The Washington Post
Ukrainians beg for an effective but dangerous weapon
Ukrainians have been fighting heroically — but they’re still outnumbered and outgunned. Russia has mobilized hundreds of thousands of troops and still enjoys substantial superiority in materiel. Ukrainians know perfectly well that time is not on their side. A fresh Russian offensive could come at any moment.
The United States and its European partners have provided Ukraine with billions of dollars worth of weapons but are still denying Kyiv’s requests for planes and long-range missiles. Even if President Biden signed off on the planes today, it would take several months to get them into the fight. Western tanks are on the way, but only a few dozen will reach the battlefield in time. Ukrainian forces are expending munitions faster than Western countries can produce replacements.
But there’s a weapon that could do a great deal to help Kyiv stave off future attacks — and it can be provided in large amounts at short notice: cluster munitions. Giving them to Ukraine would be a controversial move with real risks. But that might be the only way to save more Ukrainian towns from death and destruction, as several officials from Kyiv told their American and European counterparts last month at the Munich Security Conference.
The Ukrainian requests have prompted considerable discomfort among some of Ukraine’s allies. More than 100 countries have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans their stockpiling or use. The weapons, which consist of a single munition that breaks into dozens of smaller bomblets over a target, are highly indiscriminate and especially dangerous to civilians. The United States, with one exception, hasn’t used them since 2003.
Human rights groups rightly point out that cluster munitions are also worrisome because the bomblets sometimes don’t explode on impact, littering the battlefields with potentially lethal material long after the fighting is over. Deploying them is not to be taken lightly. Critics also argue that supplying the munitions will undermine the West’s moral authority, because we’ve also criticized Russia for using these same weapons.
But those are concerns Ukrainians don’t have the time or luxury to parse. For them, this is a life-ordeath situation. Ukrainian officials have said that the weapons would be used only against Russian troops and tanks. They tell me that the areas in Eastern Ukraine that would be targeted are already largely depopulated. And besides, they argue, it’s their territory, which they will have to clean up after the war anyway — if they live that long.
“Either we will all be killed today, all of us, or we will win the war and then deal with the consequences later.” Oleksii Goncharenko, Ukrainian parliament member
“Either we will all be killed today, all of us, or we will win the war and then deal with the consequences later,” Ukrainian member of parliament Oleksii Goncharenko told me.
As he pointed out to me, Ukraine has not ratified the Convention of Cluster Munitions, and neither has the United States (although successive U.S. administrations have pledged to abide by it). Kyiv’s cold calculation is that more innocent lives will be saved if Ukrainian forces can kill more invading Russians faster.
“The U.S. has all the legal right to give us these munitions, and we have all the moral right to receive them” because Ukraine is not the aggressor, Goncharenko said. “We just want to protect ourselves.”
There are many types of cluster munitions, but the one most commonly discussed is the dual-purpose improved conventional munition. The Defense Department has about 3 million such Cold War-era rounds in its inventory, many of them stored in Europe. These can be fired with the artillery pieces Ukrainian forces have now. Turkey has reportedly supplied cluster munitions to Ukraine already, although its government officially denies it. European countries reportedly also want to send Ukraine cluster munitions but are awaiting permission from their suppliers in Washington or Berlin.
Several U.S. defense officials and lawmakers support the idea of exporting cluster munitions to Ukraine, which would require Biden to issue a new waiver on an export law prohibiting such transfers. The Biden administration has “concerns” about the weapons but hasn’t ruled them out.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told me that there’s no better alternative for helping Ukraine survive the coming onslaught. “I understand the argument about cluster bombs, but it is a military weapon that fits the situation,” he said. “They want them, they need them; it’s a better way to destroy the tanks and hit mass formations.”
Former Democratic congressman and human rights advocate Tom Malinowski, who opposes the move, told me that cluster munitions are a cheap excuse for not doing the harder things needed to help Ukraine win with honor.
“Instead of putting our Western economies on a war footing and ramping up production of the range of things they need, we’d be giving them a munition that’s rusting on our shelves because it’s been discredited, a weapon that will kill Ukrainian children for years to come,” he said.
Malinowski is right: There were better alternatives for helping the Ukrainians. Nobody wants to be part of something that ends up killing civilians. It would have been better if the West had already given Kyiv the tanks, conventional missiles and planes to succeed. But the reality is that Ukrainian forces are running out of options.
The Ukrainians know that using cluster weapons comes at political and diplomatic costs for them, but they have decided they need to use them anyway. Because it is their lives on the line, it is their risk to take, and we should honor their request.