Friday, September 18, 2020

Syria Warning Update: Syrian Regime Offensive on Idlib May Be Imminent

By Isabel Ivanescu with Andrew Greco

Key Takeaway: Turkey may have agreed to cede control of territory in southern Idlib to pro-Assad forces in a meeting with Russia on September 16.  If the reports of a deal are true, a pro-Assad offensive is likely imminent. Turkish-backed opposition forces and al Qaeda linked elements may fight back against advancing Russian-backed regime forces even without Turkish support. Turkey is most likely to cede the territory south of the M4 highway, a zone in which Turkey had already agreed to allow Russian patrols in March but retained forces, including artillery units, that precluded a full regime takeover. ISW warned on March 18 that this situation was unlikely untenable because al Qaeda-linked forces rejected Russian presence.[1] Turkey could face backlash from al Qaeda-linked elements, local civilians, and even Turkish-backed opposition forces for negotiating away opposition-held territory.

Tripwire: Russian state-owned news outlet RIA Novosti reported that Turkey agreed to reduce troop numbers in, and withdraw some heavy artillery from, greater Idlib Province as Turkish and Russian military delegations met in Ankara on September 16 to discuss Syria.[2] Other sources, including Turkish media and the usually-credible Asharq al-Awsat, subsequently corroborated these reports.[3] A negotiated removal of Turkish forces from areas of Idlib, if it does occur, would reflect a revision to the de-escalation agreement signed by Russia and Turkey on March 5 and would indicate a renewed pro-regime offensive is imminent.

Pattern: A series of recent events indicate Russia and Turkey have been negotiating an agreement providing for a partial Turkish withdrawal from greater Idlib.

  • Turkey withdrew hundreds of Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) special forces and infantry and Turkish-backed opposition fighters from southern Idlib towns in the Jabal Zawiya area (Abdita, Ahsam, Al-Magara, and Beliun) on September 8.[4] Turkey claimed the withdrawal was a redeployment related to Turkey’s ongoing maritime disputes with Greece, but Turkey may have used its dispute with Greece as cover for actions consistent with an impending deal with Russia in Idlib. Turkey has previously redeployed Syrian fighters from Idlib to Libya. Turkey’s redeployment of TSK forces from greater Idlib to another theater marks an inflection, however.
  • Turkey reduced the frequency of its military logistics convoys. Turkey typically sends convoys carrying supplies and rotating troops into its military positions in greater Idlib every 1-2 days, but reduced this activity to only three convoys in the past 13 days (two on September 10, one of September 18).[5] Turkey’s force reduction and decreased activity along ground lines of communication may have been a Turkish demonstration of good faith as negotiations with Russia were ongoing or an early move to implement a soon-to-be-finalized agreement to reduce Turkey’s presence in the area.
  • The Assad regime organized violent protests outside Turkish observation points in Morek, northern Hama Province; Sarman, southeastern Idlib Province; and potentially elsewhere on September 16. The regime attempted to keep its role in these protests secret by encouraging protesters to dress in civilian clothing.[6] These protests likely represent a regime effort to exert pressure on Turkish military positions and emphasize the unpopularity of the Turkish presence in regime-held areas of greater Idlib. The regime likely sought to put additional pressure on Turkey, including by levying an implied threat against Turkish forces, as Russia pursued a deal for the handover of more terrain.

Two recent Russian statements signal that a resumption of the pro-regime offensive in greater Idlib may be imminent.

  • Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov expressed confidence that Turkey and Russia would succeed in “liberating” Idlib Province from terrorists in a press conference on September 7.[7] The statement was oddly optimistic following a string of Salafi-jihadist attacks on Russian-Turkish joint patrols along the M4 highway from late July to early September.[8]
  • Russian General Alexander Greenkiewicz, who heads the Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria, claimed on September 11 that al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is planning a chemical attack on Jabal Zawiya.[9] Russia has frequently accused anti-Assad forces of planning chemical attacks without evidence and has deliberately confused the information environment in the past to obscure the Assad regime’s exclusive conduct of such attacks.[10] Russia could be preparing the information environment to justify a pro-regime offensive. In a low-probability but dangerous scenario, Russia may have issued the statement to muddy attribution knowing the Assad regime is itself planning a chemical attack on Jabal Zawiya.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, denied on September 16 that negotiations with Russia had been productive and emphasized the need for a political solution in Idlib.[11] Çavuşoğlu may be trying to temporarily conceal the details of an agreement with Russia in order to preserve Turkey’s reputation among greater Idlib’s population and avoid backlash from opposition groups.

