The Controversial Supply of Cluster Bombs to Ukraine - should the US be taking this path in the conflict?

Jon & Caroline | Ink-Stained Hearts

[This article contains some research content generated by AI]

The recent decision of the US to supply cluster bombs to Ukraine has ignited a flurry of debates and concerns regarding the motives and consequences of such a decision.

In a recent interview with CNN, President Biden revealed:

“It was a very difficult decision on my part. And by the way, I discussed this with our allies, I discussed this with our friends up on the Hill. The Ukrainians are running out of ammunition.”

So what prompted the Biden administration to take this step? Why is this viewed as a controversial move? And is this escalation of support in the long-term interests of the US?

What are cluster bombs?

This type of munition houses multiple explosives that are released and dispersed over a wide area. The normal means of delivery is dropping from a plane or launching from a ground or sea position against a target area. Anyone unfortunate enough to be within the strike zone, civilian or military personnel, stands a very high chance of being killed or seriously injured.
An example of a cluster munitionPhoto

The Cluster Munition Coalition states: 

“There are a wide variety of types of cluster munitions. According to the Cluster Munition Monitor, a total of 34 states have at one time developed or produced over 200 types of cluster munitions.”

Currently, over 100 nations are signed-up to not using or distributing this type of weapon.

What are the reasons for supplying cluster bombs to Ukraine?

Defense Aid and Deterrence
One of the primary arguments for supplying these armaments to Ukraine is to bolster its defense capabilities against Russian aggression. The ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine has seen a significant military presence from Russia. This includes the annexation and dispute over the Crimea that has simmered since 2014. The United States, as a strategic partner to Ukraine, claims its goals are to enhance its defensive capabilities by providing cluster bombs as a deterrent measure.

Enhanced Tactical Capabilities
Advocates of this recent supply argue cluster bombs offer valuable tactical advantages in certain combat scenarios. These weapons are intended to disrupt and neutralize concentrated enemy forces, providing Ukrainian troops with an edge in combat situations. 

With its stocks of armaments dwindling, this US boost to its arsenal is a short-term fix while waiting for broader tactical support from other nations. The supply of cluster bombs, it is claimed, is essentially a means to level the playing field against better-equipped Russians entrenched along a 620-mile frontline.

Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to President Biden, defended the controversy over the supply of this class of weapon by saying:

“These are their citizens they’re protecting, and they are motivated to use any weapon system they have in a way that minimizes the risk to these citizens.”

Symbolic Support and Alliance Strengthening
The provision of cluster bombs serves as a symbolic gesture of support from the US to Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression. It shows US commitment to an important ally against an ideologically opposed-adversary. This is also a move that attempts to strengthen alliances and forge closer ties with Ukraine in the face of geopolitical challenges.

Implications and Concerns

Humanitarian Concerns
Cluster bombs have long been a subject of criticism because of the indiscriminate nature and potential harm to civilians. Controversy lies in the evidence that many of these “bomblets” do not explode as intended, and pose an ongoing risk to populations. 

The indiscriminate nature of this weapon, and the potential for collateral civilian damage, is why many countries boycott their use. The Convention on Cluster Munitions has 123 nations as signatories — the US is not one of them, nor are Russia or Ukraine.

Humanitarian organizations have expressed deep concerns over the use of cluster bombs, as they violate international humanitarian law and can cause harm to innocent civilians.

Among these is Human Rights Watch, with Mary Wareham, acting arms director at Human Rights Watch, commenting:

“Cluster munitions used by Russia and Ukraine are killing civilians now and will continue to do so for many years. Both sides should immediately stop using them and not try to get more of these indiscriminate weapons.”

Escalation and Regional Stability
Critics argue supplying cluster bombs to Ukraine could potentially escalate the conflict and worsen the situation in the region. They contend this move might provoke a response from Russia, leading to an escalation of hostilities and threatening regional stability. This raises questions about the potential consequences of such a decision and its impact on efforts to de-escalate tensions. 

