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.
Click the image to enlarge. Click here to download the PDF.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Putin Pressured by Global Crises, Yet Finds Ways to Exploit Them

By Nataliya Bugayova

This article originally appeared in the OP-ED section of The Hill on May 18, 2020. Click here to view the original article.

Low oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic have weakened Russian President Vladimir Putin, but not enough to threaten his power or constrain his foreign policy ambitions — for now.

The oil price crisis and the pandemic hit Putin at a vulnerable moment. He was in the middle of a campaign to retain power by amending the Russian constitution so that he could run again in 2024. He offered the Russian people essentially a revised social contract: additional social benefits in exchange for further expansion of the Kremlin’s powers and a continuation of his rule. COVID-19 has forced him to postpone the referendum on these constitutional amendments, delaying his power-retention campaign.

Putin’s approval ratings reportedly fell to historic lows in April. Some protests, driven by falling incomes and concern about the government’s handling of the pandemic response, have already emerged. Russians are finding new ways to express their displeasure, launching “online protests” in several cities in April, calling for better services and the end of quarantine.

Russia’s partners also are in trouble. Protracted sanctions have severely weakened Iran and Syria; the pandemic also has hurt Iran’s already-weak economy. Putin relies on Damascus and Tehran for his position and operations in the Middle East. Their struggles pose challenges for Putin, and he has little ability to address them.

These converging crises are unlikely, however, to weaken Putin significantly at home or abroad in the short-term for four reasons.

First, Putin has built up Russia’s foreign currency reserves, which he can use to alleviate some of the economic problems Russia faces for a time.

Second, Putin is strengthening his control over Russia’s domestic information space. He has adopted numerous measures over the past few years to restrict Russians’ abilities to access and shape the information space. He is using the pandemic to increase these restrictions, by empowering the federal body responsible for media censorship to hunt down Kremlin critics.

Third, Putin’s societal control mechanisms are finely honed, effective, and expanding. The Kremlin has increased the budgets and powers of the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard — which Putin directly commands — and other security services to fight COVID-19. Local Russian authorities are testing facial-recognition software and a phone-based system to track resident movement. The National Guard is helping enforce stay-at-home compliance, and the Ministry of Defense has created new military units to combat COVID-19. Putin may repurpose these tools to suppress political dissent and popular protests in the future.

Finally, no one is really challenging Putin — at least not yet. Other countries are preoccupied with COVID-19 and their own resulting domestic pressures. Putin’s brutal suppression of previous Russian protests make any renewed large-scale demonstrations unlikely.
On the contrary, Putin sees opportunity in this crisis.

He is using COVID-19 to try to compel the international community to lift sanctions on Russia and its partners, including Iran, Syria, Venezuela and others. The Kremlin is framing the West as inhumane for keeping the sanctions active during a pandemic. Beijing and Tehran are echoing this line.

Putin also is posturing as an international humanitarian. The Russian Defense Ministry delivered medical aid to the countries where Russia has strategic interests, including the U.S., Italy and the Balkans, and used those deliveries to feed the Russian propaganda machine.

The Kremlin is refining its hybrid warfare toolkit, too, as it experiments with health-focused disinformation campaigns. Likely-Russian actors launched a coordinated disinformation campaign in Ukraine in March that helped fuel local protests against the arrival of Ukrainian evacuees from China. Those protests resulted in a significant crisis-management requirement for the Ukrainian government.

Putin tried to use the cover of global crises to force concessions from Ukraine under the radar. Kyiv agreed to consider direct discussions with the Kremlin-controlled proxies in parts of eastern Ukraine that Russia seized militarily; these talks would essentially legitimize these proxies and have major consequences for Ukraine’s sovereignty and U.S. national security. The Ukrainian government later verbally rescinded its agreement to consider direct discussions, after backlash from civil society.
The Kremlin continues its border creep in Georgia as well: in April, Russian-backed separatists reportedly constructed border fencing in the the South Ossetia region.

