Friday, October 23, 2020

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

October 23, 4:45 pm EDT

By George Barros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISW will continue monitoring the situation and providing updates.





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

[20] https://archive dot is/9YMXU

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





Tuesday, October 20, 2020

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

 October 20, 2020

By Mason Clark and George Barros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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




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


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


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




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






Monday, October 19, 2020

Belarus Warning Update: Lukashenko Attempts to De-escalate Protests Ahead of October 25 Opposition Ultimatum

 October 19, 2020, 7:00 pm EDT

By George Barros

Self-declared Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko is intensifying efforts to de-escalate protests and degrade protester will in the runup to October 25. Lukashenko set October 25 as the deadline for submissions “from the people” of Belarusian constitutional amendments on October 3. He likely seeks to use this amendment process to broker a pretend compromise with protesters to end the crisis without actually ceding power.[1] 

Lithuania-based Belarusian opposition leader Svitlana Tikhanouskaya likely saw the danger that this ploy would succeed and countered by demanding on October 13 that Lukashenko resign by October 25. Tikahnouskaya is thus setting the stage for large-scale anti-Lukashenko protests to upstage his announcement of the next phase of his efforts to create an off-ramp from the protest movement.

Lukashenko is relaxing his protester suppression and detention campaigns after having increased their brutality last weekend, likely to set more positive conditions for whatever announcement he plans to make on October 25. Belarusian security forces’ response to weekend protests were not as intense as those that occurred the week of October 11.[2] Belarusian authorities detained 215 protesters on October 18—half as many detentions as on October 11.[3]  

Lukashenko is also intensifying efforts to conduct pro-regime rallies rather than focusing only on suppressing anti-regime rallies as he has largely done for the past several weeks. Lukashenko reportedly planned multiple unspecified pro-government rallies in Minsk for the week of October 18-25.[4] These rallies are likely meant to offset the negativity of the anti-government protests and create the basis for a narrative of popular support for whatever changes he offers.

Lukashenko freed seven jailed opposition leaders after meeting with some of them on October 10.[5] Lukashenko freed seven Belarusian opposition leaders, including Maria Kolesnikova’s lawyer and Coordination Council member Lilia Vlasova, between October 14-16.[6] News of the releases did not surface until October 19. Lukashenko continues to hold prisoner senior opposition leaders Viktar Babariko, Maria Kolesnikova, and Sergei Tikhanousky –Tikhanouskaya’s husband – as leverage as of this writing. Lukashenko likely released the seven opposition leaders to appear willing to engage in dialogue and concede to limited protester demands. Lukashenko will likely leverage his current detainees as hostages to deter protest escalation.

Lukashenko continues to successfully reduce the size of the weekend protests. Saturday protests in Minsk continued to be small with only 100 women and 150 students participating in protests on October 17.[7] Approximately 50,000 protesters—which was the smallest size of Sunday protests since protests began in August—participated in the October 18 march.[8] Saturday protests have steadily declined in size since early September. ISW previously forecasted that weekend protests would decline in size – and may increasingly only occur on Sundays—due to successful pressure by Lukashenko, a lack of emerging local leadership in Belarus, and worsening weather.[9] Belarusian authorities’ October 12 threat to use lethal force to suppress protests “if necessary” likely also deterred some Belarusians from protesting on October 17-18.

Weekday protests are growing, but Lukashenko met them with pro-government protests rather than violence this week. Approximately 5,000 pensioners—significantly larger numbers than in this protest’s past two iterations—marched in Minsk on October 19.[10] Belarusian authorities cracked down harshly on pensioners on October 12.[11] Security forces did not crack down on the pensioners’ march on October 19 despite significant growth in this protest over one week.[12] Approximately 2,000 pro-Lukashenko counterdemonstrators protested the pensioners’ march without violence.[13]

Protests may escalate on Sunday, October 25, despite Lukashenko’s preparations. Lukashenko is unlikely to resign. Weekday protests are growing. Belarusian authorities’ avoidance of the use of lethal force to suppress protests on October 17-18 may embolden protesters to turn out in greater numbers on October 25. Belarusian protesters may have used October 18 as a rest and preparation day for large October 25 protests.

ISW will continue monitoring the situation and providing updates.




