All posts by jmb82BBp

Ukraine isn’t killing enough Russians

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 26 July 2023. © Richard Kemp

We learned this week that Russia has increased its upper age limits for reservist mobilisation from 45 to 55, and in some cases even as high as 70. Having sustained huge numbers of casualties in the last 17 months, shortage of fighting troops is also being tackled with plans to increase the age of compulsory conscription from 27 to 30, and laws to reduce the country’s perennial problem of draft dodging have been tightened.

All this shows that, despite the abject failure of its initial plans for the subjugation of Ukraine, the Kremlin is keen to give the appearance that it is not backing down. But it also reveals Moscow’s Achilles’ heel.

When the war began to go badly wrong for Russia, Putin unexpectedly needed many more men to feed his war machine, but was desperate to avoid general mobilisation for fear of backlash among the population. Even the partial mobilisation of 300,000 in September triggered sporadic protests in several cities and led to an exodus of nearly 400,000 young men frightened of being called up to fight. That number may now be considerably higher.

Historically, high casualty rates have created instability in Russia and the Soviet Union. Death tolls in the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War and the war in Afghanistan contributed respectively to the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and the fall of the USSR. Some of the other ingredients of such rebellions are also present today, including increasing economic hardship and an incompetent military leadership that has seen several Russian generals dismissed and even arrested.

Casualties foment discontent at home and among the already demoralised troops on the front line – as well as eroding Russian physical fighting power. High enemy attrition rates might therefore be more effective for Ukraine in turning this conflict round than re-taking territory, important though that also is.

Although a wide range of numbers have been bandied around, casualty figures on both sides in this war have been impossible for outside observers to assess in any reliable way. But, despite Kyiv’s claims, the likelihood is that attrition rates have not so far been in its favour.

That means they have to find more efficient ways of killing Russian soldiers, or delivering strategic victories which render numbers irrelevant (such as via large-scale encirclements) while preserving their own. Frontal attacks, fighting outnumbered and outgunned against heavily defended obstacle belts, are likely to have the opposite effect, which is why Kyiv has so far been holding back its most powerful armoured brigades. Continue reading

Ukraine’s counter-offensive is failing, with no easy fixes

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 21 July 2023. © Richard Kemp

With no significant breakthrough after six weeks, it is worth asking whether Ukraine’s counter-offensive can ever succeed, for it certainly doesn’t look to be succeeding now.

Compare the glacial but costly progress today to the lightning victories at Kharkiv and Kherson last autumn. Back then Kyiv’s forces were advancing against a withdrawing enemy that was pulling back to redeploy troops, trading space for time. Having now built up their forces through mobilisation and dug extensive defence lines, this time the Russians aren’t going anywhere.

That has left Ukraine with one option: launching frontal attacks against heavily defended positions, almost akin to the Western Front in World War I where trench lines ran continuously from Switzerland to the sea, with neither side achieving a decisive breakthrough for four years. Such an outcome today would leave Kyiv vulnerable to shifts in Western opinion, given the possibility of a Trump presidency or European fatigue. This is something President Zelensky must be aware of; and it is perhaps causing great consternation.

The question to be asked is: are the Ukrainians prepared – militarily, politically, financially – to carry out months and potentially years of these attacks to penetrate 1914-18 style defensive belts of tank traps, barbed wire, minefields, bunkers and trench lines? The UK Ministry of Defence has described these Russian fortifications as ‘some of the most extensive systems of military defensive works seen anywhere in the world’.

In the south, which appears to be Kyiv’s main effort at the moment, the terrain is mostly open farmland, with few covered approaches, making surprise, which is a critical factor for success in war, virtually impossible. That lack of surprise only compounds Kyiv’s combat inferiority. Continue reading

The Kerch Bridge strike shows there is no safety for Russians in Ukraine

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 17 July 2023. © Richard Kemp

With the counteroffensive in its sixth week, still moving slowly and at considerable cost but without any significant territorial gains so far, Ukraine was in need of a tangible success. That was delivered in last night’s dramatic attack against the Kerch Bridge, the longest in Europe and a major symbol of Putin’s power.

The crossing is one of the most heavily guarded objects under Russian control anywhere, beefed up after it was damaged last year, apparently by a vehicle bomb. Hitting a bridge protected by land, sea and air is a notoriously difficult military feat, even in the era of precision strike. Yet Ukrainian forces have demonstrated they have that capability, reportedly attacking this time with naval drones. The strike makes it clear that there is no safe place for important Russian targets in occupied Ukraine, even far from the front lines.

