Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 19 October 2022. © Richard Kemp
Russia’s kamikaze drone attacks against Kyiv and other cities should be taken a serious turning point in the Ukraine war. The Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 drones, fired from hundreds of miles away and designed to detonate on impact, terrorising the civilian population, can unleash an astonishing wave of trauma. They are intended, as with his ballistic missile attacks on cities across Ukraine, to sap morale by indiscriminate killing and by damaging energy infrastructure as a harsh winter approaches.
No doubt, Putin will find they have no greater impact on the will of the Ukrainian people to fight on than Hitler’s 10,000 plus V1 rockets fired at London and the south-east towards the end of the Second World War had on the people of Britain despite the devastation they faced.
But as the V1s did for the Allies, the kamikaze drones have the potential to force Ukraine to expend vast quantities of very expensive and finite countermeasures to protect the population. If Putin keeps up his campaign of aerial terror, it is likely to have a debilitating effect on the Ukrainian war effort – hence Zelensky’s repeated calls for increased supply of air defences from the West, and Britain in particular. We should provide that support immediately, and not underestimate just how many of these drones Putin is willing to dash at Ukraine, given his forces are failing on almost every other field of battle.
Ukraine has been making strong progress against Russian forces in the east and the south, where his forces are still suffering logistic shortages from the hammer-blow attack against the Kerch bridge between Russia and Crimea. All this alongside biting Western sanctions is causing growing disquiet among Moscow’s elites. Terrorising Ukraine’s civilian population is Putin’s way of mollifying his critics, a head-line grabbing stop-gap before mobilisation kicks in and he is able, as he hopes, to go back to the offensive when the ground freezes in November.
Mobilising men has already proven hard enough; replenishing munitions at the rate they are being expended a much bigger challenge. That is why Putin turned to his friends in Tehran who, according to Ukrainian intelligence reports, have supplied hundreds of drones to Moscow since August with an order of 2,400 in the pipeline. Also in the pipeline are Iranian ballistic missiles with ranges up to 400 miles which can be used against battlefield and civilian targets — the first sold to Russia by any nation since the war began.
Tehran of course denies supplying arms to Russia, but despite their lies we are witnessing the emergence of an axis of evil beyond the Middle East where Putin and Khamanei have been collaborating in murderous aggression for years. The benefits for Putin are obvious but what’s in it for Khamanei? It goes without saying that he will take every opportunity to back any enemy of the US, and the struggling Iranian economy needs roubles in exchange for weapons. The biggest state supporter of terrorism in the world, the munitions he supplies to his proxies have been on his own dollar, a major expense without any revenue.
Don’t forget that Iran has also equipped Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza with drones and other weapons to attack Israel and to the Houthis in Yemen to attack Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Beyond those conflicts, the dangers of Iran’s growing drone programme and the implications of its axis with Russia are plain to see and should concern the whole world. Last year an Iranian kamikaze drone strike killed a British sailor and a Romanian captain aboard an oil tanker in the Gulf, and as protests built up across Iran two weeks ago Khamanei’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched kamikaze drones and missiles into northern Iraq, targeting and killing Kurds who it blames, among others, for the unrest.
If the West is to protect Ukraine and frustrate Putin it must clamp down hard on Tehran and its widening participation in this conflict. The US and EU have been soft-pedalling over Iran, so desperate to secure a new nuclear deal that, bizarrely, Russian diplomats are still in the lead on negotiations. The consequences of continuing down that route will include releasing billions of dollars into Tehran’s exchequer, some of which will be pumped straight into its weapons programmes, making Iranian support for Russia’s war in Ukraine even more deadly.