For more than six months, President Biden and his aides have wrestled with one of the most vexing questions of the war in Ukraine: whether to risk letting Ukrainian forces run out of artillery shells they desperately need to fight Russia, or agree to ship them cluster munitions — widely banned weapons known to cause serious injury to civilians, especially children.
On Thursday, Mr. Biden appeared on the verge of supplying cluster munitions to Ukraine, a step that would sharply separate him from many of his closest allies, who have signed an international treaty banning the use, stockpiling or transfer of such weapons.
Several of Biden’s top aides, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, recommended he make the move at a meeting of top national security officials last week despite what they described as their deep reservations, they said. said people familiar with the discussions . They requested anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations.
The State Department had been the last hurdle, both because of humanitarian concerns and concerns that the United States would be drastically out of step with its allies.
Now, Biden’s aides think they have little choice.
Ukraine, which has deployed cluster munitions throughout the war, is burning up the available supply of conventional artillery shells and it will take time to ramp up production.
Mr Biden has come under continued pressure from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who argues that munitions – which disperse tiny, deadly bombs – are the best way to kill Russians who are dug in the trenches and stall Ukraine’s counteroffensive to recapture the territory. A US official said on Thursday it was now clear the weapons were « 100 percent necessary » to meet current battlefield needs.
However, for months Biden and his collaborators have been trying to postpone the decision, hoping that the tide of war will turn in Ukraine’s favor. Part of the concern has been that the United States would appear to be losing its moral edge, using a weapon that much of the world has condemned and which Russia has used with abandon.
The administration was also aware that sending weapons to Ukraine would be hugely unpopular with allies and members of Biden’s own party; over the years many Democrats have led the charge of banning the use of weapons by American troops. When, five days into the war, Jen Psaki, then the White House press secretary, was asked about Russia’s use of unconventional weapons, including cluster munitions, he said: “We have seen the reports. If that were true, it would potentially be a war crime. »
More than 100 nations have signed a 15-year treaty banning the use of cluster munitions, which rain down smaller bombs that scatter across the landscape. The weapons, which are supposed to explode when they hit the ground, have caused thousands of deaths and injuries, often among children who picked up weapons that failed to detonate in the initial attacks, only to explode long after the conflict ended.
Although White House officials said Thursday that Mr. Biden had not made a final decision, several officials said they expected he would give his final approval shortly. The timing is awkward for Biden, who is traveling to Europe for a NATO meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania next week. He also arrives as the United States moves to destroy more dangerous weapons, the latest in its vast arsenal of chemical weapons.
Most of Washington’s closest allies, including Britain, Germany and France, signed the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008. The US, Russia and Ukraine have never signed the treaty, claiming there are circumstances under which weapons are to be used, despite the potential for serious civilian casualties.
Mr Biden was persuaded, officials said, after the Pentagon claimed they would supply Ukraine with an « improved » version of the weapon that has a « damage rate » of about 2% of all shots fired .
Russia, officials noted, used its cluster munitions in Ukraine for much of the war, with a destruction rate of 40 percent or more, posing a much greater danger. The Ukrainians have also used cluster munitions, although their stockpiles are a fraction of Washington’s.
Many bomb experts say the destruction rates of American cluster munitions are likely much higher than Pentagon estimates.
« If they land in water, soft ground such as plowed fields and muddy areas, that can certainly affect reliability, resulting in higher damage rates, » said Al Vosburgh, a retired Army colonel trained in bomb disposal who runs a non-profit humanitarian organization.
Thursday morning, Human Rights Watch issued a long relationship on the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine. « Cluster munitions used by Russia and Ukraine are killing civilians now and will continue to do so for many years, » Maria Wareham, the organization’s acting weapons director, wrote. « Both sides should stop using them immediately and not try to get more of these indiscriminate weapons. » In fact, Ukrainians have used weapons since the beginning of the war, often on their own territory.
American officials said the fact that Ukrainians have decided they would rather use guns – whatever the cost – than live under Russian rule has become a critical factor in Biden’s thinking.
American officials also say they will work with Ukraine to trace where the weapons are being used to help clean up unexploded munitions.
Biden administration officials have been trying for months to muster enough conventional artillery rounds to continue firing at Russian positions. But after getting South Korea to load hundreds of thousands of shells and tapping American stockpiles of artillery shells stored in Israel, the Pentagon predicts Ukraine will run out.
US officials believe Putin is betting his forces could seize that moment to prevail.
In interviews, US officials said they expect the shipment of the cluster munitions to be a temporary move until production of conventional artillery shells can be ramped up, likely by spring next year.
The war in Ukraine was essentially an artillery battle, with both sides hurling huge numbers of shells at entrenched lines of soldiers in the east and south of the country. At the start of the war, Ukraine was low on Soviet-era shells and has since switched largely to cannon and artillery shells donated by the United States and its allies.
During this global race to keep Ukraine stocked with munitions, the Pentagon has repeatedly reminded the White House that the United States was sitting on a mountain of untapped munitions that could ease the strain on a shortage of artillery: cluster munitions.
And for months, Pentagon officials said Thursday, the White House balked, citing concerns about the use of the weapons and saying they were unnecessary.
But as Ukraine’s counteroffensive has met with stiffer-than-expected Russian defenses, US officials have recently signaled a change.
Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, told US lawmakers at the end of last month that the Pentagon had determined that cluster munitions would be useful to Ukraine, « especially against entrenched Russian battlefield positions. »
General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Friday confirmed published reports that the Biden administration was considering sending cluster munitions and a powerful weapon called the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, to Ukraine . Mr. Biden has refused to ship the missile system so far, in part because the weapon could reach deep into Russia.
In a series of recent interviews, Zelensky repeated his call for more weapons, even as the United States has committed more than $40 billion in weapons, ammunition and equipment since the war began.
“The first problem is, of course, ammunition,” Zelensky said The Washington Post of May.
Mr. Zelensky said CNN in a broadcast Wednesday that Ukraine’s counter-offensive has been « slowed down » by fortified Russian defenses and would have started « much sooner » if Western weapons had arrived faster.
John Ismai contributed report.