President Biden defended his decision on Friday to supply Ukraine with cluster munitions, which are banned by many of America’s closest allies, saying it was a difficult decision but “the Ukrainians are running out of ammunition” in the fight against Russian forces.
For months, Mr. Biden has wrestled with the decision to provide the weapons that scatter tiny, deadly bombs across the battlefield. They have been known to cause serious injuries months or even years after the fighting has ended, often among children who pick up trash that did not explode when initially dropped.
Ultimately, the president determined that disarming Ukraine would be tantamount to leaving it defenseless against Russia. He said it was a temporary move to hold off Ukraine until production of conventional artillery rounds could be ramped up.
“It was a very difficult decision on my part — and by the way, I discussed this with our allies, I discussed this with our friends up on the Hill,” Mr. Biden said in one. interview with CNN. “The Ukrainians are running out of ammunition.”
“And so what I ended up doing was I took the recommendation of the Defense Department to — not permanently — but to allow this transition period,” he added.
The decision was a break with several of America’s closest allies and drew criticism from Democrats, who expressed concerns that the weapons risked America’s moral standing. The move could also complicate efforts to demonstrate unity when Mr Biden attends a NATO summit next week in Lithuania.
Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, dodged a question about whether he thought it was wise for the US to supply the weapons to Ukraine.
“It is for individual allies to make decisions about the delivery of weapons and military supplies to Ukraine,” Mr Stoltenberg told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels. “So this will be for governments – not for NATO as an alliance.”
Russia, US officials noted, used its cluster munitions in Ukraine for much of the war. The Ukrainians have also used them, and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has pressed Mr. Biden to deliver more to get the Russians out, who are dug into trenches and block Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, told reporters at the White House on Friday that Kiev made a direct appeal for the weapons several weeks ago.
“Ukraine would not use these munitions in any foreign country,” Mr. Sullivan said. “This is their country that they are defending. These are their citizens that they are protecting, and they are motivated to use whatever weapons system they have in a way that minimizes risks to those citizens.
Mr. Sullivan said the Ukrainians had promised to use the weapons in a way that would avoid civilians, but he said there were no guarantees.
“The battlefield is changing all the time,” he said.
Many US allies who support Kyiv have drawn the line on providing cluster munitions. Germany and France are among more than 100 nations that have signed a treaty banning the weapons; The United States, Russia and Ukraine have not.
The United States never joined the pact because officials believed that cluster munitions could be useful on the battlefield. The United States used cluster munitions during the war in Iraq, according to the Cluster Munition Coalition, a campaign that calls for an end to the use of the weapons. Saudi Arabia used American-made cluster munitions during the war in Yemen until the United States stopped the transfer amid concerns that civilians would be harmed.
American allies reacted with caution on Friday to Mr. Biden’s decision.
While Germany and France did not criticize the US or oppose the move, the countries said they would not follow suit.
The Pentagon said Friday that the administration’s decision will quickly deliver hundreds of thousands of cluster munitions to Ukraine at a pivotal time when Ukraine’s month-long offensive is flagging.
To approve the weapons for Ukraine, Mr. Biden had to waive a law that prohibits the transfer of such weapons that have a failure rate of more than 1 percent.
In a briefing to reporters at the Pentagon, Colin H. Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said the munitions sent to Ukraine have a low downtime.
“These munitions are pretty close to 1 percent, but they’re not at the 1 percent level,” he said. “But the president has the authority to waive that requirement on the grounds of national security, and that’s what he did on this occasion.”
Acknowledging the moral and diplomatic sensitivities of sending weapons to Ukraine, which are banned by treaty from most of Washington’s allies, Mr. Kahl said the Russians already indiscriminately use cluster munitions with failure rates of up to 40 percent on the battlefield, presenting huge risks to civilians. . Ukraine wants to use the same weapons to defend its own territory, and understands the risks of doing so, he said.
Mr Kahl also said the US would work with Ukraine to minimize the risks associated with cluster munitions. Specifically, the Ukrainian government said it would not use the bypasses in densely populated urban areas, and that using the bypasses would facilitate post-conflict demining efforts.
“There would be a careful accounting of where they use these weapons,” Mr. Kahl said.
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. Additional civilians, including children in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Balkans and Laos, continue to suffer from incidents involving cluster munition remnants.
The Minister of Defense of Ukraine, Oleksiy Reznikov, said on Friday the decision “would significantly help us unoccupy our territories while saving the lives of the Ukrainian soldiers.”
On Capitol Hill, several Democrats criticized the decision, arguing that the weapons could cause indiscriminate harm to civilians long after the fighting ends.
“I continue to strongly support helping Ukraine counter Russia’s brutal war of aggression,” said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts and ranking member of the House Rules Committee, in a statement. “But cluster munitions won’t help.”
The few Republicans who spoke about Mr. Biden’s decision on Friday, however, praised him for what they said was a necessary step.
“For Ukrainian forces to defeat Putin’s invasion, Ukraine needs at least equal access to the weapons Russia is already using against them, such as cluster munitions,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, said in a statement. “Providing this new capability is the right decision – even if it has taken too long – and is one that I have long supported.”
Lara Jakes, Karoun DemirjianZolan Kanno-Youngs and John Ismay contributed reporting.