The UK’s Cluster Mistake
How Cluster Bomb's Could Crack Russia's Defensive Lines.
By Eitan Godsi
As the Armed forces of Ukraine make slow progress in their counter-offensive, and following Ben Wallace’s Powerful appeal to support Ukraine with a further £2.3 billion.
The Prime minister reiterated at his conference speech; “We’ll give Ukraine the tools, and they’ll finish the Job”. Yet, when the US gave Cluster munitions following stagnation on the front, the UK refused. As the Summer offensive has progressed, commentators across the west have been unfairly critical of the slow progress – especially given the depth of Russians defences.
As the strategic situation has evolved into a relative stalemate, we should commend Ukraine for the challenge it is posing in the summer offensive - which has recently forced Russia to commit its reserve 25th combined arms army, as well as it’s depleted elite VDV troops to make up for the poor conscripts in numerous conventional units. The British Government has refused to send cluster bombs on humanitarian grounds, but this is out of touch with the situation on the ground.
In the current area of operations in Donbass and Zaporizhzhia, war has been raging since 2014. It is this which has proved the testing ground for both the outstanding Intelligence Chief; Major General Kyrylo Budanov as well as it’s Commander in Chief, General Zaluzhnyi. The current area of operations has been going on for almost a decade in some places. Especially since the escalation of the war from Crimea to full scale in February 2022 almost all civilians have left - with few brave souls remaining. As Of September 2023, the UK had donated 300,000 shells, in recognition of the largely attritional nature that has taken hold of the war. The Town of Marinka is a stark example, famous for being levelled entirely to rubble.
All this considered, it seems rather odd and supremely ironic to send enough artillery to level towns to ash, but not cluster munitions to finish the job. The UK made an unfortunate decision in 2008 to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions. In a long running attritional war, cluster bombs have incredible potential. It’s been a favourite of Russia with documented use from the start. Indeed, Russian stocks have been getting low and now they’re not such a fan. So, we have a static front with huge artillery consumption, repeated blatant use of cluster munitions by Russia (actually on civilians), and a Warzone in some place for 8 years.
Indeed, the current commander of Operational Command East, which covers the present area of fighting, General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi said in an interview with CNN: Cluster Munitions from the US could ‘radically change the battlefield’. Given their outstanding conduct of the war, and this from a frontline commander, we should be taking notes. When Kiev was under siege, they held their ground and mauled the prime of the Russian ground forces.
At Kherson and Kharkiv they defied Russia in open war. Without a Navy at their disposal, they have managed to cripple the black sea fleet. Time and again they have proven their mettle. The hearty Ukrainians have shattered Russian offensive capability and put it on a backfoot defensive footing held by conscripts. It seems to me they have a much higher understanding of modern military science than NATO forces, which are primarily focused on counter terrorism in recent years. They have drained Russian resources across the board by their resolute campaign which will echo through the ages.
Clearly the humanitarian argument cannot apply to war torn Donbass. Few civilians remain. On the other hand, 420,000 Russians are very much there, packed in like sardines into a 100sq Kilometres of Ukraine. To offset the Russian numerical advantages, using cluster bombs on concentrations of fortifications and ground forces has unique potential. The 25th CAA as one example, was meant to be deployed in December - but went out as early as August. There can be no doubt of the practical effect of cluster munitions, no less than the psychological impact on raw recruits rushed into combat. It shows how plainly short sighted it was to dispose of our stocks. With a significant boost of supply, Ukraine could break the remaining Russian force by targeting a network of concentrations of defences and cutting off their resupply, ideally as part of that extra £2.3 billion.
They would not be asking for this if they did not need, and they deserve praise for their humanitarian conduct so far. The Russians have favoured it and set a precedent so use of Cluster Munitions will not lead to escalation. We should always recall the Russian doctrine of Escalate to Deescalate, that is to threaten a disproportionate response to discourage an opponent from countering aggression, and understand their threats over Tanks or Jets, supplied by the west in this context. Hence the favourite tactic of hinting at nuclear capability. Fundamentally, they have avoided dragging NATO in so far, and as Russia has lost the initiative and drained resources, it will prefer to avoid escalation, and therefore would be unlikely to respond disproportionally to cluster munition supply. Hitting Jam packed lines manned by conscripts and exhausted VDV troops would have a potent capability, and both sides consider such weapons fair game.
The Longer we have delayed, the more Russia has evolved. If such unity of purpose had emerged earlier on the conflict, Russian forces may have found it more challenging to entrench themselves with deep multi-layered lines. Given their effectiveness with weapons like the N-LAW, inflicting over 2,000 confirmed tank losses and forcing Russia to wheel out antiques like the T-62, we can only imagine how Ukraine could enjoy working wonders with cluster munitions to extinguish Russian morale and material. We need to disabuse ourselves of notions of moral war developed in a world focused on counter insurgency, that humanitarian arguments against cluster bombs are symptomatic of.
The Ukrainian capacity for offensive operations should not be expected to be limitless. Just because a Friendly force is performing well, the case for supporting it should be strengthened not neglected. It’s time to rethink foolish self-defeating moralistic ideas developed in counter insurgent doctrine. Cluster bombs could crack the nut of Russian defensive lines in a final decisive push, especially as Ukrainian offensive capacity may slow in winter. Our allies have bled for freedom and paid a steep price. Who are we to deny them total victory? Only our timidity and moral cowardice stands in the way.