Russia’s War in Ukraine and the Use of Wide-Area Weapons in Populated Areas

Main Image Credit Destroyed apartments in Kharkiv, Ukraine, 25 March 2022. Courtesy of ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown light on the need to take action to protect civilians from the indiscriminate effects of wide-area effect weapons.

Over the last few weeks, civilians have been exposed to horrific violence and harm in towns and cities across Ukraine. In its invasion of the country, Russia seems to be failing – as it has done for nearly a decade in Syria – to distinguish between civilians and military targets. This is particularly upsetting because the requirement for military actors to make this distinction is not only a well-established legal principle, but an intuitive moral instinct too – one which most of us feel automatically when we see images of blown-up maternity hospitals, or the broken remains of killed families.

Long before missiles started raining down in Ukraine, it has become abundantly clear that, as warfare becomes increasingly urban, it is civilians who carry the brunt of the risk – whether in Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen or anywhere else. Modern warfare is increasingly taking place in populated areas, but often with weapons systems that were originally designed for use in open battlefields. When used in urban areas, explosive weapons with wide-area effects – that is, weapons that have a large destructive radius, that spread multiple munitions over a wide area or that inherently lack precision – predictably cause very significant damage to civilian life.

There are three key points to make on this.

First, what we are seeing in Ukraine is sadly not unique. It is consistent with a long-identified and very well documented pattern of harm arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Analysis from conflicts over the last nine years shows that as many as 90% of victims of this practice are civilians. As well as deaths, the use of such weapons in urban environments also predictably causes life-changing injuries, psychological trauma, displacement, the destruction of vital infrastructure, and long-term contamination. These devastating effects are the result of choices made by belligerents regarding target and locale. Airwars and other organisations have time and again documented that among the most significant drivers of civilian harm is the population density of areas attacked. Although intuitively one might think that military choices of target would significantly determine outcomes for civilians, extensive evidence in fact shows that when wide-area effect explosive weapons are used in populated areas, the broad pattern of civilian harm is unfortunately consistent.

Second, the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas is predictably indiscriminate. This is not only true when such weapons are used by more brutish military actors; indiscriminate effects can arise even when the military actors involved are strongly committed to compliance with international law. For example, recent urban battles in cities such as Raqqa and Mosul – where it was the UK and its Western allies who contributed with much of their airpower – demonstrate that, despite sometimes significant efforts by belligerents to limit civilian casualties resulting from their own actions, extensive deaths and injuries nonetheless result.

Even the most technologically advanced militaries demonstrably cause extensive harm when using explosive weapons in populated areas, creating multiple effects that extend beyond the target zone

Precision-guidance is undoubtedly an improvement over inaccuracy, but it does not remove all the dangers. Most obviously, the use of larger warheads can obviate the advantages of precision. Moreover, guidance systems vary in their accuracy, and they can be affected by external factors, such as weather, lighting conditions, jamming, interference and even the type of construction material in urban environments. The unobservable presence of non-combatants in urban settings also remains a significant challenge, regardless of the weapons system used. As a result, even the most technologically advanced militaries demonstrably cause extensive harm when using explosive weapons in populated areas, creating multiple effects that extend beyond the target zone.

Third, the extent, severity and duration of civilian harm caused is consistently enormous, raising the question of whether it outweighs the anticipated military advantage. A strike can result not only in immediate civilian casualties, but also in years and years of harm to civilian life more broadly, together with huge clean-up costs and, often, increased instability. These so-called ‘reverberating effects’ need to be properly understood and fully accounted for in any reasonable application of the principle of proportionality under international law.

Moving Towards a Political Declaration

The accumulation of comprehensive evidence of systematic and predictable humanitarian harm from the use of wide-area effect weapons on urban areas has resulted in an emerging consensus that political action is urgently needed. Over 100 states (including the UK), several multilateral organisations, military actors, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and consecutive UN Secretaries-General and other high-level UN officials have variously signalled their support for this effort.

The government of Ireland is leading a diplomatic process to negotiate a new political declaration to curb the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Three rounds of drafting have already taken place, with the final round due to take place from 6–8 April in Geneva. The declaration will then be opened for signature by states.

All NATO governments should be backing these efforts.

NATO governments need to face up to the problem and lead the way in finding effective ways to reduce the risks faced by non-combatants in conflict

The inadvertent killing and harming of civilians in war is clearly a hard problem to address, but it is not a problem that can be wished away. Instead, NATO governments need to face up to it, and indeed lead the way in finding effective ways to reduce the risks faced by non-combatants in conflict.

Doing so does not mean unpicking or adding to existing international law; it means using international law as a baseline, and then promoting best practices in order to meet principles that have already long been established – the principles of distinction, precaution and proportionality. And by confronting the challenge directly, NATO governments can distinguish themselves clearly from those forces, such as Russia, who seem uninterested in civilian protection.

Restricting the use of heavy firepower in populated areas is an achievable goal and there is evidence that it need not compromise mission achievement and force protection. For example, ISAF did exactly this in Afghanistan without impeding operational effectiveness. As the ICRC, among many, notes, the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas should be avoided ‘as a matter of policy’. Governments including the UK should therefore develop operational policies and procedures that promote alternatives to the use of wide-area weapons in urban contexts.

In addition, governments should gather and publish relevant data on civilian harm from their own actions, in order to promote transparency and aid learning. For the UK, this means building on recommendations from the 2016 Chilcot Report and the government’s 2020 Protection of Civilians policy to step up the systems within government departments to monitor, investigate and report on instances of potential civilian harm. In this way, the UK and other governments can strengthen the evidence base for further action – recognising that if we cannot effectively measure and describe the problem, then we are much less likely to resolve it.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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George Graham

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Georgia Edwards

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