The U.S. government’s disdain for international law as expressed in the United Nations Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was made plain during the Global War on Terror, through its offensive military invasions and its programmatic torture and summary execution of suspects.
The willingness to defy global opinion on these conventions has come to the forefront again with the announcement that cluster bomb munitions, the use of which by Russia was denounced by the Biden administration as criminal in 2022, are now being sent to Ukraine in 2023. The primary reason why 123 countries have committed to banning the use, production, transfer, and sale of cluster bombs is that they are indiscriminate weapons which are likely to harm entirely innocent persons, whether during wartime or years later, in what appears to be peacetime.
These highly lethal devices disperse explosive elements radially, by the dozens or even hundreds, and some of the “bomblets” do not explode on impact but instead become embedded in the soil, serving effectively as landmines. The 1997 Ottawa Treaty (or Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction) has been ratified and signed or acceded to by 164 countries. After years of oscillating on landmines, even the U.S. government committed in 2022 to ending their use anywhere beyond the Korean peninsula. Because the unexploded bomblets of cluster munitions function as de facto landmines, the Biden administration is arguably reneging on its own pledge in providing such weapons for use in Ukraine.
Long after a violent conflict has come to an end, weapons designed with auto-trigger mechanisms are activated when entirely innocent people either step on them or pick them up. To this day, farmers, mothers, children, and others continue to be maimed and killed by these devices in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and beyond. Such weapons, originally used with the intention of defeating enemy soldiers, have instead mutilated the bodies of civilians, often resulting in lost limbs, when they do not terminate the crippled person’s life, either immediately or later, as a result of the injuries sustained. (See Kym Robinson’s recent piece for a telescopic look at the effects on human beings of this form of weaponry.)
In the wake of the announcement that the U.S. government is sending cluster bombs to Ukraine, op-eds littered the major newspapers with heartfelt professions of support from the usual suspects, insisting that delivering this artillery to Ukraine is not only the militarily right thing to do, but the moral course of action, too. A variety of government officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl, and National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby have made public appearances to explain the reasoning behind this decision (here paraphrased):
- Ukraine is running out of ammunition.
- U.S. stockpiles are running low, and firms in the military industry need time to produce more ammunition.
- President Volodymyr Zelensky has requested cluster munitions for use in his own country.
- Despite running low on other forms of ammunition, U.S. military companies do happen to have large stockpiles of cluster bombs on hand.
- Russia already used cluster bombs in Ukraine anyway.
- The dud (failure) rate of U.S. cluster munitions is much better than the dud rate of those used by the Russians.
- The post-war clean-up of the unexploded ordnance left by Russia will also remove the unexploded ordnance left by the “far less likely to be duds” U.S. cluster bombs.
- Therefore, the U.S. government is sending cluster munitions for Ukraine to use on Ukrainian soil in its fight to defend its sovereign territory and, most importantly of all: democracy.
The U.S. Congress passed a law (H.R. 1105) in 2009 prohibiting the use or provision of cluster munitions with dud rates greater than 1%. The weapons being sent to Ukraine are said to have a dud rate of about 2.5%. One might have thought, then, that most congresspersons would be unwilling to go on record to support the use of inhumane devices banned with good reason by more than one hundred countries. On July 13, 2023, however, a congressional amendment to the 2024 NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act), which would have prohibited the shipment of the weapons to Ukraine, was defeated in a vote of 147 to 276. When asked how Joe Biden could send cluster munitions to Ukraine despite knowing that the dud rate is higher than that allowed by the 2009 law (which stands), the time-tested executive loophole of “national security” was invoked. Biden has signed a “waiver” permitting himself to evade that law.
The most dubious premise of the U.S. government’s argument is that, because Russia has already used cluster bombs in Ukraine, it has already blighted the land and, therefore, throwing more cluster bombs into the mix won’t matter since the areas will have to be cleared anyway. This assertion is highly objectionable, and not only because it represents a capitulation to the morality of the worst (cf. capital punishment). The claim that the land has already been trashed by Russia, so it therefore does not matter whether we pile on as well (which I note here may also be the “logic” of some gang rapists), falsely suggests that ridding a land of one thousand unexploded weapons takes no more effort than does the removal of one hundred unexploded weapons. But anyone who works in the extraordinarily dangerous vocation of clearing former war zones of ordnance will readily aver that a plot of land with ten or one hundred or one thousand more weapons hidden in the soil is ten or one hundred or one thousand times more difficult to clear and, by implication, ten or one hundred or one thousand times more likely to kill the people employed in this capacity.
Errant bomblets which rip the limbs from the torsos of children, when they do not strip them of their lives, will be the consequence of incomplete clean-up missions, and the more bomblets there are embedded in the soil, the more difficult it will be to find and remove all of them. If terrorism is the arbitrary threat of death to innocent persons in the service of political aims, then by sending cluster bombs to Ukraine, the U.S. government is asserting its right not only to kill but also to terrorize Ukrainian nationals in perpetuity. This is because in any of the places where cluster bombs have been used, no one will ever know with certainty that all of them have been removed. Accordingly, the people who choose to walk on that land will never, ever know that they are safe from the arbitrary obliteration of their bodies. In other words, the use of such weapons produces a permanent terrorist threat.
