Estonia weighing giving Ukraine cluster munitions

Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform) at Ämari Air Base. January 17, 2023.
Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform) at Ämari Air Base. January 17, 2023. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

According to ERR's information, Estonia is considering including 155 mm cluster munition projectiles among its military aid to Ukraine. Many Western countries condemn the use of munitions clusters and have ceased their use, noting that it poses a threat to civilian populations. Estonia, however, has considered it an effective tool against an overwhelming adversary.

Manufactured by Germany's Rheinmetall, the DM632 cluster munition projectile opens up with the help of an explosive charge at a height of 300-500 meters, releasing 63 DM1385 submunitions, covering an area of some 100 square meters.

According to Lt. Col. Kaarel Mäesalu, chief of the Capability Development Section of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF), this munition is most effective against lightly armored units. In other words, it could handle BMP infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) and BTR armored personnel carriers (APC).

"This submunition has both anti-personnel and anti-armor capabilities," Mäesalu explained. "Should it land on an armored vehicle, the cumulative charge will go through it."

Estonian depots contain thousands of such munitions, and the Ukrainians have requested them from Estonia.

Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform) confirmed that when the Estonian government decided to include artillery in the latest military aid package it approved last week, that package included 155 mm artillery shells as well.

He did not confirm, however, that cluster munition projectiles were discussed separately as well.

"A very, very broad variety of 155 mm shells are manufactured," Pevkur said, adding that more specific details will be agreed between Estonia and Ukraine's respective forces.

​Estonia would need permission from Germany to send Ukraine the projectiles, just as it needs to seek permission to send them 155 mm artillery as well.

"We'll have to see what agreements between our forces we reach with Ukraine," the Estonian defense minister said. "And we're trying to secure the various authorizations we need. And then maybe we can comment further on what we've provided and what we haven't."

More than 100 countries against cluster munitions

Providing cluster munitions is somewhat of a sensitive issue. Since 2008, a total of 108 countries have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits all use, transfer and production of cluster munitions.

In 2008, Jaak Aaviksoo, then minister of defense, said that giving up cluster munitions was too big a job for Estonia. "This is one of the most effective weapons against an overwhelming adversary, and re-equipping them is a very lengthy and incredibly, incredibly expensive process," he said. He also noted that the U.S., China and Russia have not given up cluster munitions either.

During the ongoing war in Ukraine, there have been conflicting messages about cluster munitions. On one hand, both Russia and Ukraine are using them. On the other, Russia is being accused of cluster munitions-related war crimes.

Rene Värk, associate professor of international law at the University of Tartu (TÜ) explained to ERR that cluster munitions aren't banned for countries not party to the convention.

"The concern with cluster munitions is the fact that this weapon generally covers some sort of area, and pretty much everything that falls within that area sustains damage," Värk said. "In other words, cluster munitions aren't especially accurate weapons. They cause a lot of collateral damage. Especially when used in a populated area, the way the Russians have in Kharkiv, for example."

He stressed that the rules of war — formally known as international humanitarian law (IHL) — must be followed even in the case of permitted weapons.

Another reason why many countries have banned the use of cluster munitions lies in the fact that they continue to kill even after conflicts have ended.

"The reality is that not all of the ordnance detonates, and they end up lying there," the associate professor said. "And when at some point people go to clean up the area or just look out of curiosity, they may end up setting off an unexploded cluster munition."

International law professor: Someone is always going to suffer

The DM632 projectile is also equipped with a mechanical self-destruct system, but even that doesn't always work.

According to Col. Mäesalu, under ideal conditions, 90-95 percent of submunitions scattered by a cluster munition projectile detonate.

"Depends on how difficult the terrain is," he clarified. "These can't be fired in snowy conditions or where there is high vegetation, hilly terrain or bodies of water. The amount of unexploded submunitions increases accordingly. Most ideal is to fire them on a more open landscape, where the ground is more even."

In that respect, cluster munitions are even better suited to Ukraine's fields than to the heavily forested Estonia.

When assessing the risks, Värk said, countries try to seek a balance. "Meaning, what is the potential harm to civilians versus the significant military advantage," he explained. "There is never going to be a perfect solution. Someone is always going to suffer."

Of EU member states, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Finland have not joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Germany, meanwhile, joined the convention at the earliest possible opportunity and destroyed nearly half a million projectiles, bombs and missiles within just a few years' time.

Whether this could prove to be an obstacle when Estonia seeks Germany's permission to send cluster munitions to Ukraine is difficult to say.

According to Värk, the conditions under which Estonia can transfer projectiles from Germany to another country should be stated in the relevant purchase agreement.

"And it's quite possible that the fact that Germany is a party to this convention will make this decision more difficult to make," he acknowledged.

According to Pevkur, Estonia has told its allies that it will only use cluster munitions to defend Estonia.

"Should we provide them [to Ukraine], I don't see a problem with that on Ukrainian territory, because cluster munitions are already being used by both sides' armies on Ukrainian territory," the Estonian defense minister said.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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