KYIV, Ukraine—On the front lines against Russia and its separatist proxies in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian soldiers have, throughout the past three years of relentless combat, frequently turned to symbols of America to both intimidate and annoy their enemies—sometimes, in eclectic and creative ways.
Ukrainian soldiers have raised U.S. flags over their front-line trenches and forts—typically to the retort of sniper or mortar fire from across no man’s land. Sometimes, to really get under the enemy’s skin, an English-speaking Ukrainian soldier will radio commands in English over unencrypted channels, pretending to be a member of SEAL Team Six.
At the front-line village of Krymske in 2015, just outside the separatist stronghold of Luhansk, Ukrainian troops renamed a street from that of a Soviet luminary to “John McCain Street.”
When Canadian journalist and filmmaker Christian Borys asked the soldiers when they were going to name a street after then-President Barack Obama, the soldiers replied, “When he sends us weapons.”
Since the war in the Donbas region began in April 2014, Russian propaganda has spun yarns about U.S. military forces actively participating in the war. Consequently, Ukrainian soldiers know that flaunting American military support for Ukraine is a potent psychological weapon against their enemies.
Any instance of U.S. military support for Ukraine is also a powerful morale booster for Ukrainian troops as they continue to grind out a 3-year-old war against a combined force of Russian troops and pro-Russian separatists.
“U.S. support lets the Ukrainians know the stronger guy is on their side,” Mamuka Mamulashvili, commander of the pro-Ukrainian Georgian National Legion, told The Daily Signal in an interview.
Now, after three years of war, Ukrainian troops may soon have at their disposal the one tangible affirmation of U.S. military support they’ve wanted the most—weapons.
On July 31, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Defense and State departments have drafted a proposal to sell Ukraine lethal defensive weapons, including the Javelin anti-tank missile. Congress has already approved sending Ukraine such weapons for defensive purposes.
According to news reports, it could take months for President Donald Trump to make a final decision about sending weapons to Ukraine. Ukrainian troops, however, treated the news as a positive development.
“Support from the United States of our struggle for independence undoubtedly raises the fighting spirit of our soldiers,” Alexander Pochynok, a Ukrainian sniper, told The Daily Signal. “And the supply of advanced weapons systems such as Javelin will only accelerate our victory and the death of Russia.”
The U.S. has provided nonlethal military assistance for Ukraine since 2014, the year Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, and then started a proxy war in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region.
To date, Trump has not deviated from Obama’s decision to not arm Ukraine.
Lethal weapons deliveries, however, would signal a major U.S. policy shift, and one that would further sour U.S.-Russia relations—which already have hit a post-Cold War nadir. Ukrainian troops and outside experts agree that, if approved, the true value of U.S. weapons transcends the battlefields of the Donbas.
“Actually, the weapons themselves will not have a decisive impact on the course of combat operations,” Ukrainian army Lt. Andrei Mikheychenko told The Daily Signal.
“Deliveries of lethal weapons, in my opinion, will primarily have psychological significance for both the Ukrainian army and the terrorists it fights,” Mikheychenko, a member of the Ukrainian army’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade, said. “This demonstrates the seriousness of U.S. support for Ukraine as a strategic partner.”
What They Need
Mamulashvili commands a unit of 130 foreign soldiers who have fought for three years to defend Ukraine in the Donbas against combined Russian-separatist forces. True to its name, the Georgian National Legion mainly comprises Georgian military veterans, many of whom have combat experience from Russia’s 2008 invasion of the former Soviet republic, as well as alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But the Georgian National Legion also includes soldiers from other countries, including the United States, Austria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Germany, Hungary, Moldova, Russia, and Chechnya.
“Our common motivation is to fight against the aggressor,” Mamulashvili said.
“I understand the role of foreigners in this war,” he said. “Ukrainian soldiers are motivated when they see foreigners helping them. It makes the Ukrainians feel like they haven’t been abandoned.”
When asked about the potential impact U.S. lethal weapons would have on the war, Mamulashvili replied: “If the U.S. sends weapons, it would completely change the war the next day.”
