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Ukraine’s troops show CBS News how controversial U.S. cluster munitions help them hold Russia at bay

Near Lyman, Ukraine— At a secret hide-out deep in a forest near the eastern city of Lyman, Ukrainian forces were caught in the crosshairs of a new line of Russian attack. Our CBS News team huddled in the dugout with the troops, not far from the eastern front line, where Russia was putting them under intense pressure with a barrage of artillery in a bid to stretch Ukraine‘s resources.

Moscow wants to force the Ukrainians to bolster their defenses in the area by pulling soldiers away from their counteroffensive in the south.

“We’ve got a couple of weeks now of very huge combats,” U.S.-trained Commander Simon Solatenko told us. He and his elite troops from the Bogun Brigade had been up all night, fending off another Russian assault.

They’re outmanned and outgunned. The Russian forces have almost 10 times more ammunition.

“They outnumber us with drones. It’s a huge problem,” Solatenko told us. “But we are fighting… We have no other choice.”

He’s lost a friend in the battle, and he’s exhausted.

“We’re holding our line,” he told us with a deep sigh. “It is difficult. I can’t say our morale is on the top, but we are holding our line and we are standing.”

The fighting was so close you could smell the gunpowder, Solatenko told us, but they managed yet again to send the Russian soldiers running back in the opposite direction.

One thing that has made a difference further along the front line in the region are the U.S. supplied, and controversial, cluster munitions. The Biden administration agreed to send the weapons earlier this summer, as Ukraine’s ammunition shortages threatened its counteroffensive.

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Critics of that decision worry about a weapon that releases dozens of smaller “bomblets,” which sometimes fail to explode — posing a deadly threat to civilians as they can linger on the ground long after a conflict ends. That risk has seen more than 120 countries ban the use of the weapons, but not Russia, Ukraine or the United States.

Commander Musikant of the Bogun Brigade’s artillery unit told CBS News they give his forces a crucial advantage: In the absence of air power, cluster munitions enable Ukrainian troops to clear an area quickly, as they can strike a large section of ground using a single shell.

We watched as he directed a strike from their control room. With Russian positions in the firing line, Musikant gave the order to unleash one cluster bomb. The gunner out in the field received the order and let it fly, and then he and his men hotfooted it out of there — firing a shell can reveal their position, and they too can become targets.

The hit was successful.

The moral dilemma of using a weapon banned by most countries is not up for debate on the battlefields of Ukraine. The men trying to fend off Russia’s invasion believe the cluster bombs are crucial to helping them hold the line, at least for now.

The Ukrainian soldiers who spoke to CBS News said the “dud rate” — the number of bomblets that fail to explode — on the American cluster munitions has been very low, claiming they’ve been almost 100% efficient.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in July that Ukraine was putting the weapons to use “appropriately.”

Russia, too, has relied on the controversial bombs during its invasion, and U.S. officials say Moscow has used older versions, with higher dud rates.

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