Pro-Assad forces have brought enough reinforcements to the Idlib frontlines since the March 5 de-escalation agreement between Russia and Turkey to enable an attack.[12] Low-level frontline fighting and limited Russian and regime artillery and airstrikes have all persisted despite the de-escalation agreement.[13] The operational tempo of pro-regime attacks increased in July as pro-Assad forces intensified their shelling of frontline towns and probing attacks against opposition defenses. Russian airstrikes and regime shelling of opposition positions now an almost daily occurrence.[14] This increase in operational tempo likely represents condition setting by Russia and the Assad regime. ISW assesses that resumption of a Russian-backed regime offensive against greater Idlib is only likely if Russia receives Turkey’s permission in exchange for concessions elsewhere.[15] ISW therefore does not assess a renewed pro-regime offensive to be imminent on the basis of this increased but limited battlefield activity alone.

Assessment: Pro-regime forces will resume their campaign to retake greater Idlib in coming weeks if Turkish forces do indeed withdraw from portions of Idlib Province as part of a negotiated agreement.

The most likely location for a forthcoming pro-Assad offensive is the Sahl al-Ghab and Jabal  Zawiya areas south of the M4 highway, where pro-regime forces have focused their airstrikes, shelling, and frontline attacks.[16] If Turkey did reach a deal with Russia, it likely agreed to pull its forces back to the M4 highway security corridor, effectively ceding everything south of the M4 security corridor to the Assad regime. Turkey’s September 8 withdrawal already removed some of Turkey’s forces from this area. [17] The zone south of the M4 is Turkey’s least defensible territory in northwest Syria – regime forces are heavily concentrated along this frontline, the terrain is comparatively flat, and the frontlines have evolved such that the area is vulnerable to encirclement. Reports that Turkey intends to keep its observation posts in Sahl al-Ghab and Jabal al Zawiya are unsurprising and do not preclude the possibility of a deal to cede control.[18] Turkey has previously maintained observation posts even when pro-Assad forces have recaptured the surrounding territory and isolated them.[19] Turkish retention of observation posts south of the M4 security corridor as pro-Assad forces prepare to take the area would fit the pattern.  

The Assad regime is likely to attempt to collapse the opposition pocket south of the M4 highway in a double envelopment with a western prong tracking north from Jabal Shahshabo and an eastern prong tracking north from Ma’arat al-Numaan before linking up near Ariha. Seizing the territory in question will not be an easy fight for the Assad regime; however, with Russian backing, regime forces will likely overpower the forces of HTS and smaller opposition groups absent Turkish support.

It is unclear what concessions Turkey may have gained from Russia in exchange for the withdrawal. Russia might have promised to coerce the Assad regime into permitting a Turkish offensive into the jointly regime and Syrian Democratic Forces dominated Tel Rifaat area. A Syrian state-linked outlet claimed on September 17 that Russia refused the Turkish delegation’s request to hand over the major population centers of Tel Rifaat and Manbij during the September 16 meeting.[20] This source has incentive to lie to avoid the appearance of regime weakness. Turkey shelled areas near Tel Rifaat on September 17.[21] Russia may also have made concessions pertaining to northeast Syria, Libya, defense cooperation, or other areas in which both parties have interests.

Implications: It is not assured that the Assad regime could readily advance beyond the M4 highway, particularly if Turkey is determined to defend it. However, the regime could gain significant territory by seizing Jabal Zawiya and Sahl al-Ghab and establishing a new defensible line, which would likely render its previous gains irreversible. Turkey’s willingness to make deals may create openings for further regime gains in the subsequent months or years. Further, a regime seizure of this area could enable it to use the M4 highway to link this new control zone to Ariha to regime-held Saraqib. The regime may also be able to create a vulnerable opposition salient to the west of Jabal Shahshabo, positioning itself to take difficult terrain more easily.

A Turkish withdrawal from southern Idlib would likely trigger blowback from jihadists and the local population. HTS has increasingly aligned itself with Turkey in order to retain Turkey’s support in defending Idlib and has attempted to curtail the activities of hardline Salafi-jihadist groups who seek to expel Turkish forces. A major Turkish territorial concession could cause HTS to reverse this position. Hardline groups will likely scale up attacks on Turkish forces in either case. The population’s response to the Turkish presence in greater Idlib has been mixed. The goodwill of local supporters of the Turkish presence is premised on Turkish defense of greater Idlib against the Assad regime.

