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Thursday, July 2, 2020

Russia in Review: Putin Deploys New Authoritarian Controls during the COVID-19 Pandemic


Author: George Barros

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is using the COVID-19 pandemic to test an expanded societal control toolkit. The Kremlin has empowered Russian security services, deployed Russia’s national guard nationally, empowered the Ministry of Defense as a domestic actor for the first time, implemented mass digital surveillance, and further tightened control over Russia’s information space. The Kremlin seeks to expand its ability to control the Russian population in the long-term, as Russian President Vladimir Putin increasingly relies on authoritarian measures to preserve his regime, and suppress potential unrest in the aftermath of the national voting on Russia’s constitutional amendments on July 1. Digital surveillance technology, such as facial recognition, geolocation on smart devices, and comprehensive digital databases for all Russian citizens, will enable the Kremlin to circumvent the cost requirements associated with constructing and staffing a massive control infrastructure. These technologies will further erode privacy in Russia and grant the Kremlin new capabilities to discretely identify and neutralize its opponents with minimal public confrontation. Putin will increasingly rely on societal control tools and digitally targeted repression to stifle critics and preserve his regime.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented the Kremlin with opportunities to test existing societal control tools and implement new ones. Putin has steadily expanded his societal control tools since 2000, but the pandemic provided opportunities to refine them further under the pretext of quarantine enforcement. Putin will likely use these tools to suppress critics of the Kremlin’s July 1 national voting. The Kremlin intends for the vote to provide popular legitimacy to the constitutional amendments Putin introduced in January 2020.[1] The amendments, among other things, reset Putin’s terms as president, enabling him to run for president until 2036.[2]






The Kremlin is empowering Russian security services and the military through expanded funding and powers.

The Kremlin took several measures to increase the loyalty and power of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) and police. Rosgvardia began its first country-wide enforcement of Russia’s quarantine in various cities on March 30.[3] Russia’s parliament passed a law increasing social benefits for Russian security services and establishing mandatory polygraph tests for Rosgvardia members on March 11.[4] These changes are likely intended to increase Rosgvardia’s loyalty and status as an internal security force. The Kremlin increased bonuses for Rosgvardia and police for who work protest control in Moscow and Saint Petersburg – Russia’s two most populous cities – on January 24.[5] The Kremlin likely used these bonuses to prepare for protests against Putin’s constitutional amendments, not COVID-19 efforts, because the Kremlin issued the bonuses in January before the pandemic struck Russia in March.[6] Rosgvardia also spent COVID-related emergency funding on military equipment postured against Ukraine, not COVID-19 relief.[7]

The Kremlin empowered the Ministry of Defense (MoD) and broadened its scope of work as a domestic relief actor for the first time. The Kremlin expanded the MoD’s responsibilities by ordering the ministry to execute a military-style pandemic-relief operation domestically. The Kremlin had not used the MoD for domestic humanitarian relief prior to the COVID-19 pandemic because Russia’s regional leaders, various federal agencies, and domestic ministries – such as the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and Ministry of Emergency Situations – historically handled disaster relief inside Russia.

The MoD began its domestic campaign by creating an operational-level headquarters with jurisdiction across all of Russia’s existing military districts to respond to the virus on March 12.[8] The Kremlin supplied this new headquarters with 2.29 billion rubles in additional funding on April 13.[9] The MoD announced the mobilization of 30,000 personnel in 17 newly formed military medical units comprised of reassigned military medical personnel to combat COVID-19 domestically on April 24.[10] The MoD additionally completed construction of 16 new COVID-19 treatment centers across Russia and announced plans to build eight more on May 15.[11] The MoD’s new operational structures could provide a basis for the MoD to engage in societal control activities in the future, although there is no evidence that the Kremlin plans to use them in such a fashion at this time. The Kremlin’s retention or consolidation of these structures even after the pandemic eases would indicate that the Kremlin was using the COVID-19 crisis to set conditions for the MoD to assist with societal control.

