How the world is sending Ukraine billions in weapons and support

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Stingers, rifles and ‘St. Javelin’: The global race to arm Ukraine

A couple of weeks ago, the word “javelin” would probably have been associated with a long spear and an Olympic event. Google “javelin” today, and you find countless mentions of a weapon of war, an anti-tank missile that can be fired from one’s shoulder. You will also find references to “St. Javelin,” the name given to a strange image that has recently gone viral, of Mary Magdalene clutching one such missile. The halo bears the coat of arms of Ukraine. “St. Javelin” has become one more powerful symbol of Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression.

The U.S.-made Javelins are part of an increasingly rapid, large-scale effort to arm Ukraine. While the speed and scope of the refugee flow from Ukraine have stunned the world, the speed and scope of the weapons moving in the other direction are remarkable in other ways. Among many paradigm-shifting developments since the Ukraine war began, this mass shipment of NATO weaponry has few precedents. The closest comparison may be the U.S. arming of the Afghan mujahedeen, the resistance movement created after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, Turkish weaponized drones and, yes, those Javelins, by the thousands — the weaponry is pouring in, drawn largely from NATO stockpiles and shipped overland to the Ukrainian resistance. Beyond the numbers, there has been a surprising range of providers: nearly two dozen countries, sending everything from helmets to drones to grenade launchers.

NATO says yes — and no

The shipments are strategically important for the U.S. and NATO as well, given all the attention to what they are not doing. There will be no NATO troops on the ground, President Joe Biden and other NATO leaders have said repeatedly, and despite daily pleas from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and other Ukrainians, NATO has refused all requests for a no-fly zone over Ukrainian air space. As Grid’s Josh Keating has reported, the latter is more complicated than its name suggests; imposing a no-fly zone would mean regular reconnaissance flights by NATO aircraft and likely aerial combat with Russian fighter jets. The strategic conclusion is the same when the question involves NATO forces on the ground: Anything that risks direct NATO-Russian military engagement risks World War III.

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Last week, the NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, said that a no-fly zone risked turning the conflict in Ukraine into a “full-fledged war” involving many more countries and “causing much more human suffering.”

So the judgment has been made — in Brussels and Washington and other capitals: Do everything possible, short of ground forces and no-fly zones. The logic goes like this: While it would be madness for a NATO soldier to shoot his Russian counterpart or a NATO fighter jet to take aim at a Russian aircraft, it is strategically acceptable to send NATO armaments that will accomplish the same goals.

A “Berlin airlift” for weapons

After a slow if steady arming of the Ukrainians over the last several months, the U.S. and its NATO allies are now moving weapons into Ukraine at a furious pace. The volume and speed have evoked comparisons to the 1948-1949 Berlin airlift — when the U.S. and its European allies rushed essential goods into West Berlin as the Soviet Union moved to cut off supply routes.

In two weeks, the United States and its NATO allies have pushed some 17,000 anti-tank weapons, thousands of anti-aircraft missiles, rifles, ammunition and more to Ukraine or to its border. It’s a wartime supply chain that begins — in most cases — at NATO military facilities, with C-17 military cargo planes carrying weaponry to staging areas along Ukraine’s borders, and finally onto trucks that move the weapons by land to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and other major cities.

Grid analyzed the pledges and shipments that have been made to date. The list is remarkable in terms of the donors — 20 nations, from NATO and beyond — and the array of weaponry headed for Ukraine or already there. It’s also a profound example of the unanimity of European and U.S. support.

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Belgium offered 200 anti-tank weapons and thousands of machine guns, Turkey sent weaponized drones, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic have each sent machine guns and sniper rifles, and tiny Luxembourg promised 100 anti-tank weapons. Two countries that have long avoided shipments of lethal weapons — Germany and Sweden — have dispatched 6,000 anti-tank weapons between them. And far from the front lines, Australia has pledged $50 million in missiles and weapons for Ukraine.

The U.S. had already been supplying weaponry and training to Ukraine prior to the war, to the tune of $650 million in Biden’s first year in office. But now the floodgates have opened; two days after the war began, the U.S. pledged an additional $350 million in military aid, and last week’s congressional spending bill included $13.5 billion in both military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine.

“St. Javelin”

The Javelin may hold particular utility for the Ukrainians. Relatively speaking, there haven’t been that many planes to shoot at, nor much soldier-to-soldier combat. But there has been no shortage of armored vehicles bearing down on Ukrainian towns and cities, and these are what the Javelin is made for.

The missiles — formally, FGM-148 Javelins — have been in existence for 20 years. The Javelin is held on one’s shoulder and is known as a “fire and forget” weapon — meaning once launched, the fighter can take cover, rather than staying in place and risk being seen or traced. The missile has a range of nearly 3 miles and is guided — like the Stinger anti-aircraft weapons — meaning it locks on to a target and “finds” it, even if the target is in motion.

“The Javelin is probably quite effective against most Russian armored vehicles, and more capable against heavy armour (like tanks) than any other missile system available to Ukraine that can be carried by an individual soldier,” Scott Boston, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation, told Euronews.

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Some analysts speculate that Ukraine — while not a NATO member — may now have more Javelin missiles than some NATO members. The Russian defense minister made the same claim. Certainly the Ukrainians have plenty of occasions to use them.

