‘It Is Horrendous’: Russia Prepares Vacuum Bombs to Blitz Ukraine

Russia is likely to use thermobaric weapons to terrorize the Ukrainian army and civilians.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
TOS-1A Solntsepyok (Blazing Sun) multiple thermobaric rocket launchers during the Victory Day military parade in Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II, on June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia.
TOS-1A Solntsepyok (Blazing Sun) multiple thermobaric rocket launchers during the Victory Day military parade in Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II, on June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia.
TOS-1A Solntsepyok (Blazing Sun) multiple thermobaric rocket launchers during the Victory Day military parade in Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II, on June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia. Ramil Sitdikov - Host Photo Agency via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Russia has deployed launching systems capable of sending deadly thermobaric rockets at Ukrainian targets, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Tuesday, a possible signal that the Kremlin is readying more terrifying weapons in order to strike fear into the population after logistical hurdles have hampered the early stages of the military campaign. 

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive military topic, would not confirm where Russia had placed the thermobaric launchers. And the Defense Department had not confirmed that Russia had put in place or used any thermobaric munitions as of Tuesday, according to the official. But Kyiv and observers on the ground have gone further: Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States and rights groups said on Monday that Russia had already used the weapon.

Also known as “vacuum bombs,” thermobaric munitions create a high-temperature reaction by sucking in oxygen from the surrounding area, producing a longer blast wave than conventional bombs. Russia is likely to employ the weapons to terrorize the Ukrainian army and civilian resistance, experts told Foreign Policy, in a possible effort to overcome logistical snags that have held back the military advance toward major cities such as Kharkiv and Kyiv.

Russia has deployed launching systems capable of sending deadly thermobaric rockets at Ukrainian targets, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Tuesday, a possible signal that the Kremlin is readying more terrifying weapons in order to strike fear into the population after logistical hurdles have hampered the early stages of the military campaign. 

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive military topic, would not confirm where Russia had placed the thermobaric launchers. And the Defense Department had not confirmed that Russia had put in place or used any thermobaric munitions as of Tuesday, according to the official. But Kyiv and observers on the ground have gone further: Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States and rights groups said on Monday that Russia had already used the weapon.

Also known as “vacuum bombs,” thermobaric munitions create a high-temperature reaction by sucking in oxygen from the surrounding area, producing a longer blast wave than conventional bombs. Russia is likely to employ the weapons to terrorize the Ukrainian army and civilian resistance, experts told Foreign Policy, in a possible effort to overcome logistical snags that have held back the military advance toward major cities such as Kharkiv and Kyiv.

“They will kill not just in the direct vicinity of the impact,” said Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and CIA officer. “It [will] suck the oxygen out of the air and out of the lungs of people nearby. It is horrendous.”

Russia’s defense ministry warned Tuesday of imminent high-precision strikes in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. But the deployment of thermobaric-capable launchers, such as the TOS-1 multiple rocket launcher, has put officials and experts on alert that Russia may move toward less precise weapons as it expends precision-guided weapons at a high rate and starts to consider siege warfare to take major cities. Russia also reportedly used the weapons during the Chechen wars of the 1990s and early 2000s, drawing condemnation from human rights groups, as well as during a campaign to retake the Syrian city of Ghouta in 2018. 

Russian military doctrine is heavily reliant on artillery and longer-range fires to provide cover for ground forces and undermine enemy morale. “We are already seeing multiple rocket launchers on the outskirts of major cities,” Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. who studies Russian military capabilities, told Foreign Policy on Friday. Russia has fired more than 400 missiles into Ukraine over the course of the six-day conflict, according to Pentagon estimates, most of them short-range ballistic missiles. 

But U.S. officials insist that Russian troops, not Ukrainians, are the ones with a morale problem right now. The senior U.S. defense official who spoke to reporters said today that a “significant number” of Russia’s more than 150,000 invading troops that were arrayed along Ukraine’s border—more than 80 percent of whom have been deployed in the invasion—were young conscripts drafted into military service.

“Many of them weren’t even aware that they would be sent into a combat zone,” the official said, adding that some Russian troops had surrendered without a fight. Alleged photographs from the battlefield indicated on Tuesday that Ukrainian forces had captured one of the thermobaric weapons launchers, though Foreign Policy could not independently verify the image. 

And Russian troops have also run into a full suite of logistical hang-ups on the march. Satellite imagery has picked up a Russian tank, artillery, and supply convoy that stretches dozens of miles moving toward Kyiv, but it has mostly stalled. “Not only are they running out of gas, they’re running out of food,” the senior U.S. defense official said. One expert tweeted that the Russian logistical and communications effort was “shambolic” on Tuesday. 

But the Biden administration still expects Russia to learn from its early mistakes. In the 1990s and 2000s, Russia conducted two assaults on Grozny, the Chechen capital, getting repelled the first time after a mostly conscript army was pushed back by unexpected resistance. But Russia was able to overtake the city in a second effort with new doctrine and better-trained troops, said John Spencer, a retired U.S. Army major who’s now the chair of urban warfare studies at the U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute. 

“We can expect the tactics of targeting civilians to increase,” said Mulroy, the former U.S. defense official.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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