The Kerch hit was much more than just symbolic. The bridge is an important logistic artery for Russia, delivering troops and combat supplies into Crimea and so to the front lines in mainland Ukraine. Only the roadway seems to have been damaged in this attack. But this strike has shown that the railway spans, which carry the greater volume of combat supplies, are also highly vulnerable, and cutting the road will have had a measurable effect on Russian supply lines.

The only other ground route from Russia to the primary southern battle zone is via the ‘land bridge’ along the north coast of the Sea of Azov that was seized in the early months of the war. Supply lines through this corridor have also been attacked by Ukraine, but there are severe limitations. GMLRS missiles (usually fired from the Himars vehicle) cannot cover the whole land bridge. The Ukrainians have only small stocks of Storm Shadow cruise missiles with their greater range.

Hitting Russian logistics hard is vital to Ukraine’s counteroffensive as it reduces Russia’s combat power on the defensive lines that must Continue reading

Israeli researcher kidnapped in Iraq is just a bargaining chip in Iran’s deadly game

Article published by, 14 July 2023. © Richard Kemp

From December last year until this March, Russian-Israeli PhD student at Princeton University Elizabeth Tsurkov was carrying out academic research in Iraq, in her words ‘a country where pro-Iranian militias operate freely, carry out assassinations in broad daylight, blackmail people.

She is now, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the hands of the most dominant of those militias, Kataib Hezbollah, who reportedly kidnapped her in Baghdad four months ago. Kataib Hezbollah is designated as a terrorist group by the US, has conducted lethal attacks against American targets in Iraq and Syria, and fought alongside other Iranian proxies to prop up the Assad regime. It has a long track record of kidnap and murder in Iraq and has made repeated violent threats against Israel.

Like its counterpart Lebanese Hezbollah, which helped train and arm the group following its formation in 2003, Kataib Hezbollah is funded and directed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, an organ of the Iranian government. Its management body includes representatives from the IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah. It is also substantially funded by the Baghdad government and is an integral element of the Iraqi security forces. Despite that, its primary allegiance is to Iran and it has frequently refused orders from Baghdad and threatened Iraqi political leaders.

This means that even if Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Al Sudani demands Tsurkov’s release, it is Tehran that will call the shots. Although he will likely have known of her kidnapping for the last four months, the fact that she remains in captivity may mean he has been overruled.

On the other hand, perhaps he has no interest in securing the release of an Israeli ‘enemy’ because of the damage that would do to Continue reading

Ukraine needs cluster bombs to defeat Putin – we must provide them

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 10 July 2023. © Richard Kemp

President Biden is undoubtedly right to send cluster munitions to Ukraine and we are wrong to suggest otherwise. There is little time for some academic discussion on the balance of harm when Ukraine is fighting for its very survival. Indeed, this week’s anniversary of the start of the Battle of Britain, when our own country faced an unrelenting military onslaught, should be enough to remind us just how high the stakes are.

Russia has been attacking freely with cluster munitions since the war began. For anyone to attempt to tie Ukraine’s hands by denying her forces battlefield parity is nothing short of perverse.

Cluster bombs can hit more targets with fewer shells, inflicting devastation over a much wider area than conventional artillery. They are particularly effective against the sort of heavily defended positions that Ukraine is trying to overcome in its offensive. The clear advantage these weapons provide is particularly important for a country that is fighting outnumbered in men, planes and artillery.

It’s also a question of simple mathematics. Ukraine is burning through thousands of rounds of Western-supplied 155mm artillery shells every day to hold the Russians back – and supply simply cannot keep up with demand. As American and European stocks fall to dangerously low levels, with industry unable to keep pace, large quantities of cluster munitions sit idle in American warehouses. Sending them to Ukraine will create breathing space for arms manufacturers to catch up.

Despite hand-wringing from the sidelines, supply of these weapons by the US or their use by Ukraine does not contravene their own international obligations, as neither country signed the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. Unlike their European counterparts whose utopian thinking ruled out ever going to war again, the wisdom of successive US administrations in maintaining freedom of military action whenever possible has just helped keep Ukraine in the fight.

Of course, there is no doubting the long-term danger to civilians from unexploded cluster bomblets, often for years after a conflict has ended. Estimates of the hazard, however, are sometimes based on older types of munitions. For example, the bomblets the Russians have been firing in Ukraine have a very high dud rate; perhaps over a third will lie unexploded but still dangerous. The US versions which are to be supplied to Ukraine will likely have a significantly lower failure rate.

