Although US forces have killed more civilians in conflicts over the past decade, Russian-led attacks using explosive violence are more lethal per incident to civilians, Sian Norris reports

Russian-led attacks using explosive weapons over the past decade are more deadly per incident to civilians than those committed by the US, new data from the research charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) reveals today. 

Data exclusively shared with Byline Times shows that, between March 2012 and February 2022, there have been at least 1,360 Russian or Russian-backed incidents involving explosive weapons, killing 4,390 civilians and injuring 5,062 more. 

This means that, on average, each Russian-led incident led to 6.95 civilians harmed. The incidents killed or injured 13,887 people in total.

In the same time period, US-led attacks using explosive weapons killed 5,812 civilians and injured 2,171, with 22,608 people killed or injured in total.

Although the number of civilian and military casualties are higher, each US-led incident led to 4.2 civilians being harmed. As a result, Russian-led attacks are 65% more injurious to civilians than US attacks.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, there have been further civilian casualties caused by explosive violence deployed by Russian forces, which are not included in the dataset.

Up until 22 March 2022, AOAV’s data, gathered from reputable English language media sources, has reported 493 civilians killed with a further 346 injured. Of these, 55 are children. 


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Civilian Targets

Vladimir Putin’s approach to warfare has long involved the targeting of civilian infrastructure. The investigative journalist organisation Bellingcat has recorded 64 events targeting civilian spaces in Ukraine between 8 March and 22 March. 

Shopping centres, theatres and apartment blocks have all been shelled in that time period, with the Kremlin claiming these are legitimate military targets. At least four civilians were injured in Kherson, after Russian forces fired snipers at a crowd of protesters. 

In the besieged city of Mariupol, hospitals have also been considered a legitimate military target, with three pregnant women killed in the recent attack on a maternity hospital in the city. A heavily pregnant woman who was photographed while being carried out on a stretcher to safety was one of those who lost their lives, along with her child. The doctors tried to save her baby by performing a caesarean section. When it was clear the child would not survive, the mother reportedly said “kill me now”. She died not long after. 

The tactics deployed against civilians in Ukraine are familiar to people in Syria, where Russian forces have assisted the dictator Bashir al-Assad with a bombing campaign since 2015.

At least nine hospitals in Syria were targeted by explosive violence between 2015 and 2020, killing 37 civilians including medical staff. Schools, residential neighbourhoods, a prison and markets have also been the focus of attacks, with the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure amounting to war crimes, according to Human Rights Watch

Russian-led explosive violence was also instrumental in the siege of Aleppo in 2016, with the treatment of that city offering a disturbing playbook for the current scenes in Mariupol.

Syrian Government forces sealed off Aleppo’s rebel-held eastern half, depriving citizens of basic necessities. At the same time, Russian forces conducted a brutal bombing campaign against the population. In the entire course of Syria’s war, 51,731 named individuals have been killed in Aleppo. These are not all casualties from Russian-led attacks, and they are not all civilians. 

People in Mariupol are now facing the same trauma – under siege and under bombardment. The fear among the Ukrainian people is that Putin will repeat his Syria strategy in their country, besieging and bombarding town after town. 

US Killings

The US shares a poor record on killing civilians, not least in Iraq and Afghanistan which it invaded in 2003 and 2001 respectively, and in the campaign against ISIS. 

AOAV’s data shows that 5,812 civilians have been killed and 2,171 injured in US-led explosive violence attacks since March 2012. 

Most recently, a drone strike by US forces in Kabul led to the killing of 10 civilians. Seven of those killed were children. 

In 2017, the US military admitted that 105 civilians were killed in an airstrike carried out against the Iraqi city of Mosul, while days earlier a US-led airstrike killed 35 civilians in Syria.  

According to the US military’s own numbers, 1,417 civilians have died in airstrikes in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Since 2018 in Afghanistan, US air operations have killed at least 188 civilians. This may be an underestimate, as analysis from The New York Times found that “many allegations of civilian casualties had been summarily discounted”.

During the Iraq War, the battle between US forces and Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah saw 600 civilian casualties, of which half were women and children. Not all the civilians were killed by US personnel or through explosive violence. 

AOAV’s data is based on English language media reports of explosive violence. There may be more incidents from Russian-backed forces in Syria that have not been included, having instead been reported as attacks from the Assad regime, but as their methodology is consistent across the world it means comparing nation states such as the US and Russia is possible.

Iain Overton, executive director of AOAV, also leads the Byline Intelligence Team


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