U.S. Cluster Bombs to Ukraine: An Act of Desperation

Photograph Source: Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher Mobley, U.S. Navy – Public Domain

Following months of debate, the Biden administration has decided to supply Ukraine with cluster munitions, weapons that more than 120 countries have pledged not to use because of the threat to innocent civilians.  Most NATO members favor the banning of cluster munitions.  A huge area of Ukraine is already contaminated with explosive objects.

The United Nations convention that banned the use of cluster munitions was signed in 2008, but three of the most militarized nations in the world refused to sign: the United States, Russia, and Israel.  The United States used these munitions against Iraq in 2003, and supplied them to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.  Israel violated understandings with the United States and used cluster munitions against Palestinians. Russia  has used them extensively in Ukraine with substantial civilian fatalities and casualties.

The supply of cluster munitions is a symbolic act on the part of the United States and Ukraine because they will not have any real effect on the current stalemate that exists in eastern and southern Ukraine. The much-vaunted Ukrainian counteroffensive has been unsuccessful, and no amount of cluster munitions will have an impact.  Having failed to seize the initiative in their offensive operations, the Russians have dug in for the long run in the Donbas.  Cluster munitions would have some utility against an advancing army, but little against an entrenched one.

One does not have to be a student of Clausewitz or Liddell Hart to realize that the Ukrainians lack the favorable force ratio that is needed to deal with the Russian force that is heavily deployed in the occupied areas.  Ukraine has serious logistical issues in supplying its front lines and lacks the reserves needed to deal with a superior defensive force.  Ukraine also lacks the mobility needed to take advantage of Russia’s armored and artillery presence.  Old-fashioned artillery is still the central feature of the war, and Russia has a huge advantage here.  Finally, Ukraine yielded the essential importance of surprise by signaling its plans for a counteroffensive months before taking action.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration continues to signal to an uninformed American public that its deployment decisions will make a difference in Ukraine’s battle against the Russians.  The javelin and stinger missiles did make an initial difference in last year’s fighting, but the HIMARS and its M777 artillery; the Patriot air defense system; and German and American tanks have not been difference makers.  The same could be said for cluster munitions.  Currently, a phalanx of retired U.S. general officers on cable news networks are telling us that the F-16 fighter plane as well as the ATACM long-range missiles are sorely needed as difference makers.

Unfortunately for Ukraine, Russia has shifted to a defensive strategy for the long-term, taking advantage of its superiority in artillery as well as its ability to deny Ukraine any advantage in air power.  Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny two weeks ago may well have been a protest from the offensive-minded Wagner Group against the defensive-minded Kremlin and Ministry of Defense.  Prigozhin’s favorite general, Sergey Surovikin, prefers offensive maneuvers; Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov have settled on digging in and playing the long game.

The United States should have banned cluster munitions three decades ago when President Bill Clinton had an opportunity to reverse the militarization of U.S. foreign policy in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.  Instead, Clinton weakly bowed to the pressure of right-wing Republicans led by Senator Jesse Helms and Rep. Newt Gingrich and abolished the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.  Clinton then bowed to  pressure from the Pentagon and refused to work toward the ratification of the International Criminal Court or to join efforts at the United Nations to ban the deployment of land mines and the use of cluster munitions, and to prevent the use of teenagers in military combat.

The impetus on the ban on land mines and cluster munitions took place in the 1990s due to the severe damage and risk to civilian populations long after the end to military conflict.  A significant proportion of the munitions dispersed by cluster bombs fail to explode on impact and can remain unexploded for years until disturbed.  As a result, children have been killed in Syria, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Laos, and the Balkans long after the fighting ended.

The United Nations estimated that nearly 40 percent of Israeli cluster bomblets failed to explode on impact, which means that more than one million submunitions may remain in Lebanon from the conflict with Hezbollah in 2006.  The Pentagon statement that only several percent of cluster munitions fail to explode cannot be believed.  In any event, the Congress has stipulated that cluster munitions with a failure rate of more than 1 percent cannot be produced, transferred, or used.

The cluster munitions issue is part of a larger problem dealing with the end to arms control and disarmament.  Clinton, as well as presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, ignored Russian efforts to engage in a serious dialogue to pledge no first use of nuclear weapons; no militarization of outer space, and the creation of nuclear-free zones.  Like Clinton, Obama deferred to the Pentagon’s opposition to these measures.  The opening was thus created for Donald Trump to create a Space Command.

It’s time to acknowledge that the war between Russia and Ukraine is unwinnable, and that the heavy losses to the civilian community and its infrastructure will only worsen.  Print media and cable news are giving optimistic accounts that create the misleading impression that the war must continue until Ukraine is successful. In Sunday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof praised the dismembered Ukrainians who are “minus a limb but stalwart.”

When will this war end? Sadly, at the rate that Ukraine is regaining its occupied territory from Russia, it would take more than a decade to remove the occupiers.  Ukraine can’t win; Russia can’t lose.  It’s time to honor Winston Churchill’s admonition that “talk/talk is better than war/war.”

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.