Putin likely will retain domestic and international positions in the short-term and might even secure additional gains if the West remains preoccupied with its own internal affairs.
Putin will, however, face increasing pressures if the converging crises protract. The cost of maintaining his power circles and keeping his own population content will grow, as will the cost of his foreign adventures.

Putin might eventually have to reassess what he chooses to invest in and on what timeline, but his goals are unlikely to change. The West should not expect that current pressures will automatically make Putin scale back his campaigns — especially in Ukraine and in Syria, two theaters that serve as anchors to his entire global power projection.

Nevertheless, now is an opportunity to test the limits of Putin’s commitments to his aggressive foreign policy. The U.S. should reinforce its partners and allies that are in the line of Putin’s fire. Finally, the West must not fall for Putin’s false narratives on sanctions relief or his posturing as a good humanitarian actor.

We must not let this global health crisis become Putin’s opportunity.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Russia in Review: Kremlin Escalates in Ukraine while Playing Peacemaker

Authors: George Barros, Nataliya Bugayova with Mason Clark

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin increased military and international pressure on Ukraine in May 2020 after efforts to establish direct talks between Ukraine and Kremlin-controlled proxies stalled. Kremlin information operations are framing Ukraine as having two options: legitimize the Kremlin’s proxies through negotiations or admit Ukraine is impeding the peace process. Both options in this Kremlin-contrived dichotomy advance the Kremlin’s objectives and absolve the Kremlin of responsibility as a belligerent in the war in Donbas. The Kremlin is continuing to consolidate control over its proxies in occupied Donbas while posturing internationally as a neutral arbiter aiming for peace. The Kremlin will likely intensify its pressure on Ukraine to conduct local elections in occupied Donbas in October 2020.

The Kremlin is ramping up pressure on the Ukrainian government after Moscow’s recent failure to force direct talks between Ukraine and Kremlin proxies. The Kremlin is trying to force Ukraine to formalize the Advisory Council – a Kremlin-favorable initiative to facilitate direct talks between Ukraine and the Kremlin’s proxies. The Ukrainian government initially agreed to the Advisory Council in March but later paused the initiative, largely due to backlash from Ukrainian civil society and logistical complications from the COVID-19 pandemic.[i]

The Kremlin is exploiting the trap it set with Ukraine-proxy talks to pressure Ukraine into a contrived lose-lose scenario.
   The Kremlin is presenting Ukraine with a false dichotomy of either legitimizing the Kremlin’s proxies through direct negotiations or publicly undermining Ukraine’s commitment to the ongoing peace process. The Kremlin-controlled self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) issued an ultimatum to Ukraine on May 16 stating Ukraine must either begin a direct dialogue with the DNR or admit Ukraine is not committed to the Minsk agreements – the core of the ongoing peace process.[ii] Both options would advance the Kremlin’s objectives. Direct Ukrainian negotiations with the Kremlin’s proxies legitimize these proxies and, by extension, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The appearance of Ukraine abandoning the Minsk agreements would reinforce Kremlin narratives that Ukraine is spoiling the peace process and could present a justification for the Kremlin to escalate the war. The Kremlin’s framing that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky must either legitimize the Kremlin’s intervention in Ukraine or admit Ukraine is an obstacle to peace, distorts reality, and absolves the Kremlin of responsibility for starting the war. 

The Kremlin backed its proxies’ ultimatum with additional military pressure. The DNR and Luhansk People’s Republics (LNR) mobilized their forces to full combat readiness on May 19.[iii] The DNR called for dialogue with Ukraine but stated it cannot remain peaceful without Ukraine’s reciprocation, while the LNR threatened offensive action to move the front line.[iv] Ukraine’s Defense Ministry reported Kremlin proxy forces again attacked the Zolote disengagement point on May 27.[v]

      The Kremlin has intensified its efforts to leverage European states against Ukraine, while framing Ukraine as a spoiler in peace talks. Dmitry Kozak, the Kremlin’s policy head on Ukraine, met an aide of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on May 13 to restart Ukrainian peace talks.[vi] No Ukrainian representatives were present at the meeting. In a May 19 call with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called on Germany to demand Ukraine implement agreements reached during the December 2019 peace talks, despite Russia’s failure to implement its side of the agreements.[vii] French and German readouts from the April 30 Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) meeting, like those of the Kremlin, did not mention any Russian responsibility for the stalled peace process.[viii] European acceptance of Kremlin narratives and pressure on Ukraine to meet Russian demands will limit Ukrainian freedom of action.

