Kyiv: A flood of anti-tank missiles sent to Ukraine has potentially changed the course of the war, putting pressure on Russia to find enough capable troops for the grueling urban combat that is now more likely.
For some military analysts, the number of latest-generation anti-tank missiles shipped to Ukraine in recent weeks is breathtaking, giving Ukraine’s soldiers an arsenal of these weapons that may be unprecedented in a major modern war.
The UK alone says it has sent 3,615 of its short-range Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon (NLAW) missiles, with launchers; Germany said it was sending 1,000 anti-tank weapons from its inventory; Norway 2,000; Sweden 5,000 and the US an unpublicized number of Javelin missile systems. Others have also sent the weapons. Many are not the latest technology, but the threat they represent is considerable.
Javelins feature among the $3.5 billion the US administration just secured from Congress to replenish stocks as they are sent to Ukraine. According to the Pentagon’s annual budget request, the 10 Javelin launch units and 763 missiles it bought in 2021 cost $190.3 million.
“The armies sending these things would certainly have had fewer per soldier than Ukraine has been promised,” said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at Scotland’s St. Andrews University. “Basically people seem to be stripping themselves almost bare to get this stuff to the Ukrainians.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion is not going to plan, largely due to Ukrainian resistance and Russian miscalculations. The latest generation anti-tank weapons pouring into Ukraine are a factor, too.
Even Russia’s most modern tanks have proved vulnerable to “St. Javelin,” as a Ukrainian meme has dubbed the US-made weapons, according to Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based expert on the Russian military for the Jamestown Foundation, an American think tank. Russia doesn’t make a third-generation anti-tank weapon itself, he added.
Both Javelins and NLAWs hit a tank from above, where its armour is weakest. They are also so-called fire and forget missiles, allowing the attackers to move away as soon as a shot is taken. That reduces the risk they’ll be hit by a counterattack with their position revealed.
Oryx, a project that logs independently verified losses during the conflict, has so far counted six of Russia’s most advanced, T-90 tanks among the 76 destroyed by Ukraine’s military. In total, Russia has lost 214 tanks to attack, capture, or abandonment, and 1,292 vehicles in total, according to Oryx’s tally.
Ukraine claims higher Russian tank losses, while the Russian Defense Ministry does not release figures. Ukraine has lost 65 tanks, 22 of them destroyed, among 343 vehicles in total, according to Oryx.
In addition to supplies from abroad, the Ukrainian military already had Soviet-era and, more recently, domestically produced anti-tank weapons. Though less sophisticated than Javelins and NLAWs, these remain effective against most other armoured vehicles.
What that all implies is evident from several Ukrainian videos widely shared on social media, including one of an attempted drive into the Kyiv suburb of Brovary last week by dozens of Russian tanks and other armoured vehicles. Ukrainian troops destroyed several before the column retreated.
Russian commanders will learn from such experiences, just as Israel’s defense forces had to adapt during the 1973 Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur war, according to Felgenhauer. Faced with losses inflicted by Egypt’s newly acquired wire-guided anti-tank missiles, then state of the art, the Israelis moved their infantry from behind their tanks to in front of them, so they could first clear an area of any potential threat.
“In storming cities, the main thing is not just pounding them with bombs, you also need infantry to move in while the defenders are still in shock. If you don’t, you don’t get anywhere,” Felgenhauer said. “Will the Russian infantry be good enough to the same? I don’t know.”
Urban warfare is manpower intensive. In the last week, Russia has drawn down deployments from elsewhere and drafted mercenaries from the Middle East to produce fresh reserves for its “special military operation.”
A Monday assessment of the conflict by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Russian-recruited mercenaries and Russian reinforcements are likely to start arriving near the capital this week. On Tuesday, Kyiv’s city authorities imposed a two-day, nighttime curfew during which anyone found outside their homes without special passes would be considered members of Russian subversive units.
“The lack of any serious movement into the major cities is notable, and it may be that the Russian high command is concerned about pushing reluctant troops into urban warfare for which the Ukrainians have made elaborate preparations,” Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor at the King’s College Department of War Studies, in London, said in a recent blog post. If so, that may make a negotiated settlement more possible, according to Freedman.
Yet if no cease-fire emerges, Ukraine’s success in preventing Russian tanks from punching their way into urban centers could also produce a more drawn out and brutal conflict.
Virtually all of the Russian generals currently in Ukraine served in Syria, where Russian forces have been fighting since 2015 and encountered similar issues, according to Felgenhauer. After Russian aircraft pounded cities such as Aleppo and Homs from above, the Syrian regime’s army would then fail to follow up, leading to a grinding two-year campaign of inconclusive sieges.
The solution was both times consuming and vicious. First, Russia had to train up special Syrian units that were willing and able to fight in an urban setting. Then they used the thermobaric “vacuum bombs” that have been spotted already in various locations around Ukraine.
The cloud of fuel mist these release on impact penetrated the tunnels and bunkers that Syrian opposition fighters had dug to protect themselves against air and artillery strikes, according to Felgenhauer. When that mist detonated, creating a ball of flame, it would consume the available oxygen and kill those caught in the bunkers.
“There’s a belief in the west you can’t take a city if it is defended well. But that is not the case. You just need to know how and to have the right weaponry, and basically the Russians do,” he said, adding that the port city of Mariupol, the object of an intense siege for two weeks, could prove an early test. A success there would release Russian forces to join the drives toward Kyiv and the key southern port city of Odesa.
The big question, he added, is whether Russia’s leaders will be willing to use Syrian tactics in Kyiv, turning the war decisively in their favour before spring turns frozen terrain to mud and Ukraine’s military has time to arm and integrate the large numbers of reserves clamouring to help repel the invasion.