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The White House defends the inclusion of cluster munitions in new Ukraine aid package


This afternoon, the Biden administration announced a new, $800 million military aid package for Ukraine, with the controversial inclusion of cluster munitions. These weapons can pose serious risks to civilians, so much so that more than 100 other countries have banned them. Even the Biden administration itself has condemned their apparent use by Russia. Here's Ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, last year.


LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We've seen videos of Russian forces moving exceptionally lethal weaponry into Ukraine which has no place on the battlefield. That includes cluster munitions.

ESTRIN: Let's bring in White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby for more. Thank you for joining us.

JOHN KIRBY: Thank you for having me. Good to be with you.

ESTRIN: So we just heard the ambassador to the U.N. there saying that these dangerous cluster munitions have no place on the battlefield. I know President Biden said this was not an easy decision. What has changed?

KIRBY: Well, a couple of things have changed. First of all, this is a gunfight that they're in, literally, as they try to conduct this counteroffensive. The use of artillery is probably one of the most critical needs that they have, and the Ukrainians are firing thousands of rounds of artillery every day to try to make some progress against very dug-in, entrenched Russian defenses. And so we want to make sure that they can continue to have that kind of effect on the battlefield. And they're running short on those artillery shells. We have some inventory issues on our end, and so, as a bridge to get them - as we ramp up production of 155 shells - the kind of artillery shells they are using - as we ramp up that production, we wanted to get them some additional capability, and these cluster munitions will provide that. Another reason behind this is, quite frankly, that they've got to try to find innovative ways to break through those Russian defenses, which are proving very formidable.

ESTRIN: Well, let me ask you - I mean, this decision is being denounced by human rights groups and many Democrats. These are weapons that more than 100 countries, including some of our closest allies, have banned because they are so dangerous to civilians. Can't different weapons achieve the same result?

KIRBY: Again, because of the fight that they're in, which is really heavily dependent on artillery, and given the limits in their inventory of artillery shells and ours, these cluster munitions are being viewed as sort of a bridge to get us to more conventional and increased production of more conventional artillery shells. But to your point, I think it's important to remember that there's a difference between the way the Russians are using cluster munitions in Ukraine and the Ukrainians. The Russians are using them to indiscriminately target civilian targets and infrastructure and actual people - Ukrainian people.

The Ukrainians have been using cluster munitions since the beginning of this conflict, and they've done so largely on their own soil to protect their people. They're using them to protect Ukrainian civilians. They have already worked with us on demining efforts to try to get at whatever unexploded ordnance might be on the battlefield, and we have committed with the Ukrainians, whenever this war is over, to continue to help them with those demining efforts. But the risk to civilians, we judge and the Ukrainians judge, is greater by use of Russian munitions on their soil and Russian drones and Russian missiles and, of course, these munitions - than the munitions themselves would cause to Ukrainian civilians.

ESTRIN: I mean, let me ask you about a possible cleanup after the war. I mean, we're talking about Ukrainian citizens who are living in these occupied areas. These cluster bombs are an indiscriminate weapon. They spread over several football fields, at least. How can you be sure that you will be able to clean them up? Who is going to clean them up?

KIRBY: Well, we've received assurances from the Ukrainians that they will use these in a discriminate way. I understand they have a wide range over the ground that they land on, but that they will use them appropriately. And No. 2, as I said, we've been talking to the Ukrainians about demining efforts already 'cause they need to do it now and then going forward. So we'll work very closely with them on appropriate disposal of any unexploded shells that there might be. I do want to also stress that while the Ukrainians - I'm sorry - while the Russian cluster munitions have a dud rate - a failure rate - of something like 30 to 40%, the ones that we'll be providing are much, much lower than that - less than 2.5% dud or failure rate. So the risk will be mitigated somewhat. I'm not trying to say it's going to be eliminated, but it will be mitigated. And we will work closely with the Ukrainians on the demining effort.

ESTRIN: I should just mention that many experts say that the dud rates of American cluster bombs are a lot higher than the Pentagon estimates, but I want to get one last question in with you and a quick answer. What is the bigger endgame here? I mean, the goal is to help Ukrainians win the counteroffensive. Are you sure that this counteroffensive can lead to the end of the war?

KIRBY: We believe that they can be successful. They've had all the training, the tools, and we're giving them additional tools and capabilities. They are making some progress, and we believe that, with continued support by us and our allies, they'll be able to do that. They'll be able to claw back additional territory so that if and when President Zelenskyy wants to get to the negotiating table, he can do it from a position of strength.

ESTRIN: National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. Thank you.

KIRBY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.