Cluster bomb controversy hangs over Biden’s ‘chilly’ visit to UK

US cites military ‘expediency’ but allies warn bombs could lose Ukraine the ‘moral high ground’

Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak leave 10 Downing Street
Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak leave 10 Downing Street
(Image credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Joe Biden’s controversial decision to supply cluster bombs to Ukraine has overshadowed his visit to the UK, and risks fracturing the appearance of a united front at this week’s Nato leaders summit.

The US president faced a “chilly” reception, said The Times, with his fifth visit to Britain since taking office likely to be the “most difficult”.

The White House said the trip, in which the president is meeting Rishi Sunak and King Charles, was designed “to further strengthen the close relationship between our nations”. It comes before a “high-stakes” summit with Nato leaders in Lithuania on Tuesday, said CNN.

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‘Running out of ammunition’

The decision to supply cluster munitions comes after strong recommendations from US defence chiefs amid warnings that Ukraine is facing an acute shortage of ammunition and a need for fresh supplies to help its faltering counter-offensive.

Recognising that this was going to be “controversial”, Biden “cited conditions and safeguards agreed for their use”, said The Spectator, “before offering what was clearly intended to be the clinching argument: that ‘the Ukrainians are running out of ammunition’”.

The “unspoken challenge to doubters was: do you really want to be complicit in Ukraine losing this war?”

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan acknowledged the “risk of civilian harm from unexploded ordnance” cluster munitions create, but added “there is also a massive risk of civilian harm if Russian troops and tanks roll over Ukrainian positions and take more Ukrainian territory and subjugate more Ukrainian civilians because Ukraine does not have enough artillery”.

That option is “intolerable to us”, he said, arguing the deployment of cluster bombs to help Kyiv differed from their use by Russia because “Ukraine would not be using these munitions in some foreign land”.

‘Surrendering the moral high ground’

“In the brutal logic of warfare, cluster munitions may appear to make solid sense for Ukraine’s slow-moving counteroffensive against well dug-in Russian troops,” said The New York Times in an editorial, but this is “a flawed and troubling logic” and one that carries with it “considerable risk”.

As a signatory to the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions, Britain, along with a majority of its Nato allies, opposes such a move, having long campaigned against their production and use on the grounds that they pose serious danger to civilians.

Conservative MPs, as much as the Labour opposition, “view with alarm any American proposal to ignore the treaty, which the US has not signed, on grounds of expediency”, said The Times.

The announcement has unsurprisingly “sparked concerns from Nato allies and outrage from human rights activists”, PBS added, and “it raises the question of whether the US can hold the moral high ground”, said ITV News correspondent Robert Moore.

While it is true Russia has indiscriminately used cluster bombs during its invasion, Ukrainian forces are desperately short of artillery shells and the counter-offensive is struggling to break through Russian defences, “Ukraine – and America – will win by maintaining public support and having a moral narrative about the conflict,” Moore argued.

“That is now in jeopardy. There will be a price to pay for the cluster bomb decision.”

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