In an ideal world, Kyiv would opt not to use them, especially on its own territory, but there is currently no alternative. We do not live in Continue reading

Any Deal with Iran Requires Congressional Approval

Article published by the Gatestone Institute, 9 July 2023. © Richard Kemp

Iran is pretty much a nuclear threshold state, having enriched enough uranium to build multiple nuclear bombs within a few weeks while hard at work weaponising them in a timeframe that is so far unknown but probably under a year.

Much of this came to pass during Joe Biden’s presidency. When President Donald Trump pulled out of President Barack Obama’s flawed JCPOA nuclear deal, Iran’s uranium enrichment was under 5% and Trump kept it there with his ‘maximum pressure’ campaign of sanctions. The ayatollahs were also running scared of Trump and didn’t want to tempt him to kinetic action, a fear reinforced by his targeted killing of the international terrorist and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leader Qasem Soleimani in 2020.

When Biden entered the White House a year later, he wanted nothing more than to resurrect the JCPOA, as part of his obsessive undoing of everything Trump had done — except leaving Afghanistan — along with a determination by him and his Obama-inherited staff to restore their former boss’s legacy. Added to which, Biden decided to slavishly return to Obama’s wrongheaded strategy of rebalancing power in the Middle East by giving Iran the upper hand. So he eased off on sanctions and made it blatantly obvious he would do almost anything for a deal.

The consequence has been uranium enrichment from 5% to 60%, and with some material up to 84%, according to IAEA suspicions — verging on the levels needed for a bomb.

Biden was so fixated on gaining a deal that he allowed Moscow to take the lead on international negotiations, and his plans even envisaged Russia getting control of Iran’s highly enriched uranium. All of this as Putin has been threatening the West with his own nuclear weapons and savaging Ukraine while US taxpayers spend billions of dollars to counter him. Continue reading

The fact that the IDF killed no civilians in Jenin is a marvel

In most operations in urban areas, even those conducted by Western armies, more civilians than fighters are killed

Article published in The Jewish Chronicle, 6 July 2023. © Richard Kemp

The IDF defensive operation in Jenin — the most intensive military action in the West Bank since 2002 — has concluded after 48 hours of fighting without any civilian deaths. That is a remarkable achievement unparalleled in any comparable campaign worldwide. Twelve Palestinians were killed, at least eight of whom have been claimed as fighters by the terrorist groups involved.

In most high-intensity operations in urban areas, even those conducted by Western armies who adhere strictly to the laws of war, more civilians than fighters are killed, sometimes in a ratio of 3-5 to one. This is of course not deliberate but an unavoidable consequence of fighting an enemy among the population who themselves dress as civilians, occupy civilian buildings such as mosques, schools and hospitals as bases of attack, and use innocent civilians as human shields.

Israel’s enemies in Gaza and the West Bank go further still, using tactics that deliberately try to lure the IDF to kill their own citizens. You might wonder why any force that sets itself up as protectors of its people would do that. It is because they know they can never defeat or severely damage the IDF on the battlefield, and they can rely unfailingly on journalists, academics, international bodies and activists to blame Israel for these deaths, leading to vilification, condemnation and isolation.

This tactic was used in Jenin and as a consequence around 100 people were wounded, some of whom were civilians. Despite close surveillance, strict rules of engagement, extensive training in preventing civilian casualties and tight battle discipline, it would have been impossible in these circumstances to completely avoid any uninvolved civilians getting hit. To understand that you just have to put yourself in the boots of a young Israeli soldier in a fast moving and chaotic situation with explosives and gunmen potentially around every corner, bullets maybe with your name on scything through the air and every step you take liable to set off a lethal booby trap. Don’t forget, operating on their own turf, the terrorists had plenty of time to prepare the ground for the incursion they knew would come sooner or later.

In this situation it is quite remarkable that the IDF were able to avoid killing any civilians at all. I doubt any other army would be able to achieve that. I was in Israel a few years ago with a group of retired Continue reading

Russia’s time has almost run out

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 3 July 2023. © Richard Kemp

Even if Ukraine’s counter-offensive might be unfolding more slowly than many expected, it is Moscow not Kyiv that is running out of time. Since the operation began weeks ago, little territory has changed hands. That is despite expectations stoked by Kyiv’s allies, who have been eager to show bang for their buck to electorates keenly aware of the cost of the war.

But immediate gratification was always going to be elusive. Even with billions of dollars of Western aid, Ukraine lacks the kind of overwhelming force that allowed the US-led coalition to rapidly crush Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Amid a succession of probing attacks to find weakness in the Russian lines, hopes of a quick breakthrough such as we witnessed in Kharkiv and Kherson last autumn are being displaced by fear that Kyiv’s Nato-equipped forces will be dashed to pieces and Russia will go back onto the offensive.

