As the protracted conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues, Germany faces yet another challenge concerning its stance on weapons. Previously, German authorities were cautious about providing Ukraine with significant military capabilities. However, the current unease regarding the United States’ decision to supply cluster munitions is primarily rooted in legal principles rather than strategic concerns.
Germany is one of more than 100 states that are party to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which “prohibits all use, production, transfer and stockpiling of” the weapons.
Other NATO members that have signed this convention have also distanced themselves from the US’s decision. Many human rights and arms control groups consider cluster munitions a violation of international law. They can contain hundreds of bomblets that, like a shotgun, splatter explosive shards across a wide area. That makes them effective at taking out a concentration of enemy forces, but also poses a particular threat to civilians.
Cluster bombs are imprecise, and what doesn’t detonate on impact can lie around for years, maiming or killing people, including children, who come across them. Some cluster bombs have a “dud rate” of up to 40% — meaning huge numbers of bomblets remain dangerous for years.
German officials can largely sidestep the issue, calling the US delivery a “sovereign decision of the United States,” as Chancellor Olaf Scholz, of the Social Democrats (SPD), did during a news conference on Monday with his Australian counterpart in Berlin.
The SPD likes to view itself as an anti-war party, and Bundestag Deputy Michael Roth said he hoped that cluster munitions would see little action. “Ukraine finds itself in an exceptional situation and desperately needs the ammunition,” Roth told WDR, a public broadcaster.
Relying on single projectiles would require a huge boost in producing them. Ukraine is firing thousands of rounds every day, according to White House estimates.
Germany, one of the world’s biggest arms exporters, could provide many of the bullets and shells that Ukraine needs, but it has been unable to ramp up production. Essentially many shells in one, a cluster bomb serves as a deadly stop-gap measure to fill that need.
Those production “failures” preclude Germany from criticizing the US’s decision, Jürgen Hardt, a lawmaker from the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU), told the public broadcaster NDR. “It would be pretty rich of us if we now said that cluster munitions can’t be used,” he said.
During the NATO summit this week in Vilnius, Lithuania, Germany announced another package of arms for Ukraine totaling €700 million ($770 million).
The Greens, a junior partner in the SPD-led coalition government, may find themselves with the least rhetorical room to maneuver. The party has roots in West Germany’s peace movement of the 1970s and 1980s, but its top officials have been the most vocal supporters of arming Ukraine and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the US.
Given the country’s leading role in the alliance arming Ukraine “for as long as necessary,” as Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has said, Germany cannot remain completely silent when its bigger ally across the Atlantic wants to deliver a weapon that it is on record opposing.
Still, the Greens rebuffed Ukraine’s previous calls for cluster bombs, and many still oppose delivering the weapons on the grounds that they are prohibited by the convention. “It is rightly banned,” Anton Hofreiter, a Greens lawmaker, told the German news agency DPA.
That echoes earlier statements from Baerbock, a former Green Party leader, who has said backing Ukraine must comply with international law.
That has angered German pacifists, who see the war in Ukraine as an escalatory spiral between Russia and the West, and are calling for a more forceful condemnation of banned weapons from their erstwhile anti-war allies in politics.
“Crimes committed by Russia do not release Ukraine from its international obligations,” Jürgen Grässlin, a spokesperson for the German Peace Society, an anti-war group, said in a statement.