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Biden administration to give controversial cluster munitions to Ukraine

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

NPR has learned that the Biden administration has decided it will send cluster munitions to Ukraine. These are large bombs dropped by aircraft or fired by artillery that scatter small bomblets over hundreds of yards. An announcement on this is expected tomorrow. Officials say these weapons will be effective against dug-in Russian troops, but the controversial munitions are also banned by more than a hundred countries, including Great Britain, France and Germany. NPR's Tom Bowman joins us for more. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So why was this decision made by the administration, and when do we think these munitions will begin arriving?

BOWMAN: Well, Scott, one reason - Ukraine is running out of artillery shells, mostly 155 Howitzer rounds, and have been pressing for months to get cluster bombs from the U.S. Biden administration has been reluctant because there is some opposition from Capitol Hill, as well as American allies. Still, this counteroffensive is difficult and taking time in the sense as these cluster bombs will help speed it up. I'm told they could be in Ukrainian hands within two weeks after the White House announcement.

And again, these munitions are very effective against troops, as well as tanks and armored personnel carriers. The Ukrainians, as well as the Russians, are already using cluster bombs, which, again, they open up in the air and they scatter these bomblets over a wide area, maybe even several football fields wide.

DETROW: Yeah.

BOWMAN: Now, Human Rights Watch says the Ukrainians' use of cluster munitions have caused death and serious injury among civilians, and Russian attacks, by the way, with even greater use of cluster munitions on Ukrainian cities have led to dozens of deaths.

DETROW: So human rights groups oppose this. Some of our key allies we mentioned, you know, banned these weapons. The way you describe them, I can see how they would lead to lots of civilian death. What's the trade-off here?

BOWMAN: Well, again, the trade-off is you're going to attack a lot of Russian troops, help with this counteroffensive. But as the human rights folks say, these bomblets that don't explode can be picked up by civilians, by children. They're small and colorful and could be mistaken for toys with lethal results. Hundreds, if not thousands of civilians have died all over the world. And human rights groups say the unexploded bomblets are found all over in fields and woods. Laos has a particular problem with the bomblets more than 50 years after they were used during the Vietnam War. Not just Laos, but Vietnam, the Balkans and elsewhere. Here's Rich Weir from Human Rights Watch.

RICHARD WEIR: So they fall on the ground, and they lay there oftentimes for years. And they act as landmines and become a serious long danger for civilians even long after a war has ended.

BOWMAN: And the U.S., by the way, used these munitions in both the Afghan and Iraq wars. And the U.S. has vast stockpiles of these cluster bombs, not only in the U.S. but also in Europe. So once these weapons are used in Ukraine, and should Ukrainian forces take back that Russian-held territory, removing any unexploded bomblets will be a huge job.

DETROW: Ukrainian forces are trying to take back that territory right now. How is the counteroffensive going more broadly?

BOWMAN: Well, it's slow. And General Milley, General Mark Milley, the top U.S. military officer, says it's going to be bloody and take some time. He estimated maybe two months or more before we can see whether the Ukrainians can be successful and able to punch through Russian lines, exploit any vulnerable spots. The main goal, Scott, would be cutting what's called the land bridge linking Russia and occupied Crimean Peninsula, which, of course, Russia grabbed back in 2014.

DETROW: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.