The Russian army has run out of time

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 22 March 2022. © Richard Kemp

The Russian campaign in Ukraine may have reached its culminating point. In short, Russian forces may no longer be able to achieve their strategic objective by offensive operations. If so, it would mark a turning point.

It would not, however, mean the war is over, or that Ukraine has achieved victory. An effective stalemate might see the war entering an even more devastating phase, with Russian forces digging in and switching from wide-scale ground attack to besieging, bombarding and starving the major cities, while reinforcing and preparing for a renewed offensive.

Indications that Vladimir Putin may believe his campaign has culminated include a new defensive effort to interdict combat supplies and troops being pushed into the fight. In recent days we have seen attacks in the west against logistics bases, airfields and concentration centres for foreign volunteers. Cyber attacks – already widely used inside Ukraine – may now be extended to Nato countries to deter and disrupt supply of munitions and intelligence.

Putin may also plan to deploy chemical weapons to break the deadlock; President Biden warned of this yesterday. Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, over which Putin presided, caused devastating physical and psychological effects that proved decisive.

Reaching a strategic culminating point does not mean Russia cannot continue local tactical manoeuvre. Russian air operations, surprisingly limited so far given their massive superiority, have been intensifying in recent days. Russia will continue to tie down Ukrainian forces, including by threatening amphibious assault against Odessa and feints towards Kyiv.

We will see continued efforts to seize Mariupol, a vital objective for Putin, completing his land corridor between annexed Crimea and the Russian border. Gaining Mariupol would be a major element of his Continue reading

Putin could attack NATO and Britain isn’t ready

Article published in The Daily Mirror, 18 March 2022. © Richard Kemp

Putin’war in Ukraine could easily escalate onto NATO territory and Britain is not ready. Since the end of the Cold War successive governments have savagely cut our armed forces so that today the army, navy and air force are all shadows of their former selves.

The army had insufficient troop numbers and combat equipment to hold its own against jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in both theatres had to call on US reinforcements to fill the gaps. Fighting Russian tanks, artillery and planes in Europe will be much more demanding than dealing with jihadist gangs in the Middle East and south Asia, even though Putin’forces in Ukraine have shown themselves to be far less capable than most people thought.

It is too late to rebuild our forces to face an immediate threat. The same goes for all other European countries, which is one reason why NATO has been forced to stand and watch as the Russians tear our neighbours apart. We must hope that the economic damage inflicted on Moscow, plus the Ukrainians’ stiff resistance, are enough to blunt Putin’plans for future aggression in Europe.

But hope is not strategy and we should immediately start to build up our forces to deter Putin with military strength and be ready to fight him if that doesn’work. Last year’defence review slashed our conventional forces even more, spending instead on cyber, drones, space and artificial intelligence. These are all essential to our defences but so are tanks, artillery, anti-air missiles, armoured infantry and combat planes.

The Chancellor must immediately double Britain’defence budget. This will be even more painful as we suffer increasingly tough economic conditions post-Covid and as the consequences of our sanctions against Russia bite us too. But it will be less painful than failure to defeat Putin the next time he lashes out.

Image: PxHere

Ukraine: Putin’s Victory

A version of this article was published in The Daily Express, 16 March 2022. © Richard Kemp

British defence sources say Putin’s forces may only be able to fight on for another 14 days. After failure to achieve the rapid capitulation he no doubt expected from Zelenskiy, several days ago Putin said his terms for ending the war are now Russia’s retention of Crimea and the Donbas region and a guarantee by Zelenskiy that Ukraine will not join NATO. Yesterday, Zelenskiy said he recognised Ukraine will never be in NATO. He previously suggested he would be willing to compromise on the status of the Donbas and Crimea.

Since the momentum of Moscow’s advance has slowed, the Russians have turned to ever more vicious use of airpower and artillery. Putin’s forces have not displayed the fighting prowess many expected and their losses have been relatively high. But, despite stiff Ukrainian resistance, there is still much more to come. If the British assessment is correct, a huge amount of death and destruction can still be inflicted on Ukraine in two weeks.

Putin is not likely to withdraw his forces until he has achieved his new, more minimalist terms, and can declare victory. With his grip on power and virtually unchallenged control of Russian media he will be able to spin his gains as a success.

There have been indications in recent days that both sides are now getting serious about peace negotiations. But that, and the public concessions by both Putin and Zelensky, does not mean we will see a quick end to the bloodshed. Even if Putin’s terms are met, he will want more. He will be looking for agreement by the West for an end, or at least initially a significant relaxation, of the sanctions on Russia which are beginning to bite hard.

