Tactical Weapons

Russia is using Thermobaric missiles on insurgents inside its own borders

Russian thermobaric weapons kill by using a pressure wave of fuel that mixes with atmospheric oxygen, flowing around structures.
thermobaric weapons
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - 2021/08/25: Russian Army TOS-1A "Solntsepyok (Blazing Sun)" multiple rocket launcher and thermobaric weapon mounted on a T-72 tank chassis seen during the annual Army Games defense technology international exhibition. (Photo by Leonid Faerberg/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Thermobarics, also known as “vacuum bombs,” suck up the oxygen in their explosive range to mix with fuel, massively increasing their explosive power, flammability, and antipersonnel effects. There’s nowhere to hide when someone drops a thermobaric bomb on a unit; buildings, foxholes, and even bunkers can be destroyed by its power.

Although many countries, including the United States, have long had thermobaric weapons, Russia deploys thermobaric missiles on mobile launchers – and used one against a band of anti-Kremlin partisans on Russian soil in June 2023.

Just how much anti-Putin rebel movements have grown in recent days has many speculating about the possibilities of a wider partisan movement inside Russia. What they do know is that at least one group of partisans will not be continuing any kind of resistance movement.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense claimed they deployed a thermobaric missile launcher to Belgorod, along Russia’s border with Ukraine, in response to reports of armed insurgents attacking inside Russia. Its TOS-1A heavy thermobaric rocket launcher sits atop a tank and can lob rockets upward of two miles.

Since the internal Russian security forces are getting bigger and more powerful weapons than the forces deployed inside Ukraine, they’ve been able to keep anti-Putin Russian militias like the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Liberty of Russia Legion from causing widespread panic or destruction in Russia’s borders.

The Russian Volunteer Corps did not expressly say if their troops were the forces fighting in Belgorod, but they did acknowledge activities inside Russia. The Liberty of Russia Legion says it does work with the Ukrainian Armed Forces, but was not operating in Russia for Ukraine. Neither admits to facing Russian thermobaric rockets.

Russian thermobaric weapons, like all thermobarics, kill by using a pressure wave of fuel that mixes with atmospheric oxygen, flowing around structures like buildings and cars. A second explosive charge detonates the cloud of fuel and air, creating a massive blast wave that will rupture the lungs and can crush reinforced concrete buildings and destroy inside armored vehicles.

Even if the second wave doesn’t detonate the air-fuel mixture, victims of the weapons will still be killed by the burning fuel on their skin and in their lungs. It’s essentially a kind of chemical weapon using a flammable toxic cloud that is then set on fire. These kinds of weapons were first pursued by Nazi Germany and were later created by the U.S. for use in the Vietnam War.

The Soviet Union developed them not long after the Americans. A coalition of countries has since lobbied the United Nations for an agreement to ban the use of thermobaric weapons, even in war. After two attempts, in 1990 and 2010, no movement could be made. Russia has been using thermobaric weapons on its home soil since a 1993 coup attempt tried to unseat then-President Boris Yeltsin. The Russian military has used them in Chechnya against terrorists and has been accused of using them in Ukraine.

The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence says the use of these weapons against internal threats shows Russian military leaders are torn between shoring up their defenses inside Russia or using them to bolster their efforts in Ukraine. It won’t be the last time anti-Putin militias attack Belgorod, so Russia may soon have to leave its forces in Ukraine without any kind of advanced weaponry.