Editor’s note: This story was updated with a reference to a news report naming Estonia as the country asking Berlin to approve German-made cluster munitions for Ukraine.
WASHINGTON — Following a protracted debate over battle tank donations for Ukraine that tested the unity of Kyiv’s allies, cluster munitions appear in position to fire up the next controversy.
That’s at least the plan of one European government, which wants the story out there without appearing in it. An unnamed official from said country told reporters Wednesday a request was sent to Berlin this week to re-export an unnamed number of an unnamed type of 155mm artillery cluster munitions to the war-torn country.
Yes, that’s a lot of unnamed moving parts. And officials from the purported requesting country declined to bring clarity to the matter by revealing which type of munitions they seek to give to Ukraine or how many.
Estonian news portal ERR.ee reported on Thursday that it was leaders in Tallinn who want to give Ukraine cluster munitions, pending Germany’s approval. The article says Estonian has “thousands” of such artillery rounds.
The development is news to the German defense ministry, at least, where a spokesperson told Defense News on Thursday no such request had reached the docket there.
What is known, however, is Ukrainian officials have said they want the weapons to defend against Russian infantry waves storming their positions.
Cluster munitions are banned under a UN treaty for their indiscriminate targeting and the possibility of their unexploded submunitions hurting civilians long after their use.
Russia, which is not a signatory to the treaty, used cluster munitions in attacks against the previously occupied city of Kherson in November, after losing the city to Ukrainian forces again, according to Human Rights Watch. The rounds killed and maimed Ukrainian civilians, the group said.
“Residents of Kherson survived eight months of Russian occupation, and are finally free from fear of torture, only to be subjected to new indiscriminate attacks, apparently including cluster munitions,” Belkis Wille, the group’s associate crisis and conflict director, wrote in a December 2022 article.
Germany is a signatory to the treaty that bans cluster munitions. The United States is not, but military scientists here have come up with novel ways to avoid using them since the treaty entered into force, including by way of purely kinetic, versus explosive, projectiles.
Thomas Wiegold, a military expert and journalist based in Berlin, told Defense News the Bundeswehr has long eliminated its arsenal of cluster munitions, which means the likely focus is on a series of Rheinmetall-made rounds Germany may have exported to allies before the 2010 ban took effect.
News agency AFP first ran a story about the purported push for cluster munitions late Wednesday, citing the European official as arguing the West should be more “forward-leaning” in supporting Ukraine.
“Russians have been using all sorts of weapons that are 100 times more terrible than cluster munitions,” the official said.
The official told reporters earlier any request for Germany to authorize the re-export of old, German-made cluster munitions was expected to be controversial and would result in Berlin facing similar international pressure as it did over Leopard 2 tanks.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.