Weapons of the war in Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24 with strikes from land, sea and air in the largest military assault by one European state on another since World War Two. Despite an initial battle plan that Western countries said was aimed at swiftly toppling Ukraine’s government in Kyiv, Russia has control of only one Ukrainian city so far - the southern Dnipro River port of Kherson.

During the first week of war, Russia shifted from 1 strategic strikes against military targets using cruise missiles to a 2 stalled ground attack and, currently, a broader 3 siege of major cities, including bombardments using rocket artillery and cluster munitions, sometimes against residential buildings and civilian infrastructure. Moscow denies targeting civilians, and calls its actions in Ukraine a “special military operation” to disarm its neighbour and remove leaders it considers dangerous nationalists. Ukraine and Western allies call it an unprovoked invasion that has killed hundreds of civilians.

As the invasion heads into its third week, hundreds of thousands of people in Mariupol, the main port of eastern Ukraine, have been surrounded and under heavy bombardment, with no water or power or way to safely evacuate the wounded, officials there say. In Kharkiv and Kyiv, missiles hit residential buildings. Millions of Ukrainians have already fled the country as refugees.

A Reuters picture taken with a drone shows a residential building destroyed by shelling in the settlement of Borodyanka in the Kyiv region, Ukraine March 3, 2022. Surveillance footage shows a missile hitting a residential building in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 26, 2022, in this still image taken from a video obtained by REUTERS. A Reuters picture shows people walking past the remains of a missile at a bus terminal in Kyiv, Ukraine March 4, 2022.

1 Targeted missile attacks

During the initial hours of the invasion, cruise missiles were widely deployed, and precision short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) were fired en masse in a war for the first time. According to U.S. estimates, the first Russian onslaught included more than 100 missiles launched from land and sea.

Russia most likely used its only SRBM in active service, the Iskander-M, said Timothy Wright, a research analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

Ukraine has a limited supply of much older ballistic missiles, the OTR-21 Tochka, and in the first days of the war used at least one to attack a Russian air base inside Russia, according to media reports.

According to the IISS, the Iskander-M has greater range than the Tochka and its launchers can carry more than one missile. Each Iskander launcher has an armoured cover for the missiles, and its cabin is hardened against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear hazards, as well as extreme temperatures. The vehicle can drive off-road and can travel at speeds up to 70 km/h (43 mph) for 1,100 km (684 miles). The Iskander-M has circular error probable (CEP) of 5-7 metres, meaning half of the projectiles fired will land in a circle with a radius of that size. The Tochka, by contrast, has a CEP of 90m.

On Friday, Feb. 25, Ukraine's military command said areas near the cities of Sumy, Poltava and Mariupol were hit by Russian 3M14 Kalibr cruise missiles launched at the country from the Black Sea.

The Kalibr is a land-attack cruise missile (LACM) with an estimated range of 1,500 to 2,500 km. Meant for precision strikes, its exact CEP is unknown but is estimated to be less than 5m.

Some Russian strikes at air bases appeared relatively limited, however, and in instances missed vital targets, such as hitting stored rather than operational aircraft, said Joseph Dempsey, a defence researcher at IISS. Ukraine has the Cold War-era Russian-made S-300v anti-aircraft missile system, which also has anti-ballistic missile capabilities, Wright said. It is unclear whether any engaged the Russian missiles, and some S-300v vehicles appeared to have been destroyed by strikes, he added.

As Moscow failed to swiftly overthrow Ukraine's government in the first days of the attack, the results of its missile campaign appear to have been mixed at best. Although vastly outmatched by Russian airpower in terms of size, Ukraine’s air force is still operating, and experts say its air defences remain viable - a fact that has baffled some military analysts.

2 Stalled ground war

In the two main fronts in the east and north, Russia so far has little to show for its advance, with Ukraine's two biggest cities, Kyiv and Kharkiv, holding out in the face of increasingly intense bombardment.

Ukrainian civilians are supporting regular troops as they try to repel Russia's advance, including through civil defence units and independent militia that have formed across the country.

A video shows workers making anti-tank barriers and cars driving around Jersey barriers and obstacles in streets.

Russian forces are becoming increasingly frustrated by what the United States believes is a viable and very determined Ukrainian resistance even as Moscow has committed almost all of the forces set aside for the invasion, U.S. defence officials said this week.

A Reuters picture taken with a drone shows a residential building destroyed by shelling in the settlement of Borodyanka in the Kyiv region, Ukraine March 3, 2022. A second Reuters photo shows a destroyed Russian Army all-terrain infantry mobility vehicle Tigr-M (Tiger) on a road in Kharkiv, Ukraine February 28, 2022. A third Reuters photo shows people taking part in a military exercise for civilians conducted by veterans of the Ukrainian National Guard Azov battalion, amid threat of Russian invasion, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 6, 2022.

The United States and European nations have supplied Ukraine with a variety of hardware, including advanced weapons that can destroy armoured vehicles. These missiles can be particularly effective in urban settings, with more opportunities for teams to conceal themselves for ambushes.

