Well into year three of Russia’s full-scale assault on Ukraine, the war has killed more than 11,100 civilians and injured at least 21,860. With regular bombardments across the country, Ukraine’s power grid and the Kharkiv region in the northeast have faced especially intense onslaughts in recent months, as Russia conducts waves of aerial attacks while reportedly building up its forces. Russia uses a range of deadly tactics that are illegal under international law, including intentionally dropping glide bombs on civilian areas and firing directly at civilian infrastructure; on May 25, for example, Russia killed 18 people in its deadliest attack in weeks when it launched bombs at a Kharkiv hypermarket.

But less than a week earlier, on May 19, came another kind of coldblooded Russian assault: troops fired two Iskandar missiles on a recreation center north of Kharkiv, but not simultaneously – the second strike arrived once rescue workers and others had arrived on the scene. At least seven people were killed and 28 wounded, with the injured including a paramedic and two police officers. A little more than a week later, on May 31, Russia once again targeted Kharkiv in this manner – known as a double-tap strike — hitting a multi-story residential building in a second strike shortly after the first. At least one person was killed and 23 were injured, with the injured including an emergency medical worker. Just this past weekend, the Russian military conducted another double-tap attack in Nikopol in the industrial Dnipropetrovsk region in southeastern Ukraine, when the Russian military struck the same site three times, including twice after their initial attack and once rescuers had arrived on the scene to provide emergency support.

What are Double-Tap Strikes?

Double-tap strikes are a cruel tactic of war in which an initial strike is followed shortly thereafter by a second strike, often aimed purposefully at first responders or civilians rushing to aid the victims of the first attack. The Russian military has employed double-tap strikes in the Ukrainian cities of Odesa, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Bakhmut, and Pokrovsk, and in other areas across Ukraine. Russian forces have long been known for such tactics in other conflicts, including in Syria, maximizing the civilian death toll and decimating already limited humanitarian and military assets, presumably in a desperate bid to break their perceived enemy’s spirit.

Double-tap strikes aimed at first responders or other civilians are a stark violation of international humanitarian law, as they violate the principle of distinction, a central tenant of international humanitarian law that prohibits directing attacks against noncombatants. They can also violate provisions ensuring the protection of medical personnel. These strikes add to evidence of Russia’s intent to kill civilians through targeted or indiscriminate attacks, including on medical and humanitarian workers and institutions.

While a perpetrator can claim fault or ignorance in initial strikes, double taps make it more difficult for an aggressor to explain away the intentional targeting of civilians, civilian objects, medical personnel, and others protected under international law. The devastating impact of these strikes merits increased international attention. Ukrainian efforts to document Russia’s war crimes have evolved as volunteers and professionals take risks to collect, record, and share evidence with global partners through contemporary and innovative methods and on an evolving battlefield.

However, there does not yet appear to be a publicly disclosed formal governmental or intergovernmental mechanism dedicated to comprehensively tracking and publishing cases of Russia’s double-tap strikes in Ukraine. The known body of public evidence of these crimes relies heavily on reports by civil society investigators, humanitarian watchdogs, and Ukrainian and international media. Such sources are often cited by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other institutions that do bring some attention to these strikes. It also is possible – perhaps even likely — that the International Criminal Court and Ukraine’s Office of the General Prosecutor are confidentially tracking double-tap strikes as a component of their investigations.

Double-Tap Strikes in Syria

Russia’s use of double-tap strikes predates its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. During its involvement in the conflict in Syria, which began in 2015 following a request from President Bashar al-Assad to President Vladimir Putin, the Russian military first honed its use of these strikes to devastating results, contributing to the now-infamous destruction of Aleppo, as well as entire villages and other areas. Among the many targets, Russian forces executed double-tap strikes on markets, hospitals and clinics, a farm, and residential areas.

As Nessma Bashi, a human rights lawyer and former legal officer at the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), told The New Arab website, double-tap strikes “instill fear in civilians who are trapped with nowhere to hide” and “cause large-scale damage to identifiable civilian areas and terrorize civilians.” Thus, she noted, they demonstrate a likely intent to inflict maximum harm on civilians and terrorize populations – in particular protected populations – and potentially suggest broader intent to wipe out a civilian area.

A 2022 report published by SJAC notes Russian forces engaged in double-tap strikes against the Syrian Civil Defense (“White Helmets”) — known for their volunteer emergency medical care — in a Damascus suburb in March 2018, although the group was not the Kremlin’s only target. The report identifies 58 double-tap attacks between 2013 and 2021 carried out independently and jointly by Syrian and Russian forces that hit residential areas outside of territory held by the Syrian government.