Indicators: ISW will be watching for a physical withdrawal of Turkish forces and artillery from Idlib in accordance with Russia’s claimed deal as well as for any effort to create a new, defensible Turkish frontline. Intense Russian airstrikes intended to soften opposition defenses would indicate that a ground push by pro-Assad forces could follow in the coming days or weeks. The presence of key regime commanders from elite military units such as the Russian-backed Syrian Arab Army (SAA) 25th Special Tasks Division (aka. Tiger Forces) and the SAA 4th Division along the frontlines would also indicate an imminent regime offensive. The lack of an actual withdrawal of Turkish forces from southern Idlib or outright Turkish and Russian repudiation of the reports of an agreement would indicate that negotiations failed.





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[10] DNGTS: ; DNGTS:

[11] DNGTS: ;

[12] DNGTS:

[13] DNGTS: ; ;

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[18] DNGTS: ; DNGTS:






Syria Situation Report: September 2-15, 2020

 By Andrew Greco and Will Christou (Syria Direct)

Key Takeaway: ISIS is continuing to reconstitute in Syria amidst increased unrest and popular opposition to local security forces. Suspected ISIS gunmen demonstrated the group’s increased capabilities by carrying out a campaign of assassinations targeting pro-regime operatives in Daraa Province. ISIS will likely continue to rapidly reconstitute in southern Syria if fighting between pro-regime forces and armed local populations persists. Separately, ISIS is expanding its influence in eastern Syria following increased pressure on the Syrian Democratic Forces from local Arab tribes and pro-regime actors. ISIS will seek to foment additional unrest in order to further increase its freedom of action in southern and central Syria. 

Click here to download the PDF. Click the image below to expand it.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Belarus Warning Update: Russian Force Deployment to Belarus is Likely Imminent

 September 17, 2020 7:15 pm EDT

By George Barros

The Kremlin will likely deploy Russian conventional military forces into Belarus on a long-term basis under the pretext of expanding bilateral exercises.  Multiple indicators ISW had identified as presaging the stationing of Russian troops in Belarus have now tripped, including the presence of Russian troops during extended exercises and specific changes in Belarusian rhetoric.

Russian President Vladimir Putin let it be known that he had discussed Belarus at a meeting of his national security council on September 17.[1]  Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko spoke some hours later using bellicose and pro-Russian rhetoric dramatically different from the tone of his speech on September 14.  He announced the currently underway Russian-Belarusian Slavic Brotherhood exercises will have a “second stage” in Belarus but provided no additional details.[2]  Putin likely took a decision or issued some directive relevant to Lukashenko’s speech at his national security council meeting.

Lukashenko said unspecified Polish and Lithuanian provocations could transform Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus “into a theater of military operations,” and called on Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine to prevent a “hot war.”[3] Lukashenko has accused Poland and Lithuania of foreign interference and subversion but has never so directly accused them of actively agitating for war. ISW assessed Lukashenko’s usage of intensified rhetoric about a NATO threat would indicate a Russian intervention in Belarus is likely.[4]

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko revealed he and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to “rebuild the Union State’s common defense” without providing specifics on September 17.[5] Putin likely coerced Lukashenko to accept Russian anti-access/area denial weapon system deployments to Belarus during their meeting in Sochi on September 14.[6]

The Kremlin may expand its existing expeditionary force presence in Belarus. Russia and Belarus began previously-scheduled joint military exercises on September 14.[7] Putin announced on September 13th that the exercises, which were originally scheduled for September 10-15, would be rescheduled for September 14 and extended until September 25.[8]The exercises did not begin on time likely because Serbia cancelled its participation on September 9.[9] Approximately 300 Russian troops from Russia’s 76th Guards Air Assault Division arrived in Brest, Belarus, on September 14th.[10]    The Kremlin will likely use this and future exercises to deploy more forces into Belarus and keep them there on a continuous or nearly-continuous basis. 

Lukashenko likely changed his framing of the situation in Belarus to set conditions for a Russian force deployment to Belarus. Lukashenko said Belarus is on the “precipice of a terrible catastrophe” and that the “acute situation” in Belarus necessitates the second stage of joint Russian exercises – a marked change in Lukashenko’s framing of the situation. Lukashenko previously framed the current level of protests as acceptable, saying protesters had not crossed a “red line” and that most Belarusians “live an ordinary life” on September 14.[11] There have been no significant NATO movements or protest escalations in Belarus since September 14 that would account for the change in Lukashenko’s rhetoric. It is more likely correlated with a decision taken in Moscow or made jointly between Lukashenko and Putin.

