Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Belarus Warning Update: Putin Intensifies Russian-Belarusian Military Integration

 October 27, 2020, 3:15 pm EDT

By George Barros

Russian President Vladimir Putin achieved a major milestone in his pressure campaign to subordinate Belarus’ military to Russia. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin adopted a common military doctrine and announced the completed formation of Russian-Belarusian “regional grouping of forces” on October 27.[1] The formation of a Russian-Belarusian regional grouping of forces is a major achievement in Putin’s larger campaign to subordinate former Soviet states’ militaries to Russian-dominated structures.[2] The Russian State Duma first ratified the agreement to create a regional grouping of forces with Belarus in 2017.[3]

Russia is pressuring Belarus to create a unified advanced air defense system. Shoigu also stated Russia and Belarus are planning to create a “unified regional air defense system.”[4] ISW warned Putin likely seeks to deploy and control Russian anti-access/area denial weapon systems in Belarus in September.[5]  

Putin will likely intensify Russian conventional military deployments to Belarus over the next year. The ministers also agreed to jointly conduct Russia’s next annual capstone strategic readiness exercise – Zapad 2021 – and signed resolutions on conducting “joint special exercises” to prepare for this exercise.[6] Russia’s Western Military District will likely conduct Zapad 2021 in western Russia and Belarus in September 2021.[7] Conventional Russian forces likely will deploy to Belarus for Zapad 2021 on a significantly larger scale than they did for Zapad 2017. Russian-Belarusian joint exercises will likely intensify in the immediate future as ISW forecasted.[8] The Kremlin has not yet announced the next Russian-Belarusian monthly exercise for November 2020.

Kremlin information operations are intensifying efforts targeting NATO. Shoigu used his meeting with Khrenin to intensify the Kremlin’s existing information operation falsely portraying the Belarusian protest movement as a NATO-backed hybrid war. Shoigu claimed the situation on Belarus’ western borders is “still turbulent” and falsely accused NATO of creating a “forward presence” and supply lines for combat operations near Belarus.[9] Shoigu also falsely accused the West of using protests to derail Russia’s and Belarus’ integration.[10] 

Self-declared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko will likely take action to defuse protests at an upcoming national Belarusian assembly. Lukashenko said on October 27 Belarusians from “all strata of society” will consider constitutional reforms and solve other problems hindering Belarus’ development at the upcoming Sixth All-Belarusian People's Assembly. Lukashenko has not announced the date for the assembly. Lukashenko likely seeks to use the assembly to conduct a putative intra-Belarusian dialogue during which Lukashenko will announce constitutional amendments or different concessions to placate protesters.[11] The Kremlin will likely intervene to prevent a solution to the protests that does not include Belarus’ deeper integration with Russia.[12]

Ultimatum protests in Minsk are decreasing. Street protests in Minsk on October 27 are significantly smaller than those of October 26.[13] Factory managers are firing striking workers and threatening to cancel their bonuses.[14] Significant numbers of students are not participating in strikes.[15] Police arrested at least 39 protesters on October 27 as of this writing.[16] Lukashenko seemingly is succeeding in suppressing ultimatum protests as ISW forecasted.[17] Lukashenko will likely replicate successes in suppressing protests barring major changes in the opposition’s strategy or tactics.

ISW will continue monitoring the situation and providing updates.


[1] https://tvzvezda dot ru/news/forces/content/202010271131-qRRUg.html


[3] https://ria dot ru/20171020/1507225598.html

[4] https://tvzvezda dot ru/news/forces/content/202010271131-qRRUg.html


[6] https://reform dot by/175035-hrenin-nazval-uchenija-zapad-2021-glavnym-meroprijatiem-sledujushhego-goda

[7] Russia’s annual strategic joint-staff exercise usually occurs in September.


