What are the mysterious thermobaric bombs Russia are using in Ukraine

Residents of Kyiv have reported ‘lightning like’ explosions sending shockwaves across the city, believed to be caused by thermobaric bombs.

Videos from Ukraine’s capital have captured footage of large explosions lighting up the entire sky as if it were daylight. Experts believe these flashes have been caused by thermobaric bombs.

So what are thermobaric weapons? They’re often called ‘vacuum bombs’ which sums up the way they work quite well.

Thermobaric Bombs
TOS1 Tank | Credit: Leonid Faerberg / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Thermobaric bombs explode in a two-part sequence. The first stage releases toxic powdered metal and and explosive charges into the air, which ignite as soon as they come in contact with oxygen.

The bomb then sucks out all of the oxygen from the air and any living thing nearby, to produce an extremely hot, rapidly expanding fireball.

A low-pressure system is created by the explosion, resulting in a push-pull vacuum effect which can be highly damaging to infrastructure.

Thermobaric weapons are banned by international law, unless they are being used against military targets. But if these weapons are used in civilian areas, it is considered a war crime.

It hasn’t been officially confirmed whether Russia have actually used thermobaric weapons on Ukraine, but video footage of explosions in Kyiv fit the characteristics of these weapons, and photos posted by civilians suggest that Russia have deployed a TOS-1 Buratino tank in Kyiv, armed with 24 thermobaric rockets.

“It is hard to understand how the TOS-1 can be used lawfully in a city,” said Marc Garlasco, an adviser to anti-war organisation PAX. “Such weapons should never be used in areas with concentrations of civilians due to the likelihood of civilian harm.”

It is believed that the Soviet Union have used thermobaric weapons in the past against China in 1969, Afghanistan in 1979, and in Syria just four-years ago. The United States have also reportedly used these weapons in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Ukraine’s government and human rights groups have alleged that Russia have used cluster munitions during the conflict too, which are also banned under international law. They were banned in 2008 but Russia is yet to sign the agreement, neither has the USA, China, or India.

Russia is currently in possession of 6,000 nuclear weapons, which Putin has hinted at using if outside forces interfere with the invasion.