Monday, May 7, 2018

Javelin Missiles for Ukraine: Morale-Booster, But Not a Game-Changer

By Askold Krushelnycky

Ukrainians celebrated this month (May) America’s announcement it had delivered state-of-the art Javelin anti-armor missiles to Ukraine, which has been pleading for them since Russia launched its war against Ukraine in 2014.

The Javelin will not cancel out the numerical superiority in tanks of Russian-supplied forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas conflict zone.  Moscow can, has and likely will again, send in huge numbers of tanks crewed by regular Russian forces, if its proxies in Donbas seem threatened.

However, the Javelins will even up the odds considerably. And they not only supply Ukraine with extra military muscle but provide a valuable morale booster.

The U.S. Congress and many former and current senior Pentagon officials and generals have long wanted to supply Javelins to Ukraine.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, American president Barrack Obama refused because he feared it would provoke Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. And after all, he had been elected with a mandate to pull the US out of existing wars, not get involved in new ones.

However,  that cautious approach in Ukraine and Syria led to calamity, convincing Putin that the West wouldn’t dare to stand up to him.

The new American president, Donald Trump, heaped praise and adulation on Putin both during the U.S. election campaign and after assuming office in 2017. So many doubted that Trump would sign-off on supplying Javelins to Kyiv even after a low-key announcement last December that it would.

But despite Trump’s puzzling reluctance to criticize or confront Putin, many in the president’s administration had no such qualms.  Javelins have been provided to Ukraine not because of Trump, but despite him.

The New York Times reported last week Trump’s decision to finally agree on sending Javelins was partly a reward for Ukraine dropping its own inquiries that could have helped U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller investigate possible collusion between Trump and Moscow during the 2016 election. Paul Manafort for years had been adviser to corrupt, authoritarian former pro-Moscow Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych until a revolution toppled him and he fled to Russia. For a time Manafort headed Trump’s election campaign and allegedly maintained contacts with Russians tied to the Kremlin he got to know during his work for Yanukovych.

For the Ukrainian military, politicians and ordinary citizens, the acquisition of Javelins had become something akin to the quest for the Holy Grail. Not many will be troubled if a bargain with the devil had to be struck to get them.

Javelins are man-portable, shoulder-launched, “fire and forget” weapons.  That means once the computerized control device, about the size of an iPad, acquires its target, the two-man team, equipped with one launcher and two missiles, can fire and move to a new position or start lining up a fresh target. The Javelin adjusts in flight to any efforts to evade it.

It was designed primarily to hit tanks or other armored vehicles horizontally but it can also move upwards and drop down atop a tank, where the protecting armor is usually much lighter.

The Javelin can even destroy low-flying helicopters – an important consideration if Moscow eventually abandons the fiction that it’s not involved in Ukraine and decides to openly use its air force.

The usual Pentagon routine for providing such sophisticated weapons would involve training in the U.S. a group of military from the country receiving the item, in this case Ukraine. After the training period, that group would return to Ukraine to teach other Ukrainian soldiers. 

A military source said privately that most of the 210 Javelins and 37 launchers earmarked for Ukraine have been in western Ukraine for some time.  He said the US has been worried the Ukrainian side might, through corruption or incompetence, allow Russia to acquire some Javelins. Such a scandal would have dire implications for Ukraine’s hopes of getting more sophisticated weapons. There have been intense discussions between the Pentagon and the Ukrainian side about the US retaining some oversight about deployment of the missiles.

In the 1980s, while accompanying anti-Moscow Afghan Mujahedin fighting Soviet invaders, I was in Afghanistan  in 1986 when the U.S. started supplying game-changing “stinger” anti-air missiles.

Within a short time they neutralized much of the devastating power of Soviet helicopters – Moscow’s most feared weapon — which allowed them to strike Majahedin and civilians at will. The effect on morale was immeasurable – boosting that of the Afghans and shredding Moscow’s.

The supply of Javelins may not have the profound effect of the Stingers in Afghanistan. However, it leaves the door open to removing non-official bans on lethal weapons that not only America but the rest of the West has, in practice, applied, even while supplying training and other military help to Ukraine.

Russia’s use of a nerve agent in England, its support for a Syrian government slaughtering civilians including with chemical weapons, an attack by hundreds of Russian mercenaries in February against a US military base in Syria, revelations about the Kremlin’s promiscuous use of cyber-warfare against Western countries, have prompted calls, led by Britain and France, for sterner punishments against Moscow than yet more economic sanctions and travel restrictions.

The announcement about Javelins signals that the West is willing to up the stakes. Perhaps the Western powers involved in Syria may concentrate their main effort to contain a delinquent Putin from the shifting, complex Syrian matrix, with its multiple national, ethnic, religious, ideological and regional components, to the comparatively simpler conflict in Ukraine.

Success  for US and Western forces in Syria would, at best, diminish the Kremlin’s influence in the Middle East. But if Ukraine defeats Putin, then not only would that defang the Russian dictator personally but would decisively halt Moscow’s ambitions to recreate a Russian empire on the territory of the former USSR.

The appearance of Javelins on Ukraine’s battlefields will indeed enrage Putin.  But placating Putin has never done anyone any good. It has merely encouraged his aggression.

The realistic threat of force is the only thing that matters to Putin or has ever mattered to Russian rulers.

Putin’s perceived power rests only on the fact that Russia has nuclear weapons. It really does, although such a limitation is also a weakness. However, we can’t change that fact. But we can’t allow it be the determining factor as Putin tries to undermine Western values and the notion that decency should outweigh brutishness. 

Askold Krushelnycky is a British citizen and freelance journalist whose parents were refugees from Ukraine. He is the author of “An Orange Revolution – A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History”, which was published in 2006 by Random House/Harvill Secker. He is working on a second book that will focus on the turbulent events in Ukraine since the fall of 2013, when mass demonstrations turned into revolution and, ultimately, the present conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

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