Tom Clonan: Putin’s attack on a children’s hospital this week was a bestial crime

The security expert says the latest developments in Ukraine this week are depressingly familiar.

ON DAY 865 of Vladimir Putin’s ‘Special Military Operation’ in Donetsk and Luhansk, the world reacted to Russia’s missile strike on Okhmatdyt Children’s Hospital in Kyiv.

Hundreds of kilometres from the front line, Moscow’s missile attacks were deliberately timed to intimidate and terrorise ordinary Ukrainian citizens going about their day to day business in the capital city.

There were two waves of missile strikes. The first consisted of a salvo of 4 Russian Kh-101 cruise missiles. These are sophisticated weapons and are ‘smart’ or guided munitions. Designated by NATO as AS-23 ‘Kodiak’ missiles, they carry a payload of approximately 400 kg of high explosives. With a range of approximately 3,500 km, these four cruise missiles were launched from Russia’s Saratov Oblast – over 1,000 km from Kyiv.

‘A bestial crime’

This was a very sinister and significant attack. These particular missiles utilise Russia’s Glonass guidance system – a GPS variant – to direct them to the target. They are so-called ‘smart’ weapons with a margin of error to target of approximately 10 metres. In other words, pinpoint precision. In my opinion, the Okhmatdyt Children’s Hospital was deliberately targeted.

Putin used the same missile system and technologies to target hospitals in support of the Assad regime’s forces during the Syrian civil war. To target a children’s hospital – with children undergoing cancer treatment, organ transplants and vital surgeries for disabled children – is a bestial crime.

The hospital is believed – but not yet confirmed – to have been struck in the first wave of four Kh-101 cruise missiles. The Ukrainian military stated that they managed to intercept two of these missiles. They also state that the missiles were deployed at ‘extremely low altitude’ – as low as 50 metres – in order to evade detection and interception.

The second wave of missile strikes ordered by Moscow consisted of 36 missiles in total – a combination of Iskander-M ballistic missiles and other variants – reportedly fired from the Crimea and Kursk region. Ukrainian authorities claim to have intercepted 27 of these projectiles. Despite this, over 40 Ukrainian civilians – including at least four children – were killed in this attack. Over 190 have been seriously injured. In Kyiv, 7 out of its 10 districts were struck by missiles in this attack.

A new push by Putin

The attacks come as Putin continues his Spring / Summer offensive against Ukraine. Russia’s attacks stretch along a 1000 km front stretching from Kharkiv in the north east through Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia to Kherson in the south east – just short of Mykolaiv and Odessa. Despite catastrophic losses of troops and materials, Putin has stepped up his mobilisation and armaments production and procurement to wage a savage campaign of attrition against Ukraine’s defenders.

Putin today claims to have ‘liberated’ Yasnabrodivka – a village close to Donetsk near the centre of the front line. To the north, the centre of gravity of Russian military operations remains an attempted thrust from Belgorod Oblast, across the border towards Kharkiv. The Russians would appear to be trying to get within artillery range of Kharkiv so that they could shell it at will – forcing an evacuation of the city.

Their battle plans at present also appear focussed on the full capture of Luhansk towards Kharkiv – which would also have the effect of encircling and isolating Ukrainian defences in the north of Donetsk. Putin’s generals are also mounting supporting diversionary attacks further south. It is a war of attrition which has seen Ukraine run dangerously low on ammunition, air defence assets and troops on the ground. Ukraine’s army is depleted, and exhausted and has survived with just enough reserves to make use of the recent massive military aid package approved in Washington and separately from European and NATO allies.

International war games

This week’s NATO summit in Washington – to mark the 75th anniversary of the military alliance – is expected to approve a further $40 Billion military aid package to Ukraine. Whilst NATO assembles in Washington, Moscow has embarked on a heightened political, diplomatic and propaganda campaign to counter the narrative of Western ‘dominance’. Putin has welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi – whom he has referred to as a ‘dear friend’ — on a high profile visit to Moscow. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban meanwhile is in Beijing on an official visit to China’s President Xi Jinping to discuss ‘Peace Talks’ for the war in Ukraine.

In a bizarre move, China has also deployed troops to Belarus to the border with Poland to participate in an exercise called ‘Falcon Assault’. Major General Vadim Denisenko, commander of Belarus’ Special Operations Command has stated that the exercise will allow Russian, Belarusian and Chinese troops to ‘practice new tasks’ along the border with NATO-member, Poland.

The war in Ukraine seems set to grind on. The casualties on both sides are horrific. It is believed that up to 100,000 Ukrainian troops are now amputees in need of prosthetic limbs. The war is a mass casualty event and a mass disabling event – with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian casualties.

While both sides seem deadlocked, Putin has achieved some small incremental gains along the front line – but nothing that he can proclaim a decisive victory. As has been his modus operandi over the course of his invasion, when unable to meaningfully effect change on the ground through conventional means – he has resorted to war crimes and missile strikes on civilian targets in order to exert pressure on Zelenskyy and his coalition of western supporters and allies.

Ukraine strengths

It is expected over July and August that much of the renewed military aid – including F-16 fighter aircraft – will significantly bolster Ukrainian military capacity. Military analysts have claimed that the increased supply of aircraft, air defence systems and artillery rounds will transform Ukraine’s defensive – and offensive – capacities.

However, analysts – including myself – have previously overestimated the significance of NATO weapon systems in the conflict, particularly in the Spring of 2023, when Ukraine’s Summer Offensive failed to materialise in any meaningful way. The fact that Ukraine’s forces have held the line over the last nine months is testimony to their sheer determination and grit in the face of human wave ‘meatgrinder’ assaults and increasingly devastating ‘glide-bomb’ attacks and loss of artillery and air defence capabilities.

The war will continue, at a devastatingly consistent pace. The principal victims will be the innocent men, women and children of Ukraine and their exhausted military forces. The levels of disinformation and misinformation around the war – along with the explicitly criminal acts carried out by Putin and his generals – make it difficult to know how any ‘peace negotiations’ might proceed.

Consistent with the slaughter of the innocents in Gaza, the common characteristics of ‘conventional conflict’ in the early decades of the 21st Century – from Iraq to Syria to Gaza and Ukraine – appear to be the disinhibited targeting of the civilian population and civilian objects. In this grim moment, urbanicide, femicide, infanticide – the disinhibited mass slaughter of men, women and children, combatants and non-combatants alike – has been ‘normalised’ and appears to be the way war will be waged in this century.

With increased automation among weapon systems, and the use of AI to create new generations of autonomous weapon systems – conflict will expand, not diminish. Whatever the challenges, it behoves world leaders to find a way forward and to achieve a rules-based, ethical international order. To appease tyranny will accelerate and proliferate genocidal conflicts. This is a moment of profound existential challenge for humanity. There is little among our world leaders – from Xi Jinping to Putin to Netanyahu, Biden, or Trump for that matter – to inspire confidence.

Dr Tom Clonan is a retired Army Officer and former Lecturer at TU Dublin. He is an Independent Senator on the Trinity College Dublin Panel, Seanad Éireann.

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Tom Clonan