The Trump administration has quietly completed the transfer of lethal new anti-tank missile systems to Ukraine, angering the Kremlin and signaling a possible escalation of the fighting between Kiev and Russian-backed separatists in the country’s divided east.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko confirmed this week that the initial deliveries of the FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile, the shoulder-fired weapon equipped with a “fire and forget” guided missile system designed for U.S. Army infantry units, are now in the hands of Ukrainian forces.
The country’s defense minister, Stepan Poltorak also announced Tuesday that the country’s military will begin initial training on the U.S.-built anti-tank weapons as soon as Wednesday.
The $47 million U.S. military aid package, approved last year and confirmed in March, rates as perhaps Exhibit A in the White House’s argument that President Trump is willing to get tough on Russia when it is in the U.S. national interest, even as he talks of an improved relationship with President Vladimir Putin. The Obama administration held back on supplying Kiev with offensive weapons for fear of exacerbating the grinding military conflict sparked by a Russian-backed separatist revolt in Ukraine’s eastern half.
The State Department confirmed the shipment, said to include 210 Javelin anti-tank missiles and 37 Javelin launchers, over the weekend.
In addition to selling the battle-tested Javelin missile to Kiev, Washington agreed to provide a small team of “basic skill trainers” to advise Ukrainian forces, Defense Department officials said when notifying lawmakers of the outlines of the deal in March.
Angry Russian reaction
The shipments have provoked an angry response from Russian defense officials and from leaders of the separatist movement.
“Today, Ukrainian propagandists in coordination with their American mentors are using another trick: They cry in every corner about the supplies of Javelin anti-tank missile systems for Ukraine’s armed forces,” said Eduard Basurin, a spokesman for the self-proclaimed, Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic.
“These armaments won’t bring any real success on the battlefield,” he told the Donetsk News Agency on Tuesday.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has accused the U.S. government of fomenting a war with the weapons sales, according to a report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The weapons deal would force Russia “toward reckless new military decisions” in Ukraine should Moscow’s troops be faced with such advanced American military hardware, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in December.
But some military analysts predict that Moscow may sit tight for now because the Javelins are unlikely to alter the balance of power in a frozen conflict.
“Javelins are useful weapons that will have a limited deterrent effect, but they won’t fundamentally change the warfighting capabilities of the Ukrainian military,” Michael Carpenter, a former Pentagon official and senior director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania, posted on Twitter. “Far more important is the military’s command structure, which desperately needs to be reformed according to NATO standards, and the training and readiness of Ukraine’s troops, which both need urgent attention.”
Roughly 6,000 Russian troops moved into the autonomous province of Crimea in Ukraine in 2014, which Moscow claimed was part of an effort to protect Russian military installations there. Members of Russia’s parliament approved the military action, ordered by Mr. Putin at the time. Analysts say those “little green men” were critical in encouraging pro-Russian separatists to take up arms against Kiev.
The Obama White House intentionally sought to limit U.S. military support for Ukraine but agreed to provide training and equipment, including supplies of small arms such as assault rifles. The deliveries of the Javelin weapon system could open the door to additional foreign military sales of heavier weapons to Ukraine’s embattled forces in the east.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko praised the Trump administration’s decision to green-light the deal, despite pressure from Moscow.
“Washington not only fulfilled our joint agreement, but also demonstrated leadership and an important example,” he said in a statement. “The price for the Kremlin’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine should continue to grow.”
Arms sale diplomacy
The move falls in line with the Trump administration’s campaign to increase foreign sales of American military hardware around the globe. The sale, including the small contingent of American trainers tasked to the Ukrainian military as part of the deal, risks putting Washington at deeper at odds with Moscow.
News of the deliveries comes amid fresh accusations of harassment of American spy planes by Russian fighters in the Baltics. The incident took place in international airspace over the Baltic Sea, where American surveillance aircraft conduct routine missions in support of U.S. and NATO operations in eastern Europe.
The Navy P-8 Orion intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft was flying an observation mission on Tuesday when a Russian Su-27 fighter jet performed an “unprofessional” intercept of the American spy plane, CNN reported. At one point during the engagement, the Russian fighter closed to within 20 feet of the Navy aircraft at a high rate of speed, service officials say.
U.S. Naval Forces Europe spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Zach Harrell declined to comment on specifics of the incident but did tell CNN that “U.S. Navy ships and aircraft routinely interact with military units from other countries.” He did not comment on the specific nationalities of those foreign military units.
The Ukraine deal is one of several executed under Mr. Trump’s “Buy American” initiative, designed to bolster Washington’s share of the global arms market. Aside from pressing for a more expedited federal approval process for U.S. weapons sales, the White House is also calling on American diplomats overseas to lobby other nations to embrace new weapons deals with Washington.
As he often does in meetings with foreign leaders, Mr. Trump was at it again Monday, urging visiting Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to buy more U.S. arms, tanks and planes for his country’s defense needs.
Overseas weapons sales by U.S. firms have surged by $8.3 billion from 2016 to 2017, with American arms makers moving a total of $41.9 billion in advanced weaponry to foreign militaries last year, according to Pentagon figures.
But Russia has also sought to use its vast arsenal of advanced weapons as a foreign policy tool, actively marketing its S-400 midrange missile systems to Syria and Turkey. The proposed sale to Turkey, a NATO ally, is opposed by the U.S. and top NATO officials, who say it would harm interoperability with American and alliance forces.