As tensions mount over risks to civilians from Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Airwars examines lessons from Moscow's seven year Syria war.
On February 21st Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he would recognise the independence of two separatist regions inside Ukraine, with Russian troops reportedly moving there – steps widely seen as edging towards a full conflict. If Russia does, as has been predicted, invade part or all of Ukraine in the coming days, there are reasons to believe it will be a particularly bloody conflict for civilians – as well as an opaque one.
Russian actions in Syria, which Airwars has tracked since they began in 2015, suggests the country’s military does little to mitigate civilian harm. And should any conflict intensify in Ukraine, local and international civilian harm monitoring is likely to be deeply challenged, an Airwars assessment has found.
Russia in Syria: bleak record on civilian harm
Moscow’s record in Syria offers insights into what to expect from any Russian intervention in Ukraine.
Since the first of tens of thousands of airstrikes in support of President Bashar Al-Assad’s government in September 2015, Airwars has recorded 4,621 incidents in which Russia is alleged to have caused civilian deaths or injuries.
From these, Airwars currently estimates that a minimum of at least 4,172 civilians have been killed by Russia alone – with at least 16,000 additional claimed civilian deaths occurring in events contested between both Russian and Syrian regime actions.
Overall, Russia has been linked to as many as 23,400 alleged civilian deaths in Syria. And more than 41,000 civilians have also allegedly been injured.
Russian involvement in Syria has been characterised by a heavy reliance on unguided munitions, including cluster bombs and thermobaric missiles. Videos uploaded by the Russian Ministry of Defence in the early years of the conflict demonstrated the low levels of accuracy achieved when using unguided munitions.
Moscow has also faced persistent and well-substantiated allegations that it deliberately targets health workers and medical facilities throughout Syria. Amnesty International has called this a “strategy of war” to push back rebels. Markets, civilian-only neighbourhoods and even refugee camps have also reportedly been targeted by Russian strikes.
More recently, Russia has been criticised for targeting civilian infrastructure, such as poultry farms and water treatment facilities in Idlib, which is the last opposition-held region in Syria. Rights groups say this may amount to war crimes. And Human Rights Watch has already raised concerns about the shelling of residential areas in Ukraine by Russian-backed groups, a tactic Russia has been repeatedly accused of pursuing in Syria.
Denial of casualties
Russia is far from the only foreign power that has killed civilians in Syria’s decade-long war – in fact four of the five permanent United Nations Security Council members continue to bomb the country.
Yet while there are deep flaws in the civilian harm policies applied by the United States, Britain, France and others, they do at least have known policies.
To date, Russia has not publicly accepted responsibility for a single civilian death during six and a half years of war in Syria. It is currently unclear if Russia has any comprehensive mechanisms in place for either preventing civilian harm from its air and artillery strikes, or for accounting for civilian casualties. Extensive reports of Moscow’s deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure and hospitals suggests the opposite.
As #Putin maneuvers into position for serious hostilities in #Ukraine, let's bear in mind the recent record of the Russian military. As a baseline is one factoid:
– Russian 'actions' in #Syria since 2015 have killed 23,000+ civilians.https://t.co/JsrTI8kJKK pic.twitter.com/rL5duc9XqL
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 22, 2022
Airwars has tried multiple times to engage with Russian authorities on civilian harm concerns, with no success. In 2018 President Putin was asked by Fox News about civilians killed by Russian airstrikes. “You know, when there [is] warfare going on — and this is the worst thing that can happen [for] humankind – [victims] are inevitable, and there will always be a question of who’s to blame. I think it is the terrorist groups who are to blame who destabilized the situation in the country,” he noted.
Ukraine casualties: a challenge to track
Should war again come to Ukraine, a comprehensive review by Airwars suggests that ensuing civilian casualties risk being poorly documented.
A relatively low level conflict began in 2014, when Russia seized the Crimea Peninsula, and pro-Russian separatists later took over parts of the eastern Donbas region – areas internationally recognised as being within Ukraine’s borders.
Since then, even while fighting has continued at a low intensity, the quality of data about civilians killed and injured on both sides has remained poor. While the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights releases regular reports on human rights in Ukraine, it is not a comprehensive dataset. Estimates of civilian casualties are fragmented, and also do not focus on civilian harm resulting from both sides. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) also documents and reports periodically on casualties. Its most recent report covers the period from February 1st – July 31st 2021.
Every Casualty Counts has also published a helpful update on Ukraine resources – including Summary versions in both Ukrainian and Russian of its important Standards for Casualty Recording.
Currently, official Ukrainian government sources only provide data on military casualties. Unfortunately, Ukrainian media and international organisations often then rely on UN and OSCE data in their reporting on civilian harm.
The Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union – a network of 28 human rights NGOs in Ukraine – has been identifying and recording information on all casualties of the hybrid armed conflict in Ukraine since January 2014. This includes both Russian and Ukrainian military personnel and civilians. The data is available online in database and map format, at The Memorial Map.
The civilian death toll of the conflict since 2014 remains somewhat opaque. International media reports suggest that at least 10,000 people may have died to date, with some estimates as high as 50,000. Yet the latest OHCHR report counted only 3,092 civilian deaths up until July 31st 2021.
Overall casualty tolls include widespread reports of ongoing civilian harm in the Russian-backed separatist regions, resulting from Ukrainian actions. These have come via Donetsk Public Republic (DPR) Ombudsman on Human Rights reports; and Luhansk Public Republic (LPR) Ministry of Foreign Affairs updates. The latest aggregated data from DPR/LPR official sources was reported in November 2021 with estimates of nearly 9,000 civilians killed within DRP/LPR territory since April 2014.
With dire predictions that tens of thousands of civilians could be killed in a full-scale conflict between Russia and Ukraine – particularly with its likely focus on urban areas – this would quickly overwhelm the capacities of casualty monitors at the United Nations and OSCE, as well as within Donbas, Airwars believes.
Other recent city battles – such as Mosul, Raqqa, Gaza and Tripoli – have seen sometimes extreme civilian casualties, even where some belligerents attempted to reduce harm.
John Spencer, chair of Urban Warfare Studies at West Point’s Modern War Institute, said he was concerned about large numbers of civilians potentially being killed in urban environments.
“Basically any possible Russian invasion route that has been discussed goes through heavily populated areas,” Spencer told Airwars.
“Hitting any target, no matter how important, in heavily populated neighbourhoods is likely to result in civilian harm”
Updated on February 23rd to include additional civilian harm monitoring sources.