Lukashenko closed Belarus’ borders with Poland and Lithuania and strengthened positions on the Ukrainian border.[12] Belarus never closed any of its borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lukashenko is likely closing them now in response to intensified Polish and Lithuanian efforts to encourage Belarusian citizens to flee Belarus.[13]

Lukashenko denied the need for international recognition of his election results for the first time.[14] The European Parliament passed a resolution rejecting Belarus’ August 9 presidential elections results on September 17.[15] Lukashenko has repeatedly defended the elections but has never denied the need for international recognition. Lukashenko’s increased political ostracization from Europe and the threat of European Union sanctions will likely increase the Kremlin’s leverage over Lukashenko.

ISW will continue monitoring the situation and providing updates.


[1] http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/64043

[2]  https://interfax(.)by/news/policy/vneshnyaya_politika/1283529/

[3] https://www.belta(.)by/president/view/lukashenko-rasskazal-chto-situatsija-vynudila-vmeste-s-rossiej-otstroit-obschuju-zaschitu-sojuznogo-407231-2020/; https://sputnik(.)by/politics/20200917/1045705525/Lukashenko-klyanus-nikakogo-vranya-na-vyborakh-ne-bylo.html; https://grodnonews(.)by/news/glavnoe/aleksandr_lukashenko_priekhal_na_zhenskiy_forum_v_minsk_arene.html; https://news.tut(.)by/economics/700890.html; https://officelife(.)media/news/20394-lukashenko-my-zakryvaem-granitsy-s-zapadom/;


[5] https://www.belta(.)by/president/view/lukashenko-rasskazal-chto-situatsija-vynudila-vmeste-s-rossiej-otstroit-obschuju-zaschitu-sojuznogo-407231-2020/





[10]; https://www.ukrinform(.)ru/rubric-world/3101658-ucenia-pod-brestom-voennye-belarusi-i-rf-proveli-artillerijskie-strelby.html


[12] https://www.belta(.)by/president/view/lukashenko-rasskazal-chto-situatsija-vynudila-vmeste-s-rossiej-otstroit-obschuju-zaschitu-sojuznogo-407231-2020/; https://sputnik(.)by/politics/20200917/1045705525/Lukashenko-klyanus-nikakogo-vranya-na-vyborakh-ne-bylo.html; https://grodnonews(.)by/news/glavnoe/aleksandr_lukashenko_priekhal_na_zhenskiy_forum_v_minsk_arene.html; https://news.tut(.)by/economics/700890.html; https://officelife(.)media/news/20394-lukashenko-my-zakryvaem-granitsy-s-zapadom/;

[13]; https://www.thefirstnews(.)com/article/new-polish-visa-procedures-allow-easier-entry-for-belarusians-15799; https://www.barrons(.)com/news/lithuania-further-eases-visa-rules-for-belarusians-01600272605?tesla=y

[14] https://www.belta(.)by/president/view/lukashenko-rasskazal-chto-situatsija-vynudila-vmeste-s-rossiej-otstroit-obschuju-zaschitu-sojuznogo-407231-2020/; https://sputnik(.)by/politics/20200917/1045705525/Lukashenko-klyanus-nikakogo-vranya-na-vyborakh-ne-bylo.html; https://grodnonews(.)by/news/glavnoe/aleksandr_lukashenko_priekhal_na_zhenskiy_forum_v_minsk_arene.html; https://news.tut(.)by/economics/700890.html; https://officelife(.)media/news/20394-lukashenko-my-zakryvaem-granitsy-s-zapadom/;



Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Belarus Warning Update: Lukashenko and the Kremlin Vie for Control over Future Russian Weapons in Belarus

 September 16, 2020, 5:45 pm EDT

By George Barros and Mason Clark

The Kremlin qualified Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s claim he requested Russian weapons from Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 16. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met with Lukashenko in Minsk on September 16, likely to implement military cooperation concessions Lukashenko made to Putin during their September 14 meeting in Sochi.[1] Lukashenko said he asked Putin for weapons to "strengthen the Union State plan" on September 16.[2] Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov qualified Lukashenko’s statement in a response to a reporter, saying Lukashenko did not ask Putin for a “weapons delivery” “in the way you [the reporter] phrased.”[3] The Kremlin rarely qualifies its denials of claims by other actors based on the language used by individual reporters. Peskov’s attention to avoiding a full denial but disputing the reporters’ question if Lukashenko requested a “weapons delivery” indicates the Kremlin is attempting to shift Lukashenko’s framing.

