Russia has accused the US of seeking escalation and direct involvement in the war in Ukraine after a group of senators called for sending Kyiv cluster bombs that are banned in more than 120 countries.
“More and more deadly, long-range, complex modern systems are being considered to saturate the battlefield… the US again and again confirms its status as a side actually directly involved in this conflict,” said Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergey Rybakov on Wednesday.
However, Russia has itself been accused of using cluster munitions in Ukraine on multiple occasions, including against civilian targets.
The claim by Moscow came in response to an open letter from US lawmakers to Joe Biden demanding that he supply the controversial munitions to Ukraine, wihch has been requesting for months.
Four Republican senators signed a letter claiming that cluster munitions would “allow Ukraine to compensate for Russia’s qualitative advantage in both personnel and artillery rounds”.
The senators warned: “The immediate consequences of denying [cluster munitions] and other items in a timely manner to the Ukrainian Armed Forces are playing out on the battlefield.”
Cluster bombs or munitions are weapons containing dispensers that scatter bomblets over wide areas, which then detonate. They can be fired from artillery or aircraft and can be effective against infantry, tanks and armoured vehicles.
However they are regarded as indiscriminate and pose a danger to civilians, as unexploded bomblets can remain in the landscape long after a conflict has ended.
The bomblets can easily be mistaken for other items, and have caused casualties among those who inadvertently pick them up or disturb them – including children who think they are toys.
They are banned under the international Convention on Cluster Munitions due to “unacceptable harm to civilians”, with 123 countries signed up to the ban. Neither the US, Russia, or Ukraine are signatories, but the UK is.
Ukraine is seeking cluster bombs to help it stop Russia’s gradual advance in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, and support a planned counter-offensive. Cluster munitions are considered to be highly effective in trench warfare as they spread out to cover a wide area.
The White House has refused the requests until now, citing ethical issues.
“We have concerns about the use of those kinds of munitions,” said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby in September.
Human Rights Watch has accused Russia of using cluster bombs in Ukraine and causing “predictable and lasting harm to hundreds of Ukrainian civilians.”
Mykola Bielieskov of the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in Kyiv that advises Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, claims that the weapons are necessary to counter Russia’s manpower advantage in the Donbas.
Referring to the Kremlin’s tactic of sending multiple groups of infantry to repeatedly attack Ukrainian front lines, he added: “Cluster munitions are necessary to effectively confront human wave tactics employed by Russia around Bakhmut,” he told i. “High explosive shells are not suitable for it.”
“As Russia relies more on humans to compensate for losses of equipment this was urgent long ago,” said Mr Bielieskov, adding that Ukraine first requested the weapons in December.
Cluster bombs could be an effective weapon, agreed Dr Marina Miron of the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. “These munitions would offset the Ukrainian military issue with ammunition shortages and help to create more damage over a larger area than could be done with unitary warheads, so there are advantages from a military point of view,” she said.
But she added that there is “good reason” why cluster bombs are widely banned. “They are considered indiscriminate especially if not all bomblets explode. This can lead to unwanted civilian casualties,” she said. “There are still civilians in Bakhmut.”
Depleted uranium rounds – which Russia has also complained about – are not banned and are considered a conventional weapon.
Depleted uranium is a dense metal that is created as a by-product of the enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel. The substance is radioactive but to a lesser extent than natural or enriched uranium.
It is used by militaries around the world – including Russia – in a range of munitions that are typically fired from tanks and aircraft. The density of the material makes it a more effective armour-piercing tool than alternatives such as tungsten.