United States President Joe Biden has agreed to supply Ukraine with cluster bombs as part of his latest US$800-million package of military aid for the country, despite bans on the weapons by Canada and other U.S. allies.
The Biden administration says the bombs, which can remain unexploded after they are dropped and pose a hazard to civilians for decades, are meant to shore up Kyiv’s arsenal while the U.S. ramps up production of howitzer artillery shells to contribute.
“Ukraine needs artillery to sustain its offensive and defensive operations. Artillery is at the core of this conflict,” Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, said at the White House. “We will not leave Ukraine defenceless at any point in this conflict period.”
Mr. Sullivan said the U.S. had long resisted Ukrainian requests for the munitions, but relented in part because Russia is already using them.
“We recognize that cluster munitions create a risk of civilian harm from unexploded ordnance. That is why we deferred the decision for as long as we could. But there is also a massive risk of civilian harm if Russian troops and tanks roll over Ukrainian positions,” he said.
The decision, made the week before a NATO summit in Lithuania, opens up a rare gap among alliance members on the subject of Ukraine.
More than 100 countries, including Canada and a majority of NATO members, are part of the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), which prohibits signatories from making, using, transferring or encouraging others to use the weapons. The U.S., Ukraine and Russia have not signed the agreement.
Cluster munitions consist of small “bomblets” packed into missiles or other canisters. When released over a target, the bomblets scatter across an area as wide as a football field, setting off dozens or hundreds of deadly explosions.
The concern about the weapons is that the wide dispersal of the bomblets, and the fact that they don’t always explode on contact, make it more likely they will kill civilians, sometimes long after a war is over.
In a statement, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly’s office said Canada remains opposed to the use of cluster weapons. Stephen Harper’s government ratified the CCM in 2015, and the Canadian military destroyed its stockpile.
“Canada’s long-standing position on cluster munitions is clear and Canadians can be proud of our leadership on this issue,” Emily Williams, Ms. Joly’s communications director, wrote in an e-mail. “We do not support the use of cluster munitions and are committed to putting an end to the effects cluster munitions have on civilians – particularly children.”
Asked how Ottawa feels about the U.S. providing cluster weapons to Ukraine, Ms. Williams would not comment. In a background briefing by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office on the NATO summit, an official would not say whether the matter is expected to come up at the meeting.
Just last month, the House of Commons unanimously passed a bill that included measures to strengthen Canada’s anti-cluster-munitions law. The new measures are intended to defund companies that build cluster bombs.
“Cluster munitions, of course, are really not even effective war tools. They’re in fact just tools of terror,” Conservative MP Philip Lawrence said in a committee hearing on the bill.
Lloyd Axworthy, a former foreign minister who was instrumental to a 1997 treaty to ban land mines, urged Ottawa to rally opposition to the supply of cluster weapons to Ukraine. He contended that the move could cost Ukraine its moral authority.
“My advice would be to take the position that Canada stands opposed to their use, and take a big step forward and say, at the NATO summit, that this issue needs to be brought forward and debate take place … and force Americans to change their decision,” he said in an interview.
Mr. Axworthy said Canada should be on the diplomatic circuit, rallying like-minded NATO countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands. Ukraine should receive the military aid it needs, he said, but that should not include weapons that violate international standards.
“This is a weapon that could change the narrative of the war itself. It would become so much harder to convince people that the conflict is a serious effort to stop needless aggression and protect people,” he said. “If we’re fighting a war against this kind of Russian immorality, then we shouldn’t be hypocritical about this situation.”
Mr. Sullivan said some U.S. allies who are party to the CCM have privately told the White House that “they understand our decision.” In an interview with CNN, Mr. Biden said he had discussed the move “with our allies.” Neither specified which countries had backed the U.S. decision.
“It was a very difficult decision on my part,” Mr. Biden said. “The Ukrainians are running out of ammunition.”
The U.S. military has been moving away from the use of cluster bombs. The Pentagon issued an order in 2008 banning the use of any cluster weapons in which more than 1 per cent of the bomblets fail to explode. The Biden administration said Friday that the President would use a national security exception to override that order.
Colin Kahl, the U.S. undersecretary of defence for policy, said the bombs provided to Ukraine would have a failure, or “dud,” rate of less than 2.5 per cent, while Russia’s versions of the weapons have a far higher incidence of not immediately exploding.
“We have hundreds of thousands that are available at this dud rate,” he said, adding that the bombs would “signal to Vladimir Putin that he can’t just outlast the Ukrainians.”
Ukrainian forces, he contended, have incentive not to use the weapons indiscriminately, since they are on home turf. They have also committed to a demining program after the war.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters the alliance does not take a position on cluster bombs, and that it is up to each country to make its own decisions. “We are facing a brutal war, and we have to remember this brutality is reflected, that every day we see casualties, and that cluster munitions are used by both sides,” he said Friday in Brussels.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked for the bombs as a way of breaking entrenched Russian positions in the south of Ukraine. Kyiv’s current counteroffensive got started late, and has not made much progress, which Mr. Zelensky has blamed on too-slow weapons shipments from the West.
On previous occasions, Washington resisted authorizing transfers of tanks and F-16 fighter jets to Kyiv before ultimately relenting. But in those cases Mr. Biden changed his position in concert with allies. Germany, Canada and several other countries, for instance, also participated in the tank deal. Germany this week reaffirmed its position against cluster bombs.
In a report this week, Human Rights Watch found that Russia had “extensively used cluster munitions,” killing and injuring “many” civilians. Ukrainian forces used cluster bombs in rocket attacks last year against Russian forces in the city of Izyum, the group said, killing eight civilians and injuring 15.
Mines Action Canada, an advocacy group, called on Ottawa to oppose the U.S. sending cluster bombs to Ukraine. “Choosing a weapon that is proven to kill civilians and prevent displaced persons from coming home will not help win the peace,” the group’s executive director, Erin Hunt, said in a statement.