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U.S. is expected to announce that cluster munitions will be sent to Ukraine


The Biden administration is expected to announce today that it will send a new weapon to Ukraine - cluster bombs.


These cluster munitions have been around for decades, and they've been effective in combat, but they're also controversial. And many nations have pledged not to use them.

MARTIN: We were wondering why this is happening now. So we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre in Ukraine's capital of Kyiv. Greg, thanks so much for being here.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Sure thing, Michel.

MARTIN: So could you just give us a short explanation of what cluster munitions are and why they're so controversial?

MYRE: So a cluster bomb can be dropped from a plane, though the Ukrainians would likely be firing them from the ground in an artillery shell. And while the cluster bomb is in the air, it breaks open and releases dozens or even hundreds of little bomblets. And this can be very effective when used against troops spread out over a big area because there's not just one explosion. All these little bomblets are intended to explode over a vast space the size of a city block or so.

However, some bomblets are duds. They don't detonate. They're small. They remain on the ground. They can become embedded just below the surface. So years later, after a war is over, civilians can walk through these areas and step on the bomblets, causing them to explode and - inflicting injury or death. For this reason, human rights groups say they shouldn't be used really for the same reason they oppose landmines.

MARTIN: But have they already been used in this war?

MYRE: Yes, they have. Russia has used them extensively and Ukraine to a lesser degree, according to research by Human Rights Watch. And more than 120 countries, including most NATO members, pledged not to use them under a 2008 convention. But Russia, Ukraine and the U.S. are not part of that agreement. The U.S. has used them in the past. I remember them as far back as the first U.S. war in Iraq in 1991. It looked like a really bad golfer had left dozens of big divots all over the course, and that instantly grabbed your attention because when you saw this, you knew some unexploded bomblets were lurking nearby.

MARTIN: So why is this so important to Ukraine, and why now?

MYRE: Yeah. The main reason this seems to be happening now is Ukraine is pressing this major offensive, and it's running low on artillery shells. Ukraine is trying to break through Russian lines in the east and the south, where the Russian troops are deeply entrenched. And the cluster munitions could be a very valuable weapon because you can hit a larger patch of territory with just one of these weapons compared to a conventional artillery shell.

The U.S. has a large supply of them on the shelf, so it can presumably give them to Ukraine pretty quickly. And U.S. officials have told NPR that the dud rate has come down substantially. Mine-clearing groups used to talk about rates of 20% or more. The U.S. says it'll only be sending those with a dud rate of around 2% or less. Some critics, though, do question the Pentagon's claim that the rate is really this low.

MARTIN: Greg, before we let you go, can you give us a quick update on the status of Ukraine's offensive?

MYRE: Yeah. The Ukrainian military gave a very specific answer this week, said Ukraine had retaken nine villages and 62 square miles since the offensive began a month ago. Now, these figures are very little changed over the last week or two, and it's much slower and more limited than many expected.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Greg Myre in Kyiv. Greg, thank you.

MYRE: Sure thing, Michel. 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.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.