. Since February 2022, of the 360 incidents of explosive violence recorded by AOAV, 79% (283) have taken place in populated areas. 

Ground-launched weapons

Since the invasion, ground-launched weapons have reportedly been deployed in populated areas with more frequency. Prior to February 2022, of the 1,050 incidents of ground-launched explosive weapons use that AOAV recorded, 42% (445) occurred in populated areas, and caused 58% (1,298) of civilian deaths of explosive violence in populated areas. 

Since February 2022, AOAV has recorded 281 incidents of ground-launched explosive weapons use, 80% (225) of which have taken place in populated areas. 

Ground-launched weapons have caused 40% (636) of all civilian deaths from explosions in populated areas in the last few months in Ukraine. Shelling and artillery shells remain the ground-launched weapons which caused the most civilian deaths (43% of all ground-launched weaponry before February 2022, and 67% since).

Air-launched weapons

There has also been a proportional rise in civilian harm from air-strikes.

Prior to the invasion, of the 52 recorded incidents of air-launched weapons use,  81% (42) were reported in populated areas; they caused 39% of reported civilian deaths of explosive violence in populated areas. 

Since February 2022, 82% (47) of incidents of air-launched weapons use took place in populated areas; they caused 56% (905) of reported civilian deaths of explosive violence in populated areas.

It is interesting to note that at least 55% (159) of armed actor deaths of explosive violence reported in Ukraine since February 2022 have been attributed to air-launched weapons, specifically air-launched rockets (34%) and airstrikes (20), compared to 11% (92) attributed to air-launched weapons, specifically airstrikes, prior to the invasion.

Armed Actors harmed v civilians harmed

The majority of armed actor deaths from explosive violence in Ukraine, both prior to and since the invasion, have been reported in lesser populated areas. 

Before the Russian invasion, at least 85% (717) of armed actor deaths from explosive violence occurred in lesser populated areas, specifically armed bases (29%), transport-related infrastructure (7%), and roads (3%). Since February 2022, 97% (283) of armed actor deaths in Ukraine have taken place in lesser populated areas, specifically armed bases (94%). 

Since the invasion, 3% (9) of armed actor deaths from explosive violence have taken place in populated areas, specifically transport-related infrastructure and urban residential areas (1% respectively).

Locations of harm

Whilst the Donbas Oblast was most witness to civilian deaths of explosive violence both prior to and following the invasion, the conflict has clearly widened throughout the country in recent months.  Between 2014 and Feb 2022, 78% (1,877) of reported civilian deaths from explosive violence in Ukraine took place in Donbas. After February 2022, that proportion dropped to 70% (1, 204), as a total of all recorded civilian casualties in Ukraine.

Other regions significantly affected by civilian casualties of explosive violence are Kharkiv, Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Mykolaiv, each showing a significant rise in the percentage of civilian casualties in all of them.

Data

Based on data collected in reliable English-language news sources, from 2014 to Feb 2022, AOAV recorded 3,241 fatalities of explosive violence in Ukraine, 2,401 of which were civilians, and 840 were armed actors. 

Since Feb 2022, of the 2,010 fatalities of explosive violence recorded by AOAV, 1,720 have been civilians and 290 have been armed actors.  


AOAV’s casualty figures represent the lowest of estimations in terms of the number of people killed and injured by explosive weapon use. In an effort to quantify the explicit harm caused by specific explosive weapons, AOAV solely records incident-specific casualty figures, as reported in English-language media.


AOAV condemns the use of violence against civilians and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. All actors should stop using explosive weapons with wide-area affects where there is likely to be a high concentration of civilians.