ROME – Images of Russian troops retreating from a Ukrainian town under fire leave little doubt about the impact of cluster munitions.
Soldiers fleeing a constellation of at least a dozen explosions around them.
An armored vehicle speeds down a road before being hit by a cascade of simultaneous eruptions that dot the surrounding terrain.
August images of the Russian withdrawal from the village of Urozhaine, in the southeast of the country, captured by a drone and verified by The New York Times, highlight the power of these weapons.
However, its use also reveals a dire trade-off in this 18-month-long conflict.
Fragments collected from Russian rockets, many of them cluster rockets, that hit the city of Kharkiv in December. Photo Libkos/Associated Press
By adopting cluster munitions to keep this summer’s counteroffensive moving forward, Ukraine and the United States have exposed themselves to human rights concerns about their long-term threat to civilians who inadvertently activate unexploded bombs.
Now, two months after the United States sent a first batch of cluster munitions to Ukraine to ensure its troops did not run out of ammunition, three US officials have stated that the Biden administration plans to send more, and soon.
One official said the weapons were key to helping Ukraine maintain the momentum its troops just gained on the southern front against Russian forces.
The three officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
Fatima Jawaal, left, and Tawfeeq Al Deekh, Civil Defense volunteers, often called White Helmets, place warning signs around a suspected cluster bomb. (Nicole Tung/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden’s decision this summer to send the munitions to Ukraine, following pleas from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, drew widespread condemnation, with even some close US allies being critical.
Both Russia and Ukraine used the bomblets throughout the 18-month war, long before the American shipment arrived in mid-July, but with one crucial distinction. Russia has used them against a country it had invaded, where its forces have not hesitated to wreak wanton destruction, while Ukraine has used them on its own soil, weighing the costs to its own people.
Cluster munitions have been banned by more than 100 countries due to their devastating effects, sometimes years later, on children and other civilians who mistakenly disturb and detonate the unexploded projectiles.
Some Ukrainian troops said the US-supplied cluster munitions have been a powerful complement to the large number of weapons the West has sent for the counteroffensive, and a necessary replacement for its dwindling stocks of 155mm artillery shells.
President Joe Biden during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, on July 25, 2023. President Biden said the cluster munitions sent to Ukraine were intended as a patch for forces in danger of run out of ammo. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times)
“They are super effective,” said a Ukrainian marine who participated in the successful fight for Urozhaine and who only identified himself as Serhiy.
“When our guys see how we use them against the enemy, their spirits soar.”
But other Ukrainian soldiers are more restrained, saying that cluster munitions are mostly used in situations where enemy infantry are exposed, and that they are largely ineffective against entrenched Russian positions – line after line of trenches and bunkers. which constitute the main obstacle to the counteroffensive.
Western officials and experts agree that cluster munitions – multiple bomblets packed into projectiles that disperse over a wide area before impact – are most effective against forces and convoys of vehicles that are dispersed over open terrain.
Because the bomblets come out of the projectiles in a dispersed manner, it is difficult to direct them against precise targets.
Until now, according to US officials, they have been used to target Russian troop concentrations, artillery systems, air defenses, ammunition depots, radar stations and vehicles.
“What we’ve seen from the Ukrainian reports is that they are having a good effect with this capability,” Laura K. Cooper, US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, said in a recent interview.
US officials will not say how many cluster munitions were included in the first shipment, out of hundreds of thousands held by the Pentagon.
The US-supplied cluster munitions are fired from 155mm howitzers, with a range of about 15 miles.
Some military experts now advocate cluster munitions that can be launched from rocket systems and reach targets tens of kilometers away.
Garbage left at a position where Russian soldiers were entrenched that was recovered by the Ukrainian military, in Petrivka, Ukraine, March 12, 2023. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
With NATO states’ stockpiles of other munitions to donate dwindling alarmingly, and with US and European arms manufacturers unable to keep up, experts said cluster munitions may be one of the the only means available to replenish Ukraine’s supply.
Ukraine’s voracious demand for ammunition is expected to increase as some units increasingly turn to heavy artillery to prepare the ground for infantry advances, rather than NATO-style combined arms warfare. which Ukrainian units have had difficulty mastering.
U.S. officials have estimated that Ukrainian forces have recently fired up to 8,000 artillery shells a day, including hundreds of cluster munitions.
Taken together, that could lead to cluster munitions becoming what George Barros of the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, predicted could be a “permanent element within the Ukrainian arsenal. “
This is of particular concern to those who oppose the delivery of cluster munitions to Ukraine, regardless of who or how they use them.
“What we’ve seen is that Ukraine is willing to show that cluster munitions have a military utility,” said Mary Wareham, arms division director at Human Rights Watch.
“But at the end of the day these weapons are banned because of the harm they inflict on civilians both when they are used and decades later.”
But without them, Ukrainian leaders reply, they cannot match Russian firepower.
“I want to look at this from a perspective of justice,” Zelenskyy said in July at the annual NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.
“Russia is constantly using cluster munitions on our territory, and they are fighting only on our land. They are killing our people.”
The strategic problem is that in the counteroffensive, Ukraine is fighting entrenched defenders, where cluster munitions “have their limits,” said Can Kasapoğlu, director of defense research at the independent Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul.
They can be successful when used with other types of artillery, but on their own, “they are not a magic wand,” Kasapoğlu said.
Gian Luca Capovin and Alexander Stronell, analysts at British security intelligence company Janes, said in August that Ukraine’s use of cluster munitions in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions, at least so far, “had no decisive effect. “
As a condition of receiving cluster munitions from the United States, Zelensky and senior Ukrainian defense officials pledged to avoid firing them in areas where civilians could be hit.
Senior Russian officials, commanders and military bloggers on the front lines have for months accused Ukraine of firing cluster munitions not only at Russian troops, but also at areas populated by civilians.
The United States has dismissed these accusations as disinformation.
However, in the early stages of the war there have been indications that Ukraine appeared to sometimes use cluster munitions in populated areas.
For the moment, Ukrainian forces claim that the arrival of US cluster munitions has not only boosted morale, but has also helped to disrupt Russian defensive positions in the south, maintain pressure on Russian troops in the east and stop Russian assaults in the northeast.
And some experts point to some specific battles in which they argue that cluster munitions have helped.
One of those places is the small city of Kupiansk, in the province of Kharkiv, where Ukraine has used them more in defense than in attack.
Ukraine has been fighting for months to maintain control of Kupiansk in the face of the Russian advance.
Losing her now would be a heavy blow, said Kasapoğlu, who is also a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and has been following reports from the Kupiansk ground on social media and other public sources.
Two weeks after Biden’s decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine, they arrived in Kupiansk.
In early August, weapons were aimed at Russian forces and armored vehicles trying to seize territory, according to Kasapoğlu.
The fighting in Kupiansk continues to be fierce.
But so far, at least, Ukraine is holding out, and Kasapoğlu said that “cluster munitions have indeed played an important role.”
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