US Considering Sending Banned Weapons to Ukraine

A bad idea fueled by desperation.

NYT (“Biden Weighs Giving Ukraine Weapons Banned by Many U.S. Allies“):

For more than six months, President Biden and his aides have been wrestling with one of the most vexing questions in the war in Ukraine: whether to risk letting Ukrainian forces run out of the artillery rounds they desperately need to fight Russia, or agree to ship them cluster munitions — widely banned weapons known to cause grievous injury to civilians, especially children.

On Thursday, Mr. Biden appeared on the verge of providing the 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 Mr. 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 have described as their own deep reservations, people familiar with the discussions said. They requested anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations.

The State Department had been the last holdout, both because of humanitarian concerns and worries that the United States would be drastically out of step with its allies.

Now, Mr. Biden’s aides think they have little choice.

Ukraine, which has deployed cluster munitions of its own in the war, is burning through the available supply of conventional artillery shells, and it will take time to ramp up production.

Mr. Biden has come under steady pressure from President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who argues that the munitions — which disperse tiny, deadly bomblets — are the best way to kill Russians who are dug into trenches and blocking Ukraine’s counteroffensive to retake territory. One American official said Thursday that it was now clear that the weapons are “100 percent necessary” to meet the current battlefield needs.

Yet for months, Mr. Biden and his aides have tried to put off the decision, hoping that the tide of the war would turn in Ukraine’s favor. Part of the concern has been that the United States would appear to lose the moral high ground, using a weapon that much of the world has condemned, and that Russia has used with abandon.

The administration has also been aware that sending the weapons to Ukraine would be enormously unpopular among allies and members of Mr. Biden’s own party; over the years, many Democrats have led the charge to bar the use of the weapons by American troops. When, five days into the war, Jen Psaki, then the White House press secretary, was asked about the Russian use of unconventional weapons, including cluster munitions, she 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-old treaty banning the use of cluster munitions, which rain down smaller bombs that scatter across the landscape. The weapons, which are meant to explode when they hit the ground, have caused thousands of deaths and injuries, often among children who have picked up duds that failed to go off in the initial attacks, only to explode long after a conflict is over.

While I get that these weapons are highly effective—indeed, as I’ve recounted before, they’re what my soldiers fired during Desert Storm—we came to realize that, because of their high dud rate, they have devastating effects on children once the conflict ends and banned them. While the United States is not a signatory to the convention, for the sole reason that we believe landmines to be essential in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, we otherwise scrupulously follow it and took these munitions out of our rotation (but not our inventory). There is no convenience exception to the treaty.

Ukraine has been using their own version, presumably of Russian manufacture, throughout the conflict and Turkey has been supplying them since at least January. But there’s a difference between a desperate people using them in defense, a quasi-autocratic ostensible NATO ally supplying them, and the leader of the alliance doing so.

While standing with an invaded people is a good in its own right, the primary benefit of our support has been to weaken Russia—which we deem an “acute threat” in our defense strategy—and to bolster NATO. It would be foolish to squander those gains for temporary advantage.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, World Politics, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. charontwo says:

    Ukraine is begging for them. It’s their country, it should be their choice whether the pros outweigh the cons.

    (Apparently, they are a great way to clear enemy trenches).

  2. charontwo says:

    we came to realize that, because of their high dud rate, they have devastating effects on children once the conflict ends and banned them.

    Is the continuing mistreatment of children in Russian occupied territory a lesser problem?

  3. James Joyner says:

    @charontwo: It’s their choice whether to use them, although it’s quite possibly a war crime to do so. That doesn’t mean we should supply them, making us complicit.

    @charontwo: It’s almost certainly a worse problem. But it’s a war crime for which Russian leaders could at least theoretically be held accountable. And, again, the question is American complicity.

  4. Scott says:

    Listening to NPR this morning, the dud rate is claimed to be 2% vs 20% in the past. Have my doubts.

    I heard that we are not a signatory banning cluster munitions, nor is Russia or Ukraine.

    One negative that is rarely discussed is that if the clusters are effective and you advance your lines, then your troops have to contend with all those duds also.

    It is a tough decision.

  5. JohnSF says:

    They are, apparently, available quickly in vast quantity.
    Ukraine need shells, quickly, in vast quantity.

