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Cluster Bombs

What is the potential impact of American weapons on Ukraine’s counteroffensive?

13 July 2023

The US Department of Defense officially announced on July 7, 2023, that the US would provide cluster bombs to Ukraine as part of a new military assistance package to support Kyiv in its counteroffensive against Russia. Cluster munitions are weapons that consist of a container that opens in mid-air to scatter up to 600 explosive submunitions or bomblets over a wide area. Most of these weapons are known for their lack of precision guidance, meaning they are not individually directed toward specific targets. Estimates suggest that these weapons' failure rate (dud rate) during conflicts ranges from 10% to 40%, posing a significant risk to civilians, especially because they can explode later upon contact or movement.

Implications of the Decision

US President Joe Biden sought to justify the decision, while Russia and human rights organizations strongly criticized it and some European countries expressed reservations about the move. The details can be elaborated as follows:

1. Difficult decision:

US President Joe Biden defended his "very difficult decision" to provide Ukraine with cluster bombs, despite their record of causing civilian casualties. His justification is based on the premise that "Ukraine is running out of ammunition” after 500 days of war. This may reveal the inability of the United States and allied NATO countries to supply Ukraine with sufficient ammunition to sustain its counter-offensive, which Washington recently acknowledged is facing difficulties.Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, on July 1, 2023, stated that the Ukrainian counteroffensive was slower than expected. Meanwhile, John Kirby, the spokesperson for the White House's National Security Council, sought to attribute the failure of the counteroffensive to long months of bad weather conditions that allowed Russian forces to prepare for defense.

2. “An act of desperation”:

The Russian Foreign Ministry, in a statement on July 8, described the US decision as a "desperate act" and “evidence of failure of the highly publicized Ukrainian counteroffensive.” The statement reiterated Russia's determination to achieve its military goals in Ukraine, and that the supply of cluster bombs to Ukraine would not affect the course of Russia’s “special military operation.” This implies that Moscow will use new or similar weapons in response to Ukraine's acquisition of cluster munitions.

3. Ukraine welcomes US decision

Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov welcomed the US decision to send cluster bombs to Kyiv, stating that it would help to liberate occupied Ukrainian territory. Reznikov pledged not to use these munitions in the officially recognized territory of Russia. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, on July 7, said that Ukraine has provided written assurances that it is going to use these in a very careful way that is aimed at minimizing any risk to civilians. Kyiv pledged to keep records of where the rounds were fired, prioritising those areas for demining, and to report back to its allies about their effectiveness. However, such assurances may not be significant for Moscow. Western countries have repeatedly stated that the weapons they send to Ukraine will be used only within Ukraine. However, in the attacks carried out against Russia’s Belgorod region in early June 2023, the Ukrainian army did use Western-made armored vehicles.

4. European opposition: 

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, on July 8, said that the UK is signatory to a convention which prohibits the production or use of cluster munitions and discourages their use. He was referring to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. On the same day, Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles stated that cluster bombs should not be sent to Ukraine, emphasizing that Spain has a strong commitment not to deliver certain weapons and bombs under any circumstances, despite its support for Ukraine. Germany, which is also signatory to the same prohibition treaty, stated that it would not provide such bombs to Ukraine, while also expressing understanding for the American stance.

5. Criticism from human rights groups

Human rights groups have criticized the US decision, with Amnesty International viewing cluster munitions as a serious threat to civilian lives, even long after the conflict ends. The US Cluster Munition Coalition, which is part of the global civil society campaign working to eliminate this type of weapon, emphasized that they will cause "greater suffering today and for decades to come," a view shared by the American organization Human Rights Watch. The spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, expressed his desire to not see these weapons used in the field.

Implications of US Latest Support to Ukraine

Washington's provision of cluster munitions to Ukraine reveals several implications that can be detailed as follows:

1. Recent support

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an interview in early July with ABC News, said that he saw what he called "dangerous signals" in US politics about reducing aid for Ukraine at a critical time in the conflict. While he emphasized that these signals came from particular US politicians, it suggests that a unified policy within the US administration has not yet been established.

Prior to the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Western media cited American and Western officials indicating that the operation would be the key determinant for any future aid to Ukraine. This suggests that if Ukraine fails to achieve military success against the Russian army and regain control over some of the territories it lost, Western countries may reconsider their support. This could potentially force Ukraine to seek a peaceful settlement with Russia, which may involve acknowledging the loss of territory to the Russians.

