An increasingly frustrated Vladimir Putin could be on the verge of inflicting massive civilian casualties in Ukraine by unleashing indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire on built-up areas, Western allies fear.
Western officials believe it is now clear that the Russian president’s initial invasion plan has foundered due to a fundamental miscalculation of the willingness of the Ukrainian people to resist and the scale of international support they would receive.
Putin is expected to press ahead with his initial goals of encircling and seizing capital Kyiv and swallowing up the eastern Donbass region, home to a large Russian minority.
But it is believed that to do so, he is likely to use the next 24-48 hours to recast the nature of his thwarted offensive, with growing concern that he will use indiscriminate firepower to clear a path for his tank columns into Ukrainian cities.
Reports have indicated the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas of Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv, and there is evidence of the presence among the invading forces of TOS-1 rocket launchers capable of firing thermobaric weapons to create intense high-temperature blasts over large areas.
The availability of the TOS-1 to Russian forces gives rise to “considerable concern”, said one Western official, adding: “Certainly, if it is used in any built-up area, there is no way you can eradicate the risk of significant civilian casualties.”