Domestically produced anti-tank missiles used by the Ukrainian army on the Donbas frontlines
During the first half of February, an increasing number of videos emerged across social media showing combat on the frontlines of eastern Ukraine. The videos primarily featured showcases of newly developed Ukrainian anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), as well as unmanned aerial vehicle-supported artillery strikes. They also showed the importance of the ability to strike the enemy from afar and behind cover as a core capability in this phase of the war, which has devolved into its current state of low-intensity trench warfare.
Two types of missiles took center stage in this series of videos: the RK-3 “Korsar” and its heavier cousin, the “Stugna-P.” These two systems, in violation of the Minsk agreements, saw a broad range of employment, ranging from intended use (i.e., against armored vehicles) to ways of employment more commonly associated with other conflicts, such as those ongoing in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
The DFRLab previously reported on these systems, when it was still uncertain whether Ukraine would receive American Javelin top-attack ATGMs, which have the capability to hit tanks’ weaker top armor from above, rather than head-on like regular ATGMs. The DFRLab noted that these domestically produced missiles were especially critical at the time for bolstering Ukrainian capabilities against enemy armor and securing a reliable supply of anti-tank capabilities.
The source of the majority of these videos was Anatoliy Shtirlits, an officer in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and a regular blogger. On February 5, 2019, Shtirlits uploaded a video on YouTube supposedly depicting “Ukrainian servicemen destroying a military vehicle of the Russian occupiers” (Українські військові знищили бойову машину російських окупантів).
The video clearly showed the unique remote weapons station display for the Stugna-P, from which the operator fired a missile at a dark spot on the screen. It was not clear from the video what the missile hit, but the claim was that it was a military vehicle of the opposing side.
A day later, the official Facebook page of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces uploaded an image in a post claiming that Ukrainian troops destroyed an armored vehicle during its unsuccessful attack on their position.
The DFRLab could not determine from this image where exactly it was taken, since the features in the image match a large percentage of the front-line environment in the Donbas region. Furthermore, the differences between this image and the above video meant that the DFRLab could not verify that this image was from the same incident, although it likely was.
Two days later, Shtirlits released a similar video on Twitter showing a Stugna-P launch toward a tree line from an elevated position.
Маневрена група воїнів ОС в районі н.п.Голубівське виявила автомобіль "КРАЗ" який здійснював підвіз боєприпасів та евакуював мінометний розрахунок орків після провокативних обстрілів позицій ОС.
Дана "КРАЗ" та один окупант був знищений.
— Анатолий Штирлиц (@Shtirlitz53) February 7, 2019
Shtirlits claimed that the footage was from the area of Holubivs’ke in Luhansk Oblast. Shtirlits also claimed that the missile targeted an enemy vehicle, but the footage was not clear enough to discern this. The terrain in the footage, however, appeared similar to the terrain along the northern Luhansk frontlines. Although the DFRLab was unable to match the details in the video to satellite imagery, the variety and amount of electric masts dispersed across open fields appeared consistent with the type of surroundings near Holubivs’ke.
The Stugna-P offers the unique advantage of being remotely operated, allowing the operator to fire the weapon from a safe location. This is especially useful in this stage of the war, when virtually every fighting position is known to the opposing side, making firing from an exposed position significantly more dangerous. According to the manufacturer, “Luch,” the Stugna-P has a range of five kilometers and sports a tandem hollow-charge warhead to defeat explosive reactive armor that is commonly found on Russian-made tanks. “Luch” additionally claims that armor penetration behind ERA should exceed 550mm of an unspecified material, but the standard unit of measurement being Rolled Homogenous Armor.
In a different video posted by Facebook user Ruslan Smeshchuk, Ukrainian servicemen were seen operating the lighter Corsar ATGM in the Svitlodarsk bulge.
The good visibility in the video allowed the video to be geolocated to Ukrainian positions overlooking the western portion of the Svitlodarsk bulge. With this geolocation, we could determine that the missile was fired at known Russian-backed separatist positions near the settlement of Lozove.
This is one of the first documented employments of the Corsar ATGM since it was accepted into service with the Ukrainian army in 2017. It is reported to have a range of 2.5 kilometers, which is half the range of the Stugna-P, but should retain the same degree of armor penetration. In addition to a tandem hollow-charge warhead, the Corsar can also fire high-explosive fragmentation missiles, more suitable for soft targets.
While ATGMs draw less attention due to their accurate and direct-fire nature, their calibers cause them to be in violation of the Minsk agreements when brought to the front lines. The Corsar stands at 107mm, while the Stugna-P stands at 130mm, both above the allowed 100mm.
While advancing enemy armor is less of an imminent threat for Ukrainian armed forces on the Donbas frontlines, ATGM are still found to have their utility in harassing static positions of the opposing side and taking out vehicles that partake in the occasional probing attacks against Ukrainian government positions. This is, of course, at the expense of the integrity of the Minsk agreements, which are haphazardly implemented by both parties in the conflict. Years of stagnant trench warfare has shown that both sides adhere to the Minsk agreements only as far as necessary to prevent the outbreak of renewed major offensives, but that they are largely ignored on a smaller case-to-case basis.
The videos could also have some marketing value for the Ukrainian defense industry, which often seeks to sell its products to foreign markets, with which it has had some success — at IDEX 2019 in late February, for example, “Luch,” a Ukrainian ATGM manufacturer, signed three contracts for ATGM sales to foreign countries.
The documentation of the active usage of domestically produced ATGMs in eastern Ukraine is a symbolic win for the Ukrainian government in proving self-sufficiency from Soviet stockpiles and limited supplies of U.S. Javelin ATGMs.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor developments related to the conflict in eastern Ukraine as part of our #MinskMonitor series of reporting.
Michael Sheldon is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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