The United States appears to be on the verge of supplying Ukraine with cluster munitions, a senior Biden administration official said. Kyiv is pushing the controversial and widely banned type of weapon but Washington has resisted because of its potential to cause indiscriminate harm to civilians.
Ukraine says the weapons will help its counteroffensive against Russian troops by allowing its forces to effectively target Russian entrenched positions and to overcome its lack of manpower and artillery.
After months of demurring, citing concerns about the use of weapons and saying they were unnecessary, US officials recently signaled a change. Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, told US lawmakers late last month the Pentagon determined that cluster munitions would be useful for Ukraine, “especially against entrenched Russian positions on the battlefield.”
The expected decision of the US is first reported by National Public Radio and was confirmed Wednesday night by an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose internal policy discussions.
Here’s what to know about weapons.
What are cluster munitions?
Cluster munitions, first used in World War II, are a class of weapons including rockets, bombs, missiles and artillery projectiles that break up in the air and scatter small munitions over a large area.
Why are they controversial?
Cluster munition bomblets are typically designed to explode or ignite on impact, but historically, their failure rate is the highest of all classes of weapons, with long-range and often devastating consequences for civilians. According to humanitarian groups, a fifth or more of the bombs can be long-lived, potentially detonating if disturbed or handled for years.
“There is simply no responsible way to use cluster munitions,” said Brian Castner, the weapons expert at Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Team.
Since World War II, an estimated 56,500 to 86,500 civilians have been killed by cluster munitions. They also killed and wounded many American service members. Civilians, including children in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Balkans and Laos, continue to suffer in incidents involving cluster munitions remnants.
What does the US plan to send?
Under the decision, the United States will send Ukraine 155-millimeter artillery shells loaded with explosive grenades called dual-purpose improved conventional munitions, or DPICMs. as well as falling troops.
The two main 155-millimeter DPICM shells in the US inventory are the M483, which holds 88 grenades, and the longer-range M864 which carries 72 grenades. Which version is considered for Kyiv is not clear.
Both shells use the same types of DPICM grenades, which often do not explode immediately due to environmental factors, such as landing on vegetation or on soft ground. Grenades are not capable of self-destruction, and often remain dangerous for decades afterward, capable of exploding if mishandled because of their particularly sensitive fuses, Mr. Castner added.
“If you hold that thing wrong,” he said, “it’s like striking a match.”
Aren’t these things forbidden?
Because cluster munitions spread over a large area and often explode long after they are deployed, they can indiscriminately harm civilians, which Mr. Castner said is a violation of international humanitarian law. and a potential war crime.
Because of those risks, more than 100 countries — not even the United States, Russia or Ukraine — signed a 2008 treaty known as the Convention on Cluster Munitions, pledging not to manufacture, use, transfer or stockpile these. Since the adoption of the convention, 99 percent of global stockpiles have been destroyed, according to the Cluster Munition Coalition.
Ukraine says it will deploy the weapons wisely, as it is fighting on its own soil, and many frontline areas are heavily affected by land mines.
Have cluster munitions been used in Ukraine?
The New York Times has documented Russia’s widespread use of cluster munitions in Ukraine since the start of the invasion in February 2022. Ukraine has also used them in efforts to retake Russian-occupied territories, according to human rights monitors, United Nations, and reports from The Times. The Cluster Munition Coalition said in its annual report last summer that cluster munitions killed at least 689 people in just the first six months of the conflict.
While it is difficult to know the exact number of weapons used in the conflict, hundreds have been documented and reported in Ukraine, mostly in populated areas, the group Human Rights Watch said in a There are 2023 reports. The attack with the highest known casualty was an April 2022 strike with a missile loaded with cluster munitions on a busy railway station in Kramatorsk, which killed dozens and wounded more than 100 others, according to group.
“The transfer of cluster munitions ignores the grave danger they pose to civilians and undermines global efforts to ban them,” said Mary Wareham, the group’s arms advocacy director, in a statement on Thursday.
How do other allies feel about these weapons going to Ukraine?
Most members of NATO, the Western military alliance that has been steadfast in its support for Ukraine, have signed the international ban. Ms. Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense, said that “concerns about mutual solidarity” are one of the reasons for preventing the United States from providing arms to Ukraine. The Convention on Cluster Munitions also limits the ability of signatory countries to cooperate militarily with countries that use them.
How will the provision of cluster munitions affect the war?
Before Ukraine’s long-anticipated counteroffensive, Russian troops had months to prepare defense lines against the coming attack, with miles of trenches, tank emplacements and mine. Ukraine and the Biden administration have argued that cluster munitions could help Ukrainian forces, which are outnumbered by the Russian military, overcome those defenses.
But this imprecise nature could also put Ukrainian offensive forces at risk of encountering unexploded ordnance from previous deployments, said Gabriela Rosa Hernández, a research associate at the Arms Control Association.
In February, Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for restoration, said that a quick supply of weapons from allies would be critical to Kyiv’s counteroffensive against Russia, and that it should be chosen by Ukraine to deploy weapons on its soil.
“This is our territory. I understand how complicated it is with all these conventions,” he said said in a town hall at the Munich Security Conference, but he emphasized their usefulness in resisting Russian aggression. “Our allies, the US, many other countries, they have millions of rounds of that kind. Again, we will wait, wait, wait, and suddenly one day, probably, we will receive these kinds of bullets.”
Eric Schmitt, John Ismay and Like Gupta contributed reporting.