[9] https://tvzvezda dot ru/news/forces/content/202010271118-8c1LE.html

[10] https://www.rbc dot ru/politics/27/10/2020/5f97ea9d9a79472722d10df4




[14] https://finance.tut dot by/news705528.html


[16] http://spring96 dot org/ru/news/100121

[17] https://www.rbc dot ru/society/27/10/2020/5f9800179a794735397f2e23;


Russia-Turkey Competition Escalates across Theaters

 By Isabel Ivanescu and Ezgi Yazici

Key Takeaway: Competition between Russia and Turkey continued to escalate in 2020. The parties redoubled their commitments to opposing sides in Syria and Libya, and Turkey opened a new theater of competition in the Caucasus. Each of these conflicts is unique and discrete but must be understood within the cross-theater dynamics of Russia-Turkey competition.

Click the image below to enlarge it.

Russia and Turkey are supporting belligerents on opposite sides of three conflicts – in Syria, in Libya, and in Nagorno-Karabakh – and are competing for influence in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Russia-Turkey competition is not a new phenomenon but has escalated as both countries have adopted more ambitious foreign policy objectives and expanded their regional influence in the past decade.

The situation in Syria is precarious; Syria remains a priority effort for both Russia and Turkey while the two parties are increasingly at odds. Turkey views Syria as core to its national security, fearing both a renewed refugee influx and autonomous Kurdish governance on the Turkish border. For Russia, Syria is a critical venue for projecting power in the Middle East and Mediterranean and pressuring the United States. Turkish occupation of swathes of northern Syria and Russian freedom of action throughout regime-held areas has resulted in a shaky balance. Turkey and Russia have been facing off in opposition-held greater Idlib to pressuring one another into a negotiated settlement since mid-September 2020.[1] Turkish and Russian proxies are also manning opposing, but stable front lines in Syria’s northeast. Moscow or Ankara must alter this balance, through diplomacy or force, if either is to achieve its objectives. The Russian air force carried out one of the deadliest-ever Russian airstrikes in Syria targeting a Turkish proxy in Idlib on October 26 in a possible play to shift the situation in Syria or impose costs on Turkey for actions elsewhere.[2]

Russia and Turkey back opposing parties in Libya and will likely remain militarily engaged despite a recent ceasefire. Turkey intervened in Libya in January 2020 to halt the advance of forces backed by geopolitical opponents Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia on Tripoli, while carving out a Turkish maritime sphere of influence in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s intervention derailed Russia’s campaign in Libya but produced intensified Russian engagement. The Kremlin remains committed to establishing permanent Russian basing and access to Libya’s oil supply, even amid constraints imposed by Russia’s own local partners and regional allies. Russia and Turkey are locked in an armed race for influence in Libya below the level of outright conflict. The parties are unlikely to pull away from Libya even while a purported “permanent ceasefire” signed by their respective local partners on October 23 calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces.[3]

Recent hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh are both born of and further fueling Russia-Turkey competition. Turkey coordinated with Azerbaijan to reignite the long-standing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over disputed territory Nagorno-Karabakh in September.[4] Ankara sees the conflict as a low-cost opportunity to solidify a Turkish foothold in the Caucasus and challenge growing bilateral ties between Baku and Moscow while profiting from arms sales to Azerbaijan. Russia brokered two failed ceasefires since fighting began in September 2020 in a bid to keep both Armenia and Azerbaijan within its sphere of influence. The Kremlin seeks rapid de-escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh with minimum Russian investment. Russia’s neutrality is an opportunity for Ankara to cash in rapid Azerbaijani territorial gains for regional influence without triggering a Russian escalation. A new ceasefire—brokered by the US without Russian involvement—went into effect on October 26 with both Armenian and Azerbaijani violations reported within hours.[5]  The Kremlin may attempt to compel a resolution by force in response to Turkey’s growing military role and the United States’ growing diplomatic role in the conflict, reasserting Russia’s role as the sole powerbroker in the Caucasus. ISW has not observed indicators of an imminent Russian deployment to Armenia, however.

Developments in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be analyzed in a vacuum, but must instead be contextualized in the landscape of cross-theater Russia-Turkey competition. The two revisionist powers will likely continue to search for a comparative advantage, including by establishing new and advantageous theaters for competition or further investing in existing theaters. Seemingly inexplicable Russian or Turkish decisions in one theater may be readily understandable when considered alongside developments in another theater. A Russian or Turkish decision to commit resources in a new area, if not obviously compatible with policy objectives, may well result from a desire to obtain leverage over the other party. Whether Russia-Turkey competition de-escalates through negotiations or escalates kinetically, it will have profound and lasting effects in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Caucasus.









