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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Russia in Review: Kremlin Misdirection Continues amid COVID and Peace Processes


Authors: Mason Clark, Nataliya Bugayova, and George Barros

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin continues to exploit COVID-19 to advance its key campaigns. The Kremlin is trying to exploit two peace processes in the United Nations and Ukraine to lift sanctions on Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is also making lasting changes to Russia’s security services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, unbinding the police authority and empowering the Ministry of Defense both diplomatically and as an increasingly normalized domestic actor. The Kremlin has not lost sight of its key objectives during the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue its malign actions.  

The Kremlin is preparing to exploit an upcoming meeting of the United Nations Security Council’s permanent members – the P5 – to attempt to lift sanctions on Russia and its allies. The virtual meeting of the P5 will likely occur in early May.[1] French President Emmanuel Macron has called for the P5 to endorse a “global ceasefire” during the COVID-19 crisis. Macron stated on April 15 that he has secured the agreement of the US, UK, and China and hopes to convince Putin to join.[2] 

Putin will attempt to exploit Macron’s peace framework to achieve his own objectives. The Kremlin has not committed to Macron’s proposal thus far, stating Russian diplomats must “work” on the proposal before joining it.[3] Putin will likely attempt to secure a benefit to Russia before agreeing to Macron’s proposal. None of the other P5 states placed conditions on their support for the ceasefire. Macron is asking Putin for support, despite Putin being the aggressor in many of the conflicts to be covered by the global ceasefire. Putin has actively courted Macron on several issues and held numerous calls with him over the past year.[4]

Putin’s desired compensation for his support will likely focus on sanctions mitigation. The Kremlin is  framing Western sanctions as a crime during COVID-19 to support its long-standing objective of removing Western sanctions on Russia without reversing the malign activity that led to them.[5] The Kremlin conducted an outreach campaign on sanctions removal to every member of the P5 in mid-April.[6] The Kremlin will likely attempt to equate sanctions with conflict by convincing Macron to include sanctions removal in his ceasefire resolution. The US will likely veto any resolution that includes sanctions removal. ISW previously forecasted Putin would intentionally provoke the US into vetoing a COVID-19-related resolution in the UNSC to secure a rhetorical victory.[7] This attempt to provoke a US veto is also likely intended to further split Macron from the US by forcing the US to veto one of Macron’s key efforts. Putin may alternatively demand Macron’s support on other ongoing talks in exchange for not pushing the sanctions issue. The West must not fall for the Kremlin’s likely attempt to blame the West for the collapse of a ceasefire agreement due to Russian asks not being met.

Putin will attempt to advance a Kremlin-favorable peace process in Ukraine as he tries to lift sanctions. The foreign ministers of the Normandy Four – Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France – will hold a video conference to discuss the Ukrainian peace process on April 30.[8]

During the virtual meeting, the Kremlin will likely try to secure further Ukrainian concessions. Russia and Ukraine agreed in December to conduct an all-for-all prisoner exchange and withdraw forces from three new disengagement areas in Donbas, with the goal of disengagement from these sites by the end of March 2020.[9] Ukraine also agreed to make a public joint statement with Russia that it is “necessary” to incorporate the Steinmeier Formula, a Kremlin-favorable interpretation of the Minsk agreements, into Ukrainian law.[10]

Ukraine did not implement this disengagement by March 2020 due to continued Russian pressure. Kremlin-controlled proxies attacked two of the three Ukrainian withdrawal zones in January and February, despite the Kremlin’s posturing as a peacemaker.[11] Ukraine has not adopted the Steinmeier Formula in part due to resistance from Ukrainian civil society.[12] The formula, which the Kremlin manipulated Zelensky’s government into last year, carries long-term risks for Ukrainian sovereignty that ISW has previously described.[13] The December 2019 agreement additionally does not stipulate any timeline for incorporating the Steinmeier Formula.