Lukashenko likely phrased his request for Russian weapons to suggest Belarusian forces would control Russian weapons systems sent to Belarus as a result of the agreements. Peskov likely qualified the reporters’ phrasing of Lukashenko’s statement to avoid committing the Kremlin to giving the Belarusian military new equipment – instead setting conditions for the Kremlin to retain control over weapon systems deployed to Belarus.

The Kremlin likely seeks to control anti-access/area denial weapon systems in Belarus.[4] The Belarusian Defense Ministry reportedly signed a contract for cooperation on air defense systems with the holding company for the manufacturers of the Russian S-300, S-400, and S-500 air-defense systems in August 2020.[5] Lukashenko previously rejected S-400 systems in Belarus in February 2020.[6] The Kremlin likely seeks to integrate Belarus’ currently independent air defense systems into Russia’s own national air defense system, which would give Moscow control over their employment.[7] Such integration would enhance Russian capabilities to contest NATO airspace and degrade NATO’s ability to defend the Baltics.

Lukashenko markedly changed his framing of military cooperation with Russia following his September 14 meeting with Putin. Lukashenko said Russia and Belarus must "more bravely defend” their joint interests on September 16.[8] Lukashenko has repeatedly declined the Kremlin’s multiple requests to expand strategic Russian airbases in Belarus since at least 2015.[9] Lukashenko said he would never agree to concessions that undermine Belarus’ independence in December 2019 – before the protests pushed him into crisis.[10] The Kremlin will likely continue leveraging Lukashenko’s vulnerability to the protest movement to further formalize Kremlin control over Belarus in the Union State.

Moscow will likely sustain its increased military presence and accelerate military cooperation in Belarus over the next several months. Lukashenko announced the next monthly Belarusian-Russian military exercise will occur in October 2020.[11] The elements of Russia’s 76th Guards Air Assault Division currently in Belarus for Slavic Brotherhood 2020 exercises should in principle return to their home station when the exercise ends on September 25.[12]  They could, however, remain if exercises are scheduled early in October, or other forces could replace them.   Lukashenko said Moscow and Minsk must intensify their military cooperation by the end of 2020.[13] He appears to have conceded a nearly-continuous Russian military presence in Belarus under the guise of frequent exercises.

ISW will continue monitoring the situation and providing updates.



[2] https://sputnik(.)by/defense_safety/20200916/1045696519/Peskov-Lukashenko-na-vstreche-s-Putinym-ne-prosil-o-postavkakh-vooruzheniya.html; https://tass(.)ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/9473667; https://www.belta(.)by/president/view/svoi-interesy-my-dolzhny-bljusti-lukashenko-predlozhil-rossii-podumat-nad-novymi-voennymi-uchenijami-407000-2020/; https://www.gazeta(.)ru/army/news/2020/09/16/14949241.shtml?updated;

[3] Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded to a press question on whether Lukashenko asked for Russian weapons, saying, “In the wording you said, no.” https://tass(.)ru/politika/9475065

[4] The Belarusian Defense Ministry reportedly signed a deal with the Kremlin-owned Almaz-Antey defense company on August 24 at the Army 2020 annual international military-technical forum in Moscow. The Belarusian defense minister reportedly signed a contract for cooperation on air defense systems until 2025. Almaz-Antey is the holding company for the manufacturers of the S-300, S-400, and S-500 Russian air-defense systems.


[6] https://avia(.)pro/news/belorussiya-otkazalas-ot-pokupki-rossiyskih-s-400-zayaviv-ob-ih-bespoleznosti; https://bulgarianmilitary(.)com/2020/02/27/belarus-refused-to-buy-russian-s-400-missile-systems-because-they-are-useless/

[7] https://www.defenseworld(.)net/news/15992/Belarus_Receives_Fourth_Battalion_Of_S_300_PS_Air_Defense_Systems#.X2JRdmhKjcs

[8] https://tass(.)ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/9473667; https://www.belta(.)by/president/view/svoi-interesy-my-dolzhny-bljusti-lukashenko-predlozhil-rossii-podumat-nad-novymi-voennymi-uchenijami-407000-2020/; https://www.gazeta(.)ru/army/news/2020/09/16/14949241.shtml?updated;

[9] https://www.rbc(.)ru/politics/06/10/2015/5613ebe59a794769839c9e3f; https://www.vesti(.)ru/article/1501418; https://www.gazeta(.)ru/army/2019/11/14/12811502.shtml

[10] https://gordonua(.)com/news/worldnews/belarus-ne-sobiraetsya-vhodit-v-sostav-rossii-lukashenko-1478138.html;;

