On 27 June 2023, at 19:32 local time, the Russian Armed Forces attacked Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast, using Iskander surface-to-surface short-range ballistic missiles. At least one missile hit the Ria Lounge restaurant – resulting in its complete destruction, killing at least 11 people and injuring a further 61 (as of 12:33 local time, 28 June 2023). Many of those killed and injured were civilians – including at least four minors.
Based on publicly available information on this incident, IPHR considers that this attack constitutes a serious violation of the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law (IHL) – namely the failure to distinguish between combatants and civilians and the failure to avoid or minimise the harm done to civilians. Those responsible for ordering, carrying out, and facilitating this attack, along with their superiors, should be investigated and prosecuted for the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against civilians (Article 8(2)(b)(i), ICC Statute) and/or launching an attack with the knowledge that it will result in excessive civilian harm or damage to civilian objects compared to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated (Article 8(2)(b)(iv), ICC Statute).
According to the Security Service of Ukraine, shortly before the attack, an operative of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (the ‘GRU’) secretly filmed the Ria Lounge and its customers and forwarded the footage to Russian military intelligence. Minutes later, the restaurant was struck with an Iskander ballistic missile. Iskanders are hypersonic ballistic missiles that use inertial and optical guidance systems that give them a reported accuracy of 5-7 metres. They can carry warheads weighing between 480 and 700 kg. There is therefore no doubt that the Russian Armed Forces intended to attack and destroy the Ria Lounge.
Kramatorsk lies some 46 km from the current line of contact between Ukrainian and Russian armed forces. While an important garrison town for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, it is also a fully functioning civilian town with an estimated civilian population of 147,145 people. The Ria Lounge, meanwhile, is a popular restaurant – typically frequented by local civilians, off-duty soldiers, and foreign correspondents. Based on IPHR’s review of relevant social media posts, at the time of the attack, the restaurant was busy with a mix of customers – local civilians (including minors), off-duty soldiers, and foreigners. The latter group included a Colombian novelist, a journalist, and a politician. According to unconfirmed reports, some of those in the restaurant speaking foreign languages were wearing military-style clothing. Having received a contemporaneous video of the customers, the Russian Armed Forces were fully aware that there were a number of civilians at the restaurant at the time of the attack and chose to disregard this information.
All parties to a conflict must, at all times, distinguish between civilians and combatants – attacks may only be directed against combatants and other military objectives (Rule 1 of IHL Rules). Civilian objects may not be attacked, unless and for such time that they become military objectives (Rule 10 of IHL Rules). Military objectives are limited to those objects which, by their nature, location, purpose, or use, make an effective contribution to military action and whose partial or total destruction, capture, or neutralisation, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage (Rule 8 of IHL Rules). Using methods and means of combat that – in the circumstances – cannot distinguish between military objectives and civilians may be described as an indiscriminate attack contrary to Article 51(4)(a) of Additional Protocol I (see also Rules 11 and 12 of IHL Rules). Launching an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated, is prohibited (Rule 14 of IHL Rules).
In light of the above, IPHR observes that the Russian Armed Forces used a guided ballistic missile to attack and destroy a civilian object (the Ria Lounge), in the full knowledge of the presence of civilians (based on contemporaneous intelligence). The accuracy and payload of the Iskander missile leave no doubts as to the intention of the Russian Armed Forces to cause maximum damage and casualties at the Ria Lounge. Even were the presence of Ukrainian combatants and actual or perceived foreign military personnel to represent a military objective for the Russians, the decision to attack with a weapon that could not – in the circumstances – distinguish between military objectives and civilians, amounts to an indiscriminate attack. Those responsible for ordering, launching, and in any way facilitating such an indiscriminate attack (and their superiors) should be investigated and prosecuted for intentionally launching an attack against civilians (Article 8(2)(b)(i) ICC Statute). The Russian Armed Forces were fully aware that an Iskander missile attack on the Ria Lounge at the time would cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians, something which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage presented by the killing of a handful of combatants. As such, those who bear responsibility for this attack, including their superiors, should be investigated and prosecuted under Article 8(2)(b)(iv), ICC Statute.