Both Russian and U.S. generals have an interest in testing their newer weapons against each other.
By Leonid Bershidsky
As part of the latest escalation of the U.S.-Russian crisis, there is reportedly a joint plan by the Pentagon and the State Department to provide “lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine. That presents an enticing prospect for both U.S. and Russian generals, who may be able to test some of their most modern weaponry against each other. But it’s likely to make the eastern Ukraine conflict even bloodier in the process.
The Wall Street Journal report mentions that the U.S. would supply Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank missiles and possibly anti-aircraft systems. Since no air war is being fought in eastern Ukraine, the latter are superfluous at this point and not likely to be engaged unless Russia launches a full offensive — something it has missed numerous chances to do and probably will never attempt. The Javelins are another matter. Ukrainians want them for very practical reasons.
The new U.S. special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, has said that “there are more Russian tanks in there than in Western Europe combined.” He may have heard this in Kiev, where various numbers of tanks fighting under the banners of the two unrecognized, pro-Russian “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk have been bandied about. These estimates go up to 1,000, and Russian television once briefly showed a military balance table that gave the statelets 700 tanks. Germany and France have a combined 949 tanks.
Russia has denied sending any tanks to the separatists, claiming they are trophies or remnants of Ukraine’s enormous cache of Soviet weapons. That’s likely untrue. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which follows international arms transfers, has recorded Russian tank supplies to the rebels. It will send more as needed, and there’s evidence that it did in 2015 to ensure the Ukrainian military’s biggest defeat in the war, near the important railroad junction of Debaltsevo.
“The Javelin anti-tank missiles would have been a big help then,” Ukrainian parliament speaker Andriy Parubiy told a press conference in June. “If we’d burned several hundred Russian tanks at Debaltsevo, it would have been an important step toward restoring peace in our country’s east.”
In fact, using Javelins on most of the separatists’ tanks, or indeed on most of the Russian tanks used in eastern Ukraine, would be like swatting flies with a sledgehammer. Russia has so many more tanks than any country in the world — more than 20,000 — because an overwhelming majority of them are dispensable, easy-to-burn, old models, such as the T-72, first introduced in 1973, and the T-80 that came the next decade. Lots of these are necessary to ensure overwhelming force so that no matter how many the enemy burns, some will break through.
Russia has used them with mixed results in local conflicts from the civil war in Chechnya in the 1990s, where the rebels quickly learned to turn them into funeral pyres, to the brief invasion of Georgia in 2008, when the small Transcaucasian country was simply overwhelmed by the speed of the Russian move. The Ukrainian army relies on these old machines, too. Both countries have been upgrading the T-72s, but the modernization has only been partial.
T-72s and T-80s have been successfully destroyed with the largely Soviet weapons at the disposal of both Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists. The Javelin, adopted by the U.S. military in the mid-1990s, is needed to blow up the best tanks Russia uses these days — the T-90s with modern Relikt explosive reactive armor (a type of protection that employs an explosive outer layer with armor underneath). The Javelin is designed to deal with such systems more effectively than most existing anti-tank missiles.
There’s no record of a T-90 being hit by a Javelin. Last year, Syrian rebels wielding an older U.S. missile, the BGM-71 TOW-2A hit a T-90 that had the dated Kontakt 5 explosive reactive armor; the tank escaped almost unscathed. A Javelin probably would have destroyed it — but then, it’s unclear how things would have turned out had the tank had a newer armor system.
Russia claims that tanks built on its most modern T-14 Armata platform will be able to withstand any anti-tank weapons North Atlantic Treaty Organization armies possess today: They have even more advanced protective systems than the Relikt. But the Armata is still undergoing testing.
Russia treats the battlefields of recent conflicts as testing grounds for its weaponry. President Vladimir Putin has said participation in the Syrian war was a better use of Russia’s military exercise budget than exercises: “Only under battle conditions can we really test what we’re using, find out what the problems are and fix them.” There will be a temptation to test the previous and perhaps even the new generation of Russian tanks against the Javelin.
U.S. generals are likely also eager for such a test. If the U.S. doesn’t have an effective defense against modern Russian tanks, that’s a problem.
Although Bellingcat, the investigative group that tracks the Russian involvement in the eastern Ukraine conflict, has spotted T-90s in the area, the conflict has largely been fought with Soviet weaponry. It would, however, be reasonable to expect that the rebels will be armed with more modern hardware if U.S. supplies start coming in. That can only make the war, which has already taken 10,000 lives, even deadlier.
Two years after both sides have largely kept to existing demarcation lines (minor encroachments aside), it is militarily unnecessary to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons unless the U.S. wants to encourage it to try to reclaim the “people’s republics.” That would be a mistake. Though Russia doesn’t have enough resources to take over and hold Ukraine while still staying on the lookout for other military threats, it has plenty of money, firepower and determination to defend the separatist statelets. Giving them up would mean the end of Putin’s aura of invincibility, leaving him vulnerable at home and overseas.
It’s highly likely, however, that the U.S. will step up the confrontation for domestic political reasons — the same ones that sent U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro this week to assure them of America’s support, and the same ones that now push President Donald Trump to sign the Russia sanctions bill. Unlike those actions, however, arming Ukraine will likely lead to more bloodshed.