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Vacuum bomb vs. nuclear bomb: What is the vacuum bomb that Russia used against Ukraine?

Russia has been accused of using widely banned weapons in their Ukrainian assault such as cluster and vacuum bombs as resistance stiffens.

Demonstrators hold signs reading "Putin is bombing Ukraine" and "Stop Putin Now" during a protest against Russia's military operation in Ukraine, in Barcelona on February 26, 2022.
Josep LagoAFP

With the Russian advance into Ukraine slowed, according to western intelligence reports, fighting promises to become more dogged, more protracted, more brutal. With the chances of a lightning Russian victory seeming to ebb away, street fighting and resistance from an armed population will put civilians in an impossibly dangerous situation.

Reports are already emerging just days into the conflict of the use of widely banned weapons of war such as cluster bombs. According to the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), cluster bombs are weapons which divide before impact, leading to a weapon that can strike targets as 'large as football fields' once the submunitions are released.

Oksana Markarova, Ukraine's ambassador to the United States, told reporters in the US that Russia had used a thermobaric weapon, known as a vacuum bomb, in the early stage of the war.

What is a vacuum bomb?

A vacuum bomb sucks oxygen from the air to produce a lethal, high-temperature explosion that can vaporise humans in its close proximity. An explosion from such a weapon lasts longer than conventional explosives, eschewing a traditional fragmentation or incendiary weapon.

The US said it was aware of reports of the use of such weapons but was not yet at the stage where it could verify their use in combat.

Indiscriminate targeting of people is prohibited in war and would constitute a war crime. In what could be the first admittance of targeted attacks on civilians, Russian President Vladimir Putin is said to have agreed to halt strikes on civilians in a recent meeting with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron. Russia denies this was discussed in the meeting.

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How are vacuum bomb different to nuclear weapons?

Nuclear weapons are detonated by the splitting of atomic nuclei. Massive amounts of energy are released when neutrons from radioactive substances are knocked out of the nucleus, ricocheting of other atoms and causing them to split. In short, a chain reaction of splitting atoms causes a devastating explosion.

Like vacuum weapons, humans are vaporised instantly a distance from the blast. This is in part due to the rapid heat increase, causing oxygen to be sucked out of the atmosphere.

But that is where similarities end. While vacuum bombs are deplorable weapons, the use of a nuclear arsenal in war would mark an escalation that would put humanity on the brink of utter annihilation. There is no suggestion that Russia has or will use nuclear weapons, although tensions ratcheted up a notch with the announcement that Russian nuclear weapons were on alert, as was released over the weekend.


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