The Kremlin also continues to frame Zelensky as spoiling the peace process – a campaign that began in September 2019 and that ISW has tracked in detail.[ix] Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs again accused Zelensky of failing to deliver on peace promises on May 20.[x] Lavrov accused Ukraine of ceasefire violations and denied ceasefire violations from the Kremlin’s proxies on April 30.[xi]

The Kremlin’s efforts to establish Ukrainian talks with the proxies are slowly progressing. Public backlash likely compelled Zelensky to take a stronger stance; Zelensky refused to allow Russian citizens to represent occupied Donbas in the Advisory Council.[xii] Zelensky also reiterated that local elections in Donbas will only take place if Ukraine regains control over its border with Russia.

Zelensky, however, continues to defend the idea of the Advisory Council as a part of his plan to end the war.[xiii] His administration is proposing various ways to accommodate occupied Donbas’ participation in peace talks. Zelensky’s chief of staff said on May 4 that Ukraine is ready to talk to members of Donbas’ “civil society” who exclusively hold Ukrainian citizenship, never participated in military operations against Ukraine, and have clean criminal records.[xiv] Ukraine’s delegation head to the TCG, Oleksiy Reznikov, said on May 18 that “legitimate” representatives from Donbas could theoretically include city and regional officials from Donbas elected in 2010, the last local elections to occur in Donbas before Russian occupation.[xv] These criteria, however, still leave room for the Kremlin to insert its agents under the umbrella of “civil society representatives.”

The Kremlin will likely continue facing setbacks in its effort to establish legitimacy-granting negotiations between its proxies and the Ukrainian government. Several thousand Ukrainian protesters gathered in Kyiv to protest Zelensky’s concessions to the Kremlin on May 24.[xvi] The most-recent TCG calls on May 14 and May 27 did not produce Kremlin-favorable results.[xvii] The Kremlin likely deliberately arrived late to the May 27 TCG meeting and said the DNR and LNR will not decrease their full combat readiness until Ukraine deescalates, reinforcing the Kremlin’s false claims about Ukraine stalling the process.[xviii]

The Kremlin continues to integrate and consolidate external control over its proxies in Donbas while pressuring Ukraine to negotiate with them as independent actors and shaping conditions to integrate them back into Ukraine.
-          The Kremlin continues to issue Donbas residents Russian citizenship while setting conditions for them to remain in Ukraine. The Russian State Duma passed a bill in the first reading to allow applicants for Russian citizenship to preserve their foreign citizenship on April 14.[xix] The Duma passed a bill in the first reading exempting DNR and LNR residents from paying a fee when receiving expedited Russian citizenship on April 17.[xx] The Kremlin will likely pass these bills into law in the near future. The Kremlin is increasing the number of Russian citizens in Donbas to ensure the Kremlin’s long-term influence in Donbas, especially as the Kremlin sets conditions for local elections in Donbas.
-          The Kremlin is consolidating management of critical infrastructure in Donbas. The DNR and LNR announced their intent to create a unified electrical grid called "Donbas Energy” on May 4.[xxi] The unified grid will use powerplants in the DNR powered by LNR coal.[xxii] The Kremlin consolidated control over the LNR and DNR’s railway systems in 2019.[xxiii] The Kremlin will continue to consolidate management of the proxies’ infrastructure, linking the proxies to each other and to Russian structures, even as it attempts to falsely frame the proxies as independent entities in an “intra-Ukrainian” conflict.
-          The Kremlin continues to reinforce its proxies’ military capabilities while posturing for peace. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry reported the Kremlin used preparations for May 9 Victory Day celebrations as cover to provide additional Russian command staff, combat-readiness training, and heavy weapons to the DNR and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR).[xxiv]