    Russia has been using them since the outset.
    Indeed, before, IIRC: they were used in some of the numerous Russian bombardments of Ukrainian positions in Donbas from 2014 to 2022.

    It would be foolish to squander those gains for temporary advantage.

    What gains would be squandered?
    And are those gains worth the Ukrainian lives that might be saved by supplying them?

  6. ptfe says:

    @JohnSF: We can deploy a lot of munitions, ones that would probably save Ukranian lives. That’s not the only metric, though. If the cost is that we drag what we consider a defensive front in support of “European values” into conflict decision-making that’s opposite those asserted values, that seems like a pretty big failure.

    Indeed, if the war simply can’t be won without these kinds of munitions, it does not make any other countries want to sign on to a treaty banning them, nor does it give our allies a warm-fuzzy to find out that the biggest military in the world can’t supply enough non-banned munitions to fight a land war and needs to resort to the ones that they’ve taken out of their arsenals. It means their stockpiles are inadequate for modern warfare.

    The argument that “the other side has been using them!” is facile. The other side has also been using terror among the civilian population. The other side has also been bombing residences. The other side, in fact, has been trying to grab territory from its neighbors. Are these now on the table because we didn’t do it first?

    I view this with the same moral lens as torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. If you can elucidate a notable difference, I’m all ears.

  7. Tony W says:

    The alternative, don’t use them, means Russia (who does use them) wins – and likely continues their march toward re-creating the old Soviet Union. It also means Russia controls Ukraine and then the fate of the formerly Ukrainian people is now under Putin’s authority – a horrific notion.

    This is the problem – you can take the high road and lose, and cause far more injury to yourselves – or you can get down in the trenches and fight like hell to save your country. Michelle Obama (a woman I admire and love greatly) still touts her “they go low we go high” crap – and she’s wrong.

    We need to do whatever it takes to stop Russia. Full stop.

  8. mattbernius says:

    Great article James. Totally agree with where you need out. We shouldn’t be helping these weapons proliferate.

    Honestly, I would much prefer us to decommission our existing stockpiles.

  9. ptfe says:

    @Tony W:

    “We’ve been lobbying for this for quite a long time and finally received a confirmation,” Maria Mezentseva, a Ukrainian member of parliament, told Semafor. “We need them to break through the Russian defense lines during a counteroffensive.”

    That whole quote tells you that this isn’t some suddenly-urgent matter, and it’s not a defensive aid, it’s to end the conflict more quickly using weapons that will continue to be a danger after the war, no matter who wins.

  10. JohnSF says:

    For Ukraine, this is not a war of choice.
    It is not some “put the smack on a bunch of insurgents”, or a expeditionary war against a third-tier enemy.
    It is existential, literally.
    And exactly the sort of war that cluster munitions were designed for in the first place.

    If NATO had ever had to confront the 1st Shock Army hammering over the Inner German Border, there would have been precisely zero discussion about using cluster munitions.
    That is what Ukraine is facing now.

    Those who’ll condemn the US over “values” would condemn the US anyway, for whatever reason they can reach for, every day and twice on a Sunday.

    “It means their stockpiles are inadequate for modern warfare.”

    Very likely they are.
    So, what do you do?
    Tell the Ukrainians that the non-cluster stocks are inadequate, we can’t give the cluster stocks and feel good, they’ll have to die, lose and surrender?
    “Sorry guys, sucks to be you”

    The argument that “the other side has been using them!” is facile

    It’s also accurate.
    Personally I’ve always inclined to response in kind, but tenfold.

  11. JohnSF says:


    it’s to end the conflict more quickly

    Exactly. And exactly why the Ukrainians want them.
    They are being killed at fearful rates.
    Every day this war continues hundreds, on bad days thousands, more are killed or maimed.

    Of COURSE they want to end they war more quickly.

    Is the US going to give them a lecture along the lines of: you must accept this blood sacrifice, so that we Americans can feel good about helping you.?

  12. charontwo says:


    The argument that “the other side has been using them!” is facile.

    The Russian cluster bombs have a much higher dud rate by a factor of several times. Prolonging the war means more duds deployed.

  13. Modulo Myself says:

    The debate strikes me as bogus. The west finds cluster bombs bad because the optics are bad given the wars they fight–i.e. asymmetric conflicts against unarmed populations with insurgent forces. It means that surgical drone strikes are great, even if there are collateral wedding parties, but it’s wrong to harm the same kids in a different way.