[11] https://russian.rt(.)com/ussr/news/783962-lukashenko-rossiya-shoigu

[12] https://www.interfax(.)ru/world/726986; https://meduza(.)io/news/2020/09/15/pskovskie-desantniki-pribyli-v-belorussiyu-dlya-uchastiya-v-ucheniyah-slavyanskoe-bratstvo

[13] https://russian.rt(.)com/ussr/news/783962-lukashenko-rossiya-shoigu; https://www.belta(.)by/president/view/svoi-interesy-my-dolzhny-bljusti-lukashenko-predlozhil-rossii-podumat-nad-novymi-voennymi-uchenijami-407000-2020



Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Belarus Warning Update: Putin Sends Airborne Troops to Belarus Exercise—and a Message to Lukashenko

September 15, 2020, 5:00 pm EDT

By George Barros

Moscow has modified the prescheduled Slavic Brotherhood military exercises in Belarus to demonstrate its ability to deploy forces to Belarus on short notice. Elements of Russia’s 76th Guards Air Assault Division arrived in Belarus for the Slavic Brotherhood 2020 exercises on September 15.[1] Russia has not deployed significant conventional forces to Belarus since the start of protests on August 9.[2] The number of Russian troops in the exercises is unclear.[3]

The Kremlin likely increased the duration of the preplanned Russian deployment to Belarus on short notice. The exercises were scheduled to run September 10-15 and include Serbian forces.[4] The Kremlin expanded the exercises to September 14-25 on September 13, four days after Serbia canceled its participation.[5] Moscow announced the participation of the 76th Airborne Division at that time, fewer than 48 hours before its arrival in Belarus (although the division could have been alerted to prepare for deployment earlier than that). The Kremlin says the division elements will return to Russia after the Slavic Brotherhood exercises end.[6]

The 76th Guards Air Assault Division is an experienced expeditionary force based in Pskov near the Estonian and Latvian borders. Elements of the division participated in Kremlin operations in both Chechen wars, Kosovo, Georgia, and the annexation of Crimea.[7] This unit has additionally previously operated in Belarus; elements conducted exercises in Brest in April 2018.[8] The Kremlin likely conducted the short-notice deployment to remind Lukashenko that Russia can deploy forces into Belarus rapidly if Lukashenko does not follow through on the concessions he likely made during talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on September 14.[9]

The Kremlin’s overt information operations have emphasized de-escalation, however. Russia staged an ostentatious withdrawal of the previously announced Russian law enforcement officer reserve from the Russian-Belarusian border on September 15.[10] Putin confirmed the existence of this reserve and that it was prepared to deploy to Belarus if the situation “gets out of control” on August 27.[11] The demobilization of this reserve is largely symbolic, as it was mobilized quickly and could thus likely be rapidly reconstituted.

The Kremlin denies it pressured Lukashenko during his meeting with Putin on September 14. The Kremlin denied that Lukashenko and Putin discussed military basing rights in Belarus and claimed Russia’s $1.5 billion loan to Belarus had no political conditions.[12] Neither assertion is particularly credible. The loan helped cover a potential crisis in Belarusian reserves that will likely re-emerge. Even if Putin demanded no specific quid pro quo on this occasion, he will likely have the opportunity to do so in the near future. The Kremlin has made multiple unsuccessful attempts to open a strategic airbase in Belarus since 2015 and likely has not dropped its demands.[13]

ISW will continue monitoring the situation and providing updates.


[1] https://eng.belta(.)by/society/view/russian-paratroopers-arrive-in-brest-oblast-to-participate-in-army-exercise-133465-2020/; https://iz(.)ru/1060848/2020-09-15/rossiiskie-desantniki-pribyli-v-belorussiiu-na-sovmestnye-ucheniia

[2] The Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed Russian airborne infantry (VDV) personnel conducted army games exercises in Brest Belarus, on August 27. These army games exercises were insignificant, however.