The rush to deliver

Normally such weapons shipments happen in a relatively plodding way. An August 2021 U.S. $60 million arms package was not delivered to Ukraine until November; by contrast, nearly all of the $350 million in aid approved on Feb. 26 has already been fulfilled. A fast-moving war can focus attention.

Adding to the urgency are conditions on the ground. All these weapons must be brought through western Ukraine before Russian air and ground forces concentrate attacks in that part of the country.

On Sunday, the Russians carried out their first major strike against a facility involved in the supply effort. At least 35 people were killed and 134 injured when a barrage of Russian missiles hit a Ukrainian military range in Yavoriv, near the border with Poland. It was as close as Russian strikes have come to NATO’s border since the war began. It was also a facility that NATO had used to train Ukrainian forces before the war.

The Russian Ministry of Defense called the Yavoriv facility a storage base for weapons and equipment being sent to Ukraine by “foreign countries.” Just a day before the attack, the Kremlin had warned that it viewed Western weapons shipments as “legitimate targets.”


The Pentagon said there were no longer any Americans at the site; understandably, U.S. and NATO officials haven’t said what role the Yavoriv base played in the flow of Western armaments into Ukraine. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on CNN: “What I’m confident of is that the United States, our NATO allies and partners, and the Ukrainians have set up a system where we believe we will continue to be able to flow substantial amounts of military assistance and weapons to the front lines to help the Ukrainians ensure that Ukraine is a strategic failure for [Russian President] Vladimir Putin.”

“Of course, these convoys are going through a war zone,” he said. “And so to describe them as safe wouldn’t be quite accurate.”

Even before the attack, analysts were warning about the security of the supply effort. “The window for doing easy stuff to help the Ukrainians has closed,” Maj. Gen. Michael S. Repass, a former commander of Special Operations forces in Europe, told the New York Times last week.

The impact

It is impossible to know precisely how much the influx of weapons has influenced the war to date. But officials at the Pentagon, in London and at NATO headquarters believe they are making a difference. Ukraine has shot down Russian military transport planes, brought down Russian helicopters and struck Russian convoys — including the now-infamous miles-long stretch of armored vehicles outside Kyiv. Ukrainian officials said they used 300 Javelins in the first week of the war; the Ukrainians and U.S. officials cite the Javelins and armed drones supplied by Turkey as specific weaponry that has inflicted damage.

“We know that they have conducted attacks on that convoy, that those attacks were effective in slowing and stopping it,” a senior Defense official told CNN. The official said that the weaponry has been used in different parts of the country.

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“The material that’s gone in is very significant,” John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA, told Grid. “These are serious weapons of war. And the Ukrainians are using them brilliantly.”

The dangers

The immediate question for the NATO weapons supply effort — particularly in the wake of Sunday’s attack — is how long the routes can remain safe. Experts say the greater danger is that Putin may act on what have been repeated warnings to retaliate against those who aid Ukraine or “interfere” with his “special military operation.”

Here it is worth repeating Putin’s own words from the morning of Feb. 24, when the war began:

“I would now like to say something very important for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside. No matter who tries to stand in our way or … create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”

Military experts, intelligence analysts, Kremlinologists — countless smart people have studied that speech, trying to divine what would constitute interference and what those “consequences … never seen” might entail. The latter were assumed to be a not-so-veiled reference to the use of nuclear weapons — an assumption strengthened three days later, when Putin ordered his nuclear forces placed on high alert.

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But what to make of “those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside”? Some have understood that language to refer to NATO sending ground troops to Ukraine, or imposing a no-fly zone. But what about sending tens of thousands of lethal weapons to Ukraine?

Eurasia Group CEO Ian Bremmer offered his interpretation: “Anything short of [a no-fly zone] is fair game: you can send fighter jets and other advanced weapons systems to the Ukrainians, provide Ukraine with real-time intelligence on the disposition of Russian forces, and take economic measures without limitation to destroy the Russian economy … these latter measures are considered a proxy fight that shouldn’t unsafely escalate.”

But Bremmer — who laid out his views in the March 7 edition of his weekly newsletter, added this: “The combination of severe indirect confrontation by NATO countries against Russia and the existential worries of mutually assured nuclear destruction dramatically increase Putin’s tolerance for higher levels of conflict with NATO. That’s not a nuclear exchange, but it’s extraordinarily dangerous.”

NATO’s weapons supply operation is certainly an example of “severe indirect confrontation.” The questions will be how Putin himself reads it and whether he chooses to lash out in response.

“Putin will rail against NATO delivering weaponry to the battle,” McLaughlin told Grid, “but as long as NATO forces themselves are not crossing the border and NATO pilots are not flying in Ukraine, he has no case, and NATO must not be intimidated by his threats. At some point, it is virtually certain that the U.S. and allies will be supporting an anti-Russian insurgency in Ukraine from some NATO territory, so now is not the time to blink. This is only round one.”

This story has been updated.

  • Tom Nagorski
    Tom Nagorski

    Global Editor

    Tom Nagorski is the global editor at Grid, where he oversees our coverage of global security, U.S.-China relations, migration trends, global economics and U.S. foreign policy.

TOPICS

Ukraine