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‘Double-tap’ attack. Understanding one of Russia’s cruelest tactics in Ukraine

by Dinara Khalilova April 16, 2024 11:03 PM 9 min read
A rescuer stands near damaged fire truck being towed after a Russian drone attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine on April 4, 2024. (Oleksandr Stavytskyy/Suspilne Ukraine/JSC "UA:PBC"/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)
by Dinara Khalilova April 16, 2024 11:03 PM 9 min read
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Hitting a building, waiting for first responders and the media to arrive, and hitting the same place again to target those who came to put out the fire, help the victims, or document a potential war crime is a well-honed tool of Russia in its wars.

This ruthless and illegal military tactic is called a "double-tap" attack.

Having used Syria as a "testing ground" since 2015, Russia started terrorizing Ukraine with "double-tap" attacks following the full-scale invasion. Those attacks have grown more frequent in recent weeks.

Russian "double-tap" attacks against Ukraine have killed and injured dozens of rescuers, police officers, medics, and journalists who should be protected by international law.

The escalation in "double-tap" attacks may be linked to Russia's attempt to affect the morale of Ukrainians, exhausted from over two years of full-scale war, as well as inflict greater damage to the country's critical infrastructure, experts suggest.

‘Maximum damage and loss of life’

"I heard this terrible whistle. My colleague shouted for me to lie down. And then it hit," said Kira Oves, a journalist from the Ukrainian TV channel 1+1, describing her experience of witnessing a Russian "double-tap" missile attack on Zaporizhzhia on April 5.

Her team went to the site of the initial strike in one of Zaporizhzhia's largest residential neighborhoods to report on the damage inflicted on civilian infrastructure. Just when they were preparing to interview residents clearing their homes from shattered glass, two more Russian missiles struck the same location, about two hours after the initial barrage.

A column of smoke rises into the sky after a second Russian missile attack in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine on April 5, 2024. The Russian army attacked the city twice with missiles. One of the strikes occurred while police, rescue workers and journalists were working at the scene. A total of five missiles were launched at Zaporizhzhia. (Vladyslav Kiyashchuk/Suspilne Ukraine/JSC "UA:PBC"/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Oves sustained a minor head injury, while another Ukrainian journalist, Olha Zvonarova, was seriously wounded. A total of four people were killed and 31 were injured, including a police officer, according to the regional governor. Over 40 buildings, including civilian and industrial infrastructure, were reportedly damaged, the governor said.

"Firing multiple munitions at a target is not unusual in and of itself since it increases the likelihood the target will be destroyed. But if there's a lag between the first strike and the follow-on strikes, the goal may be to kill people that arrive at the scene after the first strike," John Hardie, deputy director of the Russia Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Kyiv Independent.

According to Kelly Grieco, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center whose expertise includes international security and air operations, if Russia's goal was to ensure it had destroyed a target, the strikes would likely occur with a shorter gap.

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"But the regularity with which these strikes seem to come thirty minutes apart suggests the purpose is to cause maximum damage and loss of life, including to rescue workers," she told the Kyiv Independent.

Just a day before the Zaporizhzhia strike, Russian forces conducted a "double-tap" drone attack against Kharkiv, resulting in four fatalities, including three first responders, and injuring 12, including an emergency service worker, a policeman, and a nurse.

First responders injured as they conduct search and rescue operations after the Russian attacks in different locations around the country, killing and injuring civilians, destroying buildings and cars and causing fires in Odesa, Ukraine on March 15, 2024. According to Ukraine State Emergency Service, 20 people were injured, of which five were employees of the State Emergency Service. (State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Anadolu via Getty Images)
A burnt protective glove is seen among the wreckage of a building while Ukrainian firefighters extinguish the fire at the site after the Russian attacks targeting in different locations around the country, killing and injuring civilians, destroying buildings and cars and causing fires in Odesa, Ukraine on March 15, 2024. (State Emergency Service of Ukraine / Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)

“A drone struck between two emergency service vehicles. Firefighters were lying nearby with serious injuries and screaming for help," Heorhii Ivanchenko, a Ukrainian photojournalist who witnessed the attack, told the Kyiv Independent.

"My colleague and I tried to understand where they were aiming — there had to be some justification for this attack... but like most attacks on Ukraine, it was just terror.”

Russian "double-tap" attacks against Odesa on March 15 and April 10 claimed the lives of over 20 people, including a 10-year-old girl, and left more than 80 wounded. Among the victims were eight first responders, an unspecified number of police officers, and a paramedic.

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As of April 16, a total of 91 employees of Ukraine's State Emergency Service have been killed, and another 351 have been wounded since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion, the service's spokesperson, Oleksandr Khorunzhyi, told the Kyiv Independent.

