The Biden administration’s decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine to fight the Russian invasion shows both the challenges Kyiv and its western allies face in the prolonged war and the U.S.’s readiness to escalate it to push back the Russians. Cluster munitions are designed to explode on impact, but many remain “duds”, which can explode later, causing indiscriminate harm — the reason why over 100 countries have banned them. The U.S., though not a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, had criticised Russia in the recent past for using these munitions in the conflict as amounting to war crimes. But the U.S.’s U-turn now, as part of its 42nd aid package to Ukraine since the Russian invasion began, points to the strains Ukraine is facing on the battlefield. In a war dominated by artillery, Ukraine is entirely dependent on the West for weapons that include artillery shells and ammunition, while Russia’s industrial base has picked up, ensuring an uninterrupted supply of weapons to the front lines. The conventional war has strained western reserves, leaving Ukraine at a disadvantageous position when compared to Russia’s artillery superiority.
Before Ukraine began its counteroffensive a few weeks ago, the western calculation was that swift battlefield victories by Ukraine, like its lightning counter-advances in Kharkiv and Kherson last year, would change the dynamics and put Russia’s President Vladimir Putin under pressure. But the Russians, over the last few months, have built strong defence fortifications along the over 1,000-km long front line, from Kherson in the south to the outskirts of Kharkiv in the northeast, which the Ukrainians have found extremely difficult to break through. Ukraine has made some minor territorial gains in southeast, but at a heavy cost, and is far from achieving its perceived breakthrough of cutting off Mr. Putin’s landbridge in Zaporizhzhia, separating the Russian-controlled Donbas in the east from Crimea in the south. It is this reality of the battlefield that led the U.S. to take what President Biden called “the difficult decision” of sending cluster munitions. However, this would still raise criticism. The alleged war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine have been well documented and slammed internationally. Kyiv is also being accused of targeting civilian centres in the Donbas. But the U.S. has tried to draw a moral and ethical line, no doubt thin, by saying it was helping Ukraine defend itself. This line gets blurred with the decision to send the civilian killer munitions to the battlefield. It also shows that no side is willing to make a compromise as yet, irrespective of their battlefield positions, as the war, even after 16 months of fighting, still stays in an escalation spiral.