Artillery Wars in Donbas Enter a New Stage
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met with defense-industry engineers and designers in Zhytomyr, on March 11, and stressed that Ukraine “needs high-precision missile weapons capable of striking targets far into the rear of the enemy” (President.gov.ua, March 11). In fact, however, the Ukrainian military has been successfully employing such weaponry in the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) area, along the Donbas frontline, for the past two months.
The Ukrainian war is evolving. What began as an invasion of small groups of Russian special forces, later turned into repeated clashes at checkpoints, and eventually became an almost full-scale war involving heavy artillery, tanks, tactical missiles and the air force. But following two (Minsk) ceasefire agreements, the conflict in Donbas now resembles World War I–style trench warfare, with both sides dug into fixed, well-equipped positions. In such conditions, high-precision weapons like sniper rifles and guided anti-tank missile systems have become particularly prominent. It is also worth pointing out, however, that unlike heavy artillery or mortars, anti-tank missile systems are not prohibited under the aforementioned Minsk agreements
Since January 2019, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) operating in the JFO area have begun to employ greater numbers of domestically produced anti-tank missile systems, including the Stugna-P, Fagot, Bar’er and Corsar. This shift was undertaken in response to two prominent attacks on Ukrainian military vehicles. The first of these attacks, on January 16, near the village of Troytske (Luhansk region), involved Russian-backed separatists firing off an anti-tank missile, which struck a Ukrainian truck carrying military personnel. Ten soldiers of the AFU’s 72nd mechanized brigade were wounded (Mil.gov.ua, January 17). The second attack occurred near the Luhansk region village of Katerynivka, on January 25. One Ukrainian soldier was killed and four were wounded as a result of this strike on their vehicle (Mil.gov.ua, January 26).
Following these incidents, the Ukrainian Armed Forces launched a massive counteroffensive. On January 29, the AFU destroyed a separatist KAMAZ truck with a Fagot anti-tank missile, near the village of Krymske (Luhansk region) (Mil.gov.ua, January 30). On the same day, a Ukrainian Stugna-P missile destroyed a rebel/Russian armored personnel carrier (APC) armed with a mounted anti-aircraft gun (Facebook.com/generalstaff.ua, January 31). The Ukrainian retaliatory strikes continued with series of successful attacks on bunkers, fortified positions and armored vehicles on February 3, 4, 11, 12, 14, 15, and on March 5 and 11. According to information posted to online social networks, even some separatist field commanders recognized that the AFU had gained a new level of mastery of anti-tank missile systems, even without Javelins from the United States having yet reached the frontlines (Censor.net, March 11).
At the same time, on March 5, the US Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing to review the administration’s defense authorization request for FY2020, which includes military assistance to Ukraine. Speaking before the committee was, in particular, General Curtis M. Scaparotti, the commander of US European Command who simultaneously serves as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Supreme Allied Commander Europe. General Scaparotti declared that he was “impressed” with the level of training Ukrainian soldiers have already undergone with the Javelin and stressed this anti-tank missile system’s contribution to Ukraine’s security (Eucom.mil, March 5).
During a trip to the JFO area last month, General Viktor Muzhenko, the head of the AFU General Staff, reported that the “newest Ukrainian-made weapons systems have proven their high-precision and quality” (Facebook.com/v.muzhenko, February 14). This was later reiterated by the commander of the JFO effort, General Serhiy Nayev. In a recent interview, he argued that increased use of anti-tank missile systems has been a deliberate part of the rearmament strategy for Ukraine’s mechanized brigades operating on the frontline. According to this strategy, every military unit will be equipped with modern Ukrainian-made anti-tank weapons, and soldiers will be receiving special instruction at the 184th training center, run by the National Academy of Land Forces. In General Nayev’s opinion, the high effectiveness and accuracy of these anti-tank missile systems makes them a particularly strong argument for the two sides to quickly conclude hostilities (Tyzhden.ua, March 1).
Despite its effectiveness, the Stugna-P system, in particular, has at least one disadvantage—it is expensive (at least for the Ukrainian army). According to open sources, the cost of firing one shot from this weapons system is approximately $20,000, so Ukrainian soldiers need to choose their targets extremely carefully. All shots are documented and filmed, and this video is later often published on the JFO’s official Facebook page. That said, it is still more cost-effective than the US Javelin system. According to the state-owned defense-industry concern Ukroboronprom, the Stugna-P can provide the same range (5,000 meters in daytime, 3,000 meters at night) and almost the same accuracy as the Javelin (which costs $40,000–$80,000 per missile). Moreover, the Stugna-P, as a domestically produced weapon, comes with no political limitations on its usage (Ukraine is only allowed to employ the US missiles in case of open Russian aggression) (Ukroboronprom.com.ua, March 23, 2016). In 2018, Ukroboronprom provided 2,500 anti-tank missile launchers of various types—Stugna-P, Corsar and Bar’er—to the AFU and National Guard (Ukroboronprom.com.ua, January 4).
Ukraine is not the only side utilizing high-precision weapons in Donbas. On February 14, separatist forces shelled the village of Novoluhanske (Donetsk region) with Krasnopol (GRAU index 2K25) 152-millimeter guided artillery munitions. The shelling came from the direction of Vuhlehirsk (currently under Russian/separatist occupation). Despite the fact that this type of munition is precision guided, that attack ended up destroying the house of local civilian resident (Facebook.com/pressjfo.news, February, 15). The Krasnopol semi-automatic, laser-guided artillery system is Russian-made, and no units have ever been purchased by the Ukrainian government. Previously, this weapon was recorded being used in Syria, near the Russian airbase in Khmeimim (RT, March 13, 2018).
With the fighting in Donbas largely stalled and mired in trench warfare, both sides are now increasingly relying on advanced, guided, surgical strikes. Yet, these attacks continue to generate monthly casualties, leading to questions of how sustainable and long-lasting this present phase of conflict is likely to be before one or both sides change up their tactics again.