Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 16 August 2023


Ukraine is fighting to survive. So why are allies nervous about these weapons?

The remains of a rocket that carried cluster munitions sits in a field in the Kherson region of Ukraine. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)
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Eliot A. Cohen is Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

For nearly 18 months we have beheld a European war of an extent, ferocity and destructiveness not seen since the middle of the last century. While the United States and its allies have chosen to arm Ukraine with billions of dollars’ worth of hardware, governments have hesitated to provide certain kinds of munitions, either for fear of provoking Russia or because of scruples about what those weapons can do.

In recent months the U.S. provision of cluster munitions — artillery rounds and bombs that deliver a cargo of mini bomblets to destroy equipment and kill soldiers over large areas — elicited particular anxiety in Western capitals. Parties to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions promised “never under any circumstances to use cluster munitions” or to “develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer to anyone, directly or indirectly” these weapons. Canada and Germany issued statements condemning the move. Even in the United States, which did not join the convention, there were protests.

The reason is that cluster munitions inevitably include duds — between 2 percent for current generation American variants, to 30 to 40 percent for earlier generation shells that Russian forces use. The duds can still explode and pose a particular hazard to civilians once the shooting stops.

The hesitation about providing American cluster munitions to Ukraine, and the hand-wringing in some quarters, says more about how safe and prosperous liberal democracies misunderstand war than it does about the intrinsically heinous quality of any weapon. Free countries that face mortal threats did not join the convention — Finland, Israel and South Korea stand out. And for good reason: Their enemies have no hesitations about stockpiling and employing such weapons. In the same way, seriously threatened states did not sign the 1997 convention on anti-personnel mines. Mines are effective, too, as the Ukrainian infantry has unhappily discovered.

Weapons are designed to kill and weapons often endanger innocent people. That goes for shells or grenades filled with small fléchettes or ball bearings, or torpedoes — or for that matter bullets. And when a country is up against another that has no compunctions about using the weapons that elicit horror, sooner or later both sides use them.

This unpleasant fact has been true throughout history. As early as 1899, European states agreed not to use “asphyxiating or deleterious gases” against each other. But when war came in 1914, before long both sides did.

In the 1930 London Naval Treaty, the signatories established clear rules about all the things submariners had to do before sinking merchant ships — most notably providing warning and assisting crews to safety. Beginning in 1939, European combatants launched submarine attacks on one another that disregarded those rules. When the United States entered the war after Pearl Harbor, one of the first orders from the naval high command was to commence unrestricted submarine warfare against Japanese merchant shipping. After the war, American admirals testified in support of Germany’s Adm. Karl Dönitz, who was on trial for war crimes committed by the U-boats in violation of that treaty.

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Post Opinions provides commentary on the war in Ukraine from columnists with expertise in foreign policy, voices on the ground in Ukraine and more.
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Iuliia Mendel, a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, writes guest opinions from inside Ukraine. She has written about trauma, Ukraine’s “women warriors” and what it’s like for her fiance to go off to war.
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So too with aerial bombardment. The various Hague conventions of the late 19th and early 20th century prohibited “the attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended.” In the event, the Axis devastation of Warsaw, Rotterdam and Coventry early in the war were answered later by British and American incineration of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo.

The reservations about cluster munitions being given to Ukraine are particularly misplaced. The Russian military has used cluster munitions extensively in this war, with much higher dud rates than those the United States has provided. Cluster munitions are particularly useful for a combatant that lacks air superiority over the battlefield. Most importantly, it is in Ukraine territory upon which the rounds are falling. If a democratically elected government is willing to assume the undeniable risks to its civilians posed by duds, surely it has a right to make that choice.

The larger issue here, however, goes to an understanding of the world we inhabit. The Ukraine war is a watershed. This is the first time since the middle of the last century that a great power has attempted to wipe another country off the face of the planet using any means available — committing atrocities such as rape, castration, torture, kidnapping and summary execution as a matter of course rather than as criminal exceptions. Ukraine is fighting to survive.

The United States and its allies have fought wars aplenty over the past 80 years, but not ones that are existential. We have done so within the margin of safety provided by nuclear weapons, distance and technological superiority. When we have fought wars of that kind in the past, however, compunctions about weapons, even when backed by conventions, dropped aside. To be sure, the essential humanitarian norms of refraining from torture, murder and wanton destruction of people can and should hold even in such total conflicts. But restraints on which weapons we use would — and will — drop away.

There is a solution for those whose queasiness about cluster munitions exceeds their compassion for mutilated or dead Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. That is to arm Ukraine speedily and with both the quality and quantity of weapons that can bring this war to a quicker end. Long-range ATACMS (the Army Tactical Missile System) missiles, F-16s and all other tools of war that could be produced by a defense industry that has yet to be properly mobilized can deliver victory to Ukraine. So far, that sense of urgency, that scale of effort and that speed have been lacking. As a result, the suffering of a battered but valiant people continues.

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