The Kremlin imposed greater limitations on public protests in part to mitigate protests against the July 1 vote on constitutional amendments. Russian internal security officials characterized the July 1 national voting as a success with minimal disruptions. The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) claimed it registered 839 voting  violation reports, such as voting fraud or voting restriction, but zero “serious” violations during the voting thanks to the efforts of more than 185,000 MVD personnel.[12] Russia’s Central Elections Commission thanked the MVD for ensuring “complete safety” at polling places on July 1.[13] Rosgvardia deployed crowd control personnel and prisoner transport vehicles in response to several hundred protesters in Pushkin Square in Moscow on July 1 but did not arrest protesters at that demonstration.[14] Russian authorities arrested at least 25 protesters across Russia on July 1.[15]

The relative paucity of protests, the small size of those reported, and the relatively few arrests reported may reflect the successful deterrent effect of pre-vote laws and regulations.  Putin enacted amendments to Russia’s Criminal Code on April 1 to establish criminal liability, including imprisonment for up to four years, for violating voting laws during the July 1 voting.[16] Article 141 of Russia’s Criminal Code criminalizes the obstruction of the exercise of voting rights. Russian authorities could invoke this provision to justify the prosecution of any protester against the July 1 vote by claiming protest activity physically obstructed Russians’ ability to participate in voting. [17] The State Duma’s website also published a bill that is likely to pass expanding Russian police's search and seizure powers and shielding police from criminal liability on May 13.[18]

Russia’s Constitutional Court strengthened Russia’s restrictions on public demonstrations by banning protests that occur outside specially designated areas called “Hyde parks” on June 4.[19] The court’s ruling effectively bans protests by relegating small demonstrations to unsafe locations on a city’s periphery, such as deserted parks and industrial zones.[20] No more than 100 people may gather for demonstrations in Hyde parks without government approval.[21]


The Kremlin is expanding its digital surveillance capabilities and is using Moscow as a testing ground. Moscow city authorities deployed facial recognition software and announced the use of QR codes for quarantine control on February 21 and April 1, respectively.[22] Healthy individuals in Moscow could leave home only if they obtained and scanned QR codes notifying authorities of their movement and COVID-19 outpatients had to use smartphones to regularly send geolocated pictures of themselves to demonstrate compliance with stay-at-home orders.[23] The Kremlin adopted the QR code enforcement technology across Russia after implementing the system in Moscow. At least 21 of Russia’s 85 federal administrative territories had announced plans to use the QR code system as of April 22.[24] Rosgvardia arrested a man in Moscow who evaded law enforcement for over two months after violating quarantine in Orenburg – a city in central Russia near the Russia-Kazakhstan border. [25] The arrest demonstrates that the Kremlin’s combined societal control tools are capable of tracking and apprehending individuals even if they relocate across the country. The Kremlin’s combined control tools registered approximately 400,000 quarantine violations throughout Russia between April and June.[26]

The Kremlin is making a country-wide push to expand digital control tools. The Kremlin used the COVID-19 pandemic to test its first country-wide deployment of QR codes for societal control. The pandemic response marked the first time Moscow city authorities used facial recognition in conjunction with mass national guard deployments and stay-at-home orders. Putin enacted a law on May 23 allowing remote voting via mail and the internet in presidential and parliamentary elections, potentially enabling the Kremlin to monitor individual’s voting records and better conceal evidence of the Kremlin’s manipulation of domestic election data.[27] Putin also enacted a law creating a unified register of information for Russian citizens on June 8.[28] This database will store approximately 30 types of information, including passport data, marital status, taxpayer identification codes, family relations, and “other information.”[29] Russian newspaper Vedomosti reported the Russian Department of Education decided to equip all 43,000 Russian schools with a facial recognition surveillance system reportedly named “Orwell” on June 15.[30] The Orwell system, if implemented, will collect close to 100 percent of the faces of Russia’s youth aged 6 through 18, thus enabling the Kremlin to have a facial recognition database of almost all Russian citizens within two generations.

The Kremlin is tightening control over Russia’s information space to control narratives inside Russia and shape narratives the West sees about Russia. The Kremlin’s steps to grow its influence over the information space in the first half of 2020 included blocking websites contradicting Kremlin narratives, creating a working group on combatting “fake news” on COVID-19 in Russia, harassing Western journalists in Russia, and investigating “fake news” and “foreign interference” targeting the national vote on July 1.[31] The Kremlin likely seeks to suppress criticism of its poor domestic response to the pandemic and Putin’s constitutional amendments. The Kremlin is likely preparing to frame any domestic resistance to Putin’s power grab as part of a Western subversion campaign.

