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Dec. 18 was a day like any other in the Donbas region, the flashpoint of a grinding civil war between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists. That afternoon, a girl was badly wounded by a shell fired by Ukrainians into the separatist-held Golmovsky. A few hours later, a hail of Grad rockets fired by pro-Russian forces poured down on the Ukrainian-controlled town of Novoluhanske, killing eight civilians in the middle of a community celebration and damaging over 100 buildings. The shelling continued into the night, killing three in the pro-Russian town of Stakhanov, including a 94-year-old woman.
Artillery exchanges like this have become a tragic routine in Donbas. Though the killing has slowed since the heaviest fighting, which occurred in 2015, over 10,000 have fallen in the conflict, and at least 1.4 million have been turned into refugees. With the war entering its fourth year, a decision by the Trump administration virtually ensured that the news from Donbas will grow dramatically worse. Last month, the State Department approved the transfer of $50 million worth of lethal weapons to the Ukrainian military. Along with a shipment of M107A1 Barrett sniper rifles, the United States will be delivering 35 FGM Javelin anti-tank launching systems and 210 missiles.
Though the Javelin has scarcely been tested against the latest models of Russian tanks, advocates of the arms transfer have insisted that the missiles will save lives by deterring the Russians. After a meeting last June with House Majority Leader Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain, Andriy Parubiy, who is the speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament (and a veteran Nazi activist), presented the Javelins as a game changer. "If we'd burned several hundred Russian tanks [in 2015], it would have been an important step toward restoring peace in our country's east," Parubiy declared.
But others who have witnessed the grueling war of attrition from the front lines dread the prospect of new arms on the battlefield. Brian Milakovsky, a Fulbright scholar who is working with an aid organization on the Ukrainian side of Donbas, told me the Javelins would provoke Russia to escalate its military involvement and dramatically deepen suffering on both sides.