Russia’s Use of Cluster Bombs Should Spur a Global Recommitment to Banning Them

The Russian military has used cluster bombs in at least two attacks on Ukraine, and likely a third, since its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, according to media and social media reports, and human rights groups. The strikes have resulted in civilian deaths. Their use in these instances may ultimately qualify as a war crime, given the indiscriminate nature of the explosives, as well as the reasonable expectation that they could fail to detonate immediately, causing risks to civilians for years.

A Russian strike killed four people and injured 10 in an attack on a hospital in Vuhledar, in the Donetsk region, according to Human Right Watch. Russian forces struck Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, with multiple rounds of cluster munitions strikes, according to weapons experts who spoke with Reuters. And a preschool in Okhtyrka, in Sumy Oblast, was hit by cluster bombs suspected to have been deployed by Russian forces, killing three civilians, according to Amnesty International. Open-source intelligence organization Bellingcat has identified other uses of cluster munitions in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though it’s not clear whether those strikes resulted in any casualties.

Cluster munitions are a category of weapon that covers any delivery system that opens in midair to scatter tens or hundreds of “bomblets” that rain down over a dispersed area. They can be dropped from bombers or fired from artillery, and are a controversial weapon even by the standards of modern warfare. The bomblets — which are similar to landmines — are not precise and do not discriminate between soldiers and civilians, by definition. In many cases, the smaller bombs fail to explode on impact, leaving civilians at risk for years to come.

Since 2010, 110 countries have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans their use, while another 13 are signatories that haven’t ratified it yet. Crucially, the United States, Russia and China have not joined in the ban. Neither has Ukraine, nor U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, which has used U.S.-made cluster munitions in its war on Yemen as recently as 2016. The United States military is not believed to have used cluster bombs since a strike in Yemen in 2009, according to Human Rights Watch, which monitors the use of the weapons closely.

Some estimates have found that as many as 85 percent of casualties from cluster bombs since the treaty’s enactment have been civilians. “Evidence from Afghanistan, Laos, Lebanon, Iraq, Serbia, and other affected states’ cluster munitions revealed that there was no responsible way to use cluster munitions due to their inherently indiscriminate nature,” writes Erin Hunt, program manager at Mines Action Canada. In general, the “laws of war” require militaries to follow several key requirements: to distinguish between civilians and combatants, to attack only military targets and to make the risk to civilians “proportional” to the military objective. As a result, even analysts who reject a more vehement critique of militarism and war are still able to unite in opposition to cluster bombs, arguing that their use in general, and their apparent recent use by Russia, don’t meet those requirements.

Russia is now more than a week into its invasion of Ukraine, a war of aggression that has drawn widespread condemnation across the world and isolated the country diplomatically and economically. Russia’s currency, the ruble, plummeted on the news that the United States would impose sanctions on the country’s Central Bank, a first for a G20 member nation.

Russia’s push toward Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, has advanced slower than many military experts initially predicted. Early reporting has indicated that the Ukrainian military and volunteer forces have held up significantly better than expected, and Russia’s apparent belief in a swift tactical victory seems to have been misplaced, at least for the moment. Despite the Ukrainians’ ability to repel the early attacks, most still believe that if Russia is committed to taking the capital, it’s just a matter of time. On Monday, the Russian military unleashed “multiple-launch rocket fire against residential neighborhoods in Kharkiv, killing at least 10 civilians,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

Russia’s use of cluster munitions in Kharkiv could be a signal of what’s to come, especially if its military continues to face stiffer opposition than expected. Experts worry that Russia may enter a new phase of the invasion, one specifically designed to terrorize and demoralize Ukrainian civilians. Some U.S. officials have claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin is growing “increasingly frustrated” with the campaign, and may order an escalation of the violence.

Of particular concern is that Putin may pursue similar tactics to those his military used in defense of their close ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, following that country’s revolution during the Arab uprisings. Both Russia and the Syrian government deployed cluster munitions widely, in addition to subjecting Syrian civilians to chemical attacks and prolonged sieges of heavily populated cities.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions, which went into effect in 2010 under the authority of the United Nations, has had some success in stigmatizing the use of the weapons. Signatories to the convention have also taken steps to destroy their existing stockpiles, a major step towards lessening their use.

Still, the weapons have continued to be used. Beyond Syria and Yemen, cluster munitions have been used in Ukraine by Russian-backed militants, as well as in Cambodia, Sudan and South Sudan. Russia and Georgia also each used the weapons in their conflict in 2008, which some now see as Putin’s template for Ukraine.

The U.S.’s approach to cluster munitions has been entirely inadequate, even as the government and military have limited their use and sale in recent years. Prior to the 2009 U.S. strike in Yemen, which killed 41 civilians, the last U.S. use of the weapons was in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In 2008, the outgoing George W. Bush administration, facing international pressure due in large part to the emerging cluster weapons ban, issued a new policy prohibiting the U.S. military from using cluster munitions that failed to explode at a rate greater than 1 percent by 2018. That decision resulted “in essence, [in] banning all but a tiny fraction of the existing arsenal,” according to Mary Wareham, arms division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. In 2017, however, then-President Donald Trump overrode that policy, replacing it with the much looser conditions under which the weapons could be used. Trump allowed commanders to deploy the existing stockpiles “until sufficient quantities” of “enhanced and more reliable” bombs could be researched and developed. President Joe Biden has left that policy in place, despite heavy criticism from the human rights community.

According to the Cluster Munition Monitor, which tracks the use of the weapons, the United States no longer produces cluster bombs, though China and Russia are developing new generations of the weapons. Although the consensus in the human rights community is that the weapons are impossible to use in accordance with the laws of war, are inherently immoral and do not create a battlefield advantage to justify their myriad drawbacks, that perspective is not shared by some in the U.S. military, who have continued to argue for their use to slow or disrupt large-scale “enemy” movements by militaries across a wide space.

But the reality is that when cluster bombs have been used, in practice, they are used against civilians. They kill indiscriminately. And when they fail to explode in the heat of battle, they kill civilians years later.

Russia’s use of the weapons is horrific, unjustifiable and inexcusable. The United States can and should do more to stigmatize and lessen the global use of cluster munitions, first and foremost by revoking Trump’s 2017 policy and then by joining the treaty that bans their use.