[3] http://belros dot tv/news/obschestvo/mvd-belarusi-v-protestakh-v-minske-prinyali-uchastie-do-7-tys-chelovek/;

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


[6] https://news.tut dot by/economics/704541.html; https://www.dw dot com/ru/lilija-vlasova-osvobozhdena-iz-sizo-kgb/a-55324066; https://www.belrynok dot by/2020/10/19/polittehnolog-shklyarov-osvobozhden-iz-sizo/; https://www.newsru dot com/world/19oct2020/shklyarov_free.html

[7] https://www.bfm dot ru/news/455828; https://ria dot ru/20201017/minsk-1580278324.html

[8]; https://www.themoscowtimes dot com/2020/10/18/tens-of-thousands-march-in-belarus-despite-police-threat-to-open-fire-a71785


[10] https://belaruspartisan dot by/politic/515559/;



[13] https://naviny dot media/new/20201019/1603112579-storonniki-lukashenko-poshli-vsled-za-uchastnikami-marsha-mudrosti; https://news.tut dot by/society/704615.html; https://charter97 dot org/ru/news/2020/10/19/397581/; https://www.rosbalt dor ru/world/2020/10/19/1868770.html; https://reform dot by/172676-tysjachi-pensionerov-vyshli-na-marsh-mudrosti-v-minske


Saturday, October 17, 2020

Russia May Deploy Conventional Forces to Syria

By Isabel Ivanescu

October 17, 2020

Key Takeaway: Russia may deploy conventional ground forces to Syria to gain leverage in negotiations with Turkey and possibly participate in a pro-Assad regime offensive. Russia and Turkey are pressing one another for concessions in negotiations concerning opposition-held Idlib Province. A Russian conventional military deployment remains unlikely, but various indicators have tripped in the past few weeks suggesting that Moscow could be preparing for one. Such a deployment would mark an inflection in Russia’s participation in Syria and an escalation in the conflict between Russia and Turkey.

Turkey and Russia are seeking leverage to set favorable conditions for a new round of negotiations about the fate of Idlib Province, as stalemate there persists. Russia-Turkey negotiations on Idlib on September 16, 2020, did not result in a settlement.[1] Turkey has subsequently reinforced its military positions in the province as Russia and the Assad regime have escalated airstrikes, shelling, and infiltration attempts.[2] Russia likely seeks a Turkish withdrawal from parts of southern Idlib to enable a pro-Assad regime offensive against Salafi-jihadist opposition forces without Turkish intervention. Turkey likely seeks concessions in other theaters of Russia-Turkey competition such as northeastern Syria, Libya, and the Caucasus. [3]

Turkey’s significant military advantage in Idlib gives it the upper hand in negotiations with Russia. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have a division-sized contingent (over 20,000 troops) in Idlib.[4] Turkey also maintains large proxy forces in Idlib, and Salafi-jihadist groups in Idlib would independently resist a regime advance. TSK forces are substantially more capable than their Russian-backed regime opponents; Turkish drone capabilities, for example, have decimated regime forces in limited prior engagements.[5] Turkey also has a military advantage relative to Russia by virtue of being on the defensive in Idlib, having interior lines in the area, and bordering Syria.

Neither Russia nor Turkey likely desires major military confrontation in Idlib. Russia fears losses to regime units in which it has invested heavily, such as the 25th Special Tasks Division (aka. Tiger Forces) and the 5th Corps. Turkish and Turkish-backed forces would also suffer losses, even if at a lower rate, given pro-regime artillery and air capabilities. Turkey would additionally risk losing ground in Idlib and, perhaps more importantly, losing access to Russian concessions it hopes to achieve in negotiations. A deployed Russian conventional unit would thus most likely be intended to compel Turkish concessions in negotiations rather than to participate in combat, although it would be prepared to do so if necessary.

Limited and inconclusive but still noteworthy indicators that Russia is preparing for a conventional forces deployment to Syria have been tripped. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated on September 21, 2020, “there is no need for the Syrian army and its allies to launch any attack on Idlib. It is only necessary to target terrorist sites and eliminate their only remaining outpost on Syrian territory.”[6] The apparent dismissal of an offensive operation in the first sentence is offset by the coded language of the second. Lavrov emphasized that Turkey is primarily responsible for the counter-terrorism mission in Idlib and has previously accused Turkey of failing to fulfill its counter-terrorism responsibilities.[7] Moscow has justified prior pro-regime offensives in Idlib as counter-terrorism operations. “[Practicing] joint operations to localize and resolve armed conflicts related to countering terrorism…in [the] southwest strategic direction” was among the principal stated goals of Russia’s Kavkaz-2020 military exercises, which ran September 21-26.[8]

