In Another Reversal, White House Approves Widely Banned Weapon For Ukraine Despite Heightened Danger To Civilians

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The Biden Administration announced Friday plans to send cluster munitions to Ukraine, as the changing battlefield conditions have prompted yet another reversal in sending weapons that were once considered too sensitive.

The New York Times reports that Kyiv had requested this weapon for months, which is essentially a bomb with miniature “bomblets” to target Russian positions deeply entrenched and to pursue the counteroffensive, despite its disadvantages in troop numbers and ammo. The Biden administration initially resisted Ukraine’s demand for the controversial weapon that poses a unique threat to civilians. However, in recent weeks, officials have indicated the White House is beginning to see the point of view of Kyiv.

Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia told Congress late in June that the administration had determined that cluster munitions could give Ukraine an edge “especially when used against Russian positions dug into the battlefield.”

The Department of Defense announced in a press release that a new aid package unveiled Friday included “highly reliable and effective” munitions, which were approved following extensive consultations with Congress.

Since the Korean War, the U.S. has maintained large stocks of DPICMs (dual-purpose improved conventional weapons), also known as cluster bombs.

Colin Kahl, Undersecretary for Policy at the Department of Defense, told reporters on Friday that those delivered to Ukraine will only include those with a failure rate less than 2.35 percent. Russia, on the other hand, uses DPICMs which fail between 30 and 40% of time.

According to the New York Times, more than 100 countries have banned the use of cluster munitions because they have the highest failure rate among all weapons. The projectiles explode in mid-air, dispersing smaller munitions across a large area. However, up to a quarter of the bomblets do not detonate on impact.

According to the New York Times, unexploded ordnances can detonate after being disturbed for weeks, or even years, causing civilian injuries and deaths. Since World War II, between 56,500 to 86,500 civilians died as a result of cluster bombs that detonated late.

The NYT reported that launching a cluster bomb is not itself a crime. Neither the U.S., Ukraine, nor Russia are parties to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which banned the production, stockpiling and use of these weapons.

According to the NYT, Russia has used cluster bombs with devastating effects as it attempts to capture additional Ukrainian territory. Ukraine is also reported to have used them in counteroffensives against occupied land. The NYT reports that a cluster bomb attack on an occupied train station in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, took place in April 2022, killing dozens of people and wounding more than 100, mostly civilians. This was the most deadly use of cluster munitions throughout the war.

Kahl stated that Ukraine has committed to deploying the munitions carefully, given that they would be used on Ukrainian soil.

CNN reported that the change came as Ukraine’s counteroffensive summer, which has been underway for several weeks, had made little progress, according to a report on June 30. The NYT reported that Russian forces spent months preparing for the counteroffensive. They dug miles of trenches fortified with mines, tank traps, and other defensive measures along the front.

CNN reported that U.S. officials stated that Russia’s defensive lines were more durable than expected, and Ukraine could be using up ammunition faster than they can replace it if the counteroffensive continues longer than planned.

Michael Kofman of CNA’s Russia Studies Program told the Financial Times that the new capability would “eliminate much of the pressure on time by allowing a large amount of ammunition to continue the offensive.” These munitions are “far more important” than the western weapons that have been recently acquired, Kofman said.