He said that some of these casualties had resulted from Russia's "double-tap" attacks, but the exact number was not yet established.

History of ‘double-tap’ attacks

Ukraine is not the first country suffering from Russian "double-tap" strikes — Moscow employed this tactic extensively in Syria alongside Bashar al-Assad's government forces. According to Syria's Justice and Accountability Center, 58 "double-tap" airstrikes were carried out in Syria between 2013 and 2021, primarily targeting humanitarian workers.

The White Helmets volunteer organization, which rescued civilians from the rubble of destroyed buildings, lost over 300 volunteers during the war in Syria, with most falling victim to "double-tap" attacks, the group said in July 2023.

The rubble of damaged buildings are seen after the Russian airstrikes targeted residential areas in El Zebdiye neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on Feb. 13, 2016. (Ahmed Muhammed Ali/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Civil defense team members try to rescue people from the wreckage of a building after the Russian military carried out airstrikes on the al-Salihiya district in Aleppo on March 11, 2016. (Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The Reckoning Project, which has been gathering testimonies of war crimes in Ukraine since 2022, has drawn a lot of parallels between what happened in Russia's wars in the two countries. One of the project’s co-founders is Janine di Giovanni, a human rights reporter and investigator with over 30 years of experience working in war zones, including Syria.

"We should always look back to what Putin did in Aleppo. Because the tactics he used there were a playbook that he set in motion and continues to use in Ukraine now,” di Giovanni told the Kyiv Independent.

"Sometimes we even look as far back as Chechnya because (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has a pattern of attacking civilians indiscriminately… It's part of a larger strategy of punishment and control."

A “double-tap” attack amounts to a war crime if proven that the attack was deliberately targeting civilians, including first responders, humanitarian workers, and journalists, which is prohibited by the Geneva Convention, according to di Giovanni.

Civilians come back to the main Grozny market after its destruction by a Russian missile, Chechnya in 1999. (Antoine GYORI/Sygma via Getty Images)

U.S. forces in Pakistan, the Israeli military fighting in Gaza, and the Saudi-led coalition that launched an intervention in Yemen in 2015 have also been accused of carrying out "double-tap" attacks.

Why now?

Russia's intensified "double-tap" attacks coincide with an increasingly grim situation for Ukrainian forces on the battlefield, who are struggling to maintain their positions amid delays in Western military aid.

"It's two years into a war. Ukrainians are exhausted. They're demoralized. They're extremely worried about whether they're going to get more ammunition from the West. And Putin taps into this," said di Giovanni.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian cities endure Russian large-scale attacks against their energy systems, which in March alone damaged or destroyed 80% of the thermal generating capacity of the country's largest private energy company, DTEK.

"In the case of ‘double-taps’ against energy facilities, the Russians may be trying to degrade Ukraine's ability to repair its infrastructure," according to Hardie.

Smoke rises above Kharkiv's Slobidskyi district following a Russian missile strike on the city's energy facilities in Kharkiv, Ukraine on March 22, 2024. (Suspilne Ukraine/JSC "UA:PBC"/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces launched a series of successful drone strikes against Russian oil refineries and industrial facilities. Some experts suggest Moscow's increased attacks may serve as a "punishment" for the strikes inside Russia, something that Putin openly claimed on April 11.

"The Russians vowed to retaliate, and these ‘double-tap’ attacks seem to be part of the retaliation, in a bid to dissuade Ukrainians from conducting more such attacks against its energy infrastructure," Grieco said.

Efforts to protect

The surge in "double-tap" attacks has forced Ukraine’s emergency service to reassess its safety protocols to minimize casualties among its personnel.

According to Khorunzhyi, the State Emergency Service has already begun implementing new instructions, which include providing rescuers with more advanced body armor, improving the system of security alerts, and increasing the automation of rescue processes.

However, rescuers can't afford to arrive at the scene of an attack only when the danger has passed "since the essence of the emergency services is lost in this case," Khorunzhyi said.

"When help is needed, if a person is bleeding under the rubble or needs to be rescued from a fire, no rescuer would wait for hours until the air raid alert is over."

Despite the ongoing threat posed by Russia’s “double-tap” attacks in Ukraine, journalists are also determined to continue their work in the field.

A Ukrainian State Emergency Service firefighter seen during a short pause during the inspection of a destroyed house after a Russian missile attack in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine on March 23, 2024. (Andriy Andriyenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“Of course, everyone tells us to be more careful. We also go to (the front-line towns) of Orikhiv and Huliaipole… so you can never predict when you might come under fire,” said Oves.

“But when it's essential to convey information — especially in the aftermath of attacks resulting in injuries and fatalities — how can we stay silent?”

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