Forecast: The Kremlin’s societal control tools will be long-lasting despite being introduced as part of Russia’s COVID-19 response. Putin seeks to revive Soviet-style internal policing and societal control to suppress his opponents. Putin’s police state will have greater surveillance capabilities than the Soviet system by marrying big data and 21st century information with the Kremlin’s existing authoritarian governance. Putin will implement digital surveillance technology for societal control on a wide scale and increasingly rely on draconian tactics, such as digital surveillance, facial recognition, and stricter and more discriminate policing against reformers and regime critics, to preserve his regime. Putin’s digital surveillance state will diminish the political freedoms Russians gained immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union. Overt political dissidence in Russia will likely become increasingly dangerous as surveillance capabilities and Kremlin-backed assassinations and arrests against domestic opponents increase. The Kremlin’s decision to embrace technologically enabled political repression will further isolate Russian political culture from that of democratic states and will stifle the development of sustainable political institutions in Russia, even in the post-Putin era.   



[1] [“Police and Russian National Guard Deploy Forces to Pushkin Square,”] Echo of Moscow, July 1, 2020, https://echo.msk(.)ru/news/2669383-echo.html; [“More Than 185 Thousand Employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Ensure Security at Polling Stations,”] Russian Agency of Legal and Court Information, July 1, 2020, http://www.rapsinews(.)ru/news/20200701/305987818.html.
[2] Andrew Higgins, “Russia’s Highest Court Opens Way for Putin to Rule until 2036,” The New York Times, March 16, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/16/world/europe/russia-putin-president-for-life.html
[3] Kristina Zhukovа, [“Russia Enforces Total Quarantine,”] Forbes, March 31, https://www.forbes(.)ru/tehnologii/396469-rossiya-vvodit-totalnyy-karantin-princ-charlz-vyzdorovel-evrope-skoro-stanet ; Anastasia Kornya, Elena Muhametshina, Bela Lyauv, Svetlana Bocharova, Aleksei Nicholski, [“Sobyanin’s Decree on Complete Self-Isolation Aroused Serious Doubts among Lawyers,”] Vedomosti, March 30, https://www.vedomosti(.)ru/politics/articles/2020/03/30/826618-ukaz-sobyanina ; [“Police and National Guard will Control Novosibirsk COVID Quarantine,”] Novosibirsk News, March 31, 2020, https://www.nsktv(.)ru/news/obshchestvo/politsiya_i_rosgvardiya_budut_nakazyvat_narushiteley_novosibirskogo_covid_karantina_310320201705/ ; [““Order Will be Developed in the next Day or Two”: Self-Isolation in Tatarstan,”] Business Online, March 30,  https://www.business-gazeta(.)ru/article/463236 ; Sergei Kiselyov, “Moscow Orders Citywide Quarantine Starting on March 30,” The Moscow Times, March 30, 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes(.)com/2020/03/29/moscow-orders-citywide-quarantine-starting-march-30-a69789 ; [“Krasnodar Territory was the first in the South of Russia to Introduce Quarantine”], Интерфакс, March 31, 2020, https://tourism.interfax(.)ru/ru/news/articles/68478/ ; [“Self-Isolation Regime Introduced in Stavropol Territory,”] Caucuses Realities, March 31 2020,  https://www.kavkazr(.)com/a/30520088.html ; [“Hospitals and Shopping Centers: How they will work in Tomsk on the first weekday of vacation,”] ТV2, March 30, 2020,  https://tv2(.)today/News/Kak-v-tomske-rabotayut-glavnye-gorodskie-sluzhby.  
[6] Alexander Ershov, “Why are there so few Reported COVID-19 Cases in Russia?,” Meduza, March 6, 2020, https://meduza(.)io/en/feature/2020/03/06/why-are-there-so-few-reported-covid-19-cases-in-russia.