    This conflict is not the same and I doubt that there’s any blowback in using these weapons. The Russians invaded without provocation and are committing war crimes and using cluster bombs. Giving Ukraine forces (who are using them already) the same weapons does not change a thing.

  14. JohnSF says:

    Not to mention that non-cluster munitions also have duds.
    The scale of shelling in eastern Ukraine is on an epic scale.
    And these areas are also already among most mined areas on Earth, and largely deserted by the civilian population.
    Some may end up being like some WW1 battlefields, which are still closed off today, due to unexploded munitions and chemical poisons (lead and mercury mainly) in the ground.

  15. Andy says:

    One of the many terrible things about war is that it forces the consideration of serious moral compromise.

    Cluster munitions are undoubtedly effective in many instances, but they are not a wunder waffen that would be the lynchpin to success for Ukraine. I have no idea how desperate Ukraine is to get them, but the fact that Biden seems on the cusp of granting that request suggests it’s pretty desperate.

    I don’t know the right answer here because I don’t think there is one. Like most of life, this decision is about tradeoffs and the tradeoffs here are not good in either direction.

  16. Scott says:

    @JohnSF: That would be the Zone Rouge.

    The area is saturated with unexploded shells (including many gas shells), grenades, and rusty ammunition. Soils were heavily polluted by lead, mercury, chlorine, arsenic, various dangerous gases, acids, and human and animal remains.[1] The area was also littered with ammunition depots and chemical plants.

    Each year, several tons of unexploded shells are recovered. According to the Sécurité Civile agency in charge, at the current rate, 300[2] to 700 more years will be needed to clean the area completely. Some experiments conducted in 2005–06 discovered up to 300 shells per hectare (120 per acre) in the top 15 cm (6 inches) of soil in the worst areas.[3]

    Some areas where 99% of all plants still die remain off limits (for example, two small pieces of land close to Ypres and the Woëvre), as arsenic constitutes up to 175,907 mg (175.9g) /kg of soil samples where arsenical shells were destroyed in the 1920s

  17. JohnSF says:

    That’s it. Also known as the Dead Zone.
    I’ve seen part of the fringes of one area near Arras.
    It’s quite horrifying.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    The west finds cluster bombs bad because the optics are bad given the wars they fight–i.e. asymmetric conflicts against unarmed populations with insurgent forces.

    The history doesn’t bear this out. We first restricted the use of landmines in 1980 and banned them altogether in 1997. It was large-scale conflict against conventional forces, not counterinsurgency, that was on their minds. Indeed, one of the bigger US-based groups involved in the campaign was the Vietnam Veterans of America.

  19. Sleeping Dog says:


    I’ve posted the link to these photos before; The local of these bunkers are generally on French military bases and the Zone Rouge. He does have pictures of unexploded munitions.

  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    In WW2 the RAF discovered that if it launched a wave of bombers with high explosives, the HE would blow the roofs off buildings, exposing interiors which burned ever so cheerily when the second wave of bombers, the ones carrying incendiaries, came along. When they burned Hamburg most people died from suffocation as the firestorm consumed all the oxygen. Some were trapped in melting tarmac. See also: Dresden. And Tokyo. And of course Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Cities full of old people and women and children.

    And that was the ‘good war.’

    I have always insisted that when we talk about war we must do it honestly. We will make widows. We will leave children crying alone in burned out homes. We will fill hospitals with the shattered and the burned and mutilated. We will make mistakes and kill people we did not intend to kill. And sometimes we will throw up our hands and say, kill ’em all and let God sort them out.

    Russia started this war. Ukrainian children are suffering, and they’ll suffer more. Some will lose legs or hands or faces because of these munitions. But that’s what war is.

    Give Ukraine whatever the hell it wants, whatever the hell it can use, and let’s drop the hypocrisy.

  21. Modulo Myself says:

    @James Joyner:

    Sure, they banned weapons which were not useful strategically. I’m sure part of this is internal. In the same way we don’t have a draft, the military needs for its own sake to pretend that killing people with drone attacks is more humane than using cluster munitions. But that is simply because the west fights wars that are optional, or against opponents who are easily overrun, like the first Gulf War.

