Cluster Munitions in Ukraine: Controversy Surrounds US Decision to Supply Ammunition

news 07-Jul-2023 Usa News

Dangerous and Condemned: Cluster Munitions for Ukraine?

Berlin/Washington - There was a stir when Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov called for the delivery of cluster munitions from Western allies at the Munich Security Conference in mid-February. Like Russia, his country wanted to use this type of weapon to achieve parity. "It is our territory," he emphasized, stating that the ammunition could help withstand the attackers.

At that time, the allies were quite cautious. This was mainly due to the fact that some NATO countries, including Germany, have condemned the use of these dangerous weapons through international agreements. However, there has been a turnaround. The United States has decided to supply cluster munitions to Ukraine. "We will not leave Ukraine defenseless at any point during this conflict phase. Period," said Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor to US President Joe Biden, on Friday to justify the decision. It is yet another significant step in the military support to Ukraine.

What are cluster munitions and how do they work?

A cluster bomb is a metal container that holds hundreds of small explosive submunitions. They often resemble colorful beverage cans or tennis balls. Cluster bombs are either dropped from aircraft or fired from the ground. They open in the air and release their mini-explosives over an area equivalent to several football fields in size. The submunitions are designed to explode upon impact. Their metal fragments can penetrate vehicles, kill or seriously injure humans and animals. Cluster bombs are used to attack enemy ground forces and vehicles on a large scale, to push them back, or to slow down or stop their advance.

How can the ammunition help in the counteroffensive?

Prior to the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive in recent weeks, Russian forces had established defensive lines with kilometers of trenches, tank traps, and mines. According to a report by The New York Times, the calculation of the US government is to weaken or breach these defensive lines with the help of cluster munitions. The Pentagon stated on Thursday that they would select projectiles with a lower rate of unexploded ordnance.

What makes cluster munitions so dangerous?

A portion of the mini-bombs often fails to explode and remains as unexploded ordnance in the ground. Similar to landmines, they pose a threat for decades as they can still explode through vibration even after the war has ended. Children, who may mistake cluster munitions for toys, are often victims. Farmers who encounter unexploded ordnance during fieldwork are also at risk. If people survive, they often suffer mutilations, burns, or blindness.

Where has cluster munitions been used before?

Cluster munitions were used by German and Soviet forces during World War II. According to the latest Cluster Munition Monitor by the humanitarian organization Handicap International for 2022, at least 23 countries have used them since then. Since 2010, the organization has documented the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine, Cambodia, Libya, Sudan, South Sudan, and Yemen. In the Ukraine conflict, they have been used by both sides. The human rights organization Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticized the harm inflicted on civilians during their use.

What does the agreement against cluster munitions entail?

The Convention on Cluster Munitions, also known as the Oslo Convention, came into force in 2010. In the treaty, states commit to "never under any circumstances use, develop, produce, otherwise acquire, store, retain, or transfer to anyone, directly or indirectly, cluster munitions."

Who has joined the treaty and who has not?

So far, 111 states have ratified this treaty, including Germany. However, 74 countries have not done so. This includes Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, as well as NATO countries such as the United States, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Turkey, Greece, Poland, and Romania.

What is the stance of the German government regarding the US considerations?

While Germany emphasizes its adherence to the agreement condemning cluster munitions, it also expresses understanding for the US decision. Government spokesperson Steffen Seibert stated on Friday that there is a "special situation" in Ukraine.

"The Ukraine is using this ammunition to protect its civilian population. It is about the government's use of this ammunition to liberate its own territory." Hebestreit also referred - like the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister did in February - to Russia's "use of cluster munitions on a large scale in an illegal war of aggression against Ukraine."

Does the Bundeswehr still have such munitions?

No, the Bundeswehr began disposing of its stockpiles in 2001 and completed the process in November 2015. The German government also would not approve the transfer of cluster munitions produced in Germany by other countries, as it has joined the convention condemning their use.

How did Russia respond to the US media reports?

Russia warns of an increase in violence in the war if the US delivers cluster munitions to Ukraine. "This is a new step towards escalating the conflict," said Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia. The spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, accuses the US of using a diversionary tactic when they talk about supposedly "less dangerous" cluster munitions for Ukraine.

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