The Kremlin is falsely framing that Ukraine has stalled the peace process. The Kremlin will continue pressuring Ukraine into concessions using prisoner exchanges as a bargaining chip.[14] Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov stated on April 28 Ukraine has not yet completed its “homework” by implementing the December 2019 agreements, ignoring that the Kremlin had not implemented its own side of the agreements. Lavrov claimed that the peace talks in their current form “do not make sense” due to Ukrainian policy positions.[15]  The Kremlin may attempt to reboot the stalled process to create a joint “advisory council” – a body Ukraine and Russia discussed on March 11 that would facilitate direct Ukrainian talks with Kremlin-controlled proxies for the first time in the war and advance the Kremlin’s objective of legitimizing its aggression in Ukraine.[16]

The current situation presents both risk and opportunity for Ukraine. Ukraine should recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic and oil price collapse have weakened the Kremlin’s power to extract its desired concessions. These circumstances provide Ukraine more room to maneuver in the short term. Ukraine and the West should recognize that Putin is driving toward a deal with the West on multiple fronts while simultaneously pursuing the Kremlin’s campaign against Ukraine. Ukraine and the West should be careful not to mistake Putin’s posturing as a constructive international partner and peacemaker in Ukraine as a change in Putin’s intent or strategic objectives.

Public discontent with the Kremlin’s COVID-19 response highlights additional weaknesses in Putin’s system. Approximately 2000 people protested self-quarantine orders in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, on April 20.[17] The protesters demanded authorities reopen work, remove the quarantine, and called on the regional governor to resign. Riot police arrested 39 protesters. The Kremlin decried the protests as illegal and opened criminal investigations against the protesters. Russians in several cities additionally began a series of “online protests” on April 20, utilizing Yandex.Maps – a popular service equivalent to Google Maps – to leave comments near government buildings calling for better services and the end of quarantine.[18] As with physical protests, Russian authorities swiftly moved to delete negative messages, particularly those focused on federal government buildings including the Kremlin. An increase in available time, and a lack of risk compared to confronting riot police, will likely drive increased numbers of Russians to online forms of resistance, though the Kremlin’s recently strengthened censorship apparatus will likely minimize the impact of digital protest.[19] The Kremlin will successfully suppress future protests but will likely face increasing public discontent, impeding centralized framing of an effective response to the virus.

The Kremlin is responding to COVID-19 by empowering its security services, including both law enforcement and expanding the role of the military. The Russian government allocated 2.66 billion rubles (approximately $360 million) to the Ministry of Defense and other security services to fight COVID-19 on April 13.[20] The Kremlin is additionally preparing legislation to further empower Russian law enforcement by providing expanded immunity from prosecution and expanding their search and seizure powers – implicitly preparing to shield police following anticipated human rights abuses.[21] Putin likely perceives a need to intensify his societal control mechanisms as economic and COVID-19 pressures mount. Putin additionally likely seeks to secure the loyalty of police and security officers by legally shielding them as public discontent increases.

The Kremlin is empowering the Ministry of Defense (MoD) as a humanitarian and non-military actor, an expanded role that will likely continue beyond the COVID-19 crisis. Russian Defense Minister Shoigu announced the mobilization of 30,000 military personnel in 17 newly formed military medical units to combat COVID-19 domestically on April 24.[22] The Kremlin continues to leverage the MoD to act as a humanitarian actor internationally despite facing medical supply shortages in Russia. The Kremlin sent medical personnel and medical equipment to its allies and partners in Serbia, Moldova, Serbia-affiliated Bosnian political entity Republika Srpska, and Russian proxy republic Abkhazia throughout April.[23] The MoD previously shipped personnel and medical supplies to Italy and the United States in March.[24] The Kremlin has not employed the military in similar global public relations campaigns during past crises, instead relying on state run but non-government partners to leverage soft power. For example, the Kremlin relied on projects funded through Rusal, a Russian aluminum company, to combat Ebola in Africa.[25] The Kremlin will likely further leverage the MoD to support non-military lines of effort. The MoD’s responsibilities will increasingly encompass non-military efforts, both domestically and internationally as a tool of diplomatic outreach.