[7] [“Meeting with Director of the Federal Service of the National Guard Troops Viktor Zolotov,”] Kremlin, May 6, 2020, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/63302. 
[8] [“Defense Ministry sets up Headquarters to Prevent the Spread of Coronavirus,”] Тass, March 20, 2020, https://tass(.)ru/armiya-i-opk/8034263.
[9] [“Order of the Government of the Russian Federation of 04.13.2020 No. 1006-r,”] Official Internet Portal of Legal Information, April 13, 2020, http://publication.pravo.gov(.)ru/Document/View/0001202004140032.
[10] [“Shoigu Announced Vorobyov’s Request to Help Fight the Virus in the Moscow Region,”] RBK, April 24, 2020, https://www.rbc((.))ru/society/24/04/2020/5ea2e0609a7947b3fa0a6d1b.
[11] [“The Minister of Defense Reported to the Supreme Commander on Measures Taken by the Military by Department to Prevent the Spread of Coronavirus Infection,”] Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, May 15, 2020, https://function.mil(.)ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12292555@egNews&_print=true. 
[12] [“Ministry of Internal Affairs: No Serious Violations Were Recorded at the All-Russian Vote,”] Federal News Agency, July 1, 2020, https://riafan(.)ru/1289934-mvd-sereznykh-narushenii-na-obsherossiiskom-golosovanii-ne-zafiksirovano.
[13] [“Ministry of Internal Affairs: No Serious Violations Were Recorded at the All-Russian Vote,”] Federal News Agency, July 1, 2020, https://riafan(.)ru/1289934-mvd-sereznykh-narushenii-na-obsherossiiskom-golosovanii-ne-zafiksirovano.
[14] [“Police and Russian National Guard Deploy Forces to Pushkin Square,”] Echo of Moscow, July 1, 2020, https://echo.msk(.)ru/news/2669383-echo.html; [“More Than 185 Thousand Employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Ensure Security at Polling Stations,”] Russian Agency of Legal and Court Information, July 1, 2020, http://www.rapsinews(.)ru/news/20200701/305987818.html ; [“Opponents of Amendments to the Constitution Gathered on Pushkin Square in Moscow,”] Echo of Moscow, July 1, 2020, https://echo.msk(.)ru/news/2669439-echo.html; Ilya Barabahov Twitter, July 1, 2020, https://twitter(.)com/barabanch/status/1278301717730385920.
[15] [“List of Detainees on Voting Day on Constitutional Amendments July 1, 2020,”] OVD-Info, July 1, 2020,  https://ovdinfo(.)org/news/2020/07/01/spisok-zaderzhannyh-v-den-golosovaniya-po-popravkam-v-konstituciyu-1-iyulya-2020.
[16] [“Federal Law of 01.04.2020 No. 90-FZ On Amendments to the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses,”] Official Internet Portal of Legal Information, April 1, 2020, http://publication.pravo.gov(.)ru/Document/View/0001202004010048?index=0&rangeSize=1; [“Federal Law of 01.04.2020 No. 94-FZ On Amending the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation,”] Official Internet Portal of Legal Information, April 1, 2020, http://publication.pravo.gov(.)ru/Document/View/0001202004010052?index=0&rangeSize=1; [“Putin Signed Laws Punishing Constitution Voting Violations”] Tass, April 1, 2020, https://tass(.)ru/politika/8134437; [“Putin Approved Punishment for Violations of the Constitutional Vote,”] Ria, April 1, 2020, ttps://ria(.)ru/20200401/1569451636.html; Kira Latuhina,[“Punishment Imposed for Voting Violations on Constitutional Amendments,”] Rossiskaya Gazeta, April 1, 2020,  https://rg(.)ru/2020/04/01/ustanovleno-nakazanie-za-narusheniia-pri-golosovanii-po-popravkam-k-konstitucii.html.
[17] [“Federal Law of 01.04.2020 N 94-F3 On Amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation,”] PPT, April 1, 2020, https://ppt(.)ru/docs/fz/94-fz-231347.
