Lethal weapon: Has Trump mis-stepped on Ukraine?

Sending anti-tank guided weapons to Ukraine is the right decision. But the Trump administration has gone about it the wrong way.

To supply or not supply? As war between Ukraine and Russia broke out in 2014, so too did debate in Washington over sending lethal weapons to Ukraine. Now – four years on – the United States has delivered Javelin anti-tank guided weapons (ATGW) to Ukraine. But, after all this time, is this the right move?

In principle, supplying ATGW to Ukraine makes sense both on the strategic as well as tactical level. The unfolding of the conflict has justified the strategic rationale for this decision: the more capable Ukrainian armed forces have become at repelling Russian offensives, the more Moscow has wound the war down. Armoured formations still occasionally probe Ukraine’s defences – like the battle for Avdiivka in late January 2017 – but they get beaten and withdraw to again resort to artillery duels.

Moscow’s policy throughout the conflict has been one of plausible deniability regarding its military involvement in Ukraine. And the reasons for this remain in place: despite the relentless anti-Ukrainian propaganda the Kremlin has unleashed over the duration of the war, the Russian government knows that Russian society is unlikely to tolerate a major war between the two countries. And, above all, entering a full-scale military conflict would drain considerable resources both in term of men and materiel. And, even if it were to win, a victory would hardly improve Russia’s strategic situation vis-à-vis the US, its nemesis and benchmark for strategic parity. So while Russia issues verbal protests about Western support to Ukraine, it is hardly likely to resort to all-out war against its neighbour. As a result, the West can supply ATGW to Ukraine without overly worrying that this move will provoke the Russians to more concerted military action.

The West could have achieved a more effective outcome had they delivered used ATGW of an older generation

On a tactical level too, the decision is sensible. ATGW are a means to stabilise the contact line. Among the many flawed measures contained within the Minsk agreement, the provision to withdraw heavy weapons – defined as guns, artillery pieces, and vehicle-mounted weapons with a calibre of 100mm or greater – has turned out to be a destabilising one. Both sides rely on anti-tank guns for defence, and withdrawing them means leaving the lines particularly vulnerable. As a precaution, both parties lay mines. And whenever they suspect the other party of preparing armed assaults, they rush artillery back in and lay fire on the other side to signal their readiness for defence.

ATGW would reduce the tactical need for signalling through artillery and, under the provisions of the Minsk agreement, ATGW do not have to be withdrawn. They have sufficient range and penetration power to engage any armoured vehicle at combat distances. At the same time the shot is so prohibitively expensive that they would not be used to fire on suspicion or for suppressive fire support – which is what causes most of the collateral damage in this conflict.

So overall the Trump administration’s decision to sell ATGW to Ukraine, even belatedly, makes sense. But the choice of weapon matters too – and here the administration may have made a mistake. The Javelin belongs to the latest generation of ATGW that the US and many NATO members rely on to defend themselves against possible Russian action. If a Javelin were to fall into Russian hands – either on the battlefield or through espionage – this would compromise US security. Moreover, Ukraine’s security service, which is also responsible for military security, has been involved in too many incidents of abuse of power against anti-corruption agents, journalists, reformers, and opposition party members to be trusted. The service is unreformed and it is still vulnerable to corruption and compromise. So for now the missiles are stored at American training facilities in western Ukraine. Ukrainian forces are receiving training on them, but it is not yet clear whether they will actually be able to deploy them to the warzone in eastern Ukraine.

The West – both the Americans and the Europeans – could have achieved a more effective outcome had they delivered used ATGW of an older generation, like the TOW, HOT, Bill 1, Milan, or Dragon, and had they done so at an earlier stage. Such missiles would deter Russia’s proxy forces, but the West would allow Ukraine to use them in combat – even if the Russians captured the equipment, the harm would be minimal. Indeed, in the Syrian civil war the CIA funnelled TOW ATGW via Saudi Arabia to several rebel forces, which used them on Russian tanks and helicopters. Equally, the West could have persuaded Ukraine into a comprehensive security sector reform to improve the reliability of its agencies – particularly the SBU – and reward such reform with access to modern defence equipment – including the Javelin. Instead the inward-looking “strategic debate” on “lethal aid” ran along lines scored inside the Washington and Brussels beltways rather than seeking to address the military reality in Ukraine.

Still, on the level of political symbolism and signalling, the decision still matters. Petro Poroshenko can claim to have won American support in a matter of crucial importance. Likewise, Donald Trump can claim that he has become “hard on Russia like no one before”, while in substance not crossing too many of the Kremlin’s red lines. But for the soldiers in the Donbas trenches, the shelling and fighting will continue on the same patterns. The supply of Javelins changes the overall balance little but increases the risk for Ukraine and the US. As such, the decision to send lethal aid has, literally, delivered first-class equipment to a country which cannot use it, leaving the ATGW to gather dusk locked away, far from the front. Whether it will ever make it to the front, given the risks, remains to be seen.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.