The US appears to be supplying Ukraine with cluster munitions, a senior Biden administration official said. Kiev has pushed for the controversial and widely banned type of weapon but Washington has resisted because of its potential to cause indiscriminate harm to civilians.

Ukraine said the weapons would help in its counteroffensive against Russian forces by allowing its forces to effectively target fortified Russian positions and overcome its disadvantage in manpower and artillery.

After months of controversy, citing concerns about the use of the weapons and saying they were not necessary, US officials recently signaled a change. Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, said US lawmakers late last month that the Pentagon had determined that cluster munitions would be useful for Ukraine, “especially against dug-in Russian positions on the battlefield.”

The expected American decision was first reported by National Public Radio and confirmed Wednesday night by the administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to disclose internal political discussions.

Here’s what to know about the weapons.

What are cluster munitions?

Cluster munitions, first used during World War II, are a class of weapons including rockets, bombs, missiles and artillery shells that disintegrate air and scatter smaller projectiles over a large area.

Parts of cluster munitions on display near a United Nations camp in Tibnin, Lebanon, in 2007.Credit…Mark Renders/Getty Images

Why are they controversial?

Cluster munition bombs are generally designed to explode or ignite on the ground, but historically their failure rate is the highest among all classes of weapons, with lasting and often devastating consequences for civilians. According to humanitarian groups, a fifth or more of the bombs may linger, possibly to detonate when disturbed or handled years later.

“It’s just not a responsible way to use cluster munitions,” said Brian Castner, the weapons expert for Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Team.

Since World War II, cluster munitions have killed an estimated 56,500 to 86,500 civilians. They also killed and wounded scores of American service members. Civilians, including children in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Balkans and Laos, continue to suffer from incidents involving cluster munition remnants.

What does the US plan to send?

Under the decision, the United States would send Ukraine 155-millimeter artillery shells loaded with high-explosive shells called dual-purpose improved conventional munitions, or DPICMs. The grenades are designed to break open air and distribute the grenades over and are to attack both armored vehicles as well as dismounted troops.

The two main 155mm DPICM shells in the US inventory are the M483, which holds 88 rounds, and the longer-range M864 which carries 72 rounds. Which version is considered for Kyiv is unclear.

Both shells use the same types of DPICM grenades, which often fail to explode immediately due to environmental factors, such as landing in vegetation or on soft ground. The grenades lack the ability to self-destruct, and often remain dangerous for decades afterward, capable of exploding if mishandled because of their particularly sensitive fuses, Mr. Castner added.

“If you touch that thing wrong,” he said, “it’s like striking a match.”

Aren’t these things forbidden?

Because cluster munitions spread over a large area and often explode long after they are deployed, they can indiscriminately harm civilians, which Mr. Castner said was a violation of international humanitarian law and a potential war crime.

Because of those risks, more than 100 countries — though not the United States, Russia or Ukraine — signed a 2008 treaty known as the Convention on Cluster Munitions, pledging not to make, use, transfer or stockpile them. Since the adoption of the convention, 99 percent of global stockpiles have been destroyed, according to the Cluster Munition Coalition.

A bomb disposal technician scanning an area for unexploded ordnance in Laos in 2006.Credit…Jerry Redfern/LightRocket, via Getty Images

Ukraine has said it will deploy the weapons judiciously because it is fighting on its own soil, and that many frontline areas are already widely affected by landmines.

Were cluster munitions used in Ukraine?

The New York Times has documented Russia’s extensive use of cluster munitions in Ukraine since the start of the invasion in February 2022. Ukraine has also used them to retake Russian-occupied territories, according to human rights monitors, the United Nations, and reports. from The Times. The Cluster Munition Coalition said in its annual report last summer that cluster munitions had killed at least 689 people in just the first six months of fighting.

While the exact number of weapons used in the conflict is difficult to know, hundreds have been documented and reported in Ukraine, mostly in populated areas, the Human Rights Watch group said in May 2023 report. The attack with the highest known casualties was an April 2022 strike by a missile equipped with a cluster munition at a crowded train station in Kramatorsk, which killed dozens and injured more than 100 others, according to the group.

Luggage left at the train station in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, where around 50 people were killed in April 2022 in a Russian attack.

“The transfer of cluster munitions ignores the great danger they pose to civilians and undermines the global effort to ban them,” said Mary Wareham, the group’s arms advocacy director. statement Thursday.

How do other allies feel about these weapons going to Ukraine?

Most members of NATO, the Western military alliance that has been staunch in its support for Ukraine, signed the international ban. Ms. Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense, said that “concerns about allied unity” were one of the reasons preventing the United States from supplying Ukraine with weapons. The Convention on Cluster Munitions also limits the ability of nations that have joined to cooperate militarily with countries that use them.

How would supplying cluster munitions affect the war?

Before Ukraine’s long-anticipated counteroffensive, Russian forces had months to prepare defense lines against the coming attack, with miles of trenches, tank traps and mines. Ukraine and the Biden administration have argued that the cluster munitions could help Ukrainian forces, which are outnumbered by the Russian military, overcome those defenses.

But this imprecise nature can also put offensive Ukrainian forces at risk of encountering unexploded ordnance from earlier deployments, said Gabriela Rosa Hernández, a research associate at the Arms Control Association.

Soldiers of Ukraine’s 36th brigade firing on nearby Russian trenches on the front line in southern Ukraine in June.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

In February, Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for restoration, said that a quick delivery of weapons from allies would be critical to Kyiv’s advance in the counteroffensive against Russia, and that it should be Ukraine’s choice to deploy the weapons on its soil. .

“It’s our territory. I understand how complicated it is with all these conventions,” he said in town hall at the Munich Security Conference, but he emphasized their usefulness in resisting the Russian invasion. “Our allies, the United States, many other countries, they have millions of rounds of this kind. Again we will wait, wait, wait, and suddenly one day, probably, we will get such ammunition.”

Eric Schmitt, John Ismay and Gaya Gupta contributed reporting.

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