[3] The Kremlin stated approximately 1,500 Russian and Belarusian forces will participate in the exercises. https://meduza(.)io/news/2020/09/15/pskovskie-desantniki-pribyli-v-belorussiyu-dlya-uchastiya-v-ucheniyah-slavyanskoe-bratstvo

[4] https://tass(.)com/defense/1198433; https://eng.belta(.)by/society/view/slavic-brotherhood-2020-exercise-to-be-held-at-brestsky-training-range-in-belarus-133255-2020/

[5] https://tass(.)com/defense/1200237; https://tass(.)ru/armiya-i-opk/9440765;

[6] https://www.interfax(.)ru/world/726986; https://meduza(.)io/news/2020/09/15/pskovskie-desantniki-pribyli-v-belorussiyu-dlya-uchastiya-v-ucheniyah-slavyanskoe-bratstvo

[7]; https://informpskov(.)ru/news/164536.html; https://charter97(.)org/ru/news/2018/4/6/285494/

[8] https://charter97(.)org/ru/news/2018/4/6/285494/


[10] Kremlin-run media depicted unliveried Russian law enforcement personnel in unmarked trucks returning to their garrisons from an unspecified location on the Russian-Belarusian border on September 15. https://www.kommersant(.)ru/doc/4492669; https://www.vesti(.)ru/article/2458296; https://t(.)me/sputnikby/6140


[12] https://sputnik(.)by/politics/20200915/1045686146/Peskov-rasskazal-o-peregovorakh-Putina-i-Lukashenko.html; https://www.interfax(.)ru/world/726986; https://meduza(.)io/news/2020/09/15/pskovskie-desantniki-pribyli-v-belorussiyu-dlya-uchastiya-v-ucheniyah-slavyanskoe-bratstvo

[13]; https://www.rbc(.)ru/politics/06/10/2015/5613ebe59a794769839c9e3f; https://www.vesti(.)ru/article/1501418; https://www.gazeta(.)ru/army/2019/11/14/12811502.shtml



Monday, September 14, 2020

Belarus Warning Update: Lukashenko Softens His Opposition to Protests, Seeking Leverage against Increased Russian Pressure

September 14, 2020, 6:00 pm EDT

By Mason Clark 

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, on September 14. Putin and Lukashenko made initial public remarks before meeting privately for nearly four hours.[1] Lukashenko has not traveled outside Belarus or met Putin in person since the August 9 election but has held several calls with Putin and hosted Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin in Minsk on September 3.[2]

Lukashenko sharply changed his framing to tacitly accept continued weekly protests but retained the threat of violence against protesters in response to an unspecified “red line.” Lukashenko markedly changed his framing of ongoing protests to downplay their threat in his public remarks. Lukashenko stated that Belarusians “live an ordinary life” on weekdays and claimed that on Saturday and Sunday “we release a part of Minsk so that people can, if they wish, walk through this part.”[3]

Lukashenko’s statement is a marked change from previous statements by the Belarusian government, which continues to decry the protests as illegal. Lukashenko’s statement additionally misrepresents Belarusian security forces continued beating and detention of protesters, as well as continued protests outside Minsk. Lukashenko claimed that reports of the protests as being more widespread are misrepresentations, telling Putin “you know as well as I” how “information confrontations and wars” distort protests.[4] Lukashenko further downplayed the protests by stating they have not yet crossed the “red line,” which he compared to Putin’s “red line” in Chechnya. Lukashenko is likely opening the door to continuing protests while threatening demonstrators with brutal oppression if they go too far. Ordering Russian military operations against Chechen insurgents in the Second Chechen War, which killed tens of thousands of civilians, was among Putin‘s very first acts as president.

Lukashenko likely seeks to steadily erode the scale of protests without a violent crackdown that could invite an immediate Kremlin intervention. Lukashenko began distancing his rhetoric on the protests from the Kremlin’s portrayal of the protests as a Western hybrid campaign in the week prior to his meeting with Putin.[5] ISW previously assessed Lukashenko seeks to find a method to end protests without either making concessions to protesters or using lethal force, which would likely trigger a more direct Kremlin intervention to control the situation.[6] Lukashenko is likely downplaying the scale of protests to minimize the threat of the opposition and – in a reversal of earlier claims of an impending NATO invasion to justify military deployments – seeks to justify a lack of a large-scale crackdown to the Kremlin.

Lukashenko likely assesses prior Kremlin support and his security forces’ efforts have managed the protests enough to secure his position, even if weekend protests continue. The Sunday protests continue to regularly exceed 100,000 participants, but other opposition efforts have largely failed: regular weekday protests have ceased since the first two weeks of protests; nationwide strikes ended in late August; telegram channel NEXTA’s efforts to spur protesters to create alternative state structures failed; and Lukashenko has successfully imprisoned or exiled every major opposition leader previously active on the ground in Belarus.[7] Lukashenko will likely refrain from large-scale crackdowns while continuing targeted detentions to steadily erode protester will. If Lukashenko is willing to allow protests to continue for months, he may hope that the arrival of winter will finally end them. His new rhetoric leaves open that possibility.