To date, there has been no accountability for Russia clear and well-documented violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) in the conflict in Syria. But a recent complaint filed with the U.N. Human Rights Committee in Geneva, which monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), alleges the Russian government conducted deliberate air assaults on a hospital in Idlib province in May 2019. The strikes killed the cousins of a Syrian man who is among the complainants, along with a humanitarian organization that supported the hospital and is representing individuals who were patients at the time. The complaint includes “a wealth” of evidence that illustrates the strike was “part of a systematic assault on hospitals and health care facilities in opposition-held territory in Syria in 2019,” the director of the aid agency, Hand in Hand, said in a statement announcing the complaint. An independent expert report from Physicians for Human Rights filed in support of the complaint includes reference to the double-tap strategy used by Russian forces.

Researchers have tracked the pattern from Syria to Russia. One month after Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Mona Yacoubian of the United States Institute of Peace published a piece drawing attention to the “already, chilling parallels” between Moscow’s actions in Syria and in Ukraine, and suggesting that “Russia’s Syrian playbook may provide additional insights into… how Russia now envisions its eventual Ukrainian endgame.” Human rights investigator and reporter Janine Giovanni, one of the co-founders of The Reckoning Project, which gathers oral evidence of war crimes in Ukraine, explained that “we should always look back to what Putin did in Aleppo” as “the tactics he used there were a playbook that he set in motion and continues to use in Ukraine now.”

Double-Tap Strikes in Ukraine

As in Syria, the double-tap strikes the Russian military has employed in Ukraine provide damning evidence of intentional civilian destruction that appears intended to advance the Kremlin’s wider and oft-expressed revisionist goals in Ukraine – eliminating it as a distinct country, people, and culture, and replacing it with a forcibly expanded Russia and a Russian population.

Several weeks before Russia’s May 19 attack north of Kharkiv, another Russian double-tap strike  was recorded in Kharkiv on the night of April 3 in conjunction with a large drone attack. Rescue workers and journalists rushed to the initial scene only to find themselves bombarded in a second wave of attacks, as Russian forces again directed missiles to the same location. The double-tap strikes on Kharkiv were closely followed by double-tap attacks in Zaporizhzhia. After those assaults, Russian forces hit rescue workers reporting to the site of a shelling on the outskirts of Kherson in Ukraine’s south.

But double taps in Ukraine did not begin in Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, or Dnipropetrovsk. In February 2023, an American volunteer paramedic was among the victims of a reported double-tap attack in Bakhmut when he reported to the site of the first strike to provide emergency medical care. In August of that year, a Russian double tap on Pokrovsk in the southern oblast of Donetsk claimed the lives of at least nine people when two Russian Iskander missiles hit the same location within 40 minutes of each other. Just this March, the Russian military employed double-tap tactics in Odesa, ultimately killing more than 20 people, including first responders and paramedics, and injuring at least 70. In the same month, Russian forces struck a group of rescue workers working to extinguish a fire from an attack in Donetsk Oblast, killing two. Responding to this double-tap strike, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy condemned the violence as “a conscious decision of terrorists to cause the most pain and the most damage.”

International Reaction

Remarking in April on Russia’s use of double-tap strikes in Ukraine, the charge d’affaires at the U.S. mission to the OSCE, Timothy Hanway, highlighted “credible reports of the Russian military’s use of secondary strikes in Ukraine against civilians – including paramedics and first responders – who gather to assist victims of a first, initial strike.” He noted, “The Russian government is following its own example in Syria,” underscoring that Russia’s use of this highly illegal tactic of war in Ukraine was not a surprise. The Canadian ambassador to the OSCE had flagged the same pattern a week earlier, as did the European Union’s representation to the OSCE the following month.

In the wake of Russia’s recent strikes in Kharkiv, Denise Brown, the coordinator for Ukraine in the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), publicly condemned these double-tap strikes, noting that “civilians, aid workers, and first responders helping war-affected civilians must be protected by international humanitarian law.” In an April 2022 report to the OSCE, experts pointed to double-tap strikes as a component of what they concluded were “clear patterns” of international humanitarian law violations by Russia in Ukraine. The U.S. Representative to the OSCE Hanway said in his April remarks that since the 2022 report’s publication, documentation suggests that “Russia’s apparent use of this type of attack is increasing,” and he cited OCHA figures that more than 90 humanitarian aid providers, including paramedics, nurses, and firefighters, as well as almost 350 civilians, have been killed by Russian double-tap attacks in Ukraine.

In the past several months — and especially in reaction to Russia’s campaign of violence in Kharkiv region — these double-tap strikes have been brought increasingly to the forefront of discourse related to Russia’s war. The region’s governor, Oleh Synehubov, told Ukrainian media that Russia is beginning to employ double-tap strikes “day and night.” In the United States, the chairman of the congressional U.S. Helsinki Commission, Representative Joe Wilson, drew comparisons to Russia’s violence in Syria and the destruction of Aleppo, saying “war criminal Putin is also known for the double-tap strike, which gruesomely target emergency personnel, medical personnel, police and fire volunteers, as they search for survivors following the first round of attacks.” Strong condemnations have also come from Norway, the U.K., and the U.N., among other countries and institutions.