  22. Han says:

    Considering Ukraine intends to use these within their own (currently occupied) territory in a war of agression, and will be the ones dealing with the aftermath and clean-up once they achieve their objective, I don’t see what the problem is.

  23. Andy says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    Killing people with drone strikes is more humane than cluster munitions in most situations for reasons that should be obvious, especially in a conflict that requires more precise targeting on a complicated battlefield in urban terrain with non-combatants. The US generally tries pretty hard – more than any other country – to use weapons consistent with the principle of proportionality in the Law of Armed Conflict, which is why so much was invested over the last several decades in greater precision and lower collateral effects to the extent of even designing weapons with no explosives at all.

    By design, cluster munitions are area-of-effect weapons and are only useful and appropriate for particular situations. This isn’t different from any other weapon. The US has not banned them and hasn’t signed the treaty banning them, and keeps them stockpiled because the US believes they are still necessary for certain potential large-scale conventional land conflicts (ie Korea) where those weapons might be necessary. So it’s quite apparent how these would be useful in the large-scale conventional land war in Ukraine.

    They are effective weapons for what they are designed to do, but the tradeoffs are significant. In the first Gulf War – which, BTW, only looks like a cakewalk in hindsight – of the roughly 200 US combat and non-combat deaths, about 20% were killed by our own cluster munitions. If one wants to attribute a cynical and self-interested motive for the reluctance to use these weapons, that would be it.

  24. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s their choice whether to use them, although it’s quite possibly a war crime to do so.

    I hate to actually be pro-war-crime, but… I honestly have a hard time thinking that there can be war crimes against an invading army. You should be allowed to defend yourself against an actively hostile attacking or occupying force by any means necessary.

    War is unpleasant and horrific in the best of circumstances. This is an illegal war of choice by Russia, and a continuous series of war crimes on their part.

    If cluster munitions can end the war faster, or break the occupation, I see nothing wrong with it. Cleanup will be messy.

    I guess it comes down to this: The lesser of two evils may be still be evil, but it’s also less evil.

  25. Kathy says:


    I honestly have a hard time thinking that there can be war crimes against an invading army.

    Against prisoners form the invading army. Like killing them after they’ve surrendered, torturing P.O.W.s for information, etc.

    BTW, I recall reading about a cluster munition designed to wreck runways. As per the design, not all bomblets were intended to blow up on contact with the target. Some were on time fuses instead, meant to go off when they’d kill the people or wreck the machines trying to repair the runway.

    I wonder whether the same design ins’t used, or intended to be used, on cluster munitions meant to kill people in trenches. The idea would be for some delayed bomblets to kill those trying to aid the wounded, or those recovering the bodies.

  26. dazedandconfused says:

    I suspect this is being prompted by a lack of artillery ammo. The usage rate is far beyond our and NATOs production rate and this war has gone on long enough for the bottom of the barrel to be within sight. Clusters may be the only ammo we have left to give in a hurry and in quantity. Such a lack could not be publicly discussed hence the story we are getting. They are a double edged sword for advancing troops.

    Just a hunch.

  27. JohnSF says:

    It may be that in part; but it’s also a question of effectiveness and speed.
    Ukraine appears to be concentrating on destroying artillery batteries, forward depots, and to some extent trench clearing, with artillery fire.
    Using conventional munitions is likely to require several shoots, increasing the vulnerability to Russian counter-battery fire and loitering munitions.
    Also, every additional shot required increases supply load, decreases barrel life, etc etc.

    Whereas every more effective shot increases the pressure on the Russian Army.

  28. Gustopher says:


    Against prisoners form the invading army. Like killing them after they’ve surrendered, torturing P.O.W.s for information, etc.

    Being invaded should not obligate you to care for your attacker’s soldiers, captured or otherwise.

    It may be in the invaded country’s best interest — they would prefer invaders to surrender rather than fight to the last man, torture seldom gives good information, brutal mistreatment and snuff videos might harden enemy resolve with cries for vengeance — but that’s self-interest, not obligation.

    This isn’t a ball that went into your yard by accident, this is a ball deliberately sent into your yard with the express intention of killing and maiming, stealing your children and destroying your culture. You don’t have to keep it safe and hand it back.

    The invading army are war criminals, every last one. I don’t lose a lot of sleep over their rights being violated*.