Monday, October 26, 2020

Belarus Warning Update: Lukashenko Will Likely Outlast Ultimatum Protests

 October 26, 2020, 5:30 pm EDT

By George Barros

Protesters failed to compel self-declared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s resignation on October 25 – the deadline of the opposition’s ultimatum for his resignation. Over 100,000 Belarusians protested in Minsk and other major cities in line with Lithuania-based opposition leader Svitlana Tikhanouskaya’s ultimatum to Lukashenko for his resignation on October 25.[1] Belarusian security services in Minsk cordoned off key roads, blocked cellular internet services, and closed downtown metro stations.[2] Riot police used rubber bullets and stun grenade salvos to disperse protesters at dusk.[3] Protesters did not regroup at midnight after the ultimatum’s deadline expired. Police detained at least 500 protesters in Belarus, including 160 in Minsk, on October 25.[4]

Lukashenko will likely effectively discredit Tikhanouskaya if the opposition fails to sustain the current protests. Tikhanouskaya is encouraging protests and strikes with unprecedented vigor. Tikhanouskaya promised workers financial compensation “guarantees” if their contracts are terminated due to strikes on October 21 and claimed she received 7 million USD in donations to financially support strikers on October 26.[5] Tikhanouskaya announced the ultimatum because she likely anticipated a risk that Lukashenko is close to defusing the protest movement.

Lukashenko did not take public action to defuse protests – as he likely initially planned – on October 25. Lukashenko did not address the protesters or issue any statements on October 25. Lukashenko likely intended to announce constitutional amendments or different concessions to placate protesters on October 25.[6] Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a senior intelligence director to meet Lukashenko in Minsk on October 22, likely to disrupt Lukashenko’s plan.[7]

Relatively small numbers of Belarusian students and factory workers began strikes in line with Tikhanouskaya’s ultimatum on October 26. Belarusian university students and state-owned enterprise workers launched strikes throughout Belarus in support of the ultimatum on October 26. Approximately 5,000 protesters took to the streets of Minsk on October 26.[8] These protests were large for a Monday, but not unprecedented; these protests are comparable in size to last Monday’s October 19 pensioner protests.[9] The current ultimatum protests are significantly smaller than average weekend protests.[10] The opposition will likely fail to sustain these strikes given their inability to sustain similar strikes in August.[11]  

Lukashenko can likely outlast the protest movement in its current form. Lukashenko previously successfully suppressed similar strikes in August and September by arresting striking students and factory strike leaders and firing striking workers.[12] Lukashenko can likely outlast strikes given that Tikhanouskaya’s funding to subsidize strikers is likely finite and Lukashenko can imprison strikers as he has before. Footage from student protests suggests a significant number of students are not participating in strikes.[13] Worsening winter weather will further degrade protest participation. Lukashenko will likely replicate successes in suppressing protests barring major changes in the opposition’s strategy or tactics.

Lukashenko intensified crackdowns against ultimatum protesters. Belarusian police intensified their detention campaign against protesters on October 25 and arrested at least 300 protesters on October 26.[14] Lukashenko may intensify crackdowns further. A senior Belarusian security official said protest actions could be qualified as terrorism on October 26.[15] Lukashenko has previously used targeted crackdowns against student protesters and strikers to successfully suppress protests.[16]  

Putin may be preparing to exploit sustained Belarusian strikes to deploy Russian forces to Belarus. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin is paying close attention to the strikes in Belarus, claiming Belarusian firms’ reliability is “extremely important” for the Russian economy on October 26.[17] The Kremlin may choose to use an "economic interdependence" narrative to justify intervention in Belarus to suppress the protests on the Kremlin's terms, though there is no evidence the Kremlin plans to do so at this time

ISW will continue monitoring the situation and providing updates.



