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Russian Federation is widely expected to conduct its annual military parade on May 9th. The parade traditionally takes places on the Red Square with many "military units" marching over a prolonged period of time. There is little, if any, room around the parading military that is taken up by civilians.

While it would be an act of war for another country to bomb those military units, would it be a war "crime?" Are marching military units, most of which look like showmen rather than actual soldiers, considered military? Or are they civilians despite the uniforms?

Edit (May 11th, 2023):

It's almost funny how well this question has aged.

It's a year later, and there are now media reports that Russia's 2023 "Victory Day" parade has been significantly scaled down precisely because of the security concerns about possible drone attacks by Ukraine.

The question is as relevant now as it was back when I first asked it.

This question is particularly relevant to this war because so much of it revolves around cat-n-mouse hunting of opposing military's units by both sides. And, of course, thousands of troops on display, concentrated in one place, would make for an easy target.

So the question of whether such an attack would violate the laws of war is more relevant than ever.

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    I am not sure if this is a good fit for here as I think this would be a legal or military matter and not politics.
    – Joe W
    Apr 30, 2022 at 0:55
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    @JoeW military questions are probably within scope of the site. "politics".SE is a site to ask questions about governments and how they function rather than just political processes. In fact you can see from the tags "military" and "war-crime," applied to this question, that there is any number of questions about military that maybe on topic. Any question which asks about procedures involved in making of government decisions is on topic.
    – wrod
    Apr 30, 2022 at 3:02
  • A march in a War is kind of not very smart. Similar to a rally in a pandemics. Apr 30, 2022 at 6:58
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    would it be a war "crime?" translates to "Given the preceding circumstances, what is the law?. The two following questions may also be answered by "what is the law?"
    – Rick Smith
    Apr 30, 2022 at 12:17
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    @RogerVadim as I pointed out in the other comment, the reference (which actually sources the Geneva Conventions directly) states that descending paratroopers are not off limits. The people using parachutes are off limits when its clear that they are evacuating (e.g. pilots from a disabled aircraft). Furthermore, they don't need to be presenting a direct threat. Bombing military sleeping quarters is fair game.
    – wrod
    May 12, 2023 at 10:17

3 Answers 3

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Seems everybody is reading up on the law of war these days, just like everybody became a virologist last year ... well, here are my two cents.

  • Members of the armed forces of a conflict party, except for medics and chaplains, will be combatants even if they are not actively fighting at the moment.
  • Participation in a parade is not a sign of surrender, or a sign of unconsciousness or injury that prevents showing surrender.
  • It is illegal to (knowingly) shell a field hospital. It is legal to shell a barracks with sleeping troops. I'd say the parade is much like the latter -- just because they don't have air raid protections doesn't make them immune.

So if the Ukraine were to send a bunch of uniformed troops overland to Moscow, to shell the parade, that would have to be tested for the usual distinction, proportionality, and necessity requirements when it comes to probable civilian casualties. They don't have to avoid all civilian casualties, as long as enough combatants are targeted.

That being said, it would certainly be viewed as escalatory by Russia. That's not a legal term, it is a strategic/geopolitical one. Just as the US public finds it normal to have their aircraft carriers bomb foreign countries, and not normal to have foreign navies shoot at the carriers, Russia seems to find it normal to have their troops fight in Ukraine, and not normal if Ukraine would fight in Russia -- see the diplomatic tightrope about the Belgorod explosions.

Ukraine would have to ask if the military effort and political risk are worth it. I guess not.

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    @wrod, escalation comes in steps. Back in there Cold War days, there were doctrines which viewed evacuating the own urban centers as more escalatory than isolated nuclear attacks on the enemy Rand report. Russia is clearly signalling that some possible steps are more escalatory than others.
    – o.m.
    Apr 30, 2022 at 11:23
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    @wrod, there is a lot Russia could do to escalate further. They're not shelling NATO members, they haven't cut all trade, ...
    – o.m.
    Apr 30, 2022 at 14:33
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    @wrod, both NATO and Russia believe that they are in a geopolitical struggle against each other, even if it benefits both sides not to be at war.
    – o.m.
    Apr 30, 2022 at 14:44
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    @RogerVadim ihl-databases.icrc.org/fr/customary-ihl/v2/rule48
    – Stančikas
    May 12, 2023 at 7:16
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    @RogerVadim the "attack on parachutests", which you cited, clearly refers to those evacuating, by parachute, from "a disabled aircraft" ("disable aircraft" is a direct quote). Paratroopers are not it. To quote, "firing on airborne forces who are descending by parachute (i.e. paratroopers) is not prohibited."
    – wrod
    May 12, 2023 at 10:13
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+100

I have used a 2003 year article "Legitimate targets of attacks under international humanitarian law" by Marco Sassòli, professor of international law at the University of Quebec at Montreal, Canada. Following this article, a valid military target:

  • has to contribute effectively to the military action of the enemy
  • its destruction, capture, or neutralization has to offer a definite military advantage for the other side
  • only material, tangible thing can be a target.