[18] The bill stipulates allowing police officers to enter residential and private property, land, and territories to detain suspects fleeing the scene of a crime. The bill grants police new authority to open a vehicle and detain people in the vehicle if they committed a crime and protects officers from liability for harm caused to citizens and legal entities when opening a vehicle. The law also gives officers the ability to cordon off the territory of residential buildings, structures, and other facilities with the consent of the head of the regional Ministry of Internal Affairs. The bill also protects police from liability for actions committed while on duty. “A police officer shall not be prosecuted for actions committed in the performance of duties assigned to the police, and in connection with the exercise of the rights granted to the police..." [No. 955380-7 On Amending the Federal Law “On Police” (Aimed at Strengthening Guarantees of Protecting the Rights of Citizens and Clarifying the Powers of the Police,”] State Duma, May 20, 2020, https://sozd.duma.gov(.)ru/bill/955380-7. 
[19] [“Resolution of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation,”] Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, June 4, 2020, http://doc.ksrf(.)ru/decision/KSRFDecision473126.pdf ; Anna Pushkarskaya, [“The Constitutional Court of Russia ordered Rallies to be Held only in Hyde Parks,”] BBC Russian Service, June 9, 2020, https://www.bbc(.)com/russian/features-52973314.
[20] [“Hyde Parks are not the only Place for Protests,”] Moscow Helsinki Group, June 16, 2020, https://mhg(.)ru/gayd-parki-ne-edinstvennoe-mesto-dlya-protestov; Ivan Alexandrov, [“Russia: Protestors Driven into Reservations,”] Eurasianet, June 23, 2020, https://russian.eurasianet(.)org/%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%81%D0%B8%D1%8F-%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%82%D0%B5%D1%81%D1%82%D1%83%D1%8E%D1%89%D0%B8%D1%85-%D0%B7%D0%B0%D0%B3%D0%BE%D0%BD%D1%8F%D1%8E%D1%82-%D0%B2-%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%B7%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%B2%D0%B0%D1%86%D0%B8%D0%B8; Mikhail Suprenenko, [“Voronezh Social Activists Demand that Authorities make Lenin Square a Hyde Park,”] Voronezh Time, April 15, 2019, https://vrntimes(.)ru/articles/politika-i-vlast/voronezhskie-obshchestvenniki-potrebuyut-ot-vlastey-sdelat-ploshchad. 
[21] [“Hyde Parks are not the only Place for Protests,”] Moscow Helsinki Group, June 16, 2020, https://mhg(.)ru/gayd-parki-ne-edinstvennoe-mesto-dlya-protestov; Ivan Alexandrov, [“Russia: Protestors Driven into Reservations,”] Eurasianet, June 23, 2020, https://russian.eurasianet(.)org/%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%81%D0%B8%D1%8F-%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%82%D0%B5%D1%81%D1%82%D1%83%D1%8E%D1%89%D0%B8%D1%85-%D0%B7%D0%B0%D0%B3%D0%BE%D0%BD%D1%8F%D1%8E%D1%82-%D0%B2-%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%B7%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%B2%D0%B0%D1%86%D0%B8%D0%B8; Mikhail Suprenenko, [“Voronezh Social Activists Demand that Authorities make Lenin Square a Hyde Park,”] Voronezh Time, April 15, 2019, https://vrntimes(.)ru/articles/politika-i-vlast/voronezhskie-obshchestvenniki-potrebuyut-ot-vlastey-sdelat-ploshchad. 
[22] Sergey Sobyanin, [“In Moscow They Began Using a Face Recognition System to Control Quarantine for Coronavirus,”] Meduza, February 20, 2020, https://meduza(.)io/news/2020/02/21/v-moskve-nachali-ispolzovat-sistemu-raspoznavaniya-lits-dlya-kontrolya-karantina-po-koronavirusu; Clara Minak and Andrey Zlobin, [“Moscow Will Begin to use QR Codes to Monitor Compliance with Self-isolation,”] Forbes, March 31, 2020, https://www.forbes(.)ru/newsroom/obshchestvo/396395-moskv-nachnet-ispolzovat-qr-kody-dlya-kontrolya-za-soblyudeniem.
