Britain and the US have sent light anti-armour weapons to Ukraine to help repel what Western leaders believe is an imminent invasion by Russia.
Russia has massed more than 100,000 of its troops - backed by tanks and heavy artillery - to surround Ukraine on five key fronts.
US President Joe Biden said in a press conference Wednesday that he expects an imminent invasion, although Russia has denied it is planning to invade, attack or “quote unquote, whatever” Ukraine.
The US and UK have both sent advanced anti-tank weapons to Ukraine to be used defensively in case of a Russian invasion. The donations come after years of general modernisation support by NATO countries for Ukraine, which was roundly thrashed by Russia in the breakaway regions of Donbas and Crimea in 2014.
A possible motivation for a Russian invasion is concerns over deepening ties between Ukraine, a former soviet state, and the NATO military alliance.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Russia will not tolerate a closer relationship between the two, despite denials by the alliance that Ukraine will be made a member.
Much of NATO - including Germany - has been hesitant to supply Ukraine with modern weapons for fear of provoking Putin.
The US has previously supplied very advanced Javelin anti-tank missiles, while the UK is currently sending lighter NLAW anti-tank rockets.
But with ranges of about 2,500 metres for the Javelin and 600 metres for the NLAW, these relatively short-range weapons, while effective against tanks, armoured vehicles and even low-flying helicopters, will probably have little impact.
Javelin missiles being fired during training exercises in Ukraine. PHOTO: Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP
The Russian military will be able to degrade Ukraine’s military with rockets, missiles and heavy artillery located even hundreds of miles from any potential battlefield, leading experts have told VICE World News.
This week, UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace told Parliament that hundreds of defensive anti-tank weapons – later identified as NLAWs, a light anti-armour rocket developed by the UK and Sweden – were being flown to Ukraine.
These will complement the 200-plus US-supplied longer-range and more sophisticated Javelin anti-armour missiles already in the country.
“We have taken the decision to supply Ukraine with light anti-armour defensive weapons systems,” Wallace said Monday. “These are short-range... but nevertheless it would make people pause and think what they were doing and if tanks were to roll into Ukraine, invade it, then they would be part of the defence mechanism."
A NATO intelligence analyst in Brussels, who is not authorised to speak to the media, cast doubt on this.
“That would be true, except the Russians will be killing the Ukranians from exponentially further than the limited range of these systems,” they said.
The NLAW is estimated to have an effective range of about 600 metres that can be pushed out to perhaps 1,000 metres by a skilled operator.
The Javelin system, which is guided and highly accurate, has an estimated range of about 2,500 metres, and would do considerable damage to Russian armour if within range.
But the problem, according to analyst Rob Lee, a former US Marine who closely studies the Russian armed forces, is that Russia would be unlikely to engage in battle under such close quarters.
A Ukrainian soldier puts on winter camouflage in Donbas. PHOTO: Andriy Andriyenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
“Javelins are good at killing tanks, but I think Russia will try to avoid urban areas, where they would be most effective, and they will likely use very heavy artillery before any offensives, which could wound or kill Ukrainian soldiers,” said Lee.
“Javelins and NLAWs could kill Russian tanks, but I don't think they would significantly alter the conflict if Russia escalates.”
Russian forces, according to analysts and leaked US intelligence reports, are organised into about 120 or more Battalion Tactical Groups (BTG) of about 800 soldiers each. These groups are supported by long-range rockets, missiles and artillery.
The BM-30 Smerch is one such system, and fires 12 300mm rockets at a time with a range of about 90km (56 miles).
A former United Kingdom Special Forces soldier who currently serves as a security advisor in the region agreed that the Western weapons would be unlikely to cause much damage.
“Unless Russia goes into the cities, the NLAW system won’t do much because the lads trying to get shots off will be long dead, wounded or dispersed by long range rockets and artillery, without considering Russia’s massive advantage in air power,” they said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Russia has access to much more powerful missile systems, such as S-400 Triumf. PHOTO: Sergei Malgavko\TASS via Getty Images
“The Russians will have already planned to avoid these sorts of close engagements,” they added.
Worse for the Ukrainians is Russia’s ability to devastate its military infrastructure, communications and logistic systems via cruise missiles and ballistic missile systems. These are already in play.
“The Kalibr cruise missiles (1,500-2,500km range) and Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles (500km) are longer range than anything Ukraine has, and they can strike targets across Ukraine, while Ukraine can't do the same against Russia,” said Lee.
Such weapons can easily destroy Ukraine’s ability to coordinate defences, manoeuvre its forces, or even supply engaged units with food and ammunition without putting a single Russian soldier at risk.
“By the end of the first week, Ukraine’s units would be on their own, and whatever isn’t wiped out would have to turn to insurgency tactics,” said the former UK soldier.