    You also don’t have to tolerate intolerance, and it’s fine to punch Nazis. (If arrested for punching a Nazi, hope that I am on the jury)

    Please enjoy noted Nazi Richard Spencer being punched:

    *: there are a number of wars where I would say the same about the US soldiers. There are always complications along the lines of “is a soldier a war criminal if they have been lied to in order to justify the war”, but I will put the full moral weight for everything that happens on those lying to justify the war.

  29. Kathy says:


    I get all that. Add that you don’t want to give the other side more reason or incentive to mistreat your people captured in battle.

    Still, there’s such thing as decency, and there’s the various Geneva Conventions.

  30. Andy says:


    Several experts agree with your hunch. Here’s one.


    Being invaded should not obligate you to care for your attacker’s soldiers, captured or otherwise.

    The relevant laws of war say otherwise.

  31. Andy says:

    I just want to say to James and Steven – thank you again for getting us a reliable edit function!

  32. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    I may have mentioned before, I once had a conversation with an RAF Bomber Command Operations Staff planner, some 45 years ago. He was the elder brother of a friend of my father, all three being RAF veterans.
    The thing was, the UK intended to win the war; even after the fall of France, and before the USA and USSR became belligerents.
    The plans for doing so were not pretty.

    RAF planners were not aware of “Tube Alloys” (the UK nuclear progamme) specifically, but there was awareness of the possibility of “special weapons”.
    It was taken as read that if Germany had invaded in 1940, chemical weapons would have been used.

    This, and the bombing of Germany in general, did not, as far as I could judge, cause them very much moral anxiety. Either at the time those actions were taken, or in retrospect.
    They regretted what had been done, and thought it was quite horrible, but also regarded it as an inevitable consequence of the war, and its perceived necessities.

    It is likely that their opinions were conditioned by their experience as teenagers, in the case of two of them, of digging dead families out of the rubble of their home town, Coventry.
    The older of the three was already on active service at that point.

    A reference that came up was the phrase used first by Churchill, after the Coventry bombing, and a little later by Air Marshal Harris: “They have sown the wind. They shall reap the whirlwind.”
    Anecdotage: quite a few Coventrians of their vintage had a whirlwind tattoo.

    War is Pandora’s Box: it’s best to leave it unopened.
    A democracy in “war mode” is a very dangerous thing indeed; probably far more so than any autocratic/fascistic regime.

  33. Andy says:


    War is Pandora’s Box: it’s best to leave it unopened.
    A democracy in “war mode” is a very dangerous thing indeed; probably far more so than any autocratic/fascistic regime.


  34. Gustopher says:


    The relevant laws of war say otherwise.

    Laws of war written by warmongers who have a clear interest in reducing the risks they face when going to war. War is brutal and nasty, and there is a clear effort to contain the brutality and nastiness to the people not initiating it.

    I’m willing to let the attacked country make the tradeoffs between raising the costs of war for the invader and risking escalation, without imposing any moral judgements.

    I also think it would be morally justified for a country that is experiencing our Obama/Trump/Biden drone war to send a squad into the US to kill drone operators. Probably not wise as it would not have the effect they are looking for*, but morally justified.

    Anyway, I preemptively excuse any and all war crimes that are committed by Ukrainian forces against the Russian forces. War crimes are an inevitable part of war, and the Russians are the cause of all of this.

    *: I cannot imagine the US government or public would respond well to a dozen dead drone operators, no matter how many people the drone operators have killed**. There would be no “well, that seems fair, they died in combat.”

    **: I support the drone war because I think the alternative is a larger scale war where a lot more people would get killed. It gives us an option between lobbing a few cruise missiles and full on invasion. But, I don’t pretend it’s good, just less worse.

  35. Andy says:


    I suppose if anything goes, then it’s unfortunate that we just got done destroying our stocks of chem and bio weapons instead of sending them to Ukraine to use against the Russians.

  36. The big question is what is the alternative?

    Lots of HE being fired with some percentage of duds and more effective Russian resistance which means a lot more HE being fired back and a lot more mines being laid.

    The Ukranian government is saying that DPICM will only be used on Ukranian soil as defined by the 1991 borders. Most of the front lines are similar to 1919 French Red Zone already, so does adding DPICM materially change that fact?