Cluster bombs are terrible weapons which endanger civilians long after hostilities have ended. But they may be the swiftest way to defeat Russia and end the Ukraine war, which will save more lives overall.
The Ukraine war is moving into its endgame.
Russia’s initial plan was to conquer Kyiv in a three-day blitzkrieg. Putin was so certain of quick victory that his invading soldiers packed their dress uniforms for a triumphal parade. That was overconfident to the point of hubris, and the Russian assault disintegrated when it met ferocious Ukrainian resistance.
Brutal, sloppy, callous
When that plan failed, Russia fell back on a more accustomed strategy: waging a war of attrition. In every place where they attacked, they pulverized obstacles with massive artillery barrages, then sent “meat waves” of conscript soldiers into the teeth of Ukrainian fire, seeking to overrun Ukraine’s defensive positions through sheer weight of numbers.
War is never clean or precise, but this was an especially brutal, sloppy, and callous means of conducting it. Only a ruler who cared nothing for the lives of his subjects would resort to such a strategy.
More to the point, it’s a wasteful strategy, both in terms of manpower and materiel. Russia has a larger population than Ukraine, as well as huge Soviet-era arms stockpiles, but neither is unlimited. Yet Putin and his generals spent down their military with drunken abandon as if they had infinite reserves. At battlegrounds like Vuhledar, Russian armor suffered enormous losses as they kept pushing forward into a deadly storm of Ukrainian artillery, like a modern-day Pickett’s Charge.
Russia’s offensive culminated in a battle to capture the city of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region. After months of grinding urban combat, at a cost of tens of thousands of casualties, Russia finally succeeded in taking the city—which, by then, was a shattered ruin with no strategic value. It was an unsurpassable example of a Pyrrhic victory.
After incurring all these losses, Russia has seemingly exhausted its ability to attack. Beset by internal turmoil and crippled by sanctions, the Russian army has fallen back on a defensive strategy of holding onto the land they’ve already taken. All across eastern and southern Ukraine, their soldiers are hunkering down in World War I-esque trench networks ringed by minefields.
With Russia digging in, it’s Ukraine’s turn to take the initiative. This summer, the Ukrainian army launched a counteroffensive, spearheaded by armored brigades with NATO equipment like Leopard tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. They’ve made incremental gains, but since neither side possesses air superiority, progress has been slow.
Why cluster bombs are so terrible
Cluster bombs, or cluster munitions, are a weapon that dates back to World War II. They consist of a large shell packed with dozens or hundreds of small bombs. In flight, the shell bursts open and disperses the bomblets, scattering them over a wide area where—in theory—they explode on contact.
Cluster bombs are lethally effective against dug-in infantry, just what Ukraine is up against. The spread of the bomblets makes them ideal for clearing trenches. Plus, the US has millions of them stockpiled, enough to keep Ukraine’s artillery firing for months or years.
However, human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are staunchly opposed to the use of cluster munitions. It isn’t a war crime or against the Geneva Convention, but there’s a treaty banning them which more than a hundred countries have ratified. But neither the US nor Russia nor Ukraine have signed on to that treaty.
What makes cluster bombs so terrible is their tendency to linger. In every projectile, a few of the bomblets are duds. Instead of exploding on impact, they remain where they land. If an innocent person stumbles across them and disturbs them—which could be years or even decades later, long after the conflict is over—they may detonate, killing or maiming whoever was unlucky to be nearby. Laos and Vietnam have been dealing with this problem for 50 years, with children often among the casualties.
Sowing the earth with salt
If Ukraine uses cluster munitions against Russians, duds will endanger the Ukrainian people for years to come. But this won’t create a new problem: It’s just adding weight to a problem that Ukraine is going to face regardless of what the US does, and regardless of how the war ends.
Land mines have the same problems of long life and indiscriminacy. As already stated, Russia has saturated Ukrainian territory with mines. Like ancient warlords sowing the earth with salt, they’ve filled villages, woodlands and fields with these lurking menaces. By one estimate, a total area of land the size of Florida has been mined. Deminers will be busy in Ukraine for decades trying to find and disarm them all.
For that matter, Russia has been bombarding Ukraine with cluster munitions—and they’re not firing them at military targets, but at cities and civilians. That’s not even to mention Russia’s massive barrages of conventional artillery. Some of these, just like the shells fired a hundred years ago at the Battle of Verdun, will lie in the earth until someone plows them up. All these buried weapons will create a lasting hazard for future generations to deal with.
The best of a set of bad options
As a humanist, I long for a world without war. We shouldn’t start wars. Neither should we escalate them.
However, those scruples are irrelevant when war is already upon us whether we want it or not. Russia’s unprovoked invasion can’t be wished away. Given the abundant evidence of Russian forces intentionally shelling and bombing cities, torturing, disappearing and massacring civilians, and kidnapping children from occupied territories—no one could fault the Ukrainians for resisting by every means possible. They’re fighting for their lives against a genocidal enemy that wants to destroy them as a nation and as a people.
In that sense, Ukraine’s using cluster munitions is the best of a set of bad options. They’ll pose a threat into the future, but there’s no sense in worrying more about that than about the people who are dying today. If this war drags on for years, countless thousands more Ukrainians will suffer and die, and countless thousands more weapons will be left or buried to imperil future generations.
The most rational choice is to give Ukraine the weapons it needs to defeat Russia, so the war will end as soon as possible and the cleanup can begin. By bringing about Ukraine’s victory more quickly, cluster bombs could save more lives overall. Such is the perverse logic of war.
The other factor to consider is that, unlike in Southeast Asia, this isn’t a question of giving cluster bombs to an aggressor to subjugate another country. This is Ukraine itself, its democratically elected government and its military, making decisions about what weapons to use on their own soil to oust an invader. They’ll be the only ones who bear the consequences of that choice. It’s a grim choice to make, but that’s the reality of war.