Russian-controlled militants reportedly use blinding laser weapons against Ukrainian border guards
At least five Ukrainian border guards have received serious eye injuries since July 2016 from what are believed to have been blinding laser weapons. If, as Ukrainian military experts suspect, a much-touted Russian ‘Anti-sniper’ system is being used, this would provide further evidence of Russia’s direct role in the military conflict in Donbas, while also pointing to failings in the current international ban on the use of such weapons, and exclusions to that ban.
The number of cases where injuries have been caused by laser weapons may well be higher. In May, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov reported that there had also been cases affecting members of the National Police. Yulia Pimonova, Chief Ophthalmologist from the State Border Guard Service, has examined at least two other people afflicted, but can only speak with certainty of those military servicemen within the Border Guard Service whom she has treated. She stresses that this is unknown territory, about which there have been no studies made. Since the burn marks remain, it remains unclear what impact, if any, the injuries will have in the long term. Together with colleagues in Ukraine and at the Medical University in Vienna, she has presented a paper outlining the first four cases. A fifth incident was reported on 2 October. .
All five documented cases involved border guards on duty at the Mariyinka checkpoint (Donetsk oblast) who were looking through optical devices (binoculars, stereoscopic artillery systems). Their equipment was undamaged, but they themselves sustained damage to one or both eyes. In the first four cases, the men reported seeing a flash of green light before being at least temporarily blinded.
On 22 July, 2016 three servicemen from the Kramatorsk Border Guard Unit received injuries to the retina while looking through binoculars or stereoscopic optic devices. This was the first such indication that laser weapons might be involved, and it is lucky that the response was swift. All three men were transferred to the Border Guard Service’s Central Clinic for specialized treatment. According to Pimonova, the burns to the centre of the retina in two men’s cases were very serious, and it was feared that they could lose their sight altogether. One of the men was operated upon, with a generally positive result, while the second was treated through medication. The men all remain under regular observation, however in only one case, that of the man who required an operation, has there been a significant loss in sight (the eye has regained only 80% sight).
All of this, Pimonova notes, was a totally new challenge for Ukrainian ophthalmologists who had previously, in peacetime, never had to deal with such injuries.
The experience in July 2016 also meant that when, on 25 March 2018, Anton Kekukh, an inspector from the same Kramatorsk Border Guard Unit was on duty at the same Mariyinka checkpoint and was blinded, while looking through an optical device, he was swiftly hospitalized for specialist treatment.
Given the suspicion that Russia is using what it claims is an ‘anti-sniper device’ in Donbas, it is worth considering the circumstances of that fateful day for Kekukh. He has explained that on that Sunday, things had been quiet until close to midday when a sniper began shooting. This was no novice, he later explained, but somebody who clearly knew what he was doing and whom he was aiming at.
Kekukh tried to determine, through binoculars, where the sniper was shooting from. It was at that second, through his left eye, that he saw a green flash. He closed his right eye a split second before this blinding flash.
He initially couldn’t see anything at all, and then his side vision returned, but the central vision remained, as he puts it, in a blur. After being transferred to Pimonova’s Clinic, proper tests were carried out which showed that he had burns to the retina of the left eye resulting in haemorrhaging and edemas.
Even where, in these cases, eyesight has been restored, morphological changes to the retina remain and will need to be under observation as it is simply not known what could develop.
The circumstances of the latest instance, on 1 October 2018, were broadly similar with a Border Guard serviceman using an optical device at the same Mariyinka checkpoint in order to detect any aggressive actions in time.
He was reported the following day to have lost 80% of the sight in his right eye, though whether this can be rectified remains to be seen.
The militants themselves are not denying their use of ‘laser equipment’. On 5 October, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission reported seeing a blue light flashing every few seconds and being told by somebody in Luhansk city that the (Russian-backed) armed formations used laser equipment.
Evidence for the Hague
Ukraine’s suit against Russia over alleged violation of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination with respect to occupied Crimea) is currently under consideration at the UN’s International Court of Justice at the Hague. During preliminary hearings on 7 March, 2017, one of the Russian representatives claimed that the main source for the vast amounts of weapons and ammunition used by the Russian-backed militants were “stockpiles inherited by Ukraine in 1991 from the Soviet Army” kept in Donbas mines, as well as “the retreating Ukrainian army”.
There were no such laser devices in Ukrainian mines, nor have they ever been used by retreating Ukrainian soldiers.
Russia has consistently tried to deny its military engagement in Donbas, and has attempted to make use of military formations funded by people with close, though unofficial, links to Russian President Vladimir Putin, like Yevgeny Prigozhin. In fact, the UN Resolution No. 3314 from 14 December 1974 calls the “sending by or on behalf of a State of armed bands, groups, irregulars or mercenaries, which carry out acts of armed force against another State” an act of aggression.
State-sponsored provision or use of laser weapons or devices of such destructive power should surely be considered a war crime. There are, however, problems with the formulation of the ban on such weapons.
International prohibition and its circumvention
The use of blinding laser weapons, where the sole or one of several combat functions is to cause permanent blindness, is prohibited under the 1995 Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons. It is clear that there was considerable resistance from some parties to any regulation, and the protocol as it stands was seemingly something of a compromise. From the point of view of the situation in Donbas, the compromise has rendered the prohibition meaningless.
Article 3 of the protocol states that blinding as an incidental or collateral effort of the legitimate military employment of laser systems, including laser systems used against optical equipment, is not covered by the prohibition.
Some optical devices can undoubtedly be used for hostile purposes, as the Russian manufacturers of the so-called ‘anti-sniper device’ clearly understand. The very name seems to legitimize the device and in their advertisements, it is claimed that their equipment allegedly saved the life of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
If, as suspected, this device is what has caused the eye burns to at least five Ukrainian servicemen, then its real purpose in Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine was quite different. In each of the recorded cases, the men were using binoculars or other optical devices not to locate targets for their own hostile fire, but to avoid becoming the target of Russian-controlled militants’ sophisticated sniper fire.