Russia Is Reportedly Firing Controversial Cluster Munitions on Ukrainian Cities

Ukrainian soldier walks through debris following a Russian airstrike in Kyiv.
An Ukrainian soldier walks through debris following a Russian airstrike in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

A preschool in northeastern Ukraine was slammed with rockets early in the morning of Feb. 25, reportedly leaving three civilians, including one child, dead, according to local media footage and international human rights organizations.

Drone video footage of the aftermath of the bombing shared on Twitter showed pools of blood in the school's parking lot, shattered glass from windows and blast marks on the roof as locals rushed to the scene.

"While I was walking down [with] my wife, there were immediate explosions," an older man told Amnesty International, a London-based human rights organization. "You see, everyone is covered with blood, everything. Look at it. … It kills me, the fact it's a kindergarten."

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The attack, which Amnesty International said appears to have been carried out by Russian forces, is suspected to have utilized rocket-fired cluster munitions -- a widely banned and controversial weapon known to wreak havoc over a large area and leave unexploded rounds in areas, which lead to civilian deaths years after a conflict.

While many countries have banned their use, the U.S. has resisted calls to pull them from the Pentagon's arsenal, with the Trump administration reversing a previous policy that would have eliminated the American stockpile over time.

Cluster munitions have also taken the lives of U.S. service members. An extensive New York Times review of casualty records from Operation Desert Storm indicates that at least 12 American service members were killed and dozens of troops wounded by dud bomblets; approximately 12 more were killed in Iraq and Kuwait by the munitions after the cease-fire.

Cluster munitions open mid-air and disperse smaller submunitions -- anywhere from a few dozen to hundreds -- onto a target. They can be fired from rocket launchers or ground artillery or dropped as bombs by airplanes.

    The weapons have been condemned by human rights organizations for the high rate at which they fail to detonate, sometimes upward of 30%, according to a 2019 report from the Congressional Research Service.

    Since Russian forces invaded Ukraine last week, reports and videos of cluster munitions in action have been widely shared on social media.

    Mark Hiznay, a senior researcher in the Arms Division for the nonprofit Human Rights Watch who specializes in identifying cluster munition strikes, told that it appears the rounds have not been dropped by aircraft but rather fired from missile launchers on the ground.

    He added that since the invasion started, evidence of cluster bombs has only increased, with notable attacks on Monday in Ukraine's second largest city, Kharkiv.

    "We saw our first attack on day one," Hiznay said. "Today was particularly important or notable because there were several strikes in the city of Kharkiv that were caught on people's phones and on door cameras."

    A thread posted on Twitter by Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based open-source intelligence website, has reported nearly a dozen examples of cluster munitions being used in Ukraine, noting the rounds being dropped near children's hospitals, public parks and neighborhoods.

    Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Monday that the Defense Department can't independently verify whether Russia has used cluster weapons on the battlefield.

    But human rights groups have been loudly criticizing the alleged use of the weapons.

    "There is no possible justification for dropping cluster munitions in populated areas, let alone near a school," Agnès Callamard, Secretary-General of Amnesty International, said in a press release. "This attack bears all the hallmarks of Russia's use of this inherently indiscriminate and internationally-banned weapon, and shows flagrant disregard for civilian life."

    More than 100 countries have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions out of Switzerland, a 2008 treaty pledging to ban the inherently indiscriminate weapons.

    Notably, neither Ukraine nor Russia has pledged to stop using cluster munitions, and both countries claim they need them for their defense.

    Hiznay, who first began following cluster munitions when both sides were using them in 2014, added that Russia has relied on them heavily for years.

    "This is a tool they've reached to many times in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and now in Ukraine," Hiznay said. "It's pretty endemic in their system."

    In 2017, then-President Donald Trump replaced a Defense Department directive on cluster munitions issued by George W. Bush's administration in July 2008.

    It abandoned a requirement that, by the end of 2018, the U.S. could no longer use munitions that result in more than a 1% rate of unexploded ordnance.

    "The (international) ban proceeded without really any regard to the major military powers," Hiznay said. "We think the stigma, the so-called 'ick factor,' of using cluster munitions will eventually start to influence their behavior."

    The U.S. last used cluster munitions during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with the exception of a single attack in Yemen in 2009, according to Human Rights Watch. And the Air Force and Army have moved their focus to other programs, Hiznay added.

    President Joe Biden's administration has yet to review or reverse the Trump-era policy change on cluster munitions.

    -- Thomas Novelly can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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