Putin successfully secured increased leverage over the Belarusian economy and security space. The Kremlin granted Belarus a $1.5 billion state loan to maintain Belarus’ economic stability and cement Belarusian economic reliance on the Kremlin.[8] Belarusians withdrew approximately $1 billion from bank accounts in August 2020 – 17 times as much as in the previous month.[9] The financial strain of the August protests exacerbated the Belarusian economy’s dependence on Russian subsidies.[10] The Kremlin likely seeks to economically stabilize Belarus in the short term to maintain Lukashenko’s control over Belarusian security services, and will likely leverage this economic pressure and the dependence of a large state loan to coerce Lukashenko into adopting more Kremlin-preferable polices. 

Putin additionally secured an increased level of Belarusian military cooperation with Russia. The Kremlin doubled the length of the Slavic Brotherhood 2020 military exercises in Belarus – which began in Brest, Belarus, near the Polish border – from September 14 to September 25.[11] The exercises were originally planned to run from September 10-15 and included Serbian forces.[12] Serbian forces withdrew from the exercises a day before they were scheduled to begin on September 9 due to European Union pressure.[13] In addition to this immediate exercise extension, Putin and Lukashenko agreed to hold “almost monthly” joint military exercises in both Belarus and Russia in 2021.[14] Putin said Russian forces will return to their permanent home garrisons after these monthly exercises.[15] The Kremlin will likely exploit regular exercises to increase its military presence in Belarus with the eventual aim of permanent basing, as well as maintain its framing of the necessity of Russian military deployments to counter NATO despite Lukashenko’s increasing minimization of the NATO threat.

Putin likely secured a further roadmap of Belarusian integration. The Kremlin likely secured further, currently confidential concessions from Lukashenko during the September 14 meeting. Lukashenko made several conciliatory statements to increased integration with Russia, including stating Belarus must remain close to its “older brother” Russia and praising the Kremlin for demonstrating “the border of Belarus are the borders of the Union State” and thanking Putin.[16] Lukashenko stated the Kremlin and Minsk “postponed” several agreements until the meeting between himself and Putin.[17] Neither the Kremlin or Lukashenko has released a statement following the meeting as of this writing.

Putin directly threatened Lukashenko with the prospect of constitutional changes and continued Russian relations with Belarus “regardless of who is in power.” Putin called for “timely and expedient” work to “update” the Belarusian constitution and stated Russia will participate in the process “at the highest level,” a typical Russian diplomatic term for Minister-level consultations.[18] Putin further stated Russia considers Belarus its closest ally and will fulfill its treaty obligations “regardless of who is in power” – directly threatening Lukashenko with the possibility of the Kremlin supporting his eventual removal from power.[19] The Kremlin likely retains Lukashenko as its current preferred partner in Belarus but will likely seek to cement its dominance and potentially remove Lukashenko over time through involvement in constitutional changes. Lukashenko is unlikely to fully prevent the Kremlin’s absorption of Belarus but will seek to slow the Kremlin’s efforts.  


[1] https://tass((.))ru/politika/9456187; https://tass((.))ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/9455045.


[3] http://kremlin((.))ru/events/president/news/64031; https://www.belta((.))by/president/view/lukashenko-o-protestah-v-minske-poka-krasnye-linii-nikto-ne-narushal-406697-2020/?utm_source=belta&utm_medium=news&utm_campaign=accent.

[4] http://kremlin((.))ru/events/president/news/64031.




[8] https://www.kommersant((.))ru/doc/4492168.

[9] https://www.vedomosti((.))ru/finance/articles/2020/09/14/839796-ottok-sredstv-iz-bankov-belorussii-dostig-1-mlrd-na-fone-protestov.


[11] https://tass((.))ru/armiya-i-opk/9440765

[12] https://tass((.))com/defense/1198433; https://eng.belta((.))by/society/view/slavic-brotherhood-2020-exercise-to-be-held-at-brestsky-training-range-in-belarus-133255-2020/.


[14] https://www.interfax((.))ru/russia/726882; https://www.belta((.))by/president/view/lukashenko-putinu-my-ni-u-kogo-ne-dolzhny-sprashivat-provodit-ili-ne-provodit-u-nas-voennye-uchenija-406688-2020/.

[15] https://www.interfax((.))ru/russia/726882

[16] http://kremlin((.))ru/events/president/news/64031.

[17] https://www.belta((.))by/president/view/nado-tesnee-derzhatsja-s-nashim-starshim-bratom-lukashenko-o-sotrudnichestve-s-rossiej-406703-2020/.

[18] http://kremlin((.))ru/events/president/news/64031.