[23][“Head of Moscow Mayor Office Department Eduard Lisenko Speaks about Social Monitoring Systems in Russia”] Znak, June 4, 2020, https://www.znak(.)com/2020-04-01/vlasti_moskvy_rasskazali_kak_budet_rabotat_prilozhenie_dlya_slezhki_za_zarazhennymi_covid_19;  [“Moscow Government Promised to Issue Smartphones to Patients with COVID 19,”] RBK, June 24, 2020, https://www.rbc(.)ru/rbcfreenews/5e8434029a794733f87f1dfd. 
[24] [“Federal Platform for Issuing Digital Passes Will be Implemented in 21 Constituent Entities of the Russian Federation,"] Russian Digital Ministry, April 22, 2020, https://digital.gov(.)ru/ru/events/39786/.
[25] [“A Man Wanted in the Orenburg Region for Quarantine Violation was Detained in Moscow,”] Tass, June 30, 2020, https://tass(.)ru/proisshestviya/8849645.
[26] [“Russians are Fined for Violation of Self-Isolation by a Billion Rubles,”] Ekhokavkaza, June 24, 2020, https://www.ekhokavkaza(.)com/a/30673694.html.
[27] Russia’s State Duma also passed legislation to allow remote voting in presidential and parliamentary elections on May 13, 2020. The legislation allows votes to be mailed in or processed on the Internet. The legislation allows Russia’s Central Election Commission to determine when remote voting is necessary. However, United Russia MP Dmitry Vyatkin said remote voting will not be permitted for Russia’s pending plebiscite on constitutional amendments. Remote voting may allow for increased election fraud to occur to support United Russia and Putin’s regime, although the legislation is intended to grant Russian citizens access to participate in major elections despite quarantine conditions or other unforeseen events. [“Russian Federation, Federal Law on Changes on Certain Law Acts”] State Duma, May 13, 2020, https://sozd.duma.gov(.)ru/bill/912249-7.  
[28] [“Russian Federation, Federal Law about the Unified Federal Information Register Containing Information on the Population of the Russian Federation,”] State Duma, March 02, 2020, http://publication.pravo.gov(.)ru/Document/View/0001202006080019.
[29] [“Russian FNS Proposed Including the Income of Every Family in Special Register,”] Interfax, April 16, 2020 https://www.interfax(.)ru/business/704596.
[31] [“Roskomnadzor Blocked the Website of the Campaign Against Constitutional Changes,”] Novaya Gazeta, March 12, 2020, https://novayagazeta(.)ru/news/2020/03/12/159727-roskomnadzor-zablokiroval-sayt-kampanii-protiv-vneseniya-popravok-v-konstitutsiyu ; [“Russian Investigative Committee Create a Special Working Group Against the Spread of False Information Regarding Coronavirus,”] Sledcom, March 26, 2020, https://sledcom(.)ru/news/item/1451926/ ; [“Russian Authorities Detain Doctor who Exposed Flaws in COVID-19 Response,”] Amnesty, April 3, 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/04/russia-authorities-detain-doctor-who-exposed-flaws-in-covid19-response/ ; [“Roskomnadzor Blocked the Website of the Ministry of Integration of Ukraine,”] RBK, June 24, 2020, https://www.rbc(.)ua/rus/news/roskomnadzor-zablokiroval-sayt-minreintegratsii-1587397175.html [“The Civil Chamber of the Russian Federation will Send Data on Fakes About Voting to the Duma and Federation Council Commission,”] TASS, June 9, 2020 https://tass(.)ru/politika/8683307 ; Daria Litvinova, “Russia Slams New York Times, Financial Times on Virus Deaths,” ABC News, May 14, 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/Health/wireStory/russia-calls-nyt-ft-retract-stories-virus-toll-70676319 ; “Russia Demands Apology from Bloomberg Over Report About Putin’s Low Ratings,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 25, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-demands-apology-from-bloomberg-over-report-about-putin-s-low-ratings/30633150.html.