[2];; https://t dot me/nexta_tv/7432 ;;;; https://42.tut dot by/705443

[3]; https://42.tut dot by/705443;;;;;

[4] http://spring96 dot org/en/news/100110; http://spring96 dot org/ru/news/100106

[5] https://ru.euronews dot com/2020/10/21/belarus-ultimatum-guarantee; https://korrespondent dot net/world/4288535-v-myre-sobraly-sem-myllyonov-dollarov-v-pomosch-bastuuischym-belorusam; https://www.ntv dot ru/novosti/2463380/



[8]; https://echo.msk dot ru/news/2731518-echo.html






[14]; http://spring96 dot org/ru/news/100108

[15] https://sputnik dot by/incidents/20201026/1045992086/KGB-ryad-deystviy-protestuyuschikh-mozhno-kvalifitsirovat-kak-akt-terrorizma.html


[17] https://interfax dot by/news/policy/raznoe/1285809/


Friday, October 23, 2020

Belarus Warning Update: Putin Likely Disrupts Lukashenko’s Plan for Defusing Protests

October 23, 4:45 pm EDT

By George Barros

The Kremlin likely sent a senior intelligence director to Belarus to disrupt self-proclaimed President Alexander Lukashenko’s planned announcement of steps to defuse the protest crisis. Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Director Sergey Naryshkin flew to Minsk on October 22. Naryshkin’s visit is the latest in an observed pattern of senior Russian intelligence officials’ visits to Minsk.[1] Each of these visits has coincided with key developments in the Kremlin’s hybrid war in Belarus, usually also marking changes in Lukashenko’s behavior.[2] 

Lukashenko was likely preparing to announce a suite of putative concessions aimed at placating anti-government demonstrators without fully ceding Moscow’s demands. Lukashenko likely seeks to use a constitutional amendment process to broker a compromise with protesters to end the crisis.[3] New reporting from October 20 revealed Lukashenko told jailed opposition leaders in an October 10 meeting that he would not seek another presidential term and that he is considering introducing a constitutional amendment on presidential term limits.[4] A promise from Lukashenko to retire would be a significant development in his efforts to offer protesters concessions to end the crisis. Lukashenko set October 25 as the deadline for submissions “from the people” of Belarusian constitutional amendments on October 3.

The Kremlin sent SVR Director Sergei Naryshkin to meet Lukashenko in Minsk on October 22 ostensibly to discuss Union State “security issues.”[5] The Kremlin likely anticipated a risk that Lukashenko may successfully defuse the protests without consolidating Russian suzerainty over Belarus via the Union State.

Naryshkin’s statements after meeting Lukashenko suggest Kremlin dissatisfaction with Lukashenko’s constitutional amendments. Naryshkin said Lukashenko’s amendments are only “one of the answers” to the protest movement that poses “many questions” to Lukashenko’s regime, indicating the amendments are insufficient for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desired end state. Putin said Belarusian constitutional amendments could be a “way out of the current situation” at the annual Valdai Discussion Club meeting on October 22.[6]

Lukashenko canceled a large pro-regime rally planned for October 25 after meeting with Naryshkin. Lukashenko reversed his support for the pro-government rally that he claims would have brought in 250,000-300,000 demonstrators.[7] Lukashenko likely intended to use this rally as a culmination point to announce his concessions to protesters. He had reportedly begun planning pro-government rallies for October 18-25 on October 18.[8] Naryshkin may have pressured Lukashenko not to make his planned announcement, depriving the rally of its purpose. He may also have pressed Lukashenko to cancel the rally itself, stripping the announcement of concessions of the trappings of popular support and success. ISW has no evidence that Naryshkin spoke to Lukashenko along these lines, but the pattern of events suggests that the concessions and the rally were discussed.