Forecasting and implications. The Kremlin will likely intensify its shaping operations to pressure Ukraine to compel direct Ukrainian talks and hold local elections in occupied Donbas during Ukraine’s upcoming October 2020 local elections.[xxv] Zelensky is unlikely to hold elections in occupied Donbas in October 2020 despite intensified Kremlin pressure to do so. The Kremlin will likely amplify information operations portraying Zelensky as an obstacle to peace in Donbas when he refuses to grant the Kremlin’s proxies local elections. The Kremlin will likely similarly malign Zelensky if he continues to refuse direct Ukrainian talks with the Kremlin’s proxies. Holding elections in Donbas on the Kremlin’s terms - without granting Ukraine control of its border - would allow Putin to gain a permanent lever of influence over Ukraine’s politics. The Kremlin will likely continue to use similar false dichotomy traps against world leaders in several international conflicts. The West should not allow the Kremlin to manipulate Ukraine into a Kremlin-brokered peace agreement that amounts to a Ukrainian surrender and removes restraints on Putin’s ambitions globally. 

[i] Nataliya Bugayova, Mason Clark, and George Barros, “Russia in Review: Putin Accelerates Ukraine Campaign Amid Converging Crises,” Institute for the Study of War, March 24, 2020, ; George Barros, Nataliya Bugayova, Mason Clark, “Russia in Review: Kremlin Misdirection Continues Amid COVID and Peace Processes,” Institute for the Study of War, April 29, 2020,
[ii] [“The DNR Gave Kyiv an Ultimatum,”] Lenta, May 16, 2020, https((:)//
[iii] [“Russian Hybrid Forces Threaten "Combat Readiness" in Donbas: What is Happening?”] Radio Svoboda, May 29, 2020, ; Roman Zakharov, [“In the DNR there is Increased Combat Readiness Because of the Deterioration of the Situation in Donbas,”] TV Zvezda, May 20, 2020, https://tvzvezda(.)ru/news/vstrane_i_mire/content/20205201221-wmSg0.html ; Alexander Gusarov [“LNR Brought Armed Forces to Full Combat Readiness,”] Rossiskaya Gazeta, May 20, 2020, https://rg(.)ru/2020/05/20/lnr-privela-vooruzhennye-sily-v-polnuiu-boegotovnost.html.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ukrainian Joint Forces Operation post, May 27, 2020, [“Evening Report on the Situation in the Area of the Joint Forces Operation as of 1700 on May 27, 2020,”] ; George Barros with Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: The Kremlin's Fake De-escalation in Donbas,” Institute for the Study of War, February 24, 2020,
[vi] “Ukraine Was Aware of Kozak's Visit to Berlin in Advance, Will Know How It Passed – Kuleba,” Interfax Ukraine, May 14, 2020, ; “Kozak Told the Details of the Talks in Berlin,” RIA Novosti, May 13, 2020, https://ria(.)ru/20200513/1571398488.html.
[vii] [“On a Telephone Conversation between Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs of Germany H. Maas,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, May 19, 2020, https://www.mid(.)ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4133311.
[viii] “‘The Guns Must Fall Silent’ – Foreign Ministers Hold Virtual Normandy-Format Meeting on Ukraine,” German Federal Foreign Office, April 30, 2020, https://www.auswaertiges-amt(.)de/en/aussenpolitik/laenderinformationen/ukraine-node/supportukraine/normandy-format-meeting-ukraine/2338380 ; “Ukraine – Statement by Jean-Yves le Drian – Video conference of Foreign Ministers in the Normandy Format (30 Apr. 2020),” French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, April 30, 2020,  https://www.diplomatie.gouv(.)fr/en/country-files/ukraine/news/article/statement-by-jean-yves-le-drian-video-conference-of-foreign-ministers-in-the.
[ix] Nataliya Bugayova, Mason Clark, and George Barros, “Russia in Review: Putin Accelerates Ukraine Campaign Amid Converging Crises,” Institute for the Study of War, March 24, 2020,
[x] [“Russian MFA Information and Press Department Commentary Regarding the Anniversary of the Inauguration of the President of Ukraine V.A. Zelensky,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, May 20, 2020, https://www.mid(.)ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4133577.