The article further warns that these rules should not be interpreted excessively widely because otherwise about anything can become a military target.

From this looks like that a military parade where lots of modern weapons and thousands of combat-ready troops are marching should be a valid military target, as destroying all this army would bring a military advantage. Further, following the article, it can be no "half combatant" status, and these soldiers are still likely more combatants than civilians.

From the other side, the attack must still be done honestly and collateral damage to civilians must be proportional. For instance, during the 2018 year attack on Ahvaz military parade in Iran, the attackers killed 25 people, including 12 soldiers. While a prominent academic in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, who has frequently been described as an adviser to the Emirati government, have said that “A military attack against a military target is not a terrorist act”, the Ahvaz attack later has been condemned by UN. However the UN document does not state specifically if any attack on a parade is illegitimate by itself or something else has contributed to this, like fake military uniforms used by attackers or too large proportion of civilians killed. 1:1 is quite a common proportion for a war overall but specific strikes are expected to be more specific. NATO claims they have been as good as 1:10 in Yugoslavia bombings, 1:5 in Pakistan and Israeli 1:3 in 2008–09 Gaza War (opponents tend to question these numbers).

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  • "NATO claims they have been as good as 1:10 in Yugoslavia bombings, 1:5 in Pakistan and Israeli 1:3 in 2008–09 Gaza War." Here 1 is the number of cilivians or soldiers? I always thought that Israel killed many more Civilians than combatants in the Gaza Wars. May 15, 2023 at 10:38
  • 1 is the number of civilians. Less civilians should be killed than soldiers. These numbers are usually a topic of hot debates, with opponents claiming that more civilians have been killed. In recent war overall, with starving and the like included, this is most often close to 1:1.
    – Stančikas
    May 15, 2023 at 10:46
  • Since the goal set for the bounty was to get more details, this answer should get it because it gives a specific example of the principle that the question is asking about.
    – wrod
    May 19, 2023 at 4:44
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As we saw after a couple of drones exploded over the Kremlin (somewhat close to the empty stands from where the parade was going to be watched), Russia called it a terrorist attack.

Ukraine denied involvement in the alleged strike. [...]

The Kremlin Press Service has called the purported drone attack an “attempt on the President’s life,” said it was an “act of terrorism” and blamed Ukraine. [...]

In his response to the attack, Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin called for the use of weapons capable of “stopping and destroying the Kyiv terrorist regime.”

So it doesn't matter too much what international law says about any of this, as far as Russian response is concerned. A few nights later they launched 30-something 'Shaheds' (I forgot the Russian name for that) and a similar number of cruise+ballistic missiles at Kyiv, according to Ukraine. But overall these numbers don't seem unusual, e.g. compared to March, when Russia claimed it was responding to a ground incursion by Ukrainians killing civilians in the Bryansk region (one of the areas from where Ukraine says Shaheds are launched).

As far as Western reponse goes, many expressed skepticism about the Russian claims about the drone attack on the Kremlin, while the other kind of events, like [claims of] ground infiltrations receive little attention in the Western press. (Also, Russia even claimed the Kremlin drone explosions were “dictated” in Washington, a claim strongly denied by the US.)

Just in general terms, while the White House said (previous source) it "is certainly not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders", the UK MoD said (last year) that "It is completely legitimate for Ukraine to be targeting in Russia's depth in order to disrupt the logistics, that if they weren't disrupted would directly contribute to death and carnage on Ukrainian soil." So that's the political rather than the legal limit that Ukraine has to deal with.

As far as the [2023] Moscow parade goes, for various reasons, Russia has reduced the amount modern weaponry involved to practically nothing this year. Apparently the only tank displayed was a single (WW2 vintage) T-34. (This is in contrast with 2021, for example, when dozens of modern tanks were showcased.) The personnel involved in the 2023 parade was also reduced, and "the majority were auxiliary, paramilitary forces, and cadets from military training establishments [... while] the only personnel from deployable formations of regular forces were contingents of Railway Troops and military police.” (according to one Western source). So, legally perhaps still a valid target, but substantially more difficult politically than if e.g. columns of modern tanks were still involved.

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    FWTW, in the context of WW2, the British disrupted one of Goring's and one of Goebbels's speeches [on the same day--some Nazi anniversary] with Mosquito bombing runs (and AA response) that could be heard over the German radio. May 12, 2023 at 15:55

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