The Buzz

America's Javelin Missiles Are Going to Ukraine (but Can They Stop Russia's Army?)

Kofman also warns that if Javelin missiles result in dead Russians, Moscow could ‘signal back’ with dead Americans. One obvious avenue for retaliation would be providing weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Earlier in 2017, the military and State Department claimed they had evidence Russian agents were providing small arms to the Taliban. This could theoretically be stepped up to heavier weapons.

The Wilson Center analyst correctly points out that snipers and artillery have accounted for far more deaths in Eastern Ukraine than tanks—especially since the loosely observed Minsk agreements stipulate that tanks had to be withdrawn miles away from the frontlines. However, I disagree with his implication that the number of separatist tanks is exaggerated and that they had a limited impact while active.

To use one crude measure, the Russian site ‘Lost Armour’ has photographs of no fewer than eighty-four knocked out separatist T-64 and T-72 tanks—not including numerous other armored vehicle types. To give two examples of major tank actions, a battalion-sized unit of thirty tanks reportedly spearheaded a failed offensive in Mariupol in 2014. In January 2015, thirty to forty tanks reportedly overran a Ukrainian Army strongpoint at Donetsk International Airport after it was leveled by 2S4 self-propelled mortars.

However, the Russian tank engagements mostly occurred between August 2014 and mid-2015. Suggestively, Lost Armor has no photos of separatist tanks destroyed in 2017.

It also true that small shipments of advanced weapons rarely have a great impact. But there are notable exception: smuggled U.S.-built Stinger missiles brought down Soviet helicopters and jets in Afghanistan, while Russian AT-14 Kornet anti-tank missiles furnished to Hezbollah via Syria damaged or destroyed more than twenty heavily armored Israeli Merkava tanks in 2006. While the full extent of these missiles’ impact is debatable, they undeniably curtailed military operations and contributed to narratives of defeat.

Javelins could potentially serve as a deterrent against renewed Russian armored attacks, if they could be concentrated where they are likely to occur. However, such a renewed offensive already seems unlikely given the static frontlines for the last two years, and the limited gain and considerable economic drain the conflict has imposed on Russia.

Could the Javelins embolden the Ukrainian military to undertake major offensive actions, as Moscow argues? This too seems unlikely due to the small scale of the shipment, current political disarray in Ukraine, and the reality that if pro-Russian separatists came close to military defeat, Russia would likely counterescalate.

Thus, the relatively small and expensive Javelin sale may be more significant for its political symbolism, which will heighten tensions between the United States and Russia while potentially lessening Ukraine’s isolation. This could have unpredictable effects on the war in Eastern Ukraine, simmering in an escalating daily routine of sniper and artillery fire over positions that have little changed since 2015.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

Image: Wikimedia Commons