KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — Russia has used one of its deadliest conventional weapons extensively in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, according to Ukrainian military commanders, doctors, British officials and battlefield videos .
The weapon, a track-mounted rocket artillery system dubbed Solntsepek, or Heatwave, fires thermobaric warheads that explode with tremendous force, sending life-threatening shockwaves into bunkers or trenches where soldiers would otherwise be in security.
“You feel the ground shaking,” said Colonel Yevhen Shamataliuk, commander of Ukraine’s 95th Brigade, whose soldiers came under fire from the Russian Heatwave weapon in fighting this month near the town of Izyum.
“It’s very destructive,” Shamataliuk said. “It destroys the bunkers. They simply collapse on those inside.
The United States and other militaries also deploy thermobaric warheads in missiles and rocket-propelled grenades. And the Ukrainian military said on April 5 that it fired Heatwave thermobaric rockets from a captured system at Russian troops, intending to burn them with their own weapon, during fighting near Izyum .
Thermobaric weapons are not banned and they are not addressed in the Geneva Conventions, a series of international agreements that govern warfare. The Russian military deployed the Heatwave weapon in the war in Syria, but its use in Ukraine has become routine, according to Ukrainian military and video footage of strikes on towns in eastern Ukraine.
These explosives, also called air-fuel bombs or vacuum bombs, disperse a flammable mist or powder that ignites and burns in air. The result is a powerful explosion followed by a partial vacuum as oxygen is sucked from the air as the fuel burns.
The Ukrainian soldiers who were caught in the blasts and who survived suffered a mixture of burns and concussions, said Sgt. Anna Federchuk, a paramedic based in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, who treated victims of heat wave strikes.
“It’s a mixed diagnosis,” she said of the typical victim of a heatwave blast. “The burns are deep and severe.”
The Russian weapon carries a rocket box atop a tank-like tracked vehicle. It can fire simple rockets or a terrifying volley. Yet, like many Russian weapons deployed during the war in Ukraine, the Heatwave system may not be as effective or decisive in combat as Russian military propaganda suggested.
Developed in the 1980s and once considered an impressive and feared invention of military prowess in the late Soviet Union, the Heatwave, officially known as the Tos-1 heavy flamethrower, has its downsides.
With a range of only 6 miles, it must be driven close to the front to fire. There he was vulnerable to Ukrainian ambushes. In March, drone video showed Ukrainian soldiers detonating a Heatwave weapon during an ambush outside the Kyiv suburb of Brovary.
The strike on the vehicle sent its rockets into the Russians’ own column of armored vehicles, although it is not clear if any were destroyed.
Their use near the front also allowed Ukraine to seize some weapons. Videos have appeared online claiming to show Ukrainian tractor drivers towing captured Heatwave weapons away from the front. Ukrainian soldiers claimed on social media to have seized five of the weapon systems as trophies.
Ukraine’s military also said the Russians came under friendly fire with the heatwave as it launched highly destructive but unguided rockets.
“The leadership of the 97th Infantry Battalion expresses its satisfaction with the actions of the Russian occupiers,” the Ukrainian military said in a sarcastic statement May 8 after what it described as friendly fire in the Zaporizhzhia area that killed Russian soldiers. “Such actions are viewed positively and supported in every way by the Ukrainian military. We understand that there is a tradition of cooking shish kebabs in May.