Fresh off the decision to litter eastern Ukraine with toxic depleted uranium rounds, the Biden administration has just okayed another godawful idea we’re told is meant to benefit ordinary Ukrainians: the supply and use of cluster munitions in the country’s eastern regions.
There’s a reason why 123 countries — including 70 percent of Washington’s NATO allies and aspiring member state Sweden — have signed on to a convention banning cluster munitions, and why even US laws effectively ban the US government from providing or producing them: they are dreadful, mangling things that kill and maim children and other innocents for decades and decades after the fighting has ended.
Cluster munitions are one of those inventions so diabolical, it makes you have second thoughts about whether the development of human intelligence was really a good idea: a shell that splits midair into hundreds and even thousands of smaller explosives that fan out across an area as large as several football fields to explode upon landing — and whose high dud rate ensures that if they don’t kill or disfigure anyone when they’re first fired, they’ll do so years later when someone happens to be unlucky enough to stumble across them.
They’re still killing and wounding in Laos, where millions of unexploded cluster bombs are left over from the US war in Vietnam, and where 75 percent of the victims are kids. In Kosovo, where they were also used by NATO forces, victims were nearly five times more likely to be under fourteen years old. Forty percent of cluster munition casualties were likewise children in Syria, which accounted for 80 percent of the more than four-thousand casualties from the ordnance recorded from 2010–19.
And when they’re not exploding in the faces of innocent children, they’re killing US troops themselves, both in the countries they’ve been deployed to fight in and back home, around military firing ranges.
US officials and their allies well understand cluster munitions crosses major ethical lines, since at the start of the Ukraine war they quite rightly condemned Russian forces’ appalling use of the weapon. When a reporter asked former White House press secretary Jen Psaki about it and if there’s “a red line for how much violence will be tolerated against civilians in this manner,” Psaki replied that “it would potentially be a war crime.” US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said they have “no place on the battlefield.”
In the middle of the invasion, the British government called for ending their use, pointing partly to what Russia was doing in Ukraine. Ukrainian officials, too, said that Moscow had “ignored the rules of war” and was “applying forbidden means and methods” by relying on the shells.
Yet suddenly, figures have come out of the woodwork to explain why littering Ukrainian soil with more of these widely banned, child-mutilating weapons — in a war that is supposed to be to advance the cause of human rights and international “rules” — is no big deal.
“From a practical standpoint, the president did the right thing,” retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman recently told CNN. “It’s being deployed on their territory. They’re going to be careful with them.”
White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan echoed this claim, assuring reporters that “Ukraine has provided written assurances that it is going to use these in a very careful way” to minimize risks to civilians.
But Ukrainian forces have already shown a willingness to use cluster munitions in a way that puts civilians at risk.
Human Rights Watch, which has copiously documented and condemned Russian forces’ use of cluster munitions throughout this war, has compiled numerous instances of Ukrainian forces harming civilians in the country’s eastern regions, both during this war and prior to it, when Kiev was fighting a civil war against the separatist-controlled Donbas region. So has the New York Times, when it investigated a March attack on what was then the Russian-controlled village of Husarivka and concluded Ukrainian troops almost certainly fired a cluster rocket into a rural neighborhood.
Written assurances mean little, meanwhile, when the Ukrainian leadership has already repeatedly violated its pledges to the United States. We already knew Washington was, in private, not happy about the attacks Kiev has staged within Russian borders and on territory that Moscow considers its soil, including the Kerch bridge suicide bombing and, at least according to Western intelligence, the destruction of the Nord Stream pipeline.
But recent reporting from Newsweek’s William Arkin illustrates just how fraught the situation is, painting a Washington unable to rein in a more risk-inclined Ukrainian leadership, with one military official declaring that it was clear “Zelensky either didn’t have complete control over his own military or didn’t want to know of certain actions.”
“In my humble opinion, the CIA fails to understand the nature of the Ukrainian state and the reckless factions that exist there,” a Polish government official told Arkin.
In other words, there’s little reason to believe these weapons will be used here in a “responsible” way that doesn’t lead to civilian casualties, if that’s even possible with a weapon this indiscriminate. It seems more likely that the same thing will happen in Ukraine that’s happened everywhere else cluster munitions have been used, with civilians bearing the brunt of their carnage both during the war and for years after.
Fortunately, backlash to the idea is growing. “Squad” member representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has introduced a 2023 National Defense Authorization Act amendment that would block the transfer of cluster munitions to Ukraine, saying that for the United States to position itself as human rights leader, “we must not participate in human rights abuses” — an amendment that’s now gotten its first Republican cosponsor.
Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), the famously lone “no” vote against the Afghanistan War who’s currently running for the Senate, likewise warned that “we would risk losing our moral leadership” if the administration went ahead with the transfers, adding that cluster munitions “should never be used.” They were two of the nineteen House progressives who put out a joint statement opposing the decision, stressing that “there is no such thing as a safe cluster bomb.”
It remains to be seen whether these efforts will work. But between opposition from the congressional left, widespread criticism from human rights groups, and even US allies like the UK and Canada refusing to give public assent to the decision, the Biden administration here looks more isolated than it ever has since the start of the war, which carries the possibility of a course reversal.
Whatever happens, this situation is partly a direct consequence of the wrong-headed decision, made at the very beginning of the war and doubled down on in the months that followed, to jettison diplomacy and reject attempts to negotiate an end to the war — as all wars are ended, including those happening this very minute — and instead seek total military victory on the battlefield. In the process, the prolonged fighting has not just led to enormous if little-publicized Ukrainian casualties, but to US and other NATO allies’ weapons stocks being severely depleted. President Joe Biden specifically cited a shortage of ammunition to explain this latest decision.
There are some indications that an appetite for talks to end the war are growing on the US side. Until its end comes, it’s no favor to Ukrainians to add to the myriad woes they’re suffering from, particularly those in the country’s east where the war rages most fiercely, and particularly by imitating the deplorable actions of Vladimir Putin’s military. Pretending cluster munitions are safe is not a form of solidarity.