Naryshkin’s visit coincided with the announcement of plans to create a new openly pro-Union State party that could pressure Lukashenko to make concessions to Moscow he has been resisting. A previously unknown pro-Union State integration Belarusian NGO called “Union” announced plans to create a political party at an unspecified future time on October 19.[9] Union seeks to deeply integrate Belarus into Russia via the Union State, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).[10] Several of Union’s presidium members are linked to the Kremlin and most openly espouse views that closely align with the Kremlin on a myriad of foreign policy issues.[11] Union explicitly supports Belarusian constitutional reform and early presidential elections as “a way out the crisis.”[12] ISW has no evidence that the Kremlin created Union, but the timing of Union’s announcement to create a party on October 19 in relation to Naryshkin’s visit on October 22 to Minsk suggests some sort of coordination.[13]

Lukashenko is likely preparing to crack down on NEXTA and its users, if necessary. A Belarusian court expanded the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs’ (MVD) ability to target protesters by designating NEXTA material as “extremist” on October 20.[14] The MVD promptly threatened to arrest anyone who subscribes to or reposts content from NEXTA on October 20 and claimed the protest movement is developing into a terrorist threat on October 22.[15] A1 Telekom – an Austrian mobile network operator with services in Belarus – briefly blocked access to Telegram in Belarus on October 22.[16] A1 Telekom unblocked access to Telegram the same day following online backlash.[17] Lukashenko may anticipate a need to intensify crackdowns against NEXTA users, possibly in regards to intensified protests following the October 25 ultimatum.[18]

The Kremlin may have used a Rosgvardia deployment – framed as participation in a preplanned sporting tournament – to pressure Lukashenko in September. Elements of two Russian National Guard units deployed to Minsk, Belarus, on September 28 – October 3 for a small arms military sports tournament that was effectively a series of tactical exercises with Belarusian special forces.[19] The Belarusian Ministry of Defense framed the tournament as a regular annual event.[20] Both Rosgvardia units that deployed to Belarus have experience operating in Ukraine.[21]

This deployment may have been part of Putin’s military pressure campaign against Lukashenko given it occurred between two Russian conventional military deployments for the Slavic Brotherhood and Unbreakable Brotherhood exercises and during a period of unprecedented Russian Western Military District exercises near Belarus.[22] The branding of this deployment as a regular preplanned activity is consistent with Russian hybrid warfare informational tactics used to obscure Russian conventional military deployments to Belarus.[23]

ISW will continue monitoring the situation and providing updates.





[4] https://lenta dot ru/news/2020/10/20/lukashenko/

[5] https://www.belta dot by/society/view/naryshkin-rasskazal-o-podrobnostjah-vstrechi-s-lukashenko-412203-2020; https://www.belta dot by/politics/view/naryshkin-o-belarusi-sohranenie-stabilnosti-krajne-vazhnoe-uslovie-dlja-razvitija-gosudarstva-412207-2020

[6] https://ria dot ru/20201022/belorussiya-1581092884.html; https://news dot ru/politics/putin-schitaet-belorussiyu-demokratichnee-mnogih-stran/

[7] https://finance.tut dot by/news705167.html; https://t dot me/pul_1/1766; https://finance.tut dot by/news705137.html

[8] https://t dot me/tutby_official/17539

[9] http://rosbelsoyuz dot su/2020/10/19/%D0%B2-%D0%B1%D0%B5%D0%BB%D0%B0%D1%80%D1%83%D1%81%D0%B8-%D0%BF%D0%BE%D1%8F%D0%B2%D0%B8%D1%82%D1%81%D1%8F-%D0%BF%D0%B0%D1%80%D1%82%D0%B8%D1%8F-%D1%81%D0%BE%D1%8E%D0%B7-%D0%B2%D1%8B%D1%81/

[10] https://souyz dot by/?fbclid=IwAR0KJVCAEQen996uyWLK6ES4Goz8PJUF0Mjj62rgTV5ZKAoco4c7DGgZWJc

