At least six Ukrainian servicemen deployed to the Donbas war zone have suffered serious eye damage from unidentified optical radiation devices used by Kremlin-backed militants on several occasions since 2016.
The military believes that the soldiers were likely targeted with blinding laser devices, which Russia brought to Donbas in order to test this new advanced technology in battlefield conditions. If independently confirmed, the usage of such weapons can be qualified as a war crime, according to international law.
Since the war’s outbreak in 2014, there have been at least three such incidents recorded by the State Border Service and the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.
On July 18, 2016, three Ukrainian border guards deployed to a forward checkpoint between the city of Maryinka just west of Russian-occupied Donetsk suffered severe eye injuries as they surveyed enemy territory in front of them through binoculars and monoculars.
According to the Border Service’s spokesperson, Oleh Slobodyan, the details of the incident leave little doubt that the Russian-backed militants used laser weaponry.
“Above all, the servicemen who were watching the location through monoculars had only one of their eyes injured, while the one using binoculars had both eyes burned,” Slobodyan commented shortly after the incident on Aug. 16, 2016.
“All of them saw a specific flash of light which could also indicate the use of laser weapons. Furthermore, the medics that analyzed the traumas say that such injuries are caused by lasers.”
Slobodyan added that the blinding ray likely emanated from the direction of Russian-backed forces approximately one kilometer away.
For the most part, such devices emit intense direct light radiation to disable electronic light sensors or human eyes with flash blindness. The lasers can inflict temporary blindness or simply disorient a human target, thus preventing it from delivering effective fire or navigating terrain.
Nevertheless, international law imposes strict restrictions on such weapons: any devices with an emissive power of over 2.5 milliwatts per square centimeter are considered exceedingly harmful to the human eye and can inflict a severe injury or even permanent blindness. Under the United Nations Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons issued in 1995, such devices are banned.
Commentary on article from LaserPointerSafety.com, an independent resource for users, regulators, pilots, media, law enforcement and others concerned with handheld portable lasers.
1) We have been unable to find a recent ruling or document from the International Court of Justice regarding the use of lasers as a war crime. This is from both a general Google search, and a specific search of the ICJ website. There are some mentions in documents from the 1990s.
2) It is possible for laser light which is safe to the naked eye, or a person wearing glasses, to cause injury if looked at through a monocular, binoculars, a telescope, the viewfinder of a DSLR camera, or similar magnifying optics. This is of course because the optics concentrate the laser light.
In some of the Ukraine cases, monoculars or binoculars were in use; this could have caused or intensified an injury.
3) The 1995 United Nations Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons prohibits using “laser weapons specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision, that is to the naked eye or to the eye with corrective eyesight devices.” However, it would be allowed, under the protocol, to use lasers which could cause injury to enhanced vision, i.e., using monoculars, binoculars, and other magnifying optics.
For example, if laser rangefinders were used for targeting purposes, the energy could be safe for unenhanced vision, but hazardous to persons using magnifying optics. Some of the 4000 Iranian soldiers claimed to be injured in the 1980-1988 Iran/Iraq war were possibly injured in this way.