Four days after Russian tanks began rolling into Ukraine last year, then–White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about reports that Russia had been using cluster bombs. Psaki noted that the Biden administration had seen the reports, which were unconfirmed, but noted that “if that were true, it would potentially be a war crime.” Now, 16 months later, the Biden administration is sending cluster bombs to Ukraine as part of its most recent $800 million weapons package.
This is an immoral, indefensible decision and one that only further complicates the messiness of any end to the war. It’s highly unlikely that these weapons will make a substantial difference in aiding the Ukrainian counteroffensive or, in a similar vein, in accelerating the end of what has been an incredibly costly and devastating conflict. It is likely, however, that they will lead to civilian casualties, if not now then in the very near future.
Cluster bombs deliver dozens of smaller bombs across a huge territory, the very definition of indiscriminate bombardment. Many go unexploded, leaving bombs—many of which are oddly shaped and colorful and thus appealing to children—littered behind. In the near-term, it’s appealing to think that these will only be used on Russians, but even this isn’t entirely compelling: They could still fall on areas where Ukrainian civilians live. In the long-term, they represent a tremendous threat to Ukraine’s own civilian population.
Indeed, unexploded cluster bombs already claim the lives of civilians, particularly children, around the world. According to research from the Landmine and Cluster Munitions monitor, there were 141 casualties from cluster bomb remnants in 2021 (the most recent year for which data is available)—97 percent of those were civilians, and two-thirds of those were children. This will be the legacy of the Biden administration’s decision.
In the short-term, moreover, the administration risks, as California Representative Barbara Lee told Jake Tapper over the weekend, its “moral leadership” in the war. Deftly handling the war in Ukraine has thus far been one of Biden’s most important accomplishments and should be a pillar of his reelection push. It is the best answer to the nagging questions about Biden’s age and leadership: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was his proverbial 3 a.m. phone call, a moment that tested his ability to manage complex, fast-moving global events. For most of the last year-and-a-half, he and his administration have managed it excellently, marshaling allies, bolstering NATO, and destabilizing Russia in the process. They have also largely won the messaging war. The Ukraine conflict is messy and complicated but they have continuously focused on the larger picture: that this is the result of Vladimir Putin’s belligerence and imperialism and that defending and funding Ukraine is a necessity, the only way to halt a thuggish world power. Now, they’re risking it all by matching some of Russia’s most brutal tactics.
The administration has vociferously defended its decision, as have many of its backers. President Biden told Fareed Zakaria that sending these weapons—which indiscriminately bomb targets “up to the size of several football fields”—was a “very difficult decision” but one that was arrived at after discussions “with our allies” and “our friends on the Hill.” Some have correctly noted that Russia has been using these weapons for quite some time on Ukrainian targets, including on civilians. Others have defended it as a necessity: Ukrainian ammunition stockpiles are diminishing and there are fears that it will be months, and maybe years, until arms manufacturers can make up the shortfall. All of these make up the administration’s larger argument, which is that sending these bombs—the use of which is considered a war crime by more than 100 countries, including allies such as the United Kingdom and Germany—to Ukraine is an existential part of the war effort. “The main thing is, they either have the weapons to stop the Russians now from their—keep them from stopping the Ukrainian offensive through these areas, or they don’t. And I think they needed them,” Biden told Zakaria.
None of these arguments is remotely compelling. The idea that Russian war crimes excuse Ukrainian ones is laughable: Russia’s use of cluster bombs is abominable; it’s also not a reason to use cluster bombs on Russians. And it’s foolish, especially given the necessity of maintaining continued public support for the war. Even if these bombs would help the counteroffensive—something that isn’t entirely clear—there is still no plan for their long-term cleanup.
In fact, the United States has largely stopped using them for this reason. In 2016, the U.S. “began phasing them out because of the danger to civilians” after dropping hundreds on Iraq, as The Daily Beast’s Ben Burgis points out in a sharp piece. It’s not clear why it’s acceptable for Ukraine to use them, given this rationale, he adds.
There’s simply no compelling reason to provide these arms to Ukraine. They risk that country’s and its allies’ moral standing. They risk countless civilian lives, mostly Ukrainian. They risk providing Russia an excuse to escalate its use of cluster bombs and other destructive weapons. They risk further eroding public support for aid for Ukraine. This is a foolish decision that undercuts months of progress and it’s one that Biden and his allies will certainly regret after the war ends, if not sooner.