Could this move be the catalyst for dragging the US and the international community into a broader struggle?

International Norms and Reputation
The United States, as a prominent global power, faces scrutiny for its actions on the international stage. The supply of cluster bombs raises concerns about its commitment to disarmament efforts and adherence to international agreements. Critics argue the use of these weapons undermines efforts to promote humanitarian values and damages the country’s reputation as a responsible actor in global affairs.

International opinion

This latest development in the Ukraine-Russian conflict has divided international opinion. To date, the governments of Austria, Belgium, Cambodia, Canada, Germany, Italy, Laos, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, and the United Kingdom have condemned the US decision. 

Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also voiced public concern at this move, confirming the Secretary-Generals continued support for the Convention on Cluster Munitions and wish for continued compliance with it. He added:

“Accordingly, (Guterres) does not want cluster bombs to continue to be used on the battlefield.”

Many world leaders have also gone on record to share their concerns.

Chris Hipkins, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, described cluster bombs as: 

“Indiscriminate, they cause huge damage to innocent people, potentially, and they can have a long-lasting effect as well."

Margarita Robles, the Defence Minister of Spain’s Defence, said: 

“No to cluster bombs and yes to the legitimate defence of Ukraine, which we understand should not be carried out with cluster bombs.”

The Canadian government pointed to the importance of complying with the Convention on Cluster Munitions, stating: 

“We take seriously our obligation under the convention to encourage its universal adoption.”

It is fair to say that despite the ongoing united support for Ukraine, this move by the US has unsettled many within the global coalition.

On the Domestic Front…

Rather than being divided strictly down party lines, some views from Republicans and Democrats alike to President Biden’s decision, have been varied and surprising. With prominent politicians having their say, the debate on this controversial issue doesn’t look as if it will quieten down any time soon.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, supported the President’s move, describing the provision of cluster bombs as a “game-changer” in an interview with CNN, adding that “Russia is dropping with impunity cluster bombs” across Ukraine.

Whereas, on the Democrat side, a number of representatives have expressed their concerns. Progressive Californian Congresswoman Barbara Lee opposed the President’s decision and told CNN the US “would risk losing our moral leadership because, when you look at the fact that over 120 countries have signed the convention on cluster munitions saying that they should never be used, they should never be used.”

This view was echoed by fellow Democrats, Senator Tim Kaine and Congresswoman Betty McCollum, the ranking member of the House’s Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

McCollum said: “The decision by the Biden administration to transfer cluster munitions to Ukraine is unnecessary and a terrible mistake. The legacy of cluster bombs is misery, death and expensive cleanup generations after their use. These weapons should be eliminated from our stockpiles, not dumped in Ukraine.”

While House Rules Committee member Congressman Jim McGovern flagged the distancing of NATO allies including UK, France and Germany from this action, although noting his general US support for Ukraine.

In response, White House national security spokesman John Kirby defended the move, reiterating the ongoing support Ukraine. In an interview on ABC News, He commented: “We are very mindful of the concerns about civilian casualties and unexploded ordnance being picked up by civilians or children and being hurt. But these munitions do provide a useful battlefield capability,” adding Russia is “indiscriminately killing civilians,” with cluster bombs, whereas the Ukrainians will be using them as a self-defence tactic.
White House national security spokesman John KirbyPhoto byABC News

So where does this leave the US?

The supply of cluster bombs to Ukraine by the US is a contentious and multifaceted issue. While proponents argue it enhances Ukraine’s defense capabilities and signifies support, critics emphasize the humanitarian concerns, risks of escalation, and potential damage to broader international stability. This approach also runs the risk of normalising a more brutal form of warfare, despite the fact this tactic is already being employed by Russian forces.

It is crucial for US policymakers and government to carefully consider these implications, and how to manage some of the tensions it has created with NATO allies in a way that still supports Ukraine and prioritizes humanitarian concerns as well as the security needs of the region.

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