America’s cluster bombs for Ukraine throw Germany into a dilemma

The US wants to deliver the internationally banned weapons to Ukraine. In Germany, this step is viewed with concern. Pacifists call for an end to the spiral of escalation.

Germany is again faced with a dilemma: the ongoing war in Ukraine is once again forcing the country to question one of the weapons taboos. Before that, there had been disagreements for a long time about how many weapons Ukraine should receive.

Now the focus is on concerns about the US decision to supply cluster munitions to Ukraine. Because Germany, along with more than 100 other nations, is a member of the Cluster Bomb Convention negotiated in 2008, which bans the use, manufacture, storage and transport of cluster munitions.

Other NATO countries that are also signatories to the convention have distanced themselves from the US decision. Many human rights organizations and gun control groups consider cluster munitions a breach of international law.

Cluster munitions can contain hundreds of small explosive devices, similar to a shotgun, whose shrapnel is then widely dispersed. This makes them an effective means of eliminating a concentration of enemy forces, but also poses a particular threat to civilians.

Because cluster bombs are not precise. And the munitions that don’t detonate immediately can lie dormant for years, killing and maiming people, including children, who happen to hit the bombs. The dud rate is enormous – some cluster munitions have a rate of 40 percent, which means that a high number of bombs remain dangerous for years to come.

Arms supplier Germany

German politicians can easily sidestep the issue by declaring the decision to be a “sovereign” decision by the USA, as Chancellor Olaf Scholz did.

CDU foreign policy expert Jürgen Hardt criticizes this attitude. “If we now say that we ban cluster munitions, we are making a slim foot.” Cluster munitions have many explosives in one, and now act as a “lethal interim solution”.

During the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, Berlin announced a renewed weapons package for Ukraine worth 700 million euros. But the German armaments industry has not yet been able to ramp up the production of single-missile weapons.

Germany is one of the largest arms exporters in the world and could supply Ukraine with many of the bullets and grenades that the country needs. According to the US, Ukraine uses thousands of bullets every day. Continuing to rely on single-missile weapons would require a huge increase in production.

“rightly ostracized”

High-ranking Green Party politicians have been the most vocal advocates of arming Ukraine and uniting ranks with the United States. Nevertheless, the Greens have rejected Ukrainian calls for cluster munitions in the past. Many are still refusing the delivery because it is forbidden by the Convention. Cluster munitions are “rightly outlawed,” says Green politician Anton Hofreiter, for example.

This is reminiscent of earlier statements by Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock that support for Ukraine must go hand in hand with international law. That doesn’t go far enough for some German pacifists, who see the war in Ukraine as a spiral of escalation between Russia and the West.

They are demanding tougher condemnation of banned weapons from their former anti-war political allies. “Crimes by Russia do not release Ukraine from its international obligations,” writes Jürgen Grässlin, spokesman for Action Outcry – Stop the Arms Trade.

Different weapon, same discussion

Ultimately, there is little that Germany can do, the country will always join the United States, Jack Janes, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told DW. “On the one hand, there is a lot of moralizing,” says the long-time observer of Germany, “but with what result? How does it help the other side of the goal, which is to break through?”

What Janes is alluding to is the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which has stalled. With its decision to supply cluster munitions, the USA wants to give the Ukrainian armed forces a boost. Both sides, Ukraine and Russia, use mines, especially to hit infantrymen. These weapons are also banned by international treaties that Germany has signed.

Nuclear weapons, armed drones and the arming of third parties in the fight against common enemies – all instruments of war that the USA use and with which Germany is alienated. Cluster munitions are just the next chapter in a long debate.

“It’s just going to be one of those discussions where people calmly come to a conclusion where they can say, ‘Gosh, that’s awful. War is terrible,’” says Janes. “And then we come back to the question of how to win the war.”

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