He will also want to use the unprecedented leverage the prospect of peace gives him against NATO and the EU, which have been looking on in dismay, with military impotence and weak-sounding public guarantees to Putin that they will not intervene. He will seek undertakings from NATO to pull back in eastern and northern Europe, and Continue reading

Ukraine: the Fight Moves West

Article published in The Daily Express, 14 March 2022. © Richard Kemp

The Yavoriv military complex near Lviv, close to the border with Poland, was an inevitable target for Putin’s forces which need to interdict troop reinforcements and combat supplies — especially anti tank and air defence missiles — coming from outside the country. The base is a logistics hub and assembly centre for foreign volunteers travelling to join the fight for Ukraine.

This attack serves two other purposes. First, it is a message to NATO to cease sending in weapons. On Saturday Russia’s deputy foreign minister warned that convoys shipping munitions from the west are legitimate targets for attack. The Yavoriv strike fits with Putin’s nuclear threats, aimed to deter NATO leaders from direct military intervention in the conflict. The proximity to Poland underlines that warning. Putin already considers NATO’s supply of weapons as well as economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia as acts of war. Putin does not believe that NATO will deploy troops or air power. Counter-intuitively however, it is possible he is trying to provoke some form of limited Western engagement against Russia as a means of shoring up support at home.

Second, Putin knows that expanding the war westward, even if only from the air at the moment, will further terrorise the Ukrainian population. Lviv has been a place of refuge and a staging point for civilians fleeing the country. In line with his original strategy, he still hopes that intensifying fear will pressure the government to capitulate to his demands. President Zelenskiy’s comments five days ago that Ukraine is no longer pressing for NATO membership and that he is prepared to compromise on the status of the two Donbas breakaway territories will have encouraged him.

Russian forces continue to close on Kiev, with progress impeded by fierce Ukrainian resistance as well as hard-going terrain and logistic challenges, including supply of fuel, ammunition and rations, that prevent rapid movement over long distances. There is no doubt Putin does not want a street by street fight through the capital that would result in severe losses of armour and fighting troops. He will hope that the destruction of the small town of Volnovakha in the east, which the governor of Donetsk says ‘no longer exists’, contributes to a collapse in Ukrainian morale.

Further south, Putin continues to wreak destruction on the port city of Mariupol. His actions there and in Volnovakha reflect the brutal tactics his forces used in Syria and Chechnya. To the west, Russian forces continue to prepare an assault by land, sea and air on the strategically vital city of Odessa. If Odessa and Mariupol fall, Putin will control Ukraine’s coast in its entirety. That would be a major achievement, potentially enough for him to declare victory if he eventually decides Kiev is too tough a nut to crack.

 

Why is Putin Holding His Best Forces Back From Ukraine?

A version of this article was published in The Daily Express, 7 March 2022. © Richard Kemp

On Saturday a humanitarian corridor was arranged to allow civilians in the southern port of Mariupol to escape the fighting. The exodus was abandoned as Russian forces continued to shell the city. A further effort, also disrupted by Russian breaches of the ceasefire, began yesterday morning. This amounts to a test of Russia’s resolve to allow civilians out of other besieged cities before intensive attacks are launched against them.

Meanwhile Russia’s offensive grinds inexorably on, with a land corridor pretty much established between Crimea and Donetsk, one of Putin’s key objectives for this war. Much of the coastline along the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea is now under Moscow’s control. Russian forces continue to push west towards Odessa which, when taken, will effectively deny Ukraine all its sea ports. On Friday it was made known that Ukraine’s naval flagship, the Hetman Sahaidachny, was scuttled early in the war rather than allowing it to fall into enemy hands. The tragic fate of this ship stands as an epitaph for Britain’s agreement signed last year to rebuild Ukraine’s navy, including construction of new bases on the Sea of Asov and Black Sea.

In the north, Russia continues its onslaught against Kharkov and is progressively encircling Kiev with forces advancing on the city from the east, north east and north west. As well as direct Russia-Ukraine talks, planned to resume today, there have been further attempts to mediate by Israel and France. Unless these efforts lead to some kind of diplomatic breakthrough — likely to mean President Zelenskiy’s capitulation — it is hard to see how the Russian army does not eventually overcome Ukraine’s staunch resistance.

Without revealing their own casualty figures, Ukraine claims to have killed 11,000 Russian soldiers. Russia says only 500 of their own troops have died. Neither can be believed. Ukraine’s numbers are intended to boost morale, supporting the widespread talk of Russian Continue reading

A Plan for Peace in Europe

Article published by the Gatestone Institute, 6 March 2022. © Richard Kemp

NATO’s strategic objective should now be to bring down Russian President Vladimir Putin and see him replaced by a less dangerous leader. If he fails to achieve his goals in Ukraine, harsh constraints are imposed on Russian oligarchs, and suffering is inflicted on ordinary citizens by Western diplomatic and economic action; his current adventure might cause him to self-destruct.

