Ukrainian forces have recently advanced toward the key port city of Mariupol as part of their ongoing counteroffensive against Russian positions, marking the second advance in two weeks. Meanwhile, the recapture of the Urozhain village in the Donetsk region, announced by Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar on August 16, appears to be partially facilitated by the use of United States-supplied controversial cluster munitions.
Ukraine began employing cluster munitions supplied by the United States on the battlefield against Russia in mid-July to support its counteroffensive against the Russian defensive positions. The United States termed their usage “effective,” while Russia warned of responding in kind, with President Vladimir Putin stating that Russia has a “sufficient stockpile” of several kinds of cluster munitions of its own, which could be used in a tit-for-tat manner. However, both Kyiv and Washington are downplaying the long-term implications of the introduction of cluster munitions in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which could outlive the conflict itself, as is evident from previous examples of their usage where unexploded bomblets continue to affect ordinary citizens despite the passage of several decades. Their utilization for short-term military utility can thus be considered counter-productive, with long-term impacts outweighing their short-term benefits.
Cluster munitions, also known as cluster bombs, are weapons that open up mid-air, releasing tens or hundreds of explosive sub-munitions, killing or seriously injuring targets indiscriminately through explosives and shrapnel over extended periods of time and across an area equivalent to several football fields. They can be launched from air, ground, or sea through warships, aircraft, artillery, or rocket launchers.
There are two main issues with the employment of such weapons. Their inability to discriminate between military and civilian targets, as evidenced by the fact that they have caused serious harm to civilians, including women and children, wherever they have been employed in conflicts. Secondly, they are notoriously unreliable given their high failure rate, also known as the dud rate. Given the fact that their scattering over a wide area is a key characteristic that incentivizes states to employ them, bomblets that fail to explode continue to act in a similar way as landmines. They also result in loss of eyesight and limbs as they stay dormant for years and decades until exploding as soon as any individual steps up on them, leading to death or severe injuries from explosives or shrapnel.
The usage of cluster munitions thus renders areas unsafe to live on, affecting the lives of ordinary citizens. Farmers may accidentally trigger the bomblets while working in their fields, children may mistake them for toys, and the public, in general, has to live in a constant state of fear and paranoia.
Given these implications of cluster munitions, the introduction of such weapons in the Russia-Ukraine conflict can cause disastrous consequences for civilians. The U.S. Department of Defense claimed that the munitions being sent to Ukraine have a dud rate of below 2.35 percent. However, it is important to note that assessments collected from experiments in controlled environments significantly deviate from those recorded under combat conditions. Moreover, despite the Pentagon receiving assurances from Kyiv in writing regarding the calculated usage of cluster bombs to break Russian defensive positions in non-urban areas only, there have been reports of Ukraine using them in attacks on Russian villages in the Belgorod region. Furthermore, with artillery units having these weapons in their inventory, the risk of unauthorized or accidental usage amid the fog of war will continue to linger.
However, even before the latest provision of cluster bombs by the United States, human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused both Russia and Ukraine of using such weapons in the conflict. An HRW report suggested that both sides used cluster bombs in Izium city and its surroundings in 2022, while the city remained under Russian control, which caused deaths and serious injuries to civilians. “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,” HRW’s acting arms director Mary Wareham had said. Both sides have, however, continued to blame the other for such usage while denying their own.
From a military point of view, cluster munitions can be viewed to have great utility. The main rationale given by the United States and Ukraine for the explicit provision and usage of such weapons is their utility in breaking the Russian trenches, which have continued to slow down Ukraine’s counteroffensive. The United States has provided over 2 million rounds of its traditional 155mm howitzer munitions to Ukraine, which has a range of 24-32 kilometers, an ideal choice for Ukraine to hit Russian targets from a distance. However, with Ukraine having to fire 7,000 to 9,000 rounds on a daily basis amid an intensifying counteroffensive, cluster munitions appear as an attractive option to hit more targets using fewer rounds.
Nonetheless, the long-term implications of these weapons have prompted international efforts to ban their use, stockpiling, production, or transfer, according to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which opened for signatures in December 2008 and entered into force in August 2010. So far, a total of 123 states have joined the convention, with 111 state parties and 12 signatories. However, almost all major countries, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine, still remain outside its ambit.
There is a dire need for both Russia and Ukraine to stop using cluster munitions in the conflict given the long-term implications of these weapons, which outweigh both parties’ short-term military goals. Moreover, all major states that remain outside the ambit of the Convention on Cluster Munitions should proceed with signing the treaty, starting with the major powers, to put an end to the decades-long sufferings inflicted on ordinary citizens by cluster munitions. The goal might seem far-fetched given the current atmosphere of polarization and mistrust, but it is still a goal worth pursuing.