Russian deployments thus far have been limited to headquarters elements, air units, and small numbers of Russian special forces, military police, and Russian private military contractors apart from one exception: the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade deployed to establish and defend Russia’s Hmeimim airbase in 2015 and participate in limited offensive operations on nearby front lines.  Russia discontinued this effort in 2017 after failing to make gains.[9]

Russian information operations in Syria and ostentatious exercises preparing to operate in a chemical warfare environment are another ambiguous sign of possible plans for a Russian conventional force deployment. ISW has observed a recurring indicator that the Syrian regime intends to conduct a chemical attack in Idlib Province with Russian approval. The Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria baselessly claimed on September 11, September 20, September 28, and October 13 that the al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) is planning a false flag chemical attack in greater Idlib and subsequently disseminated the claim through Russian and Syrian state media sources.[10] Such claims often precede new pro-regime offensives and have sometimes preceded regime chemical attacks, likely to muddy attribution.[11]

The Assad regime has used chemical attacks to degrade opposition factions and instill fear in civilians upwards of 300 times since the start of the Syrian civil war, but it lacks the capability to move ground forces in before chemical agents have dispersed.[12] Russian doctrine concerning chemical weapons use specifically calls for coordinating ground operations with chemical attacks to immediately capitalize on battlefield effects.[13] Many Russian units involved in the Kavkaz-2020 exercises as well as in contemporaneous snap exercises in Russia’s Western Military District trained in employing unknown CRBN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear) defense capabilities.[14] A Russian mechanized infantry battalion practiced operating in anti-chemical weapon isolation gear including gas masks on September 19.[15] Another Russian battalion-sized element practiced degassing and decontamination of terrain, equipment, and weapons on October 16 in an unrelated snap exercise.[16] Russian forces routinely exercise CRBN defense capabilities, but the scale and nature of these exercises is noteworthy, particularly when coupled with the ongoing information operation in Syria.

Recent Russian and Assad regime kinetic activity could indicate pro-regime forces are preparing for an assault on Jisr al-Shughour, an area important for the defense of Russia’s coastal base. Russian airstrikes on September 20, 2020, targeted a command center and several warehouses belonging to hardline al Qaeda-affiliate Hurras al-Din; Hurras al-Din fighters are primarily concentrated around Jisr al-Shughour.[17] The Assad regime shelled a Turkish observation post near Jisr al-Shughour on September 20. [18]  Russia also conducted airstrikes on Salafi-jihadist opposition forces near Jisr al-Shughour on October 14.[19] Jisr al-Shughour is a fortified jihadist-held urban center that threatens the security of Russia’s Hmeimim airbase and the Assad regime’s Alawite support base in Latakia Province. Russia considers Hmeimim one of its three permanent bases in Syria and is currently expanding its facilities.[20]

Russia has backed multiple regime attempts to capture Jisr al-Shughour since 2015 through the mountainous terrain to the city’s southwest, but regime forces failed at significant human and reputational cost.[21] More-capable Russian conventional forces may be able to succeed where Assad’s forces could not. Gains by pro-regime forces in southern Idlib from late 2019 to March 2020 have also set conditions for an attack on Jisr al-Shughour from the flatter terrain east of the city, wherein pro-regime forces would seize the Sahl al-Ghab Plain and cross the Orontes River to reach the city. ISW previously assessed—based on pro-regime force posture—that opposition-held areas south of the M4 highway, including the Sahl al-Ghab Plain, are the likeliest target of a forthcoming pro-regime offensive.[22] The map below shows this possible avenue of advance.

Deployment of a Russian conventional unit to Idlib could dramatically change the military balance in Idlib and likely incline Turkey to accept a less-lucrative negotiated settlement. A Russian deployment could also allow pro-regime forces to pursue more-ambitious objectives and adopt a new modus operandi in an imminent Idlib offensive if Russia permits its forces to participate in combat as well as posturing.

The deployment of Russian conventional units to Syria for participation in offensive operations remains unlikely but would mark a major inflection. A deployment of conventional Russian forces would solidify Russia’s position in Syria and give Russia an opportunity to test evolving doctrinal concepts and combat capabilities. However, it would require Russian willingness to resource Syria as a priority effort and tolerate increased risk to force.


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