If that does not happen, Putin will remain a permanent threat to NATO, Europe and the world. Russian law now allows him to hold onto power at least until 2036. He apparently aims to re-create the Soviet Union in a new form and restore Russia’s superpower status by pushing NATO back, regaining Moscow’s dominion over its eastern neighbours. He is now also demanding the nuclear disarming of Europe.

Putin’s next targets could be Moldova or the Baltic states which, like Ukraine, he reportedly considers illegitimate and properly part of Russia’s sphere. If further suffering and bloodshed are to be avoided, the West must do all it can to ensure his current aggression fails. At last we are seeing unity among NATO countries, with unprecedented sanctions already beginning to bite and the Russian economy heading towards freefall. To halt Putin’s broader ambitions, it is also essential that NATO keep the Ukrainian army fighting and that includes financing the war effort and getting lethal weapons and military equipment to Ukrainian forces.

In the event, as seems likely, that Putin does prevail in Ukraine, we should now also be preparing to support a resistance movement against a potential Russian army of occupation. That would include supplying weapons, intelligence and surveillance, as well as offensive cyber capabilities, and sending in undeclared advisors to help. Moscow should be driven into a quagmire in Ukraine, with a stream of body bags heading back to Russia (rather than mysteriously ‘disappeared’ in the mobile crematoria that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says are ominously following behind Russian forces). It is not that we want to see Russian conscripts killed, Continue reading

Day 7 of Putin’s War

Article published in The Daily Mirror, 3 March 2022. © Richard Kemp

This where the Russian army was on day seven days of Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine. His troops, tanks, artillery and planes overwhelmingly outnumber Ukraine’s embattled forces. Many experts argue the Russians should have made much greater progress. There have been widespread reports of their men surrendering, planes shot down and tanks knocked out. We can only applaud the heroism of the Ukrainian forces, who have struggled against the Russian steamroller with determination and valour. In war morale is everything and here the Ukrainian troops have the upper hand. These men and women are fighting for their lives, their families and their homes. They will be hard to break. Russian conscripts in many cases have no idea what they are fighting for. The Russians have other problems as well. Defenders fighting from prepared positions are usually thought to have a three-to-one advantage against attackers who must expose themselves to enemy fire in order to gain ground. Advancing speedily over long distances with tracked and wheeled vehicles is also virtually impossible in this terrain. There are few roads outside the cities and with a warmer than usual winter it’s easy to get bogged in if you try to manoeuvre across country, even in tanks. Provision of ammunition, fuel and rations is also fraught with difficulty for an attacking force, with supply columns often struggling to keep up with the fighting troops. We can only hope the Ukrainians are able to withstand the intensifying Russian onslaught but, despite the advantages of the defender, the odds are strongly against them.

Image: Ministry of Defence

Putin Never Planned Shock and Awe in Ukraine

Article published in The Daily Express, 28 February 2022. © Richard Kemp

Putin’s threat of nuclear strikes again ratchets up his verbal aggression against the West. It’s in line with his warning at the start of the conflict that any country trying to ‘hinder’ Russia’s operation in Ukraine would face ‘such consequences that you have never encountered in your history’. Though many fear he has become increasingly unhinged, this is part of his war of words rather than genuine intent. Although Putin controls the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world, he can’t directly press the button and his generals would need to be complicit in such an inconceivable atrocity.

Back at ground level, many are surprised that Putin’s forces have not defeated Ukraine in just four days. Let’s not forget it took the 309,000 strong US-led coalition more than a month to defeat Saddam’s army in 2003, including six days’ heavy fighting to capture Baghdad. That was in a smaller country with terrain better suited to offensive fighting. We can only admire the hard and courageous resistance of the Ukrainian forces, civilians and political leaders. But this is not a shock and awe campaign by Russia. So far they have committed only half the forces ranged against Ukraine.

Some argue that Putin underestimated the Ukrainian army and air force and calculated on a lightening victory. I doubt that. Russian military intelligence is not blind and knows that Ukraine has a well trained and equipped army, supported by the west including the UK since the invasion of Crimea in 2014. The US alone provided $2.5 billion in military aid. The Russian high command also recognise that soldiers fighting for their homes are not likely to be a pushover and will not break easily.

Reports of Russian forces faltering as tanks break down and run low on fuel may be true. But logistics are always problematic in offensive warfare, and this should not be read as an ill-prepared and failing offensive.