Among these weapons are the NLAW, the next-generation antitank missile system developed jointly between UK and Sweden, and the FGM-148 Javelin, a U.S. lightweight system that can destroy tanks from several kilometers away.

Photos from Ukraine have shown abandoned Russian vehicles, including tanks, raising questions about logistical failures alongside Ukranian attacks. "They simply don't have a lot of experience moving on another nation state at this level of complexity and size," a senior U.S. defence official said of the Russian army.

The official said it was unclear whether it was a failure in planning or execution, but added that Russian forces were likely to adapt and change the way they operate.

A handout photo from the press service of the Ukrainian Ground Forces shows a charred Russian tank is seen in the Sumy region, Ukraine, March 7, 2022. A second photo shows Ukrainian service members unloading a shipment of military aid delivered as part of the U.S's security assistance to Ukraine on January 25, 2022. A third photo shows Lithuania's military aid including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles on February 13, 2022.

Another tool that has become important for Ukrainians in their fight is the Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicle - a Turkish-made drone that can carry small anti-armor weapons. Ukraine's ambassador to Ankara, Vasyl Bodnar, has said the drones had been very efficient; videos posted by Ukraine’s military showed them being used to destroy vehicles in Russian convoys. Turkey has sold Kyiv several batches of TB2 drones, which it had deployed against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The drone can carry small anti-vehicle weapons, most likely the Roketsan MAM-L “smart micro munition,” which follows a laser to its targets and can glide up to 8 km before impact, according to its manufacturer. The bombs weigh only 22kg but are designed to use a small charge to punch through armor and destroy a vehicle.

3 Siege tactics

Russia has shifted its strategy from directly attacking Ukrainian defences to siege warfare in recent days. Russian forces warned Kyiv residents to flee their homes last week before bombarding the city and rained rockets down on Kharkiv, flattening homes and other civilian infrastructure.

Kharkiv region head Oleg Synegubov has said Russian missile attacks had hit the centre of Ukraine's second-largest city, including residential areas and the regional administration building.

The Mariupol city council said Russian forces were constantly and deliberately shelling vital civilian infrastructure in the southeastern Ukrainian port, leaving it without water, heating or power and preventing it from bringing in supplies or evacuating people.

Cities under siege

Synegubov said his city’s defences were holding. "Such attacks are genocide of the Ukrainian people, a war crime against the civilian population!" he said.

The BM-21 is one of the multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) used by the Russian army. One battalion of 18 launchers can deliver 720 rockets in a single volley. The rockets are unguided and have lower precision than typical artillery; they cannot be used in situations that call for pinpoint accuracy. To destroy a target, it relies on a large number of rockets spread across an area.

Siege tactics typically involve encircling enemy positions, cutting off supply and escape routes, then attacking with a combined force of armour, ground troops and engineers.

Russian forces have also deployed thermobaric weapons systems in Ukraine, worrying Western observers about how broadly they could be used, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said on Thursday.

Thermobaric weapons disperse a cloud of fuel mixture, which is then ignited a moment later to create a powerful explosion. "We've seen the deployment of thermobaric artillery weapon systems and we worry how broad those could go," Wallace said during a visit to Estonia.

Russia says its actions in Ukraine are not meant to occupy territory but to destroy its neighbour's military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists.

A Reuters photo shows women walking among remains of residential buildings destroyed by shelling in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, March 2, 2022. A second Reuters photo shows a woman inspecting debris inside an apartment of a residential building, which locals said was damaged by recent shelling, in the separatist-controlled town of Horlivka (Gorlovka) in the Donetsk region, Ukraine March 2, 2022. A handout picture released March 8, 2022 shows rescuers carrying a civilian injured during shelling, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Mykolaiv, Ukraine.

What’s next

As the siege of major cities continues, the corridors to let civilians escape and allow aid to reach besieged areas have been the main subject of talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations.

Ukraine's government accused Russian forces of shelling a humanitarian corridor that Moscow had promised to open to let residents flee Mariupol. The humanitarian situation there was catastrophic, a deputy prime minister said.

Russia opened a separate corridor allowing residents out of the eastern city of Sumy on Tuesday, the first successful evacuation under such a safe route.

Meanwhile, Poland said Tuesday it was ready to put all its MIG-29 jets at the disposal of the United States, which U.S. lawmakers had pushed to then transfer to the Ukrainians. The move was quickly rejected by Washington. The Pentagon said the prospect of flying combat aircraft from NATO territory into the war zone "raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance." Transferring such aircraft to Ukraine would mean Ukrainians could pilot the planes without additional training.

Western allies had reacted coolly to a proposal by Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy for a no-fly zone for Russian flights over Ukraine, saying participation in such a move would be tantamount to a direct conflict with Moscow.


Drawings and trajectories are not to scale.


Janes; Center for Strategic and International Studies; Saab; Lockheed Martin, Baykar Technologies; Roketsa; Rosoboronexport; US Army; Black Sky, Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining; Reuters

Edited by

Jon McClure, Simon Scarr and Michael Collett-White

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