How anti-tank weapons are shaping the conflict in the Donbas
Last week, reports emerged in the United States that both the Pentagon and State Department are pressuring the White House to send Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine to bolster their defenses against the tank-reliant Russian-led separatist forces. Congress approved this move during the previous administration, but President Barack Obama held back on delivering lethal aid to Ukraine — a position that has continued thus far in the Trump presidency. However, Ukraine has not stood by idly waiting for the delivery of these weapons. The country has taken several steps toward developing and modernizing its own anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) launchers.
The “Javelin question” has hung over two White House administrations, with even Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko himself asking for 1,240 Javelin anti-tank missiles. Why focus on this particular launcher, leading to countless newspaper editorials, reports, public lobbying campaigns, and think pieces over the past two years?
The two largest single battles of the Ukrainian conflict — both of which led to substantial defeats for the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) — were the August 2014 Battle of Ilovaysk and the January-February 2015 Battle of Debaltseve. In both of these battles, Russia deployed hundreds of well-trained servicemen from tank and motorized infantry brigades to operate sophisticated equipment, most notably T-72B3 tanks and, to a far lesser extent, T-90A tanks.
The strongest calls for the transferring of Javelin missiles to Ukraine came during and immediately after the Battle of Debaltseve, in which Russia’s tanks and the participation of its 5th and 6th Tank Brigades and 37th Motorized Infantry Brigade led to a rout of Ukrainian forces and the Russian-led separatist capture of Debaltseve, a key railway hub.
While Russian tanks were key to this victory, in the two-and-a-half years since the fall of Debaltseve there have been no major tank battles in the Donbas. The most significant flash points since Debaltseve have been protracted artillery duels, such as those near Avdiivka and east of Mariupol, and small territorial gains and losses involving relatively small operational groups of fighters. But the threat of another offensive lingers, and this threat has led to a number of innovations and new lines of production for ATGM launchers in the UAF.
Ukrainian-developed ATGM systems
The Stugna-P was originally developed in 2011 during the Viktor Yanukovych presidency, and is now back in production since the Russian annexation of Crimea and Russia’s participation in the war in eastern Ukraine. A video from the defense manufacturer Ukroboronprom shows the Stugna-P in action, 2,000 meters away from its target.
The Ukrainian news site Slovo i Dilo has reported on the Stugna-P, praising how it is manufactured within Ukraine and without any parts from Russia. The 130mm weapon has a higher caliber than that allowed by the Minsk Agreements, thus making its deployment on the front lines a violation of the peace accords. However, ATGMs have received far less attention from monitoring groups than unguided artillery systems have, due to differences in the danger posed to civilian lives and property.
The Ukrainian defense manufacturer Luch has been developing the RK-3 Corsar system for years, with new videos of prototypes of the yet-to-be-deployed system appearing on the manufacturer’s social media pages. Luch shared a video of a Corsar prototype in action in July 2017.
With the arrival of Javelins far from a certainty, Luch has focused on how ATGM systems can be made in Ukraine, with Ukrainian components and specifically for the UAF. The manufacturer often uses the hashtags #madeinukraine and #зробленовУкраїні (“made in Ukraine”) in its posts. The RK-3 Corsar is expected to replace some Soviet-era systems in the UAF once it is deployed.
The Stugna-P and the RK-3 Corsar ATGM systems were both successfully tested during July 2017 Ukrainian military exercises.
Recent Ukrainian deployments of ATGMs
While the UAF has hundreds of ATGMs in its arsenal and has widely used them on the front lines, recent videos showing their use are relatively rare — possibly because the Minsk Agreements bar their deployment and use near the front lines. However, these weapons are still deployed near the front lines, as seen in a July 18, 2017, report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine. The report describes how a 9M113 “Konkurs” (NATO reporting name: AT-5 Spandrel) ATGM system was observed near Nova Marivka.
Even though there are relatively few videos showing their use, ATGM systems are a common sight in the war’s hotspots. This fact is supported by the video below, in which a member of the Ukrainian far-right Azov Battalion provides a tutorial on using what he identifies as an 9M111 “Fagot” (NATO reporting name: AT-4 Spigot), which uses the 9P135 tripod launcher. However, the system in the video may actually be the 9K113 Konkurs (called the “larger brother of the 9K111 system” by weaponsystems.net), a Soviet-made ATGM launcher, similar to the 9M111 Fagot, that uses an upgraded version of the 9P135 tripod launcher.
A video of an ATGM in use was analyzed by @DFRLab in February 2017. The video shows a Ukrainian soldier firing an ATGM against an enemy BMP (“boyevaya mashina pekhoty,” “infantry fighting vehicle,” or IFV) in the outskirts of Donetsk city. The type of ATGM is not clear, as only the fired missile and its target are shown in the video. The YouTube account Ukrainian Military TV, which first published the video, later deleted it — likely due to the fact that the use of an ATGM on the outskirts of Donetsk is a violation of the Minsk Agreements. However, copies of the video still exist online.
Another video of Ukrainian use of an ATGM system comes from Mykola Koesnyk, a veteran of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) in eastern Ukraine.
Describing the video he uploaded, Koesnyk gave the following quote on his personal Facebook page on what happened after the separatist tank was hit. The quote shows how sensitive the issue of ATGM use near the front lines is:
I can’t write where this happened or who did it. A separatist tank came out ready to fire directly [onto Ukrainian positions], and it was hit with an ATGM. You think that they got awards and medals for this? They got a massive ass-whooping about breaking the Minsk Agreements. Guys, thank you so much! Keep lighting them up, boys! The rest of that tank is still sitting in the field! They just won’t show it in the news!
This launcher appears to be a 9M113 Konkurs, with an appearance similar to the launcher shown by the Azov Battalion fighter.
Another uploaded video shows the Konkurs in use in Ukraine in 2016, allegedly in Avdiivka’s “promzona” or industrial zone.
While the previous videos showed guided missiles targeting enemy tanks and BMPs, the above video, apparently filmed in Avdiivka, seems to show an ATGM launcher firing on an enemy position with small arms fire being returned from the same area. Over two years since the Donbas saw its last large-scale tank battle, these ATGMs are now often used as makeshift howitzer systems, firing on the enemy’s entrenched positions, rather than on mobile tanks.
What would Javelins change?
As the conflict in Ukraine stands today, Javelins would not change the calculus on the front lines, as neither side is currently using motorized equipment to take new territory. In fact, with their entrenched positions and their lack of major movement, both Ukrainians and Russian-led separatist forces are more often using tanks and anti-tank missiles as makeshift artillery, rather than for their primary intended purposes.
There is no shortage of tanks among the Russian-led separatist armaments, but few ever cross the front lines, where they would be most vulnerable to Javelin missiles. Thus, it is hard to believe that the appearance of Javelins on the front lines would give a distinct advantage to the UAF in pushing back Russian-led separatist forces in hotspots such as Avdiivka or Novoazovsk.
Javelin missiles would instead, theoretically, act as a deterrent for future Russian-led separatist offensives similar to those offensives launched in Ilovaysk or Debaltseve. The question of how probable this type of offensive is, or if Javelins could make a difference in reversing such an effort, is outside of #MinskMonitor. However, the announcement of a transfer of Javelins could lead to a significant increase of equipment and soldiers crossing the border, and this could coincide with summer Russian military exercises in its Western Military District.
We will continue to monitor the use of ATGMs in the Donbas, and to observe any potential escalation of Russian involvement in the conflict as the odds of a Javelin deal between the United States and Ukraine change.