Cluster Munitions in Ukraine: Balancing Military Necessities and Ethical Concerns

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The war in Ukraine has raised difficult questions for the United States and its allies about how far to go in supporting Ukraine militarily against the Russian invasion. One of the most controversial decisions was the Biden administration's move in September 2022 to send cluster munitions to Ukraine. Cluster munitionsare weapons that open in mid-air and disperse hundreds of smaller explosives over a wide area. They pose grave dangers to civilians both during and after conflicts. Over 120 countries have banned cluster munitions due to their indiscriminate effects, but the U.S. has not joined that treaty. Russia's brutal bombardment of Ukrainian cities created pressure on the U.S. to provide Ukraine with more powerful weapons, leading to the cluster munition shipment.

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Concerns Over Civilian Casualties

The main objection to cluster munitions is the high risk of civilian casualties both during attacks and afterwards. Large numbers of the submunitions often fail to detonate and become de facto landmines. Even decades after conflicts end, leftover cluster munitions continue to kill and maim civilians. According to the United Nations, Russia has used cluster munitions in populated Ukrainian areas at least 24 times, causing many civilian deaths. human rights groups warned sending American cluster munitions to Ukraine could lead to similar outcomes and tarnish the moral case against Russia's indiscriminate attacks. Defenders argued that Ukraine had promised to use them responsibly against Russian military targets and avoid population centers. But critics said such precautions offer little protection, as the small bomblets routinely go astray. During the invasion of Iraq, U.S. cluster bombs caused thousands of civilian casualties despite American efforts to use them precisely against military targets.

Seeking a "Force Multiplier" Against Russia

For the Ukrainian military, cluster munitions offered a way to counter Russia's immense firepower advantage. Ukrainian officials stated that cluster bombs could be a "force multiplier" to break through deeply entrenched Russian defensive positions. Russia has heavily fortified parts of occupied Ukraine with trenches, minefields and other defenses that have hindered Ukraine's counteroffensives. Ukrainian commanders hoped cluster munitions could help dislodge Russian troops from key areas by destroying trenches and artillery sites. President Biden ultimately agreed to rush delivery of the munitions in September 2022, despite the legal and ethical concerns. The administration argued that ensuring Ukraine's ability to defend itself and push Russia back was a vital U.S. national security interest that justified using the controversial weapons. Officials stated it was a short-term measure until Western weapons factories could meet Ukraine's needs through conventional arms.

Russia harshly condemned the U.S. cluster munition shipment as an escalation, although it has relied on the weapons far more during the war. Unlike many Russian munitions, the American cluster bombs were designed to limit dud rates in order to mitigate humanitarian hazards. But experts say even these "improved" cluster munitions leave unacceptable risks. The episode illustrates the complexity of arming Ukraine while avoiding escalatory spirals. As the war drags on, pressure may grow for the U.S. and NATO to provide additional advanced weapons despite ethical and legal constraints. But critics will continue arguing there are some weapons too dangerous to spread, even to defend against Russian aggression. The cluster munition debate reflects how concerns over civilian welfare and international norms must be balanced with urgent military necessities in a desperate conflict.

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Cluster Munitions in Ukraine: Balancing Military Necessities and Ethical Concerns. (2023, July 25). WritingBros. Retrieved October 4, 2023, from
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