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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 are using the empty containers for several purposes, including sleeping. (Serhiy Morgunov for The Washington Post)
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NEAR IZYUM, Ukraine — It turns out, some Ukrainian soldiers discovered, that Javelin cases make great beds. The U.S.-made antitank missiles are packed in large, black rectangular capsules — perfect for elevating a slim cot off the dirty, cold floors of front-line positions.

“Make sure you mention they’re empty,” said a soldier, showing off the makeshift beds. “The last thing we need is Americans thinking they’re sending us Javelins just so we can sleep on them.”

It’s the opposite, actually: The 93rd Mechanized Brigade had fired so many Javelins at Russian tanks that they needed something to do with the pile of empty cases.

The fighting in this stage of war between Russia and Ukraine has shifted toward an exchange of long-range artillery and missile strikes. But despite Javelins being a shorter-range weapon — its maximum range is about 2.5 miles — soldiers here near Russian-occupied Izyum in northeastern Ukraine still consider Javelins an effective way to inflict punishing damage on Russian troops. Lt. Oleksandr Sosovskyy referred to the weapons as his “good buddies.”

He said the Ukrainian and Russian troops in many places are dug in on front lines just a few miles apart — within Javelin range.

“We keep burning their vehicles, and that means that a few more houses in Ukraine will stay intact,” he said. “Children won’t get killed. Civilians and military won’t get killed.”

What to know about the role Javelin antitank missiles could play in Ukraine’s fight against Russia

For years, as Ukraine was locked in a simmering conflict with Russian-led separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, Javelin antitank missiles were the premier military aid from Washington — a defensive, lethal 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 actually crossed the border on Feb. 24 — and some were immediately wiped out 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 cradling Javelins became so popular that its creator started a charity organization selling T-shirts with the images. Ukraine’s defense minister recently wore a “Saint Javelin” patch on his bulletproof vest.

Latest updates from the Ukraine war

Lt. Col. Bohdan Dmytruk is another fan of the anti-armor system. A battalion commander in Ukraine’s 93rd brigade, Dmytruk said he’s seen a decline in the quality of tanks Russians are using on the front lines. He has an intimate understanding of his enemy — his battalion was fighting the same Russian brigade in the Sumy region, farther north, earlier in the war, and they are now facing off again in the Kharkiv region.

In Sumy, the 93rd brigade was victorious, expelling Russian forces from the region. In the more than three months that they’ve been posted near Izyum, the front line hasn’t budged much, though Dmytruk said his unit advanced about 5 miles along one part of it during that time. The road to Ukraine’s current trench positions is littered with destroyed Russian vehicles and rotting soldiers’ corpses. The grain fields here have been burned and filled with craters from artillery shells ― sunflowers tend to sprout around their edges.

The tanks the Russians are using now are older, Dmytruk said, because Javelins and similar weapons have depleted their arsenal. Even the crews operating the tanks now are less experienced, often not even managing to fire on Dmytruk’s forces before they’re taken out, he said, because they didn’t properly load the ammunition.

“The Ukrainian military basically destroyed their newest tanks and infantry combat vehicles in the first wave of fighting,” Dmytruk said. “The last vehicle of theirs we damaged just a couple days ago was a BMP-1, which is one of their oldest models. They would’ve had that one sitting in storage for a long time, so they’re really emptying out their stocks 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 first days of the war, Javelins were passed around to anyone who spotted an enemy column — sometimes with on-the-spot instruction.

Before the Russian invasion, some Ukrainian servicemembers had attended special sessions with U.S. trainers on how to use the Javelin. But it was nowhere near 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 — all while being driven to the spot from where he had to start firing the weapons. The first time, it didn’t work.

“You shoot, but something’s not working and then you are trying to learn on your own, with the enemy right there,” he said. “When we figured it out and managed to hit targets, not only would the target get destroyed, but the rest of the convoy would get scared and flee. Javelins helped us quickly get rid of them.”

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

As they wait for weapons, Ukrainians hold the line with Soviet artillery

Using Javelins and other antitank missiles, such as British NLAW and the Ukrainian-made Stugna-P, now requires more of a hunt. The 93rd brigade uses drones to look for targets. Then small teams — usually about two people — move into 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 have also come up with creative ways to reach the Russians. Dmytruk said his soldiers will sometimes attach a “present” — an antitank grenade — to a drone that will then drop it on any enemy vehicle.

“Right now, they’re afraid to even walk up to their tanks,” Dmytruk said. He said he’s intercepted audio of some Russian commanders telling their soldiers to fill white bags with dirt and cover the tops of their tanks. Dmytruk said doing that is “useless.”

And it’s not just empty Javelin cases his brigade recycles. If a Russian tank or combat vehicle is lightly damaged and recoverable, the Ukrainians will snag it for themselves. Dmytruk said his battalion alone has destroyed 18 Russian tanks, but five were taken as “trophies” that Ukrainian soldiers repaired, repainted and redeployed to the front.

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

“We can see it by their equipment that they are lacking some,” Sosovskyy said. “We learn that from intercepted messages or some stories. We see they are panicking, that their reconnaissance is getting weaker. So we are hopeful. And we’ll be doing everything we can to kick them out of here.”

Serhiy Morgunov contributed to this report.

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