Recent allegations that a US company is selling lethal weapons to Ukraine, under licence has raised eyebrows in the context of the ongoing civil war in Donbass, in Eastern Ukraine. The company in question is a Texas-based organisation called AirTronic USA, who is supplying PSRL grenade launchers to Ukraine. AirTronic USA began entering into discussions with Ukraine around two years ago with the first deliveries of the grenade launchers shipped to Ukraine in 2016.
Deliveries of these weapons are ongoing and whilst the details of the agreement remain undisclosed it is understood that AirTronic USA works in close coordination with the US Embassy in Ukraine, the US State Department, the Pentagon and the Ukrainian government. The grenade launchers are shipped under the DDTC DSP-5 export license from the US State Department. It is also understood that these systems do not violate the Minsk-2 agreements.
AirTronic USA successfully negotiated all the necessary bureaucratic and political hurdles in order to gain receipt of the necessary export licence. In addition the US embassy in Kiev coordinates the control of how US weapons are utilised with the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine and the contract also prohibits the reselling and exporting of these launchers.
The PSRL is a lethal weapon but with a range of only 1000 metres. In terms of the demarcation line in East Ukraine, provided these grenade launchers remain on the Ukrainian side of the demarcation line, then they are not regarded as offensive weapons. From AirTronic USA’s perspective these weapons would be utilised should offensive forces cross this demarcation line. In addition the US government has issued guarantees that the PSRL will be used only for defensive purposes.
From Kiev’s perspective, whilst the agreements and licences for these grenade launchers are political decisions there are also commercial considerations. In that regard they seek to differentiate between this type of agreement and US military assistance in Ukraine. In terms of the latter, Kiev is expecting Washington to pass a bill for the provision of the delivery of lethal weapons to Ukraine, via the House of Representatives and the Senate, to be signed by Donald Trump.
Recently the US Congress approved the draft of the national defence budget that authorizes $350m security assistance, including defensive lethal capability, to Ukraine. It should also be noted that the 2018 National Defense Authorisation Act (NDAA) also contains an addendum referencing “countering Russian aggression.”
Moscow for their part continues to criticise such plans to send lethal weapons to Kiev. They consider such a move as likely to increases the risk of instability in Ukraine and the threat of a renewal of all-out war in Donbass in the process.
From our perspective, the question is not about AirTronic USA but how the Ukraine military might utilise these grenade launchers, after all there is a very grey area in terms of the interpretation of what is a defensive and offensive use of weapons. In addition there is reason to doubt the efficacy of this demarcation line, with many reports of ceasefire violations occurring in this region and the risk that these weapons may end up in the hands of third parties inside Ukraine itself.
The fact that the US congress has approved this draft for defensive lethal aid also needs to be factored into our thinking in terms of the aforementioned concerns. Once again Washington is straying into grey areas, this time in Ukraine, and you would think by now that after the debacle in Syria over the supplies of arms and how they fell into the hands of third parties, that they would seek to avoid taking such risks again. Whilst the US government has issued guarantees that the PSRL will be used only for defensive purposes that is meaningless given they will not be coordinating or monitoring their use in Ukraine.