Russian forces in Ukraine may have used thermobaric weapons and cluster bombs, according to reports from the Ukraine government and human rights groups.

If true, this represents an escalation in brutality that should alarm us all.

While cluster munitions are banned by international convention, thermobaric munitions – also known as fuel-air explosive devices, or “vacuum bombs” – are not explicitly prohibited for use against military targets.

These devastating devices, which create an oxygen-eating fireball followed by a deadly shockwave, are far more powerful than most other conventional weapons.

What are thermobaric weapons?

Thermobaric weapons are generally deployed as rockets or bombs, and they work by releasing fuel and explosive charges. Different fuels can be used, including toxic powdered metals and organic matter containing oxidant.

The explosive charge disperses a large cloud of fuel which then ignites in contact with the oxygen in the surrounding air. This creates a high-temperature fireball and a massive shockwave that literally sucks the air out of any living being in the vicinity.

Thermobaric bombs are devastating and effective in urban areas or open conditions, and can penetrate bunkers and other underground locations, starving the occupants of oxygen. There is very little that can protect humans and other life forms from their blast and incendiary effects.

A 1990 CIA report, cited by Human Rights Watch, noted the effects of a thermobaric explosion in a confined space: