With small, portable weapons, Ukraine's fighters keep Russia at bay
Russia has a huge firepower advantage in its war on Ukraine. In keeping with its military tradition, Russia is relying on heavy weapons such as tanks, artillery guns and fighter jets.
Yet the Ukrainians have far exceeded expectations on the battlefield by making the most of smaller, but more mobile weapons systems, including a number of key ones provided by the United States.
Here are some commonly asked questions regarding Ukraine's weapons:
Q. What has been the most important weapon in Ukraine's arsenal?
Javelin missiles. Outside military circles, these weapons first received widespread attention in 2019 when then-President Donald Trump held his infamous phone call with Ukraine's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Zelenskyy pleaded for more Javelins, which the U.S. was already supplying, to defend against the pro-Russia military forces already in the east of Ukraine.
The Trump administration was delaying the delivery of military assistance, and the U.S. president asked for a political favor — an investigation of the Bidens.
That call set off a chain of events that led to Trump's first impeachment. Zelenskky got the additional Javelins, which have made a huge difference in the fighting.
Q. How are the Ukrainians using the Javelins on the battlefield?
The Javelins are largely responsible for the daily scenes of burned-out Russian tanks and other armored vehicles strewn along the roads of Ukraine.
The weapons are simple and deadly. A soldier puts it on his shoulder, then points and shoots.
To date, Russian armored columns have been unable or unwilling to push into Ukrainian cities, and the Javelin missiles appear to be a key reason.
President Biden on Wednesday authorized an $800 million package of military assistance for Ukraine. They include 9,000 anti-armor weapons, many of them believed to be Javelins.
Q. That's on the ground. We're hearing a lot about Russia's advantage in air power. How are the Ukrainians countering that?
Stinger missiles. These work on the same basic principal as the Javelins, but are for aircraft.
They are portable, shoulder-fired missiles that have brought down low-flying Russian planes and helicopters. Most accounts say the Russians have lost more than two dozen aircraft, though reliable figures are hard to come by.
Russian pilots are well aware of how deadly the Stingers can be. The U.S. gave them to Afghan rebels during the Soviet war there in the 1980s.
The Soviets relied heavily on helicopters in Afghanistan, and the Stingers made it much more dangerous for the Soviets to use them. Many military analysts say the Stingers changed the tide of the war, which ended with the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
The Biden administration's aid package includes 800 anti-aircraft weapons, many believed to be Stingers.
Q. Still, Ukraine doesn't have much air power of its own, right?
True. According to the U.S., Russian pilots are flying an average of 200 missions a day in fighter jets, compared with 10 or fewer for the Ukrainians.
But Ukraine does have drones it got from Turkey, and they have been effective, according to military analysts.
The new U.S. package will include 100 drones, reportedly a model known as Switchblades. One model is small enough for a solider to carrying in a backpack, weighing just 5 or 6 pounds and requiring minimal training.
They are often referred to as "Kamikaze drones" because they don't actually fire their weapon, which is similar to a hand grenade. Instead, a soldier remotely guides the drone into the target and it explodes.
Q. The fighting is now in its fourth week, and has already been devastating. What should we expect in the coming days?
Expect battles for the capital, Kyiv, and other big cities. The Russian forces are stalled on the outskirts. They are using their heavy weapons — tanks, artillery guns and fighter jets — to shell the cities, hoping to pound the Ukrainians into submission.
The Ukrainians can't stop this bombardment. But they have been able to use their highly mobile portable weapons to keep the Russians out of the urban areas. The Ukrainians still hold all the major cities.
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent who reported from Moscow from 1996-99. Follow him @gregmyre1 . Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
People the world over are praising Ukraine for its fierce defense in its war with Russia. We've seen videos of civilian tractors stealing away with Russian heavy equipment. And Ukraine's military is also exceeding expectations, making the most of the weapons they have, some provided by the United States.
NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre joins us. Greg, thanks so much for being with us.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.
SIMON: If you had to pick one weapon so far that has proved most valuable, what would that be?
MYRE: Javelin missiles - now, a lot of people may have first heard about them back in 2019. That's when then President Trump had his infamous phone call with Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy wanted more Javelins to use against pro-Russian forces that were already fighting in the east of his country. And Trump wanted a political favor - an investigation of the Bidens. In the end, Zelenskyy got these additional Javelins, and they've made a huge difference in the current war.
SIMON: How so? How are they being used on the battlefield?
MYRE: They're very potent against Russian tanks. Probably all of us have seen this footage of destroyed Russian armor. And these are really simple but deadly weapons. A soldier puts it on his shoulder, points and shoots. It's very effective in ambushing Russians again and again. And these Russian armored convoys have either been unable or unwilling to push into Ukrainian cities. And Javelins certainly seem to be a big part of this. And President Biden's latest weapons package for Ukraine includes thousands of additional Javelins.
SIMON: But we continue to hear a lot about Russia's advantage in air power. How do the Ukrainians try to counter that?
MYRE: The main thing has been Stinger missiles. And you can kind of think of these as Javelin missiles but for aircraft. Again, one person fires it from his shoulder. And this has been taking down low-flying Russian planes and helicopters. Appears to be - we're talking about a few dozen, but it's hard to get reliable figures. And Russian pilots know exactly how deadly these Stingers can be. The U.S. gave them to Afghan rebels in the 1980s. They were very effective against Soviet helicopters in that war. Many people saw it as changing the tide of that conflict. And the U.S. is giving hundreds of additional Stingers in this latest aid package.
SIMON: But Ukraine doesn't have much of its own air power, does it?
MYRE: That's true, Scott. According to the U.S., Russian pilots are flying an average of 200 missions a day in fighter jets. By comparison, the Ukrainians are averaging just five to 10. But Ukraine does have drones, and they've been using these drones they bought from Turkey. And they have been pretty potent on the battlefield. Now, the new U.S. package also includes drones, a hundred of them, formerly known as Switchblades. And they're small enough for a soldier to carry in a backpack. They weigh just five or six pounds and require minimal training. Now, they're often referred to as kamikaze drones, and that's because they don't actually fire their weapon. It's sort of a small weapon similar to a hand grenade. But a soldier just guides that drone into the target, and it explodes.
SIMON: Greg, the fighting is in its fourth week. A lot of people thought it wouldn't last that long. What do you foresee in the coming days?
MYRE: Almost certainly we're going to see big battles for the cities, including the capital, Kyiv. The Russian forces are stalled on the outskirts of a lot of these cities, using their heavy weapons to shell the cities, hoping to pound the Ukrainians into submission. The Ukrainians can't stop this artillery, but they have been able to use these highly mobile portable weapons to keep the Russians out of the cities. And this war is now in its fourth week. The Ukrainians still hold all the major urban areas.
SIMON: NPR's Greg Myre - thanks so much.
MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.