Indeed, that seems to be Russia’s current strategy: to wear its enemy down against a hard defensive belt prepared over many months and then either force President Zelensky to come to terms or to rampage again into a weakened Ukrainian army.

Putin will very much prefer the first option, because he no longer has confidence that his forces can prevail in large-scale offensive operations. He may also fear escalation by the West, whose support for Ukraine against all expectations sent him into shock. That fear will have been reinforced by a resolution introduced last month in the US Senate that any Russian use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine will be viewed as an attack on Nato itself, requiring an Article V response.

Ukraine’s slow-going offensive, which has already sustained significant casualties in both men and tanks, might seem to be playing into Putin’s plan to wait it out. But how much time does the Russian president actually have, especially after Wagner’s abortive insurrection? Continue reading

Ukraine is buying us precious time – and we’re wasting it

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 30 June 2023. © Richard Kemp

Last week the deputy commander of Nato, British General Sir Tim Radford, complained that our army is too small and now the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Patrick Sanders, is saying the same thing. They could not be more right. The British Army has been continuously run down for decades, with regular forces slashed from 97,000 to 76,000 in the last 10 years and another 3,000 slated to follow them out of the door. Tank numbers are being cut by a third from an already derisory 227 to just 148 and tracked armoured infantry fighting vehicles got rid of altogether.

Sanders compared this dire situation with British military neglect in the 1930s, but it is far worse than that. By the time Hitler unleashed his blitzkrieg in Poland, our political leaders had woken up and were frantically re-arming. Now, in the face of the worst European war since 1945, with every other Nato member building its forces, Britain dementedly continues to cut.

Numbers are not everything, but if it were not already obvious, the Ukraine war has again demonstrated the supremacy of mass – in men, tanks, guns, planes and artillery. Bakhmut, the most intensive battle in Europe since the Second World War, with powerful Ukrainian forces defeated after months of combat, is a case in point. Commanders who were fighting there told me how sheer numbers of men, armoured vehicles and above all an endless stream of artillery shells had prevailed. Despite superior Ukrainian battle tactics, leadership, morale, surveillance, intelligence and cyber, brute force – as always in war – won the day.

That sort of thinking went out of fashion years ago in an increasingly woke Whitehall, with too much emphasis on so-called ‘soft power’, humanitarian aid, peacekeeping, propping up the NHS, environmentalism and mentoring other people’s armies rather than the dirty business of mud, blood and violence. That helped influence the prioritisation of nice clean fighting tools like cyber, robotics and IT Continue reading

Netanyahu is not showing contempt for Biden, US by going to China

Article published by, 29 June 2023. © Richard Kemp

We don’t know what the White House thinks of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned visit to Beijing, but despite the horror expressed by so many commentators in Israel I wouldn’t be surprised if Jerusalem and Washington discussed the invitation before it was accepted. Whether or not that happened, to use Menachem Begin’s words in 1982 to then-Sen. Joe Biden, the Israeli prime minister should not in any case be ‘a Jew with trembling knees’. He should take account of his greatest ally’s perspective, and then follow his own perception of Israel’s sovereign national interests.

Those who have attacked the planned visit as poking a stick in Biden’s eye after he failed to extend an invitation to the White House, or even suggested Netanyahu is looking for an alternative partnership to the US, are clearly mistaken. The former thought underestimates Netanyahu’s political savvy – whatever anyone thinks of his policies and character – and the latter is simply laughable.

Netanyahu is never going to lead his country closer to the Chinese dictatorship at the expense of the fundamental relationship with America, just as the first Israeli prime minister, David Ben Gurion, was never going to opt for Soviet patronage in defiance of America despite immense pressure from Stalin to do so. The US is and will remain Israel’s closest and most important strategic and military ally and the two countries share common cultural, liberal and democratic values. China’s repressive communist autocracy, on the other hand, is anathema to Israelis, including the current government.

The reasons Netanyahu needs to go to Beijing are obvious. China is Israel’s third largest global trading partner, although a trend of growth between the two countries has slowed mainly as a result of Israel’s own national security considerations and accommodation of US concerns, especially regarding key national infrastructure. Balancing such enormous economic interests with security issues and the US position is critical and has potentially far-reaching consequences. In an interview at the end of last year Netanyahu emphasized the difference between Israel’s deep relationships with Continue reading