Reactions and implications of the recent U.S. announcement of lethal arms sales to Ukraine
Two weeks ago, the Trump administration approved a plan that would include the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine, including most notably the American-made Javelin anti-tank missile that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has specifically requested since 2015. @DFRLab previously detailed why the “Javelin question” has dominated discourse around the United States’ policy towards Ukraine and Russia.
With the resolution of the “Javelin question” after years of discussion and increasing American and Canadian lethal arms sales to Ukraine, what will the delivery of these weapons look like, and how have Ukraine, Russia, and the so-called separatist republics reacted?
Official Russian and Ukrainian Reactions
As one would expect, Russian government officials maintained a consistent position against the U.S. shipment of Javelins to Ukraine and warned of an escalation in the conflict and geopolitical consequences of increased American involvement in the Donbas.
A Russian deputy representative to the United Nations, Pyotr Ilyichev, voiced the Kremlin’s view that the introduction of American and Canadian lethal weapons into eastern Ukraine will sabotage the already-shaky Minsk agreement. Ilyichev stated:
We would like to recommend those who are pushing (the countries) to such decisions and take them, to think about responsibility. It is clear that the pumping of Ukraine with American and Canadian means of war pushes the country’s leadership, which sabotages the Minsk agreements, to new military adventures. Everyone should understand that the conflict in the Donbass will not be resolved by force, and those who give arms to the murderers will be to blame for the death of people there.
Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova echoed Ilyichev’s message, putting focus on the future culpability of the United States for violence carried out with the exported weapons.
Russia is extremely disappointed by the fact that U.S. authorities licensed an unnamed independent arms manufacturer to supply Barret М107А1 large calibre sniper rifles to Ukraine. This is the first time Washington has officially announced the transfer of weapons to Ukraine, although only recently it became known that AirTronic USA has been supplying hand-held grenade launchers to Ukraine since April.
The fact that from a formal point of view arms supplies are carried out under business contracts without the involvement of official channels does not change anything. This is merely camouflage, and an attempt to distort reality. The green light to these deliveries came from officials in Washington, which means that the U.S. assumes full responsibility for the consequences and for the lives of Ukrainians who may fall victim to US arms.
Statements from other Russian government officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and the speaker of the upper house of Russian parliament, echo Ilyichev and Zakharova, claiming that the United States is seeking more bloodshed in the Donbas, eschewing the Minsk agreement.
Most notably, Ukrainian President Poroshenko said he was “grateful (…) for strong bipartisan support of Ukraine” following the announcement of Javelin sales to Ukraine. Poroshenko stressed how Javelins, and other American weapons, would be used “not for offense, but for stronger rebuff of the aggressor [and] protection of Ukrainian soldiers.” He went on to say that the sale of Javelins is a “ transatlantic vaccination against the Russian virus of aggression.”
Poroshenko previously called for “just 1,240 Javelin missiles” in a 2015 interview with the Wall Street Journal.
On December 14, 2017, soon before the official announcement of Javelin deliveries to Ukraine, Aleksandr Kazakov, an official of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR), laid out possible courses of actions for the so-called separatist republics of the Donbas if the United States were to deliver lethal weapons. These two variants were: the “fighters of the Donbas will also start to send weapons to some of the places that are sensitive to Kyiv — I won’t list them out, but I’ll say that they won’t just be Sloviansk and Mariupol,” and secondly, “the Donbas may find its own source — for example, South Ossetia, which will supply the army of the ‘DNR’ with modern weapons to balance out the ‘Canadian source’ [in reference to a recent announcement from the Canadian government to allow the export of some lethal weapons to Ukraine].”
When asked about the delivery of Javelins, “DNR” spokesperson Eduard Basurin had a more muted reaction than Kazakov and Prilepin. Basurin claimed that Ukrainians has had “NATO weapons” since 2015 (though without providing specific examples), and he said that the United States should provide Ukraine with “something peaceful and more useful for its population” rather than weapons.
There have yet to be official statements from American or Ukrainian sources regarding when, where, and how Javelins will be delivered, but some information was gleaned from a recent Wall Street Journal report. American officials told the outlet that Javelins will not be deployed to the front, but rather “stored at training centers” in western and central Ukraine. American officials will reportedly “keep tabs” on the weapons and “regularly check and count [Javelin systems]”.
One fear is that supplying Ukraine with Javelins may lead to a similar situation to Syria and other Middle Eastern and South Asian countries that have seen proliferation of American weapons to unintended recipients. A senior official told the Wall Street Journal that this type of scenario is not anticipated, as “basically things work in Ukraine,” unlike a chaotic situation in Syria, with an ongoing civil war.
Salvos of Misinformation
Increasing confusion around the Javelin situation, a number of media outlets and government spokespersons misreported @DFRLab’s recent investigation into Ukraine’s notorious Azov Battalion receiving and testing American-made rocket-propelled grenade launchers. This investigation clearly outlined the weapons that were used by Azov soldiers in the summer of 2017 — the PSRL-1 system, a version of the Soviet RPG-7.
However, a number of Ukrainian government and military spokespersons and Russian-language media outlets have falsely described that we reported how Javelins were actually in the hands of the so-called Azov Battalion (a regiment integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard).
Additionally, nowhere in our investigation did we specify that any lethal American weapons have been used in a combat situation, rather detailing documented examples of their use in training situations with the Azov Battalion.
The National Guard of Ukraine published a press release stating that the Azov Battalion does not have either Javelin nor PSRL-1 systems, despite the fact that the @DFRLab investigated never claimed that Javelins were involved, and how multiple official Azov Battalion websites announced the arrival of PSRL-1 systems into their armaments.
— НГУ (@ng_ukraine) January 9, 2018
Additionally, a Ukrainian Armed Forces spokesperson told Ukrinform that there is information in the media that there may be Javelin systems in the hands of Azov Battalion fighters. This “information” was in very few credible media outlets before the press release; rather, it was produced from a misreading of the original @DFRLab investigation.
Despite the intense attention given to the “Javelin question” since 2015, it is possible, and perhaps likely, that these anti-tank missile systems will never be utilized in the Donbas, especially if they are properly and securely stored in armories far from the front line. Though exponentially less attention has been given to other lethal arms sales to Ukraine from the West, including the United States, these weapons (sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and other light arms) are more likely to have an impact in the front line situation in eastern Ukraine.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor the sale, deployment, and potential use of lethal arms provided by the West to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, with an eye on Javelins in particular. In the coming weeks, we will publish specific investigations on previous and ongoing lethal arms sales from Western countries to Ukraine.
Follow the latest Minsk II violations via the @DFRLab’s #MinskMonitor.
Also, follow @DFRLab on Twitter for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.