KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s military plans to arm some of its front-line units with U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missiles as well as armed Turkish drones, underscoring a significant, possibly destabilizing policy shift after more than six years of deadlocked, daily combat against Russian forces.
“The Army should be fully prepared for various scenarios,” Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Ruslan Khomchak said in an interview with the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s ArmyInform news agency.
Khomchak said Ukraine’s armed forces are now preparing for what he described as “urban warfare offensive action.”
“We have learned over the six years how to defend well. But the army should be trained, it should be able to advance day and night, under any weather conditions,” he said.
In 2014, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Russia subsequently launched a hybrid war invasion of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, which devolved into a limited conventional conflict. For its part, Moscow says the conflict is a civil war and denies its involvement.
In the Donbas today, Ukraine’s military continues to fight against a combined force of Russian regulars, pro-Russian separatists, and foreign mercenaries. The war, as it currently exists, is a low-intensity, stalemated conflict, characterized by intermittent, indirect-fire potshots. It’s trench warfare not unlike World War I in terms of what daily combat looks like — albeit on a much smaller scale.
Fighting in Ukraine’s eastern war zone recently ticked up in intensity. On Friday alone, the Ukrainian military reported that Russian forces fired some 220 artillery shells and mortars at their positions in the Donbas, reportedly killing a civilian woman in the front-line town of Zaitseve.
Ukrainian officials say their country is living under the constant threat of a Russian invasion.
“We are preparing for a full-scale military confrontation, realizing that if it happens, unfortunately, there will be many losses, both among troops and civilians. Many fail to realize this now, although the country has been at war for the seventh year already,” Oleksiy Neizhpapa, commander of the Ukrainian navy, said in a recent interview, Ukrainian agencies reported.
The Kremlin pushed back against Neizhpapa’s assertion.
“That’s utter nonsense. Much to our regret, this anti-Russian hysteria that is being whipped up in Ukraine in no way helps to resolve the situation in the southeast [of Ukraine],” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reportedly told journalists in Moscow on Monday.
Since the war’s outset in 2014, Ukrainian officials solicited America for lethal weaponry — the Javelin anti-tank missile in particular — as a way both to defend itself from Russian aggression on the battlefields of the Donbas and to deter Moscow from future offensives.
In December 2017, the Trump administration approved a Javelin weapons package for Ukraine reportedly worth $47 million, comprising 210 anti-tank missiles and 37 launchers. When Ukraine took possession of its first U.S. Javelins in 2018, it was with the caveat that the weapons would remain in storage outside the war zone and would not be used in the Donbas conflict under its current conditions.
In October 2019, the U.S. State Department approved the sale to Ukraine of a second shipment of Javelin missile systems worth about $39 million, comprising some 150 missiles and 10 launchers.
“The Javelin system will help Ukraine build its long-term defense capacity to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity in order to meet its national defense requirements,” the State Department said in a report to Congress.
On June 17, a batch of U.S. military aid worth about $60 million arrived in Ukraine, including radios, ammunition, and Javelin missiles. Russia said the U.S. delivery would create “new bloodshed” in Ukraine.
To date, Kyiv has not deployed Javelins to the Donbas battlefield. However, Khomchak intimated in a recent interview that could soon change.
“I can only say that each brigade set to be deployed in the JFO zone will be armed, including by Javelins,” Khomchak said, referring to Ukraine’s Joint Forces Operation, or JFO, which is the official name for the country’s combat operation in the Donbas.
Khomchak said one Ukrainian army brigade, which is currently preparing to deploy to the eastern war zone, is training to use Javelins.
“The military are working out skills in teams operating these anti-tank systems. I personally want to make sure that our troops are able to effectively use these anti-tank systems,” Khomchak said, adding that it was a “secret” how many trained Javelin teams Ukraine’s armed forces currently field.
Khomchak also said that Ukraine’s front-line units were training to employ Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles “to destroy combat targets.”
The Bayraktar, which has a maximum altitude of about 27,000 feet and can stay aloft for some 27 hours, is capable of firing a variety of weapons, including anti-tank missiles. Ukraine announced in January 2019 that it was purchasing an unspecified number of the Turkish combat drones.
If true, the front-line presence of U.S. Javelin missiles in tandem with the potential use of Turkish drones for airstrikes, altogether mark a significant deviation from the de facto stalemate that has held in the Donbas since the Minsk II cease-fire was signed in February 2015.
Since the cease-fire’s signing, neither side has made a serious attempt to affect a breakthrough or take significant new ground. The war, consequently, has been locked in a static, trench warfare stalemate, marked by daily exchanges of artillery, mortar, and sniper fire, as well as occasional gunfights.
Air power has not played a significant role in the conflict since the summer of 2014. The war’s first cease-fire, signed in September 2014, effectively banned either side from prosecuting an air war. Although the fighting has sporadically continued on the ground, the air combat prohibition has largely stuck.
Both sides use unmanned drones for reconnaissance — and occasionally for dropping hand grenades, too — but there’s never been a concerted deployment of drones by either side for the purposes of targeted airstrikes, such as the Baryaktar is capable of executing.
Armor, too, has not had a pivotal role in the combat since the summer of 2014, when the war was a mobile, mechanized fight. Since the war devolved into trench combat, tanks and armored personnel carriers are still used but mainly for so-called “hit and run” pot shots.
The Javelins would, therefore, equip the Ukrainians to more successfully resist an armored offensive. Although many military experts say the U.S. weapons won’t give Ukrainians the upper hand, their presence on the battlefield will certainly raise the costs for any future Russian offensives.
Since 2014, total U.S. military aid to Ukraine has amounted to more than $1.5 billion, according to the Pentagon. Ukrainian troops highlight the value of American deliveries of counter-battery radars, night-vision deices, and armored HMMWVs.
The utility of U.S. aid on the Donbas battlefield has been in the increased survivability of Ukrainian troops from Russian weapons. U.S. aid has also allowed Ukrainians to fight with more precise, limited means, without relying on Soviet-era area-warfare tactics, thereby reducing the risk of collateral damage.
And, looking forward, U.S. military aid is particularly useful as Ukraine continues to pivot away from matching the immediate war needs of the Donbas conflict and continues to build up a force capable of challenging a Russian invasion.
“Partners in the armies of allied countries have made and continue to make a significant contribution to the development and strengthening of our troops,” Khomchak said. “We are talking about their comprehensive advisory assistance, as well as large-scale long-term practical support. In the current context of repelling external aggression, the assistance of our foreign partners is critical.”