[xi] George Barros with Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: The Kremlin's Fake De-escalation in Donbas,” Institute for the Study of War, February 24, 2020,; [“Speech and Answers to Media Questions by Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov During a Press Conference Following the Video Conference of the Normandy Format Foreign Ministers, Moscow, April 30, 2020,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, April 30, 2020, https://www.mid(.)ru/web/guest/meropriyatiya_s_uchastiem_ministra/-/asset_publisher/xK1BhB2bUjd3/content/id/4109746.
[xii] [“Zelensky On People from Donbas in the Advisory Council: Only citizens of Ukraine,”] Liga News, May 20, 2020, https://news.liga(.)net/politics/news/zelenskiy-o-sostave-konsultativnogo-soveta-v-minske-tolko-grajdane-ukrainy.
[xiii] [“Petition to the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelensky with a Demand to Immediately Revoke the Signatures of the Representative of Ukraine and the Approval of the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine under the Minutes of the Tripartite Contact Group Meeting Held in Minsk on March 11, 2020,”] President of Ukraine, March 16, 2020, https://petition.president(.) ;  Olga Rudenko, “Highlights from Zelensky’s Press Conference on His First Year in Office,” Kyiv Post, May 20, 2020, https://www.kyivpost(.)com/ukraine-politics/highlights-from-zelenskys-press-conference-on-his-first-year-in-office.html?cn-reloaded=1.
[xiv] Atlantic Council, “Pandemic, reform, war, and peace: The view from Ukraine’s White House,” YouTube, May 4, 2020,
[xv] [“Kyiv Selected for the Contract Group Meeting its Own Donbas ‘Representatives,’”] TASS, May 26, 2020, https://tass(.)ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/8571823 ; [“Reznikov: Representatives of Donbas in the TCG Should Have Public Legitimacy,”] RBK Ukraine, May 18, 2020, https://www.rbc(.)ua/rus/news/reznikov-predstaviteli-donbassa-tkg-dolzhny-1589792191.html.
[xvi] Volodymyr Petrov, “Demonstrators in Kyiv Protest Zelensky, Resist ‘Capitulation’ to Russia,” Kyiv Post, May 24, 2020,; [“Protest Rally on Maidan Because of Zelensky’s Policy,”] Ukrainska Pravda, May 24, 2020,
[xvii] [“Kyiv’s Delegation Refused to Discuss Ceasefire in Donbas,”] RIA Novosti, May 27, 2020, https://ria(.)ru/20200527/1572088156.html.
[xviii] [“Kyiv’s Delegation Refused to Discuss Ceasefire in Donbas,”] RIA Novosti, May 27, 2020, https://ria(.)ru/20200527/1572088156.html  ; [“Russia is Delaying the Start of the TCG Meeting- media”] Espreso, May 27, 2020, https://espreso(.)tv/news/2020/05/27/rosiya_galmuye_pochatok_zasidannya_v_tkg_zmi.
[xix] [“The State Duma Introduces the Ability to Maintain Foreign Citizenship Upon Receiving Russian Citizenship,”] TASS, April 14, 2020, https://tass(.)ru/politika/8240117.
[xx] [“The State Duma Exempted Residents of the DNR and LNR from Fee Upon Receiving Russian Citizenship,”] TASS, April 17, 2020, https://tass(.)ru/obschestvo/8268559.
[xxi] [“The LNR and DNR Will Create an Energy Concern ‘Donbas Energy,’”] Komsomolskaya Pravda, May 5, 2020,
[xxii] Ibid.
[xxiii] The singular administrator operates to optimize rail transportation between the LNR and the DNR and has monthly working meetings. Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Putin Advances in Ukraine and Its Neighboring States,” The Institute for the Study of War, October 15, 2019, ; [“Fighters from 'DNR' and 'LNR' Created a New Cross Border Concern,”] Lenta, August 8, 2019, https://lenta((.))ua/boeviki-iz-dnr-i-lnr-sozdali-novyy-transgranichnyy-kontsern-20873/; [“‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ Combined the Railways in the Concern ‘Railways of Donbass,’”] Antikor, August 19, 2019, https://antikor(.)
[xxiv] The Kremlin reportedly send the LNR and DNR more than 10 tanks, eight armored fighting vehicles, up to 30 vehicles loaded with small arms ammunition and grenade launchers, and heavy artillery ammunition. [“Daily Summary of the Press Service of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine on the Situation in the Area of ​​the Joint Forces Operation,”] Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, May 12, 2020, ; [“Daily Summary of the Press Service of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine on the Situation in the Area of ​​the Joint Forces Operation,”] Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, May 19, 2020
[xxv] [“Lavrov Declared the Unwillingness of Ukraine to discuss the Donbas Special Status,”] RIA Novosti, May April 25, 2020, https://ria(.)ru/20200425/1570566688.html.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Syria Situation Report: May 13-26, 2020