The Georgian commander singled out the U.S. Javelin as a weapon that had both symbolic significance as well as a practical utility on the battlefield.
“The Javelin is not just a morale booster, it’s the weapon we need the most,” Mamulashvili said. “There’s a lot of Russian technology on the front lines. So we need it.”
No Silver Bullet
The two Russian-backed separatist territories in eastern Ukraine are among the most militarized parcels of land on earth. According to Ukrainian intelligence officials, combined Russian-separatist forces in eastern Ukraine currently wield 675 tanks, 478 of which are operational.
In the Donbas, Russia and its separatist proxies also have about 1,300 armored personnel carriers, 81 artillery pieces, 95 multiple-launch rocket systems, and 4,075 air defense systems.
The total manpower strength of combined Russian-separatist forces comprises about 34,000 separatists and foreign mercenaries, as well as about 3,000 Russian soldiers who serve, for the most part, in command and control positions.
Additionally, Russia has roughly 100,000 troops staged within its own territory near the Ukrainian border—a sword of Damocles portending a persistent threat of invasion in the eyes of both Ukrainian and U.S. officials.
“Russia is already in Ukraine, they are already heavily armed,” U.S. Special Envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker told Radio Liberty in a recent interview after he visited the front-line town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine.
“There are more Russian tanks in there than [tanks] in Western Europe combined,” Volker said in the interview. “It is a large, large military presence. An even larger contingent is concentrated at the borders of Ukraine.”
Kyiv, for its part, has about 60,000 troops deployed to the eastern war zone—known as the Anti-Terrorist Operation zone, or ATO, among Ukrainian officials.
With so much military hardware and so many troops already concentrated in an area that comprises only about 5 percent of Ukraine’s overall land mass, U.S. weapons are not likely to tip the overall momentum of the conflict in Ukraine’s favor, Luke Coffey, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, told The Daily Signal.
“The delivery of U.S. weapons like the Javelin would send a symbolic message of support to Ukraine,” Coffey said. “However, U.S. policymakers should understand that weapons are not the silver bullet to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. Providing such material should be done only as one part of the larger strategy to rein in Russian ambitions.”
Moreover, according to The Wall Street Journal, any U.S. weapons delivered to Ukraine would be quarantined from the front lines. Presumably, this would be so that Ukraine would not antagonize Russia into tit-for-tat reprisals that escalate the conflict.
Even if the proposed U.S. weapons deliveries are kept clear of the front lines as promised, Ukrainian troops insist the move would still be a psychological win for their country.
“Moral support is very important for us now … we are feeling that we are not alone in our struggle,” Sergiy Tsyhipa, a former Ukrainian special forces major and a war veteran, told The Daily Signal.
U.S. weapons would also mean more to Ukraine’s war effort than simply boosting morale. This year, Russia and its separatist proxies have used tanks more aggressively to attack Ukrainian positions, Ukrainian military officials have said. One common line of thinking among Ukrainian soldiers is that U.S. anti-tank weapons like the Javelin would deter more tank attacks.
“From my point of view, the U.S. supporting us with weapons has two targets,” said Tsyhipa, who, in addition to his service in Ukraine’s special operations forces, served in the Red Army in the 1980s.
“First—it’s a diplomatic breakthrough, a kind of diplomatic pressure on Russia. The Kremlin really didn’t believe that the White House could do this,” Tsyhipa said. “Second—this is a real help in the war, because Russians really are afraid of Javelins. Their tanks have recently become quite insolent, really. Maybe now they would think differently, and will remember the retribution waiting for them.”
Mikheychenko, the Ukrainian army lieutenant—who has faced Russian tanks in combat on multiple occasions—also said the Javelin would help defend against and deter combined Russian-separatist tanks.
“Of course … having the latest generation of weapons like the Javelin would make the terrorists forget tank attacks,” Mikheychenko said, referring to combined Russian-separatist forces.