[11] https://www.ritmeurasia dot org/news--2020-10-21--v-belarusi-pojavitsja-partija-sojuz-vystupajuschaja-za-belorussko-rossijskuju-integraciju-51511https://naviny dot media/article/20201019/1603123526-prorossiyskaya-struktura-hochet-zaregistrirovat-v-belarusi-partiyu; blr dot rs dot gov dot ru/ru/news/847?category_id=12; https://www dot; https://survincity dot com/2010/11/russia-is-destined-for-greatness-it-is-her-fate-if/;  https://politring dot com/country/30530-sergeev-predlozhil-otdat-belarusi-tri-oblasti-rossii-esli-ona-voydet-v-sostav-rf-kak-avtonomnyy-okrug.html. G.html; https://zatulin dot ru/institut-stran-sn; https://politring dot com/mir/29589-prezident-rf-putin-nagradil-medalyu-pushkina-belorusskogo-politologa-sergeeva.html; https://m dot politnavigator dot news/v-belorussii-peregruppirovka-posle-pervojj-bitvy-russkie-eshhjo-ne-vstupali.html/amp?imnu=304adfebda4d15eea3c3750a318a63d9; rarog dot by/node/37; https://balkanist dot ru/glava-mezhdunarodnogo-soveta-pravoslaviya-predlozhil-napravit-v-chernogoriyu-delegatsiyu-nablyudatelej/;   http://sobor dot by/page/Kak_vospitat_nastoyashchih_mugchin_V_Minske_uspeshno_rabotaet_voenno_patrioticheskiy_poiskoviy_tsentr_Otechestvo;

https://www.lawtrend dot org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/zaregistrirovany_20111.pdf; http://www.embassybel dot ru/departments/rostov/news/f9888f26f3eb.html;

https://minsk dot; https://riadagestan dot ru/news/the_people_s_assembly/kerimkhan_umakhanov_obsudil_s_predstavitelyami_belarusi_voprosy_uvekovecheniya_pamyati_geroev_vov/; http://xn----8sbgbezwuatp7j dot xn--p1ai/2019/12/02/delegacija-iz-respubliki-belarus-na-mezhdunarodnom-patrioticheskom-forume/; https://www.facebook dot com/groups/dorogislavy/;

[12] https://souyz dot by/?fbclid=IwAR0KJVCAEQen996uyWLK6ES4Goz8PJUF0Mjj62rgTV5ZKAoco4c7DGgZWJc

[13] Union was likely founded in January 2020 given its first news articles are from February 2020 and its Facebook page was registered in January 2020. http://rosbelsoyuz dot su/category/general/page/5/;

[14] https://belsat dot eu/en/news/authorities-put-nexta-logo-and-its-live-channel-on-list-of-extremist-materials/

[15] https://www.interfax dot ru/world/732348; https://t dot me/pressmvd/2275




[19] https://informnapalm dot org/en/national-guard-of-russia-is-practicing-training-and-combat-operations-in-belarus/; https://rg dot ru/2020/10/07/pod-minskom-proshli-sorevnovaniia-podrazdelenij-belorusskogo-i-rossijskogo-specnaza.html; https://www.tvr dot by/news/obshchestvo/sorevnovaniya_posvyashchennye_30_letiyu_spetspodrazdeleniya_almaz/; https://www.tvr dot by/news/obshchestvo/sorevnovaniya_posvyashchennye_30_letiyu_spetspodrazdeleniya_almaz/; https://reform dot by/167661-belarusskij-i-rossijskij-specnaz-sorevnuetsja-v-strelbe

[20] https://archive dot is/9YMXU

[21] https://www.ukrinform dot ru/rubric-regions/2089441-na-donbass-perebrosili-specvojska-iz-moskovskoj-oblasti-razvedka.html; https://apostrophe dot ua/news/world/ex-ussr/2016-05-02/razvedka-uznala-o-pribyitii-na-donbass-spetsotryada-putinskoy-natsgvardii/57678; https://archive dot is/k5sw8





Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Russia’s Unprecedentedly Expansive Military Exercises in Fall 2020 Seek to Recreate Soviet-Style Multinational Army Without Alerting NATO

 October 20, 2020

By Mason Clark and George Barros

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin has conducted military exercises in fall 2020 on an unprecedented scale, much deeper than usual integration of Russian and foreign military units, and a pattern of modifying pre-announced activities significantly but presenting them as normal and unchanged. These exercises mark significant developments in the Kremlin’s campaigns to integrate the security forces of Former Soviet Union (FSU) states into Russian-dominated structures. Russian forces conducted simultaneous exercises on a scale nearly equivalent to that of two normal annual capstone exercises, suggesting that Russian forces may be able to mobilize and control more combat units and at higher echelons than had previously been assessed. The Kremlin covered new deployments to Belarus by branding them as “preplanned exercises” to create a false sense of normality. The Kremlin will likely exploit this kind of rebranding as an instrument of its hybrid warfare toolkit to cover actual combat deployments abroad. Moscow also announced that it would intensify efforts to gain United Nations recognition of the revivified multinational military it is trying to create in the FSU as a legitimate peacekeeping force. There are several concrete steps the United States and NATO should take to mitigate these new threats.