How the U.S. and Allies Can Respond

While increased international condemnation of Russia’s double-tap strikes is important to reaffirm that violations of IHL must not be ignored, action is needed. To prevent further Russian attacks from striking their targets, Ukraine needs the right equipment – and quickly. As there are no specific military tactics to address or prevent a double-tap strike — the most effective response is the same as with all aerial attacks – Ukraine must strike the Russian assets that are launching them. Targeting the means of war, with increased military support from western partners (both materiel and proper guidance for how such weapons can be used), would allow the Ukrainian military to better deter and counter Russia’s overall aggression and its IHL violations, including double-tap strikes.

While military needs are critical, justice efforts also will be essential to hold Russian forces accountable for their crimes. To address the tactic of double-taps, the international community should prioritize investigating double-tap strikes and seeking accountability for these attacks within existing investigative and accountability bodies in Ukraine and through multinational institutions. During Russia’s involvement in Syria, the Syrian Civil Defense and other actors on the ground documented the use of these strikes, ultimately building a body of evidence available to national and international investigative authorities, as well as NGOs such as SJAC, that can shed light on these attacks and support accountability efforts.

Likewise in Ukraine, such a mechanism could incorporate evidence gathered by first responders themselves; according to the spokesperson for Ukraine’s State Emergency Service, Oleksandr Khorunzhyi, the Service is already beginning to supply first responders with more advanced body armor that could include body cameras if not already supplied. The international community should fund and supply these critical tools as well as helping coordinate on evidence collection.

While Representative Wilson and the U.S. representation to the OSCE have expressed concern, further condemnation of these strikes, particularly from the executive branch or congressional leadership, could bring needed attention to them and to the need for systematized documentation and accountability, as well as Western support to do so. Including discussion of these strikes in congressional statements and even legislation related to Putin’s culpability would magnify their impact by drawing on the clear parallels between Russia’s and the Assad regime’s violence in Syria and the destruction the Russian military is carrying out in Ukraine.

Another action should be to more often reinforce to nations around the world that appear more agnostic or skeptical on the Russia-Ukraine War that the impact of the Kremlin’s violence is not limited to within Europe and continues to greatly impact the global south. In addition to hampering critical food supply lines by obstructing Ukraine’s food exports to the rest of the world, including by previously blocking Ukrainian and international use of the Black Sea, Russia’s aggression continues to complicate energy markets and global trade of critical resources and goods. Food security issues exacerbated by the Kremlin’s actions, especially in Africa, have been used by the Kremlin to dangerously deepen engagement with African countries, as Russia expands its influence by various means, including disinformation and the operations of the Africa Corps, which subsumed the Wagner Group’s activities. Constant reminders of the negative impacts and risks the of Kremlin’s actions could both help reinvigorate work to deliver justice and accountability for victims of Russian violence in Syria and counter Russia’s attempts to paint itself as a benevolent, anti-imperial force of good in the world.

Building on the knowledge that Syria was a “testing ground” for Russia, accountability mechanisms for Russia’s double-tap strikes in Ukraine should include evidence from Syria, while also seeking to try such crimes committed in Syria in a forum with jurisdiction. Establishing the pattern of double-tap strikes in Syria can support arguments that these strikes in Ukraine were intentionally targeting first responders and civilians, and can highlight a clear pattern across the two contexts to strengthen cases against senior leaders by establishing that the strikes carried out by subordinates were either directed by superiors or that leadership failed to prevent or investigate them. If there ultimately is only jurisdiction for actions in Ukraine, double-tap strikes in Syria should at least be acknowledged to establish this pattern of Russian behavior.

As stated in point 7 of Ukraine’s 10-point peace formula proposed by President Zelenskyy to the G7 in October 2022 to end the war, “accountability shall be ensured for the most serious crimes under international law.” That must include Russia’s use of double-tap strikes.

Russia’s impunity and continued use of this tactic in Ukraine is a devastating component of the Kremlin’s efforts and intent to eliminate Ukraine as a nation and a people. In and beyond Ukraine, ensuring accountability for double-tap strikes will be a critical step to discourage future use of these devastating attacks. Perpetrators cannot be allowed to act with impunity.

IMAGE: A firefighter finishes extinguishing the fire at the site of a Russian missile strike on the city’s private residential buildings area on May 10, 2024 in Kharkiv, Ukraine. In the early morning, the Russian army launched a missile attack on Kharkiv, hitting an area of private residential buildings and leaving two persons injured, including one child. Three private residential buildings were destroyed by a strike and fire, another 12 were damaged by a missile’s fragments. Rescuers stopped extinguishing the fire three times due to the threat of the double tap-strikes, and the air-raid siren lasted more than six hours in the city and oblast. (Photo by Eugene Hertnier/Suspilne Ukraine/JSC “UA:PBC”/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)