By Michael Land (ISW Syria Team) and Will Christou (Syria Direct)

Key Takeaway: Multiple ISIS attacks in southern and eastern Syria as well as a possible assassination in Idlib Province demonstrate the group’s continued reach across Syria as it reconstitutes across both Syria and Iraq. The attacks occurred in late May and marked the culmination of ISIS’s 2020 Ramadan campaign. A possible US drone struck a reported ISIS commander in the Turkish-occupied Afrin area of Aleppo Province, indicating the group may retain a presence in that area.

Click the image to enlarge. Click here to download the PDF.

Correction: A previous version of this map mislabeled the yellow region as “SDF-Dominated, Regime Presence” and the red-striped purple region as “Turkey-Opposition.” The key has been updated to correct this error. The red-striped purple region is “SDF-Dominated, Regime Presence” and the yellow region is “Turkey-Opposition.”

Iraq Situation Report: May 20-26, 2020

By Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace

Key Takeaway: Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is seeking to develop closer energy relationships with Iraq’s Gulf neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, to demonstrate to the United States that Iraq is making progress in divesting from Iranian energy reliance and renewing relations with all of its neighbors before the June US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue. Delegations to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait likely secured new investments in Iraqi energy infrastructure that will enable some divestment from Iranian energy imports. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait also reportedly agreed to reduce their own oil production to allow Iraq to produce quantities above those established by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, potentially averting another hit to Iraq's already depressed government revenues.  Immediately after the delegation to Saudi Arabia, Iranian proxy militias issued statements condemning Saudi Arabia as a source of terrorism in Iraq and promising vengeance. Iran will likely attempt to prevent energy divestment; Iraqi imports of Iranian energy are a key economic driver for Iran.

Click the image to enlarge. Click here to download the PDF.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Iraq Situation Report: May 13-19, 2020

By Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace

Key Takeaway:  New Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi seeks to balance a variety of opposing forces in Iraq. After a week of executive orders and appointments generally viewed as favorable to the United States, Kadhimi called the Iranian-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) heroes who are essential to the anti-ISIS fight in a visit to PMF headquarters. Kadhimi needs to maintain his ties with the PMF and Iran’s proxies in Iraq to prevent militia-led civil unrest and ultimately state collapse. However, Kadhimi also made a point of showcasing his leverage over the PMF by bringing with him the leaders of militias that defected from the PMF in April. Those defections threatened to fracture the PMF and offended the organization’s leadership which remains under Iranian, rather than Iraqi, government control.  Iran continues to work to demonstrate its influence over Iraqi affairs in other areas; the Iranian ambassador told Iranian media that Kadhimi asked for financial aid from Iran and said that Iraq remains “dependent” on Iran for financial support despite US pressure to sever those ties.

