U.S.-Provided Cluster Bombs Threaten Further Escalation With Russia If Sent To Kyiv

On the July 7th, the U.S. confirmed that it would include cluster bombs in the latest $800 million munition package to be sent to the Ukrainian army. These bombs pose a significantly bigger threat to civilians than other explosives and, as a result, have been banned from use and production in more than 100 countries under the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. While neither the U.S. nor Ukraine have signed the treaty, many voices from both other countries and within the U.S. itself have opposed the bombs’ inclusion, pointing to the danger they pose to the lives of Ukrainian civilians and, as a result, to the moral high ground Ukraine and the West currently hold over Russia in the eyes of the world.

Cluster bombs have a frightful capability to render the terrain they explode in dangerous even after the conflict has ended, similar to that seen in chemical and biological weapons. However, while the use of chemical weapons has been recognized as taboo in international law, the same cannot be so easily said for cluster bombs.

Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General of the United Nations Farhan Haq has presented the organization’s stance on the issue as thoroughly disapproving. “The Secretary-General supports the Convention on Cluster Munitions […] and he wants countries to abide by the terms of that convention. And so, as a result, of course, he does not want there to be continued use of cluster munitions on the battlefield,” Haq said, responding to a question about cluster munitions in Ukraine following the daily briefing on the 7th.

Despite previous usage of similar munitions by the Russian army, Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, has called the U.S.’s decision to include the bombs an act of “weakness.” In a release on the ministry’s website, Zakharova wrote, “By supplying cluster munitions, Washington will become complicit in the mining of the territory and will fully share responsibility for the victims of the explosions, including Russian and Ukrainian children.”

While it is crucial that Ukrainians be supplied with resources that allow them to maintain their defence, that is not a good enough justification for the provision of cluster bombs or other similar kinds of weaponry. As unexploded bomblets threaten not only the Russian soldiers they are to be aimed at, but also civilians who will later stumble upon the munitions, there is no ethical way for the Ukrainian forces to make use of cluster munitions.

As of July 2023, the Russian soldiers have, among other things, been reported to have: exposed the civilian population to disproportionate harm by the use of cluster as well as vacuum bombs, purposefully targeted civilian targets, such as hospitals, schools and kindergarten, tortured, killed and sexually assaulted civilians (especially in the town of Bucha and the surrounding areas) and, very recently, flooded multiple towns following the destruction of the Kakhovka dam, thus forcing the evacuation of thousands of civilians. These war atrocities committed by the Russian forces in no way, shape, or form grant Ukrainians the right to respond in kind, especially because the Ukrainian government, along with N.A.T.O. and other global forces, have condemned the ‘ends justify the means’ approach. Ukraine cannot both distance itself from those among the Russian-based pro-Ukrainian partisan movements that have targeted civilians in Russia-controlled regions and use cluster bombs itself.

The provision of cluster munitions is both a moral and a political failure. It undermines the humane defender position that Ukraine currently holds in the eyes of the world, as well as threatening a further escalation of weaponry in this already brutal conflict. Even if that were not the case, the sheer danger cluster bombs present to civilians should be a more than sufficient argument against deploying them. As the U.S. approves the munition package, it falls to Ukraine, as well as the European countries through which the bombs will be transported (including Poland, which is both a signee of the Convention on Cluster Munitions and a final stop of the weapons before they arrive in Ukraine), to make sure that they will not be used to commit war crimes.