The Kremlin’s priorities and reactions during the COVID-19 crisis will have long-term effects. The Kremlin continues to attempt to exploit the global health crisis to advance its long-term objective of lifting sanctions without reversing the Kremlin’s original malign behavior. The Kremlin will likely leverage ties with Macron to advance its narratives but is unlikely to successfully link sanctions relief to a global ceasefire – potentially undermining the ceasefire in the process. The Kremlin is similarly attempting to quietly advance its preferred Ukrainian peace process despite worsening Russian economic and diplomatic problems. Finally, Putin’s further empowerment of internal security services and his expansion of the role of the MoD to new diplomatic and internal situations will remain past the COVID-19 crisis, further limiting Russian freedoms and expanding the role of the MoD in Kremlin policy.



[1] “No Exact Date for UN P5 Online Summit Yet – Kremlin,” TASS, April 23, 2020, https://tass((.))com/politics/1148721.
[2] “Russia to Announce its Stance on Global Ceasefire due to COVID-19 Pandemic Soon — Kremlin,” TASS, April 16, 2020, https://tass((.))com/politics/1145687; “France’s Macron Says he Hopes to Secure Putin Backing for UN Truce Plea,” Reuters, April 14, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-truce-macron/frances-macron-says-he-hopes-to-secure-putin-backing-for-un-truce-plea-idUSKCN21X0EE.
[3] Pierre Bairin and Emma Reynolds, “France's President Says US and China Back a World Truce -- and he Thinks Putin will 'Definitely Agree,'” CNN, April 15, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/15/world/macron-world-truce-putin-intl/index.html.
[4] George Barros, “Russia in Review: The Kremlin Faces Setbacks in the Balkans,” Institute for the Study of War, April 23, 2020, http://www.iswresearch.org/2020/04/russia-in-review-kremlin-faces-setbacks.html; 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, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russia-review-putin-accelerates-ukraine-campaign-amid-converging-crises; George Barros and Nataliya Bugayova, “Europe Cedes Opportunity in Russia-Ukraine Energy Deal,” Institute for the Study of War, January 30, 2020, http://www.iswresearch.org/2020/01/europe-cedes-opportunity-in-russia.html.
[5] Mason Clark with Aleksei Zimnitca and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Kremlin Attempts to Exploit COVID-19 Crisis to Remove Sanctions on Russia and its Partners,” Institute for the Study of War, April 3, 2020, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russia-review-kremlin-attempts-exploit-covid-19-crisis-remove-sanctions-russia-and-its.
[6] Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin spoke with Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Hanhui on COVID-19 and UNSC coordination on April 22; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held a phone call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the UNSC on April 17; Putin held a phone call with Chinese President Xi Xinping on the UNSC on April 17; and Putin and Macron held a phone call on COVID-19 and sanctions on April 17. [“About the Telephone Conversation Between Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and US Secretary of State Pompeo,”] Russian MFA, April 17, 2020, https://www.mid((.))ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4101182; [“Telephone Conversation with President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping,”] Kremlin, April 16, 2020, http://kremlin((.))ru/events/president/news/63209; http://kremlin((.))ru/events/president/news/63211; [“About the Telephone Conversation of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Morgulov with the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the People's Republic of China in Russia Zhang Hanhui,”] Russian MFA, April 24, 2020, https://www.mid((.))ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4105259.
[7] Mason Clark with Aleksei Zimnitca and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Kremlin Attempts to Exploit COVID-19 Crisis to Remove Sanctions on Russia and its Partners,” Institute for the Study of War, April 3, 2020, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russia-review-kremlin-attempts-exploit-covid-19-crisis-remove-sanctions-russia-and-its.
[8] “Normandy-format Meeting to be Held via Video Conference on April 30 – Foreign Ministry,” Ukrinform, April 23, 2020, https://www.ukrinform((.))net/rubric-polytics/3011305-normandyformat-meeting-to-be-held-via-video-conferencing-on-april-30-foreign-ministry.html.
[9] Ukraine withdrew forces from the first three pilot disengagement sites in Stanitsa Luhanksa in July 2019, Zolote in November 2019, and Petrivske in November 2019. 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, https://www.iswresearch.org/2020/02/russia-in-review-kremlins-fake-de.html; “Overall Agreed Conclusions of the Paris Summit in the Normandy Format of December 9, 2019,” President of Ukraine, December 10, 2019, https://www.president.gov((.))ua/en/news/zagalni-uzgodzheni-visnovki-parizkogo-samitu-v-normandskomu-58797.
