Bogged-Down Russian Troops Resort to Deadly Cluster Munitions

Weapons investigators say Russian use of cluster munitions across Ukraine—which are banned by most countries—has been “flagrant and widespread.”

By , a former intern at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A Ukrainian military member looks at destruction in Kharkiv
A Ukrainian military member looks at destruction in Kharkiv
A member of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces looks at destruction following a shelling in Ukraine's second-biggest city of Kharkiv on March 8. Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Top U.S. and United Nations officials believe there are credible reports of Russian forces using deadly cluster munitions banned by most of the world in the ongoing military invasion of Ukraine, a sign of the Kremlin’s increasing disregard for civilian life and humanitarian law in the three-week-old war.

Weapons investigators tracking Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine believe that Moscow began using cluster munitions from almost the outset of the invasion, including repeated attacks on Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, and as far west as Mykolaiv, near the Black Sea port of Odesa. Cluster munitions can randomly scatter tens to hundreds of explosive submunitions over large areas, making them highly deadly in populated urban areas, often leaving unexploded bomblets behind. And Russia has used the weapons almost indiscriminately in Ukraine, experts said.

“The cluster munitions use has been flagrant and widespread and not geographically isolated,” said one independent weapons inspector with knowledge of the conflict, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity. “It’s been broadly used in Kharkiv and in the south and on the coast. It’s not limited to one theater of operations.”

Top U.S. and United Nations officials believe there are credible reports of Russian forces using deadly cluster munitions banned by most of the world in the ongoing military invasion of Ukraine, a sign of the Kremlin’s increasing disregard for civilian life and humanitarian law in the three-week-old war.

Weapons investigators tracking Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine believe that Moscow began using cluster munitions from almost the outset of the invasion, including repeated attacks on Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, and as far west as Mykolaiv, near the Black Sea port of Odesa. Cluster munitions can randomly scatter tens to hundreds of explosive submunitions over large areas, making them highly deadly in populated urban areas, often leaving unexploded bomblets behind. And Russia has used the weapons almost indiscriminately in Ukraine, experts said.

“The cluster munitions use has been flagrant and widespread and not geographically isolated,” said one independent weapons inspector with knowledge of the conflict, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity. “It’s been broadly used in Kharkiv and in the south and on the coast. It’s not limited to one theater of operations.”

While the use of cluster munitions is frowned on by the international community in an effort to reduce long-term collateral damage stemming from conflicts, some of the largest producers of the weapons, such as Russia and the United States, have not signed up to a decade-old U.N.-backed treaty that prevents their use. Under the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which went into effect in 2010, 110 countries have legally barred themselves from using or producing the weapons.

As early as Feb. 28, just four days after the start of Russia’s invasion, Amnesty International documented three attacks using cluster munitions in Kharkiv—which has been reduced to near-ruin by Russian attacks—that likely amounted to possible war crimes, the rights group said.

Using a three-dimensional modeling analysis that drew on verified videos and the testimonies of local witnesses, Amnesty found that an attack that killed four civilians collecting drinking water in Kharkiv used Russian-made Smerch rockets that released cluster munitions. Another salvo of Smerch rockets, which are typically fired from unguided multiple rocket launchers, struck near a shopping center and a parking garage in the city, and a third attack near an apartment building blew off the leg of a woman shopping nearby, who later died.

Russia has also deployed a wide variety of weapons systems, analysts and experts said, citing evidence of dud munitions that have showed up on the ground. Many of those have been fired from unguided rocket systems, like Smerch and Uragan self-propelled rocket launchers. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, most cluster munitions in current stocks are 20 years old or older, making them increasingly unreliable and furthering the risk of civilian casualties, though some newer models have self-destruct features to mitigate the risk of unexploded submunitions left behind.

But investigators also have spotted Russia firing cluster munitions from the next-generation Tornado guided rocket launcher and airdropping the weapons against Odesa, Ukraine’s third-largest city and a major port on the Black Sea, the weapons inspector who spoke to Foreign Policy said. The airdropped variety can potentially scatter hundreds of submunitions.

Russian troops have even put cluster munitions inside of Iskander short-range ballistic missiles, which have cylinders that are nearly 24 feet long, potentially giving it space to hold dozens of submunitions. Human Rights Watch said that Russian forces launched ballistic missiles carrying cluster munitions outside a hospital in Ukraine’s Donetsk region in February, killing four civilians and injuring 10 others.

“They are made to cause maximum casualties and are being used against civilians,” Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, told Foreign Policy. “So the projectile fires and it goes into the general vicinity and then explodes, sending small fragmentary grenade type devices everywhere: under things and through windows.”

Yet Russia’s use of cluster munitions does not surprise most officials and experts, following a military playbook that Russia already used in Syria. Human Rights Watch linked Russian and Syrian troops to a January 2020 cluster munitions attack against a school in Idlib province that killed 12 civilians, including five children, using a ballistic missile that carried banned submunitions. While Russia is not directly implicated in this attack, the weapons were produced by Russian manufacturers, according to the nongovernmental organization.

While Russia has used some precision-guided munitions to more accurately target military facilities, with a senior U.S. defense official indicating that Russian bombers fired long-range cruise missiles to hit Yavoriv military base in a deadly attack in western Ukraine over the weekend, the Kremlin appears to be more willing to use unguided weapons in populated areas.

The Biden administration has said that Russia has increasingly turned to siege tactics in a bid to encircle key Ukrainian cities. A senior U.S. defense official said in a written statement today that Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv is increasingly under assault by Russian long-range fires, while the eastern port city of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, is “isolated and still suffering heavy bombardment.” The United States has also seen evidence that Russia has deployed launchers of unguided thermobaric munitions, which suck oxygen from the surrounding atmosphere to extend their blast waves.

But the siege tactics come amid Kremlin frustration over increasingly stiff Ukrainian resistance. The senior U.S. defense official said in their statement that Russia is using a “siege mentality” in attacks, including striking civilian targets in Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv with increasing frequency as Ukrainian troops have used hit-and-run attacks to frustrate Russian invaders.

The Biden administration has openly encouraged war crimes investigations against Russia for attacks against civilians in Ukraine, including the shelling of a maternity hospital in Mariupol last week, and has gone as far to review its own policy toward the International Criminal Court. But the Pentagon has actually taken steps away from international norms on cluster munitions in recent years, as some officials believe the weapons would have military use in certain conflict scenarios, such as on the Korean Peninsula. In 2017, the Trump administration opted to allow the Pentagon to use its entire arsenal of cluster munitions, dropping an earlier effort to reduce the failure rate of those weapons in order to avoid unexploded bomblets left behind.

Sara Hagos is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @_sarahagos

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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