Perhaps what confirms this interpretation is that this type of bomb is effective when employed against ground forces hidden in trenches or fortified positions. Additionally, these bombs do not explode upon impact, but rather at a later time during attempts to collect them or when they are stepped on, resulting in the killing or maiming of the victim. This means that vast areas become extremely dangerous and their use is banned until they are carefully cleared of bombs. This means that Ukrainian forces will seek to use this type of bomb to try to penetrate Russian defensive lines. In case of failure, the bomblets scattered after cluster bombs are dropped will hinder any counter-Russian military advancement.

This might have been confirmed by Colin Kahl, the US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, who said that supplying Ukraine with cluster munitions will make "the Russians know that the Ukrainians will stay in the game" when it comes to war.

2. Overt violation by the US:

One of the tools of war used by the US against Russia is legal and human rights warfare. The US accuses Russia of committing war crimes including targeting civilians in the Ukrainian city of Bucha. Additionally, the International Criminal Court accused President Putin of committing the war crime of deporting Ukrainian children to Russia. Despite Moscow's denial of the allegations, Washington has sought to exert pressure on other countries to reduce their relations with Russia, but these efforts have not been successful.

On the other hand, Washington explicitly declared that it will supply Ukraine with cluster bombs whose use in populated areas violates the foundations of international humanitarian law and striking civilians with the weapons could amount to a war crime. More specifically, the use of these submunitions can lead to violation of the rule of distinction because they are inherently indiscriminate and can strike areas outside the intended military target. When these weapons are used in populated areas or in close proximity to them, they can endanger the life of civilians both during the attack and immediately after strikes when people resume their normal activities. This means that Washington will be complicit with Ukraine in potential war crimes, which undermines the moral grounds it uses to justify its support for Ukraine. Furthermore, any attempt to wage a legal war against Russia would be practically futile.

3. Russian options on the table

It should be noted that Moscow has not clarified how it will respond to this American escalation. However, one of the available options for Russia is to employ the same weapon against the attacking Ukrainian forces, which would neutralize any anticipated impact of the Ukrainian counter-attack. It is also important not to underestimate the Russian military's possession of capabilities more powerful than cluster bombs, to which they may resort to neutralize any military advantage Ukraine may achieve by employing this type of weapon. 

On the other hand, the Self-declared Donetsk People's Republic leader Denis Pushilin called for preemptive moves and countermeasures to be taken by "identifying the locations of these munitions as soon as they arrive in Ukrainian territory and destroying them. He was referring to the allegations about Russian forces destroying a depleted uranium ammunition depot. Britain had announced its intention to supply Ukraine with such munitions to be used against the Russian army in March 2023.

4. Covering up setbacks: 

The announcement to supply cluster bombs to Ukraine reflects a consensus among US decision makers that Ukraine’s counteroffensive is failing to make any significant progress against the Russian army. It also indicates that Western military assistance consisting of equipment such as tanks, armored personnel carriers and other vehicles have not made any difference in the course of the military operation. Continuing the Ukrainian attack in this manner will result in heavy military losses for Kyiv and failure to achieve acceptable battlefield victories that would justify the high human and material costs.

On the other hand, Ukraine sought to raise another issue, which is its accession to NATO, and called for the western military alliance to make clearly defined commitments at the NATO summit held in Lithuania on July 11, 2023. This demand is unrealistic given the current circumstances, and that Ukraine's membership, while it is at war with Russia, would mean the alliance's direct attack against Russia in support of Ukraine under the principle of collective defense, would lead to a nuclear war that would devastate the world. It is not clear whether any Western country is prepared to go for this option to defend Ukraine. US President Joe Biden emphasized this point on July 9, stating, in an interview with CNN that “I don’t think there is unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war.” Biden offered, as an alternative, continued military support for Ukraine. That is why supplying Ukraine with cluster bombs could be an attempt to cover up the setback of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, as well as to reaffirm the alliance's support for Ukraine, despite rejecting its membership.

In conclusion, it can be said that Washington continues its efforts to ensure the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive by supplying Ukraine with cluster bombs, especially after Kyiv suffered significant losses in its counterattack and failed to achieve any significant battlefield victories that would justify the high cost. On the other hand, Moscow will consider the available options to respond to this escalation, including targeting American weapon shipments to Ukraine or using similar cluster bombs.