Over the weekend, the first shipment of U.S.-made cluster munitions arrived in Ukraine, intended to reinforce the Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russia’s invasion. The decision to supply these weapons caught many observers by surprise, given that they are heavily stigmatized worldwide. Indeed, they are one of the few specific categories of weapons subject to a strict treaty ban—the Convention on Cluster Munitions, or CCM—due to the terrible and uncontrollable effect their unexploded bomblets can have on civilians, especially children, often years after their use.
Though the U.S. is not a signatory to the CCM, it has largely eliminated the weapons from use since the treaty came into effect in 2008. Moreover, the weapons are so stigmatized globally that no U.S.-based defense firm has manufactured them since Textron ceased production in 2016. Two years ago, Northrup Grumman pulled out of a contract to even test the shelf-life of existing U.S. stocks. Nonetheless, the U.S. continues to stockpile the weapons, and on July 7, Washington announced that it had agreed to ship many of its remaining stocks to Ukraine.
As Dan Drezner explained in a helpful roundup, the decision was due to a regrettable convergence of desperation to stave off Russian attacks, dwindling supplies of other munitions and fears that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is off to a disappointing start. Zelenskyy decided some time ago that the risk to Ukrainian civilians from Russian forces outweighed the risk to Ukrainian civilians from Ukrainian-deployed cluster bombs, leading to months of moral agonizing by U.S. policymakers. Partly because it believed Ukraine could be counted on to take measures to minimize harm to its own civilians, the Biden administration ultimately agreed.