Here’s why supplying Ukraine with cluster munitions would be a terrible mistake
Opinion by Patrick Leahy and Jeff Merkley
Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, is a former U.S. senator from Vermont. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, is a U.S. senator from Oregon who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee.
A few weeks after the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, reports from the battlefield revealed that Russian troops were using cluster munitions against Ukrainian targets.
This news prompted a top U.S. official, as well as observers from dozens of other countries and humanitarian organizations, to denounce Moscow’s use of a weapon widely recognized as causing disproportionate civilian casualties.
Yet President Biden has now approved providing cluster munitions to Ukraine. This is a serious mistake. We voted for billions of dollars in military aid for Ukraine and strongly believe we must continue to help the Ukrainian people defend themselves against Russian aggression. But supplying Kyiv with cluster munitions would come at an unsupportable moral and political price. Knowing that these weapons cause indiscriminate terror and mayhem, both of us — like many others in the international community — have worked for years to end their use.
A cluster bomb
Cluster munitions, such as land mines, undeniably offer some battlefield advantages — yet using them would compound the already devastating impact of the war on civilians and Ukrainian troops, with effects lasting for years to come.
Unlike Russian President Vladimir Putin, the United States subscribes to the laws of war and the importance of minimizing civilian casualties, and our support for Ukraine must be guided by such principles. Biden has recognized that this effort is about standing up for sovereignty, freedom and democracy in the face of horrific war crimes justified with Putin’s lies.
The impact of cluster munitions on innocent civilians persists for weeks, months, even years, sometimes long after a conflict ends. These weapons are designed to disperse swarms of small submunitions, known as “bomblets,” over large areas, causing widespread death and destruction. To make matters worse, they often fail to explode as designed. Russia’s use of cluster munitions in Ukraine killed and wounded hundreds of civilians between February and July 2022.
In Laos and Vietnam, some of the tens of millions of unexploded U.S. cluster munitions deployed more than 50 years ago continue to maim and kill civilians. As senators, we traveled to Vietnam, where we witnessed firsthand the devastating and long-lasting effects these weapons have had on civilians.
Modern U.S. cluster munitions are no exception. They are scattered by the thousands, and while they have lower dud rates than in the past, those that fail to detonate can be activated by anyone who encounters them, whether a child or a Ukrainian soldier or anyone else. That is why 123 countries, including 23 out of 31 NATO members, have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use and transfer of these weapons. While the United States is not a party to the convention, since 2003 the U.S. military used them only once, in Yemen, in 2009.
Since then, Congress, in a law one of us wrote, has prohibited the transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate greater than 1 percent, which would restrict the number of unexploded bomblets that could endanger civilians long after the end of a conflict. Previously, this was also the Pentagon’s own policy. The law also stipulates that any agreement pertaining to the transfer of cluster munitions must specify that the munitions will not be used where civilians are known to be present. Any cluster munitions provided to Ukraine would exceed the 1 percent failure rate, and in providing Ukraine with cluster munitions the White House would therefore be acting contrary to that law.
The United States is by far the world’s largest donor for the clearance of land mines, cluster munitions and other unexploded ordnance, having contributed $213 million in 2022 alone. We have worked to increase Ukraine’s capabilities to clear Russian mines and unexploded munitions, and this costly, dangerous work will need to continue for decades.
munitions to Kyiv would erode the moral advantage held by Ukraine and its supporters since the start of the war. While Russia has used cluster munitions in its barbaric onslaught, Putin’s propagandists could use our actions to further discredit Ukraine and its allies among nonaligned countries.
We must continue to provide Ukraine with the military, economic and humanitarian aid it needs to persevere, but in a manner that is worthy of the United States.