After three years, two failed cease-fires, and more than 10,000 fatalities, the war in eastern Ukraine continues to kill and wound soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict almost every day.
The February 2015 cease-fire, called Minsk II, has not stopped the fighting. It simply quarantined the war along about a 250-mile-long front line. Russia continues to supply the separatist territories with weapons and its own troops, according to NATO and Ukrainian officials, as well as years of independent news reports.
Moscow, for its part, has steadfastly denied sending weapons or troops into Ukraine.
Today, combat is mostly fought at a distance, using artillery, mortars, tanks, rockets, and snipers. Reconnaissance patrols and sabotage units sometimes slip across no man’s land, too. But mostly the war is fought from within World War I-style trenches, and from ad hoc forts ensconced on the perimeters of artillery-razed villages.
The Ukraine conflict began on April 6, 2014. Spurred by Russian security agents and special operations troops, two Russian-backed breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine declared their independence from Kyiv during the following weeks.
A combined force of pro-Russian separatists and Russian regulars was on the march in eastern Ukraine in 2014, and there were worries then that Ukraine could be split in two, or that Russia might launch a large-scale invasion. At that time, Ukraine’s regular army was in shambles due to decades of corruption and deliberate weakening from successive pro-Russian governments in Kyiv.
With Ukraine’s regular army on its heels, civilian volunteer soldiers banded into partisan militias and set out for the front lines. This grassroots war effort, supported by civilian volunteers who ferried supplies out to the front lines, successfully parried the combined Russian-separatist advance. By July 2014, Kyiv had retaken 23 out of the 36 districts it had previously lost.
“The army was collapsed and demoralized,” Pochynok, the Ukrainian sniper, said, referring to the opening weeks of the war in 2014. “They gave [away] Crimea without any shots fired, and continued to surrender eastern Ukraine. But then came the volunteers, the patriots of Ukraine.”
Pochynok, 37, achieved the rank of captain when he first served as a volunteer soldier in Ukraine’s regular army from 2000 to 2003. After years as a businessman, in 2014 he took up arms once again, volunteering to serve with Ukraine’s paramilitary units.
“So in 2014 … with my own weapons I went to war!” Pochynok said.
“I felt like this was my war, too,” Mamulashvili said, explaining why, as a citizen of Georgia, he came to Ukraine to fight against Russian aggression. “I’ll stay as long as there is war here, and then I’ll go fight Russia somewhere else.”
Since 2014, Ukraine has radically reformed its military into a more capable fighting force.
In 2013, about 1 percent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product went to defense. Today, Kyiv’s defense budget represents roughly 6 percent of its GDP. During the past three years, Ukraine’s active-duty ranks have increased from 150,000 to 250,000 troops.
Ukrainian officials and outside experts agree that Russia would overpower Ukraine in a direct confrontation. Russia, which has three times the population of Ukraine and 10 times its gross domestic product, has an active-duty force of about 800,000 soldiers with a reserve force of 2 million more. Russia’s 2015 defense budget was about $65 billion—roughly 10 times that of Ukraine.
But, with a battle-tested standing army of about 250,000 active soldiers and stockpiles of Soviet-era weapons that could conceivably last for years, the Ukrainian military is now capable of mounting a formidable defense against Russia—certainly a much more robust one than in 2014.
Moreover, Ukraine’s grassroots war effort in 2014 is a bellwether for a protracted guerilla war if Russia ever tried to invade and occupy more Ukrainian territory.
Based on Ukraine’s stalwart resistance to Russia’s proxy war in the Donbas, some say that Ukraine’s military has proven its battlefield mettle and therefore deserves more substantial U.S. military aid.
“Look at how Ukraine has defended itself to date without any support of U.S. weapons,” Andrew Futey, president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, told The Daily Signal.
“They are fighting with outdated weapons and ammunition,” Futey said. “They have held their own. What is needed is the requested anti-tank, anti-mortar, anti-radar, and modern weapons to drive off the Russian invader and aggressor. Give the Ukrainian army and navy the proper tools and they will succeed.”