Click the image to enlarge. Click here to download the PDF.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Pro-regime Forces in Idlib Posture for Resumption of Offensive

By Isabel Ivanescu and John Dunford

Key Takeaway: The ceasefire in Greater Idlib remains tenuous. Recent force disposition indicates that the Syrian Regime is preparing for a renewed offensive in Southern Idlib Province should the ceasefire break down, but both the timing and likelihood of the offensive’s success remain uncertain and conditions dependent. A renewed regime offensive will require Russian support to sustainably seize territory from anti-Assad forces. However, Russian support will likely be contingent on a new negotiated agreement between Russia and Turkey, and the COVID-19 pandemic will likely delay such negotiations. The Syrian regime may attempt an offensive without Russian support despite the likelihood that it will be unsuccessful. Any regime offensive, whether Russian-backed or unilateral, will exacerbate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Greater Idlib.

This map provides an assessment of SAA and other pro-regime unit positions since the start of the ceasefire on March 5 to May 20 based on publicly-accessible information. Click on the map to expand it. Click here to read the full report. 

Friday, May 15, 2020

Iraq Situation Report: May 6-12, 2020

By: Brandon Wallace and Katherine Lawlor

Key Takeaway: New Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi jumpstarted his term by conducting a series of executive-level actions favorable to Iraq’s restive population and the United States, but potentially harmful to Iranian interests in Iraq. Kadhimi appointed powerful generals with US ties to head the US-trained Counterterrorism Service and Iranian-infiltrated Ministry of Interior, indicating a willingness to push back against corruption and Iranian influence in Iraq’s security sector. Kadhimi also issued orders likely designed to win over Iraq’s popular protest movement, which appeared divided over how to respond to the new government. Each of these moves challenges Iran’s influence in Iraq and may draw backlash from Iran’s political and militia allies in the country despite previous Iranian support for Kadhimi’s government. Kadhimi’s shift could benefit the United States, which Kadhimi is likely to court for financial support to mitigate Iraq’s ongoing budget crisis.

Click below to enlarge image. Click here to download PDF.

Russia in Review: Russian Security Cooperation Agreements Post-2014

Authors: Nataliya Bugayova, Mason Clark, and George Barros with Aleksei Zimnitca, Aidan Therrien, and Kayla Grose

This assessment and map are part of ISW’s upcoming report on Putin’s geopolitical thinking.

Key Takeaway: The COVID-19 crisis has impeded some of the Kremlin’s efforts but has not changed its objectives, one of which is expanding Russia’s power projection capabilities internationally. Russia’s military footprint and basing opportunities are expanding but remain limited. Putin is thus using coalitions and partnerships to amplify Russia’s security space - as ISW will analyze in its upcoming major report on Putin’s geopolitical thinking.

The Kremlin has signed over 90 agreements with 73 different countries and international organizations since 2014 - ranging from basic memorandums of understanding (MoU) to comprehensive strategic partnerships. The Kremlin classifies many of these agreements as either “military cooperation,” focused on joint training and educational exchanges, or “military-technical cooperation,” focused on expanding arms sales and equipment maintenance.

Most of the Kremlin’s agreements have limited substance and serve as non-binding calls to increase cooperation. Even basic agreements provide the Kremlin opportunities to participate in security conversations, cultivate global human networks, and develop potential avenues for future arms sales or the deployment of Russian personnel. The Kremlin has additionally signed numerous issue-specific agreements with individual countries. These security agreements focus on cooperation in counterterrorism, counter-narcotics, and anti-piracy operations, primarily as a stepping stone to an increased Russian presence and a way to engage other countries in the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda. These agreements also include joint intellectual property (IP) protection, port visitation rights that increase the Russian Navy’s power projection capabilities, military deconfliction agreements, and cooperation between internal security services and civilian national security agencies. Finally, the Kremlin has signed several high-level strategic partnerships, primarily with states in the former Soviet Union. 

Click here to view a detailed list of the agreements shown on the map.