At 10 am local time on July 14, a Russian Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarine submerged beneath the Black Sea released four or five weapons from its torpedo tubes. Clouds of smoke roiled the water above the submarine as the missiles breached the surface and surged vertically into the sky. You can see what this looked like in the video below.
Using inertial navigation systems, the high-tech weapon banked onto a trajectory over northeastern Ukraine, turbojet engines propelling them at about the speed of an airliner.
The missile’s approach was picked up by Ukrainian air defense radars, causing air-raid alarms to howl across central Ukraine at 10:10 AM. However, Ukrainian surface-to-air missile batteries fired missiles in response, blasting two of the incoming weapons out of the sky. (An alternate account claims seven missiles were launched, with four shot down.)
Though most media reports claim the attack involved Russia’s widely-employed Kalibr naval cruise missile (presumably its 3M14K submarine-launch landed-attack model), markings on the shattered remains of the downed missiles seemingly reveal they were shorter-range 3M-51 Alfa anti-ship missiles repurposed to strike ground targets.
#Ukraine: Something fascinating from #Kyiv; tho used against a land target, it seems that Ru used an 3M-51 “Alfa” anti-ship missile, which has secondary land-attack capabilities. Likely what we see is the the subsonic carrier stage of the 3-stage 3M-51.
— ?? Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) March 21, 2022
The two surviving missiles descended upon Vinnitsya, a Ukrainian city of around 370,000 located well over 200 miles northwest of the Black Sea, or the closest stretch of the frontline in Kherson Oblast. A Polish-Lithuanian city for most of its history, Vinnitsya was the site of large-scale massacres, first by the Soviets and then Nazis during World War II. Today it hosts a Ukrainian Air Force command center.
In March, Vinnitsya had been struck three times by missiles targeting its international airport, its 354-meter high television broadcasting tower, and the Ukrainian Air Force command center, killing 10 between them and injuring six more. But there had been no further attacks after Russia withdrew forces from the region west of Kyiv.
But this attack out of the blue was seemingly not targeted at anything so practical as an airport or military headquarters. The missiles’ 661-pound warhead, designed to cripple a NATO destroyer in one hit, instead slaughtered unfortunate civilians going about their daily lives in the city center, many disregarding the too frequent air raid sirens which were triggered over broad areas daily.
The first Alfa slammed into a performance venue called the “House of Officers” on Prehemhoy Square in central Vinnitsya, gutting its interior, killing sound engineer Evgeny Kovalenko and injuring the rest of the advance team of Ukrainian singer/songwriter Roksolana Syrota, who was due for a charity concert that evening.
Civilians strolling in the square nearby were knocked off their feet by the impact, their pet dogs panicking as chunks of debris rained around them and a towering pall of dust and smoke abruptly shadowed the ground around them.
— Hanna Liubakova (@HannaLiubakova) July 14, 2022
Across the street, the second and possibly third missile smashed into the parking lot of a nine-story-tall mixed-use building and its attached arts complex, called the Jubilee center. The blasts destroyed at least 50 cars, shattered all the nearby windows, and ignited a blaze that gutted the ground floor of the complex, killing eight and injuring a similar number, many of them taxi drivers as well as a teenager attending driving lessons.
?Video from Vinnytsia shop in the area hit by a russian rocket. pic.twitter.com/Q9If5LIKzZ
— Ukraine 4 Freedom (@uawarinfo) July 14, 2022
The blast occurred just as Iryna Dmitrieva and her four-year-old daughter Lisa were leaving the new Neuromed clinic there following a speech therapy appointment to treat her Down syndrome. The blast severed one of the mother’s legs and killed Lisa, who was pushing a pink pram.
Lisa had earlier appeared in a Christmas special with Olena Zelensky, wife of the Ukrainian president. The family had moved from Kyiv to Vinnitsya to avoid Russian shelling targeting the Ukrainian capital.
