Artillery vehicle

It’s an artillery war, but Ukraine still kills tanks with javelins

A Ukrainian soldier, who identified himself by his call sign, Stus, sits on an empty Javelin missile container near the front lines on July 21. Ukrainian soldiers use the empty containers for several purposes, including sleeping. (Serhiy Morgunov/The Washington Post)

NEAR IZYUM, Ukraine – Turns out, Ukrainian soldiers discovered, Javelin holsters make great beds. American-made anti-tank missiles are packaged in large black rectangular capsules – perfect for raising a small bed from the dirty, cold floors of front-line positions.

“Make sure to mention that they are empty,” a soldier said, pointing to the makeshift beds. “The last thing we need is for the Americans to think they’re sending us Javelins just so we can sleep on them.”

It’s the opposite, in fact: the 93rd Mechanized Brigade had fired so many javelins at the Russian tanks that they needed something to do with the pile of empty crates.

Fighting at this stage of the war between Russia and Ukraine has shifted to an exchange of long-range artillery and missile strikes. But although Javelins are a shorter-range weapon – its maximum range is around 2.5 miles – soldiers here near Russian-occupied Izyum in northeast Ukraine still consider the Javelins as an effective means of inflicting punitive damage on Russian troops. Lieutenant Oleksandr Sosovskyy called the weapons “good friends”.

He said Ukrainian and Russian troops in many places were entrenched on the front lines within miles of each other – within Javelin range.

“We continue to burn their vehicles, which means that a few more houses in Ukraine will remain intact,” he said. “Children will not be killed. Civilians and soldiers will not be killed.

For years, as Ukraine was locked in a simmering conflict with Russian-led separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, Javelin anti-tank missiles were Washington’s primary military aid – a deadly defensive weapon intended to deter greater hostilities. Then they were kept away from the front line and never used outside of training environments, but already “Javelin” had become part of the lexicon in Ukraine as a symbol of Western support .

After Russian tanks crossed the border on February 24 – and some were immediately annihilated with javelins – the cult around the weapons grew. “Javelin” – or “Javelina” for a girl – is now a common name for pets. Local department stores sell plush Javelin missile toys for children. An Internet meme of religious figures rocking Javelins has become so popular that its creator has started a charity selling T-shirts with the images. Ukraine’s defense minister recently wore a “Saint Javelin” patch on his body armor.

Another fan of the anti-armor system is Lt. Col. Bohdan Dmytruk. Battalion commander of Ukraine’s 93rd Brigade, Dmytruk said he has seen a decline in the quality of tanks the Russians are using on the front lines. He has intimate knowledge of his enemy – his battalion was fighting the same Russian brigade in the Sumy region further north earlier in the war, and they are facing each other again in the Kharkiv region.

In Sumy, the 93rd Brigade was victorious, driving Russian forces out of the area. In the more than three months they were posted near Izyum, the front line did not move much, although Dmytruk said his unit advanced about 5 miles along part of it during this period. The road leading to the current Ukrainian trench positions is littered with destroyed Russian vehicles and rotting corpses of soldiers. The grain fields here have been scorched and filled with artillery shell craters – sunflowers tend to sprout around their edges.

The tanks the Russians use now are older, Dmytruk said, because javelins and similar weapons have depleted their arsenal. Even the crews operating the tanks are now less experienced, often failing even to fire on Dmytruk’s forces before they are eliminated, he said, because they failed to load the tanks properly. ammunition.

“Ukrainian army basically destroyed its last tanks and infantry fighting vehicles in the first wave of fighting,” Dmytruk said. “The last of their vehicles that we damaged just a few days ago was a BMP-1, which is one of their oldest models. They would have had that one in storage for a long time, so they’re really emptying their stock right now.

Washington has provided Ukraine with more than 5,000 javelins as part of its more than $8 billion in material aid since the start of the Biden administration. In the early days of war, javelins were issued to anyone who spotted an enemy column – sometimes with on-the-spot instructions.

Prior to the Russian invasion, some Ukrainian servicemen had attended special sessions with American trainers on the use of the javelin. But it was far from enough to defend against Russian tank convoys once the war started.

Sosovskyy said he watched a 5-minute YouTube video and scanned a 12-point instruction manual – while being led to where he was to start firing the weapons. The first time, it didn’t work.

“You shoot, but something doesn’t work and you try to learn on your own, with the enemy right there,” he said. “When we realized this and managed to hit targets, not only was the target destroyed, but the rest of the convoy got scared and ran away. Javelins helped us get rid of them quickly.

“You are like in a cartoon,” added Sosovskyy. “Click-click and it flies.”

Using Javelins and other anti-tank missiles, such as the British NLAW and the Ukrainian-made Stugna-P, now requires more hunting. The 93rd Brigade uses drones to search for targets. Then small teams – usually around two people – move around the firing range to take it out with Javelins or NLAWs, which are considered lighter and easier to use but reserved for shorter distances.

Members of the 93rd Brigade also found creative ways to reach the Russians. Dmytruk said his soldiers sometimes attached a “gift” – an anti-tank grenade – to a drone which then dropped it on any enemy vehicle.

“Right now they are even scared to walk to their tanks,” Dmytruk said. He said he intercepted the audio of some Russian commanders telling their soldiers to fill white bags with dirt and cover the tops of their tanks. Dmytruk said it was “unnecessary”.

And it’s not just empty Javelin crates his squad recycles. If a Russian tank or combat vehicle is slightly damaged and salvageable, the Ukrainians will recover it themselves. Dmytruk said his battalion alone destroyed 18 Russian tanks, but five were taken as “trophies” which Ukrainian soldiers repaired, repainted and redeployed to the front.

Among them are two T-80 models parked in thick mud and under cover of tree limbs. They weren’t hit by Javelins – so they wouldn’t have been salvageable. But with the capture of many of their tanks, the Russians are turning to older tanks, and the Ukrainians are fighting them with their newer ones.

“We can see by their equipment that they lack it,” Sosovskyy said. “We learn this from intercepted messages or certain stories. We see that they are panicking, that their recognition is weakening. So we are hopeful. And we will do everything we can to get them out of here.

The Washington Post’s Serhiy Morgunov contributed to this report.