The Kremlin conducted military exercises in Fall 2020 on an unprecedented scale to advance efforts to recreate a multinational armed forces of the former Soviet states for which it seeks UN approval as a legitimate peacekeeping force. It concealed the significance of these exercises by casting them as pre-announced and pre-planned despite making major changes immediately before their execution.  

Russian forces in the Western and Southern Military Districts conducted unprecedented simultaneous exercises near the scale of two normal annual capstone readiness exercises in September. Russian Western Military District (WMD) forces exercised in both Belarus and the WMD on September 15-28 on a larger scale than they did during the last annual capstone exercise in the WMD in 2017.[1] Kavkaz-2020, this year’s iteration of Russia’s annual capstone military readiness exercises in the Southern Military District on September 21-26, should have precipitated a decrease in WMD activity but did not.[2]

These unprecedented exercises seek to subordinate FSU militaries to the Kremlin to recreate a multinational army in the former Soviet space. The Kremlin created a combined Russian-Belarusian combat battalion for the first time during the Slavic Brotherhood exercises from September 14-25.[3] The Kremlin has previously used joint exercises with Belarus—most notably Union Shield 2019—to integrate Belarusian forces into Kremlin-run structures, but has not created joint combat units dynamically during an exercise prior to September 2020.[4] A successful Kremlin effort to institutionalize joint units in Belarus or elsewhere would magnify the Kremlin’s power projection capabilities and enable the Kremlin to exert direct control over elements of FSU militaries in the event of Russian deployments. Success in this effort might give Moscow the ability to subvert parts of the units of those militaries even against the orders of their governments, although it is impossible to assess that risk with any confidence. The Kremlin used Kavkaz-2020 to increase interoperability between Russian, Belarusian, Armenian, Kremlin proxy republic, Chinese, Iranian, Pakistani, and Myanma units.[5] The Kremlin deployed personnel from both the CSTO’s secretariat and joint staff for the first time during Unbreakable Brotherhood 2020, and prioritized increasing interoperability between CSTO commanders, planning staffs, and combat subunits.[6] One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s core grand strategic objectives is to regain dominant influence over FSU states by controlling FSU security structures through joint exercises, security cooperation agreements, and Russian basing rights.[7]

The Kremlin will attempt to legitimize its multinational armed forces in the CSTO as a United Nations (UN)-approved peacekeeping force. After Unbreakable Brotherhood’s completion, the CSTO stated it plans to conduct negotiations with the UN in 2021 to hold CSTO peacekeeping operations under the auspices of the UN, in line with the Kremlin’s campaign to leverage the UN to justify its own international military deployments.[8] The Kremlin will leverage the veneer of international coalitions to legitimize its hybrid operations.[9]

The Kremlin concealed the nature and implications of these exercises by branding them as “preplanned exercises” to create a false sense of normality—an important hybrid war capability. Russian information operations downplayed the significance of the fact that Russian forces effectively conducted exercises approximating two annual capstone exercises simultaneously by refraining from establishing any overarching rubric for the collective activities in the WMD. The Kremlin misrepresented its adaptations to Slavic Brotherhood and Unbreakable Brotherhood exercises to avoid alarming NATO by claiming the exercises as a whole were pre-planned without acknowledging the significant changes made to the composition and activities of both exercises shortly before they began.[10] Russian information operations further emphasized Russian de-escalation in Belarus by staging an ostentatious but mostly symbolic withdrawal of a Russian law enforcement reserve force from the Russian-Belarusian border a day after Slavic Brotherhood began.[11]

The Kremlin will likely exploit Western inattention to further alter preannounced military exercises on short notice. The Kremlin could use this approach to cover actual combat deployments abroad if the West is unable to properly account for changes. The Kremlin’s increasing prioritization of simultaneous multinational exercises poses an additional threat of enabling Russian troops to establish an increased force presence throughout the FSU through near-continuous deployments for exercises. It may be difficult to distinguish between these frequent exercise deployments and the permanent stationing of Russian troops in new bases in former Soviet states.