From the Ashes
Since 2014, Ukraine has embarked on a crash course revamp of its military-industrial complex. Now, the country is developing modern weapons systems such as new tanks, armored personnel carriers, and aircraft, which further boost its overall combat strength.
Ukraine was the world’s ninth-largest arms exporter from 2011 to 2015. And last week, Ukraine’s military-industrial conglomerate, Ukroboronprom, announced that its revenue from arms sales increased by 25 percent in the last year—up from $570 million to $770 million.
“Ukraine has always been a peaceful country, but today its territory is a hotbed of hybrid warfare,” Ukroboronprom Director Roman Romanov said at the European Defense Procurement Summit in February 2017, according to a statement on Ukroboronprom’s website.
“We believe that all conflicts should be settled by political and diplomatic means only,” Romanov said. “But according to the current situation in Donbas and occupied Crimea, achieving this goal is possible only in case of parity of arms.”
The delivery of U.S. lethal weapons, consequently, is not a do-or-die crossroads for Ukraine’s overall ability to defend itself.
“Ukraine itself produces various types of weapons from small to anti-tank and missile, armored vehicles, and tanks,” Mikheychenko said. “The stocks of Soviet weapons in warehouses are also significant … these stocks will last for a long time. Therefore, in the first place, the supply of [U.S.] weapons will have psychological and political consequences.”
The U.S. has already provided Ukrainian troops with nonlethal military equipment and training, which has been valuable to troops on the front lines, Mikheychenko said.
“The U.S. provides significant support to the Ukrainian army, including our 93rd Mechanized Brigade,” Mikheychenko said. “This concerns both the training of our soldiers by American instructors, and the supply of equipment: counterbattery radar, radio stations, vehicles, night vision scopes and thermal imaging, and much more.”
The U.S. military, along with contingents from other NATO countries, have trained Ukrainian soldiers at a base in western Ukraine since 2015. Since 2014, the U.S. has sent special operations and Air Force advisers to Ukraine.
The FBI and CIA have, for years, assisted Ukrainian law enforcement and intelligence authorities in various investigations and operations. And U.S. law enforcement personnel trained Ukrainian police officers during a post-2014 revamp of the force.
Yet, despite congressional approval, successive U.S. presidential administrations have not followed through on sending Ukraine lethal weapons. The oft-cited reasoning is a fear of escalating the war, or inciting Russia to pursue more destabilizing aggression in the region.
However, a common line of thinking among Ukrainian troops and the foreign soldiers fighting on Ukraine’s behalf is that Russian aggression cannot be appeased through soft power diplomacy. Those soldiers believe they are fighting a war to keep Russian aggression at bay—not only for Ukraine’s sake, but on behalf of the United States and the rest of Europe as well.
“You have to know that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s separatist troops in the Donbas will fight regardless of whether the United States helps Ukraine or not,” Tsyhipa, the former Ukrainian special forces major and Red Army soldier, said.
“Ukraine is the border between the civilized world and barbarism,” Mamulashvili said. “Ukraine is the only country that stands in the way of the barbarians invading farther into Europe.”
Futey, who leads the largest organization representing Ukrainian Americans, said Ukraine is an invaluable partner for the United States, and supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons is a prudent hedge against more destabilizing Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
“With such support, a democratic, independent Ukraine can and will stand together with the United States as stabilizing partners of the Euro-Atlantic security structure,” Futey said.
“By sending Ukraine lethal weapons,” he added, “the U.S. will once again reaffirm its leadership role in the world and stand side by side with the Ukrainian nation and people.”
In the week from July 27 to Aug. 2, three Ukrainian soldiers were killed in action, and 21 were wounded. On July 20 alone, nine Ukrainian soldiers died in combat. It was the deadliest day of the war so far this year.
The war isn’t over. And, ultimately, Ukrainian soldiers believe their own perseverance will be more important to achieving victory than U.S. weapons.
“Sooner or later we will win, even without your help,” Tsyhipa said. “We must do it even at the cost of our own lives.”