What are cluster and thermobaric ‘vacuum’ weapons?

Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv, came under heavy bombardment Feb. 28, and at least 11 people were killed and dozens hospitalized. (Video: Courtesy of Alexey Zavrazhnyi)

Evidence that Russia has used cluster weapons in its war in Ukraine continues to mount, with Ukrainian authorities and witnesses alleging they were used in a Russian attack on a train station in eastern Ukraine on Friday that killed at least 50 people.

Witnesses interviewed by The Washington Post described an initial explosion at the Kramatorsk station — where hundreds of evacuees were waiting to escape a looming Russian offensive — followed by four to five blasts that they believed were “cluster bombs."

Weapons experts who examined a photograph of a missile remnant taken by a Washington Post photographer at the scene identified it as a type of Tochka short-range ballistic missile, which can be armed with cluster warheads. A senior U.S. defense official said later Friday that the United States believed Russia had used a Tochka missile to strike the station.

Russia denied involvement in the attack and claimed that missile remnants found near the station were from weapons “used only by the Ukrainian armed forces.” But Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have said previously that Russia has used the Tochka missile in its invasion of Ukraine.

Cluster munitions and “vacuum” weapons, another element of Russia’s arsenal that has drawn scrutiny, can put civilians at increased risk, particularly when used in urban areas.

International rights groups reported that cluster munitions apparently fired by Russia appeared to have hit a preschool in northeastern Ukraine and an area near a hospital in the Kyiv-controlled part of the eastern Donetsk region in late February, killing several civilians.

Russian forces, according to Ukraine and rights groups, also used cluster munitions in strikes on Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city and the site of intense fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

Videos shared on social media have shown Russian launchers for thermobaric weapons, often called “vacuum” weapons, rolling down Ukrainian streets. Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, accused Russia of using “vacuum bombs” in its invasion.

“We have seen videos of Russian forces moving exceptionally lethal weaponry into Ukraine which has no place on the battlefield. That includes cluster munitions and vacuum bombs — the use of which directed against civilians is banned under the Geneva Convention,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said in remarks at the United Nations last month.

It remains unclear whether Russia’s use of the weapons so far would constitute war crimes, since that would depend on a legal question over the extent to which Russian forces minimized risk to civilians.

The Kremlin has denied that the Russian military used cluster or vacuum munitions during the invasion. But Britain’s defense ministry said last month that its Russian counterpart had confirmed the deployment of the TOS-1A weapon system, which uses thermobaric rockets, in Ukraine.

Here’s what to know about the weapons, their legality and the threat they pose to civilians.

Cluster munitions: The 9N125 cluster warhead

9M79-series Tochka

ballistic missile

The 9N125 warhead holds 50 smaller, highly explosive fragmentation bombs.

The main missile

is fired toward

the enemy.

It explodes about 7,000 feet in the air, scattering its submunitions.

Each of these submunitions, or smaller bombs, then detonates 3 to 4 pounds of explosives on impact, scattering fragments of shrapnel in a lethal spray.

Source: Armament Research Services; Military-Today.com

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

Cluster munitions: The 9N125 cluster warhead

The 9N125 warhead holds 50 smaller, highly explosive fragmentation bombs.

9M79-series Tochka

ballistic missile

The main missile

is fired toward

the enemy.

It explodes about 7,000 feet in the air, scattering its submunitions.

Each of these submunitions, or smaller bombs, then detonates

3 to 4 pounds of explosives on impact, scattering fragments of shrapnel in a lethal spray.

Source: Armament Research Services; Military-Today.com

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

Cluster munitions: The 9N125 cluster warhead

The 9N125 warhead holds 50 smaller, highly explosive fragmentation bombs.

9M79-series Tochka

ballistic missile

The main missile

is fired toward

the enemy.

It explodes about 7,000 feet in the air, scattering its submunitions.

Each of these submunitions, or smaller bombs, then detonates 3 to 4 pounds of explosives on impact, scattering fragments of shrapnel in a lethal spray.

Source: Armament Research

Services; Military-Today.com

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

Cluster munitions: The 9N125 cluster warhead

The 9N125 warhead holds 50 smaller, highly explosive fragmentation bombs.

9M79-series Tochka

ballistic missile

It explodes about 7,000 feet in the air, scattering its submunitions.

The main missile

is fired toward

the enemy.

Each of these submunitions, or smaller bombs, then detonates 3 to 4 pounds of explosives on impact, scattering fragments of shrapnel in a lethal spray.

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

Source: Armament Research Services; Military-Today.com

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

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