Сьогодні з жахом ми побачили фото перекинутого дитячого візочка з Вінниці. А потім, читаючи новини, я усвідомила, що знаю цю дівчинку. Знала… Я не буду зараз писати всі слова, що дуже хотілося б, тим, хто її убив. Я напишу вам про Лізу 1/2 pic.twitter.com/RrkMRfYwRK
— Олена Зеленська (@ZelenskaUA) July 14, 2022
The Neuromed building itself was devastated, killing two doctors, and seriously injuring two more.
Two other boys, ages 7 and 8, near the hospital were killed—one fell into a firetrap while waiting by a parked car, the other killed with his mother during a doctor’s appointment.
The total death toll from the strike by Friday stands at 23. According to Ukrainian Pravda, at least twelve had to be identified using DNA analysis techniques, with more missing and likely dead. A further 82 persons were hospitalized, including four children.
What weapon did Russia use?
As Russia exhausts stocks of its most modern long-range land-attack weapons, it’s increasingly turning to missiles designed for other purposes and/or that were supposedly retired from use to blast Ukrainian cities with unsurprisingly poor accuracy. That includes even bigger Kh-22 air-launched carrier-killer cruise missiles, supposedly retired Tochka ballistic missiles, and ground-based S-300 surface-to-air missiles and Bastion anti-ship batteries.
The 3M-51 Alfa, or P-900, identifiable from the wreckage has a claimed range of 155-miles, too short to reach Vinnytsia from the Black Sea. Furthermore, the Russian submarine likely would have launched a significant distance from Ukraine’s coastline to avoid detection and risk of attack.
For its ship-busting mission, the 3M-51 is designed to use a rocket booster to accelerate to Mach 2.5 in its terminal approach to reduce the odds of being shot down by a warship’s formidable air defense weapons. It’s therefore possible that for a less demanding land-attack role, the 3.87-tron 3M-51 missile was modified for extended range by removing the rocket booster used for the “supersonic sprint.” This weight reduction, and potentially increased fuel capacity, could have enlarged the weapon’s reach.
What were the Russians thinking?
Kremlin arch-propagandist Margherita Simonyan characterized the strikes as targeting “Nazis” when pressed for comment. Later Russia’s defense ministry claimed the strike had supposedly targeted “a meeting of the command of the Ukrainian Air Force with representatives of foreign arms suppliers” at the House of Officers.
Given the questionable wisdom of expending a high-tech, not-that-precise missile on an officer’s club, some speculate its targeting was conceived as a sort of payback for recent Ukrainian strikes using Western precision missiles that killed a Russian general and three colonels.
Anti-ship missiles, in particular, rely on a radar-seeker to home in on large warships on the water. Though such seekers can also be programmed to look for the profile of a large building, they can be difficult to distinguish in the clutter of dense urban areas. This likely results in many radar-guided missiles simply latching onto the biggest building they can identify near the target.
Whether Russia’s military really was attempting a hit a gathering of Ukrainian officers or simply meant to sow terror in Ukrainians broadly—even those far from the zone of active combat—the likelihood of collateral damage was clearly high given the established poor precision of Russian missiles and the high density of surrounding civilian businesses and residences.
It’s worth noting that Ukraine has managed to execute strategic attacks on targets in Russia or Russian-occupied Ukraine that more consistently hit targets of military value.
Moscow’s unconscionable attacks on urban centers in Ukraine should also prompt reflection on past Western air campaigns, which in some incidents have resulted in as many or more civilian casualties, whether from bombing misidentified targets such as refugee columns and wedding ceremonies or as collateral damage to strikes on valid military targets, as often occurred while rooting out ISIS fighters in the Battle of Mosul. And that’s despite the vastly greater precision of Western air-to-surface weaponry. Moscow’s atrocities should reinvigorate Western efforts to reduce civilian deaths resulting from use of airpower, even if those are often less deliberate than Russia’s.
Ukraine is currently receiving at least two NASAMS surface-to-air batteries from the U.S., each of which could significantly enhance the local air defense of a Ukrainian city. However, cities like Vinnitsya are unlikely to receive an enhanced air defense umbrella soon. After all, who can predict which shopping mall, maternity ward, or concert venue far away from the frontline will be the subject of Russia’s next “strategic” strike?
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.