Tactical Weapons

Russia threatening to use cluster weapons. Here are 12 times they already have

Russia is protesting the American gift of cluster munitions to Ukraine despite the fact that Russia stands accused of using them itself.
Logan Nye Avatar
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MYKOLAIV, UKRAINE - A Ukrainian soldier shows a captured Russian flak vest and casing of a cluster bomb rocket as Ukraine Army troops dig in at frontline trench positions to continue repelling Russian attacks, east of the strategic port city of Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on March 10, 2022. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

Russia is big mad over the West supplying cluster munitions to Ukraine. It threatened to use its own cluster munitions if Ukraine deploys them in the war. Russia has a large stockpile of terrible cluster munitions, so Ukraine has to tread carefully. Otherwise, Russia might… Hold on. Let me check my notes, actually.

Oh, Russia first fired cluster munitions into Ukraine in 2014? And it has been doing so with much greater frequency since February 2022, the start of its wider invasion of Ukraine?

Look: Cluster munitions are, in general, terrible. They cause widespread devastation. Russian-made ones have high failure rates that turn them into indiscriminate landmines. When stolen or sold illegally, they are broken down into grenades for criminal use. There is actually a good argument for banning them from war.

And, Ukraine thinks that over 67,000 square miles of territory is contaminated with cluster munitions that have already killed hundreds or thousands. It’s reported 226 Ukrainians died from the contamination in March 2023.

But Russia, Ukraine and the U.S. all refused to sign the ban treaty. And Ukraine has already fired the weapons at Russian troops and Russian-backed separatists. And, Russia is firing them regularly at Ukrainian troops. So any Russian pearl-grasping here is both insincere and hypocritical. As Human Rights Watch put it in a May 23, 2023 report:

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russian armed forces have used cluster munitions in attacks that have caused hundreds of civilian casualties and damaged civilian objects, including homes, hospitals, and schools. The Ukrainian military has not denied credible evidence of its own use of cluster munitions in the conflict and has publicly asked to be supplied with the weapon.

Human Rights Watch, “Cluster Munition Use in Russia-Ukraine War”

Let’s take a quick tour of Russia’s recent history of firing cluster munitions in Ukraine. (These are a summarized version of a Human Rights Watch list. You can find the more complete list, along with a few more attacks with cluster munitions conducted by Ukraine, here. A 2014 investigation of probable Ukrainian uses of the weapons is also available here.)

Here are 12 times Russia has already used cluster munitions

February to March 2022

Russia is accused of using cluster munitions “at least 24 times” at the start of its wider invasion of Ukraine.

russia cluster munitions white house
WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 7: White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House July 7, 2023 in Washington, DC. Sullivan discussed the U.S. decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

April 8, 2022

Russia fires a ballistic missile with submunitions at a train station as families evacuated, killing 58 and injuring over 100.

May 12, 2022

Russia fires rockets with cluster munitions into a suburb of Kyiv.

May 23, 2022

Russia fires a rocket with submunitions at Karkiv, wounding a man outside a maternity clinic.

June 27, 2022

Russian rocket attack kills one, wounds three civilians with cluster munitions.

July 9, 2022

Russia kills two, wounds another with a rocket attack with submunitions.

August 3, 2022

Russia kills an elderly man and wounds two women when it hits an apartment building with cluster munitions.

September 29, 2022

Two civilians die and Russia wounds another 12 when its first cluster munition rockets at a public transportation station in Myolaiv.

November 2022

Russia fires a series of cluster munitions attacks against Kherson, wounding at least three people.

December 12, 2022

Russia kills two civilians and wounds 10 more with cluster munitions in Hirnyk, Donetska.

March 18, 2023

Two cluster munition rocket attacks hit Konstyantynivka and Kramatorsk, killing two and wounding at least 14.

May 10, 2023

Three emergency room workers and five other people are injured by a Russian cluster munition attack.

The point of this list is not to say that any Ukrainian use of the weapon is justified. Ukraine is taking a dangerous route, and it should wrestle hard with the decision of whether to increase the long-term risk to its civilians by using cluster munitions or to abstain and accept the sharper, more immediate risk to its service members.

Frankly, none of us in the West are in the position to decide for them. Remember, Russia is credibly accused of stealing almost 20,000 Ukrainian children and deliberately erasing the tracks so they can never be reunited with their families. Ukraine has to decide whether to take the poison pill further contaminating its own country with submunitions.

But for Russia to cry foul is at least as ridiculous as when Germany protested the use of shotguns in World War I while spraying chemical gas attacks across the front. Russia has no leg to stand on. And if it doesn’t want to face Ukrainians firing cluster munitions, it can always get out of Ukraine.