Iraq Situation Report June 24-30, 2020


By Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace

Key Takeaway: Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi began a coordinated campaign to retake segments of the Iraqi state from entrenched interests, build toward a state monopoly on use of force, and increase his negotiating position with the United States in the ongoing US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue. Kadhimi ordered Iraq’s elite, US-trained Counterterrorism Service (CTS) to retake Iraq’s border crossings from poorly regulated militias and to conduct a raid on key Iranian proxy militia and US-designated terrorist organization Kata’ib Hezbollah to prevent additional rocket attacks on US facilities in Iraq. These moves are intended to demonstrate to the United States that Kadhimi is a reliable security partner ahead of his planned visit to Washington in July, when Kadhimi will renegotiate the US-Iraqi relationship in the next stage of the Strategic Dialogue. Meanwhile, pro-Kadhimi parliamentarians announced the establishment of a new political bloc. This bloc could provide Kadhimi the political base he needs to weather the ongoing backlash against his bold moves, particularly from Iranian allies and proxies who have thoroughly penetrated the Iraqi state.

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Friday, June 26, 2020

Iraq Situation Report June 17-23, 2020

By Brandon Wallace and Katherine Lawlor
Key Takeaway: Converging challenges to the Iraqi state threaten to deny Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi the political support he needs to improve Iraq’s security and economy. Kadhimi must improve domestic stability in areas like service provision, fiscal policy, and security in order to secure leverage for the second round of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue scheduled for July 2020. Kadhimi is facing increasing anti-US attacks by Iran’s Iraqi proxies, a surge of COVID-19 cases, and increasing opposition to the financial reforms necessary to keep the Iraqi economy afloat. Iranian officials are pressuring Kadhimi in high level meetings to accept key Iranian demands that support Iran’s objectives in Iraq, such as purchasing essential goods inside Iraq with foreign currency to circumvent the US-imposed maximum pressure sanctions.
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Thursday, June 25, 2020

Syria Situation Report June 10-23, 2020


By Blane Wallace and Will Christou (Syria Direct)
Key Takeaway: Internal fighting between al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Greater Idlib Province may escalate as the newly formed “Stand Firm Operations Room” challenges fellow al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) for control in Idlib. The “Stand Firm Operations Room” was created by five al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, some of which are led by HTS defectors. HTS and the “Stand Firm Operations Room” clashed after the latter established several checkpoints in HTS-dominated northern Idlib Province. Al Qaeda-affiliated groups may continue to fight for control of Idlib and may risk their previous unity in the fight against the Assad regime.
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Friday, June 19, 2020

Iraq Situation Report June 10-16, 2020


By Brandon Wallace and Katherine Lawlor

Key Takeaway: Recent Iranian proxy attacks represent a major test for Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s commitments to preserving Iraqi sovereignty and protecting US anti-ISIS forces. The attacks occurred at the start of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, which aims to determine the future of US forces in Iraq. Iran’s Iraqi proxies intensified both their kinetic and political lines of effort to advance Iran’s key objective in the Dialogue: the rapid and complete expulsion of US forces from Iraq. Separately, Turkey also tested Kadhimi’s commitment to Iraqi sovereignty by launching a new, large-scale air campaign with 81 airstrikes on sites purportedly associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, drawing harsh condemnations from Baghdad. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) likely took advantage of the Turkish air campaign to also target Iranian Kurdish dissidents based in Iraq in what may have been a coordinated Turkish-Iranian operation.

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Friday, June 12, 2020

Iraq Situation Report: June 3-9, 2020

By Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace

Key Takeaway: Iraq’s most important external partners, Iran and the United States, as well as Iraq’s domestic politicians, are competing to consolidate their leverage ahead of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue set to begin on June 11. Iran dispatched its IRGC-Quds Force Commander and energy minister to solidify a key energy deal that the United States had hoped to deter by encouraging partnerships with Gulf States. Iran’s proxies in Iraq responded by opposing the US-encouraged outreach to Saudi Arabia and attempting to form a parliamentary mechanism to demand the expulsion of US forces from the country. Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has strengthened his domestic position by filling key vacant security roles, passing a full cabinet, and forming an alliance in Parliament to support his actions in order to navigate the competing demands on his country in the Strategic Dialogue. The pursuit of leverage by all actors indicates each expects their stance in the Strategic Dialogue negotiations to be met with resistance.

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Thursday, June 11, 2020

Syria Situation Report: May 27 - June 9, 2020

By John Dunford and Will Christou (Syria Direct)

Key Takeaway: Pro-regime forces are preparing to restart their offensive in Greater Idlib Province. Russia resumed airstrikes in southern Idlib on June 2 for the first time since the March 5 ceasefire; the airstrikes are a key indicator that pro-regime forces are preparing to renew their offensive in Idlib. Turkey is responding to the recent pro-regime build-up in southern Idlib by expanding its own presence and increasing its air defense capabilities in southern Idlib in a likely attempt to deter the pro-regime campaign. Turkey previously deployed forces and air defense systems into Greater Idlib Province between February and March 2020.

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Friday, June 5, 2020

Iraq Situation Report: May 27 - June 2, 2020


By Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace
Key Takeaway: Economic and diplomatic competition between the United States and Iran is ramping up as both sides attempt to control the conditions leading up to the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue in mid-June.  Iran seeks to ensure that Iraq continues to import Iranian energy, a key economic driver for Iran's sanctions-battered economy. Iraq relies on those imports to bolster its under-funded, often-strained electrical grid. The United States is aiming to reduce Iraqi reliance on Iranian imports by encouraging investments by US and allied companies and leveraging its sanctions waivers. Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is capitalizing on what appears to be a grace period granted to him by the United States and Iran to work with both sides and secure Iraq’s energy and defense requirements.
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