The United States is expected to announce it will supply 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.

Cluster munitions, first used during World War II, are a class of weapons including rockets, bombs, missiles and artillery shells that break up air and disperse a number of light bomblets over a large area.

Cluster munition bombs are designed to explode or ignite on the ground, but historically the failure rate is high, with sometimes lasting and 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.

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.

While the deployment of cluster munitions is not in itself a war crime, their use against civilians may be, because they kill so indiscriminately with long-lasting effects.

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.

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.

Russia has used cluster munitions extensively 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 New York 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.

“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.

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.

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. The cluster munitions could help the Ukrainian forces, who are outnumbered by the Russian army, overcome these defenses.

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 it is complicated with all these conventions, but we can use to resist them on our territory,” he. said in town hall at the Munich Security Conference. “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 contributed reporting.

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