Those who have rallied behind the shipment of cluster munitions for use by the Ukrainian military on Ukrainian soil insist that, without the provision of such weapons, the Russians will kill even more Ukrainians than they would have. But is this boilerplate pseudo-utilitarian rationalization at all plausible? There are in fact three possible outcomes to this conflict. Ukraine wins (because Russia retreats). Russia wins (because Ukraine relents). Both Ukraine and Russia, along with the rest of the world, lose because World War III is sparked by the use of nuclear weapons by incessantly provoked President Vladimir Putin.
Let us consider the three possible outcomes of the Ukraine-Russia border dispute more closely. The first possibility is that the Russians will retreat, having been exhausted by the unexpectedly long war, which was lengthened most notably by the massive quantity of military aid furnished to Ukraine by the United States. Perhaps Vladimir Putin, in a moment of philosophical reflection, will conclude that his concerns over eastern Ukraine do not warrant escalating the war beyond Ukraine, to attack NATO and the United States through the use of nuclear warheads. Putin has been busy strengthening relationships with leaders of countries all over the world who, too, feel continually antagonized by the U.S. military hegemon: in Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East. It may be that Putin will “move on,” having forged new power relations more advantageous to him than would be a dogged insistence on keeping Ukraine out of NATO, etc.
The second possibility is that Ukraine will eventually agree to negotiate a settlement to the dispute, having recognized that it cannot prevail against its enormous, nuclear-armed neighbor. This outcome would most likely be precipitated were Ukraine to lose the support of the international community members funding the war. So long as political elites in the West support the conflict, the arms and money will continue to flow to Ukraine. But if the populace in the countries being impoverished and threatened with the awful specter of nuclear war by these increasingly reckless provisions eventually rise up to reject the prioritization by their leaders of the interests of nonnationals, then the responsible parties may be removed from power and replaced by individuals concerned with domestic crises. In the United States, for example, with major elections coming up in 2024 (including that of the president), homelessness, drug addiction and overdoses, crime and crumbling infrastructure, and the crushing cost of living in the homeland may take center stage, with Ukraine abandoned, just as was Afghanistan in 2021, by the legislature which supported the war eventually revealed to have served no purpose beyond enriching weapons industry profiteers for years.
The third possibility is that the war will continue on until the president of Russia has been persuaded to believe that his personal destruction is imminent. Putin has already been repeatedly apprised by individuals in the position to effect his demise (such as President Joe Biden), that “Putin must go!” Having witnessed serial incursions into Russian airspace of lethal drones, in December 2022, and May, July and August 2023—military means which appear to have been sent to either terrorize or assassinate the head of state—Putin may be persuaded to believe that he has nothing to lose. At that point, he may decide to deploy the nuclear weapons in his arsenal, which he inherited from the now-defunct USSR, the raison-d’être of NATO. If Putin fires a nuclear weapon, then this will likely spark World War III and the end of human civilization, given the intricate nuclear warhead ricochet systems set up by the two superpowers during the Cold War. The USSR dissolved, but its capacity for total global destruction remains in Russia.
The withdrawal of Russia from Ukraine seems unlikely to transpire, because to do so would require Putin to retract his original claims about his reasons for having invaded. The second outcome would represent a true victory for democracy in the sense that the persons whose tax monies are being siphoned away and sent to Ukraine will have prevailed in their demands that the domestic concerns of compatriots be instead addressed by their own elected officials. The third outcome, nuclear holocaust, and the destruction of large urban centers all over the world, would needless to say constitute the end of democracy as we know it.
The provision of cluster munitions to Ukraine guarantees only an increase in the total number of people killed, both soldiers and civilians, now and in the future, whatever the ultimate outcome of the conflict turns out to be. If anything, sending more and more weapons to Ukraine is most likely to push Putin to opt for the use of nuclear weapons, should his own arsenal of conventional weapons become depleted. In the light of this possibility, it is stunning that anyone should continue to claim, much less believe, that the U.S. government is defending democracy through sending cluster bombs to Ukraine.
That President Zelensky himself should be willing to ruin vast tracts of his own country with the unexploded ordnance of cluster bombs itself corroborates the impression among those familiar with the events of 2014 that he is not a champion of the people but a puppet of the U.S. military machine. In making his plea, Zelensky has insisted that cluster munitions will be used only in areas uninhabited by civilians. But how could he possibly know where civilians in future decades may decide to live? Zelensky’s foreign-funded proxy war will only become bloodier and kill more of his compatriots faster with the infusion of U.S. cluster bombs into the theater. Assuming that Putin does not opt for the use of nuclear weapons, the war will end with hands shaken and borders affirmed or redrawn, but the people who die for decades to come will be the victims of those who agreed to support the war crimes currently being committed there by both sides to this dispute.