The reality is that Putin does not want heavier fighting than necessary to overcome his enemy. Of course that is not from any humanitarian instinct. In a war that is already causing dissent in Russia, he does not need too many body bags streaming back home. He also does not want to unleash the kind of brutality that would trigger an Iraq-style insurgency in a ‘neutral’ and demilitarised Ukraine under his dominion if it can be avoided.

That is why Putin’s opening barrage of cruise and ballistic missiles — a show of force — was quickly paused and negotiations offered, which were later rejected by President Zelenskiy.

Despite the increasing bite of sanctions against Russia, Putin is in no great hurry. China will help defray economic damage including buying up all Russian energy that cannot be sold to the EU. Putin meanwhile is weaponising Ukrainian civilians, and the longer the war continues Continue reading

The age of conventional warfare is back, and Britain isn’t ready

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 26 February 2022. © Richard Kemp

We see uncanny similarities between Russia’s aggression in Ukraine today and Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, both encouraged by weakness and appeasement in western Europe. British military preparedness in the 1930s and today are also starkly similar. After the First World War our forces were neglected despite a rising threat from Germany, to the extent they were unable to resist the Nazi scything through France. Since the end of the Cold War, we have greedily spent the ‘peace dividend’ on welfare and other projects while degrading our armed forces in the face of growing threats from Russia and China.

Putin’s invasion is withering confirmation of the misjudgements many of us recognised when we read with disbelief the defence review last year that compounded the damage. The navy and airforce were relatively unscathed but the army was devastated, cut by almost 10,000 to just 72,500 – less than half the number Putin lined up on the Ukraine border.

Even as Russian troops were assembling last year – including 1,200 tanks – the MOD was preparing to reduce our meagre tank force from 227 to 148. Tanks can’t fight without infantry alongside in armoured combat vehicles. Ours were due to be upgraded but are now being scrapped altogether, eventually to be replaced by vehicles without comparable potency. With eight former infantry battalions cut in half and assigned to train foreign forces, we will only be able to field around 12,000 infantry – the men that always bear the brunt of the fighting. Even this paltry figure is optimistic; never in my 30 years’ service was the infantry ever manned to its authorised strength due to a dysfunctional recruiting system.

Meanwhile our war stocks of replacement vehicles, weapons and ammunition have been stripped bare by an ill-judged imitation of Continue reading

Putin Attacks Kiev

Article published in The Daily Express, 26 February 2022. © Richard Kemp

Putin’s immediate objective is to put in place a puppet regime to bring Ukraine under Russian control. His forces are now on the outskirts of Kiev, preparing to besiege or assault the city and hack down the government. Ukrainian authorities are handing out guns to untrained volunteers to help defend the capital. Urban combat is notoriously bloody and if Ukrainian troops and civilians put up stiff resistance against the Russian attackers, street-to-street fighting will be very costly for both sides. In this scenario Putin would also sabotage cellphone towers and water mains, launch cyber attacks, and cut off electricity supplies to the city, helping spread panic among the people.

While Putin will not balk at inflicting and sustaining heavy casualties he would prefer to achieve his goal without such carnage — he does not need a stream of body bags going back into Russia. That could be avoided by capturing or killing President Zelenskiy using Russian agents in the city or driving him out of the country, or at least into western Ukraine — he knows he is at the top of Putin’s kill list. The intention would be to force the president and his government to renounce their own legitimacy, paving the way for an interim regime installed by Putin. Alternatively, Zelenskiy might decide to end the bloodshed by coming to terms with Moscow and there are already reports of a potential meeting in Belarus between Ukrainian and Russian delegations. This would not be an agreement among equals but Putin dictating terms as Hitler did to the French in a railway car in Compiegne in 1940.

What next? It will be Putin’s hope that the Ukrainian armed forces stop fighting and are either stood down or give their allegiance to his new regime in Kiev, following the precedent of the Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet when Russia took over Crimea in 2014. That is perhaps more conceivable among the people of eastern Ukraine. Reports coming out of Ukraine suggest Moscow might be planning to divide the country into two, perhaps broadly along the line of the River Dnieper, leaving the east of the country including Kiev under his power, with the west becoming ‘neutral. That might avoid a costly fight and harsh resistance in the more patriotic west. It would effectively restore eastern Ukraine to Russia, with ports and military bases. But Putin must also fear the eventual build-up of an insurgency from the west of the country, supported by Britain, the US and Poland, and becoming a thorn in his flesh, perhaps necessitating a future invasion to subjugate it.

These may be Putin’s intentions, but in war nothing is ever certain. A well-used military axiom tells us that no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Security – Defence – Intelligence – Counter Terrorism