Russian forces may be able to mobilize faster and in greater numbers than has been previously assessed. The Kremlin demonstrated remarkable flexibility to adapt pre-announced military exercises to meet evolving situations with its exercises in September and October. The Kremlin had announced and partially planned Slavic Brotherhood, Kavkaz-2020, and Unbreakable Brotherhood prior to September 2020. The Kremlin adapted the exercises on short notice both to react to factors outside its control—such as Azerbaijan’s and Kyrgyzstan’s withdrawal from the exercises due to crises—and to exploit the Kremlin’s increasing presence in Belarus during ongoing protests. Putin adapted to Serbia’s withdrawal from Slavic Brotherhood and the justification for increased Russian military deployments to Belarus provided by ongoing to protests to increase Slavic Brotherhood’s length and likely scope on short notice.[12] The Kremlin leveraged Kavkaz-2020 to practice joint combat operations between elements of Russia’s WMD and Belarusian units, possibly to prepare WMD units to deploy to Belarus.[13] The Kremlin likely adapted to Armenian, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh withdrawals from Unbreakable Brotherhood exercises by modifying the exercises’ format and increasing their planned size.[14]

The Kremlin demonstrated improved hybrid war capabilities in these exercises by increasing its ability to obfuscate its deployments and leverage partner militaries. The Kremlin is using military exercises to leverage other states’ resources to achieve Russian objectives. Putin included CSTO participants and International Committee of the Red Cross observers in Unbreakable Brotherhood to frame Russian deployments to Belarus as legitimate and internationally accepted, despite Russia’s intensified efforts to undermine Belarus’s sovereignty.[15] The Kremlin is exploiting innovations in information operations and exercises to gain a continuous or near-continuous Russian force deployment to Belarus under the rubric of recurring monthly exercises.[16] Russia’s push to mask deployments to Belarus as international joint efforts is consistent with the way Russian military thinkers conceive of informational cover for hybrid war.[17] These exercises greatly advance the Kremlin’s campaign in the former Soviet Union and demonstrate the Russian armed forces possess greater operational flexibility than previously assessed.

The United States and NATO should take several steps to mitigate these threats. The West should closely monitor Russian military exercises and challenge Russian assertions that its exercises are “business as usual” when they, in fact, are extraordinary. The West should call out Russian efforts to undermine FSU states’ sovereignty by subordinating FSU militaries to Russian-dominated structures. The United States should increase outreach to NATO Partnership for Peace program members and communicate the unacceptability of their participation in Russian hybrid operations that Moscow bills as multilateral peacekeeping exercises, sometimes with explicitly anti-NATO objectives. The West should also call out Russian efforts to manipulate the information space by characterizing its hybrid operations as multilateral exercises. It should pressure the UN not to recognize the CSTO as a legitimate peacekeeping force.


[2]; dot by/ru/news/106283/;




[6] https://www.interfax dot ru/world/731647; https://odkb-csto dot org/news/news_odkb/komandno-shtabnoe-uchenie-s-mirotvorcheskimi-silami-odkb-nerushimoe-bratstvo-2020-proydet-v-respubli/;;


[8] https://sputnik dot by/defense_safety/20201016/1045917923/ODKB-provedet-peregovory-s-OON-ob-uchastii-v-mirotvorcheskikh-operatsiyakh.html;


[10];; https://russian.rt dot com/ussr/news/793008-odkb-nerushimoe-bratstvo; https://iz dot ru/1074144/2020-10-15/gensek-odkb-obiasnil-smysl-provedeniia-uchenii-nerushimoe-bratstvo-2020; https://www.interfax dot ru/world/731647




[14] The number of personnel participating in Unbreakable Brotherhood increased by approximately 30 percent from the initially declared figure despite the pullout of half of the exercises’ participants.; dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12319434@egNews