[10] “Overall Agreed Conclusions of the Paris Summit in the Normandy Format of December 9, 2019,” President of Ukraine, December 10, 2019, https://www.president.gov((.))ua/en/news/zagalni-uzgodzheni-visnovki-parizkogo-samitu-v-normandskomu-58797.
[11] 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, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russia-review-kremlins-fake-de-escalation-donbas.
[12] Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Putin Advances in Ukraine and Its Neighboring States,” Institute for the Study of War, October 15, 2019, https://www.iswresearch.org/2019/10/russia-in-review-putin-advances-in.html.
[13] Nataliya Bugayova with George Barros, “The Perils of Talks on Russia’s War in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, December 7, 2019, http://www.iswresearch.org/2019/12/the-perils-of-talks-on-russias-war-in.html.
[14] [“Peskov: ‘Homework’ for a New Meeting of Leaders of the "Normandy Format" has Not Yet Been Done,”] TASS, April 28, 2020, https://tass((.))ru/politika/8352079.
[15] [“Lavrov Said the Summit of the "Normandy Four" So Far Does Not Make Sense Because of the Position of Kyiv,”] TASS, April 27, 2020, https://tass((.))ru/politika/8342955.
[16] 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, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russia-review-putin-accelerates-ukraine-campaign-amid-converging-crises.
[17] [“Rally Against Self-Isolation in Vladikiavkaz,”] Media Zone, April 22, 2020, https://zona((.))media/chronicle/vladikavkaz; [“In Vladikavkaz Opened a Case of Violence Against Police During a Protest,”] Interfax, April 22, 2020, https://www.interfax((.))ru/russia/705458; [“In Vladikavkaz, Hundreds of People Came Out to Protest,”] Svoboda, April 20, 2020, https://www.svoboda.org/a/30565781.html.
[18] Daria Kozlova, [“’We Want to Eat, There is No Work!’”] Novaya Gazeta, April 20, 2020, https://novayagazeta((.))ru/articles/2020/04/20/85010-hotim-est-raboty-net.
[19] Mason Clark, “Russia in Review: Kremlin Tests Authoritarian Societal Control Measures during COVID-19 Crisis,” Institute for the Study of War, April 13, 2020, http://www.iswresearch.org/2020/04/russia-in-review-kremlin-tests.html.
[20] The Ministry of Defense received the largest portion of the money, with 2.3 billion rubles. Other agencies receiving funding include the Russian National Guard, the FSB, and Russia’s Penitentiary Service. [“Order of the Government of the Russian Federation of 04.13.2020 No. 1006-r,”] Official Internet Portal of Legal Information of the Russian Government, April 14, 2020, http://publication.pravo.gov((.))ru/Document/View/0001202004140032.
[21] [“Government Intends to Expand Police Powers,”] The Bell, April 22, 2020; https://thebell.io/pravitelstvo-namereno-rasshirit-polnomochiya-politsii/; [“Police Officers were Offered Permission to Open Cars and Cordon Off Housing,”] Interfax, April 22, 2020, https://www.interfax((.))ru/russia/705418.
[22] [“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.
[23] [“The Russian Aerospace Forces Completed the Operation to Transfer to the Republic of Serbia Russian Military Specialists, the Necessary Equipment and Machinery to Assist Serbia,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, April 4, 2020, https://function.mil((.))ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12285128@egNews; “Russian Aid Delivery to Republika Srpska Complete,” TASS, April 10, 2020, https://tass((.))com/society/1142823; [“Russia Sent the Military to Abkhazia to Combat COVID-19 at the Request of the Acting President,”] Sputnik Abkhazia, April 17, 2020, https://sputnik-abkhazia((.))ru/coronavirus/20200417/1029925325/Rossiya-napravila-voennykh-v-Abkhaziyu-dlya-borby-s-COVID-19-po-zaprosu-io-prezidenta.html; “Russian Defense Ministry Delivers Chinese aid to Moldova to Help Fight Coronavirus,” TASS, April 19, 2020, https://tass((.))com/russia/1146927; “At the Request of the Moldovan Side, the Russian Ministry of Defense Carried Out an Operation to Transfer Medical Equipment by the Military Transport Aviation of the Russian Aerospace Forces,” Russian Ministry of Defense, April 20, 2020, http://eng.mil((.))ru/en/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12287612@egNews.
[24] Mason Clark with Aleksei Zimnitca and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Kremlin Attempts to Exploit COVID-19 Crisis to Remove Sanctions on Russia and its Partners,” Institute for the Study of War, April 3, 2020, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russia-review-kremlin-attempts-exploit-covid-19-crisis-remove-sanctions-russia-and-its.
[25] Nataliya Bugayova, Mason Clark, Michaela Walker, Andre Briere, Anthony Yanchuk, and George Barros, “The Kremlin’s Inroads After the Africa Summit,” Institute for the Study of War, November 8, 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/kremlins-inroads-after-africa-summit.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Iraq Situation Report: April 15-21, 2020

By Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace

Key Takeaway: Iraq’s political elites are conditioning their support for Prime Minister (PM)-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi on the composition of his cabinet. The widening rift between Kadhimi and Iran-backed blocs has led Kadhimi to preserve the traditional system of ethno-sectarian quota filling, to marginalize protester demands, and to step up his comments about the “unjustified foreign [US] presence” in an attempt to mend ties. Behind the scenes, the US and Iran have continued their competition to influence Iraq’s future. Members of several Iranian proxy militias took over two areas in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone near both the PM’s office and the US Embassy, placing additional pressure on Kadhimi to conform with Iranian political objectives as he rebuilds his cabinet. Meanwhile, the United States has announced a $26 million aid package to help address COVID-19 in Iraq and successfully exerted pressure on the Iraqi government to reduce its dependence on Iranian energy imports.


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Thursday, April 23, 2020

Russia in Review: The Kremlin Faces Setbacks in the Balkans



By George Barros

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is losing initiative and influence in several Balkan states. North Macedonia joined NATO despite Russia’s efforts to prevent it. Russia’s strategic partner Serbia is increasingly vocal about its aspirations to join the EU. Balkan states are curbing the influence of Russian energy and the Russian Orthodox Church in their countries. The Kremlin is attempting to counteract these potential influence losses by exploiting its connections to Serbia’s defense establishment to prevent Serbia from deepening ties with the EU. The West should keep the Kremlin on the defensive in Europe by supporting ongoing EU and NATO efforts to integrate the Western Balkans.

The Kremlin is facing setbacks in the Balkans due to the West’s intensified outreach and limits to Russia’s value proposition. Halting the expansion of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the Balkans is a major Russian strategic objective. Serbia-Kosovo normalization talks might resume and could open a path to Serbia’s EU accession. The Kremlin likely has overestimated the extent to which it can curb Serbia’s European aspirations. Montenegro threatens to reduce the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, a key vector for Russian soft power influence. An EU ruling in March limited the Kremlin’s energy leverage over Bulgaria. In late March, North Macedonia joined NATO despite strong Kremlin resistance.[1]

The EU intensified its outreach to the Balkans in recent months. The European Commission proposed a new enlargement procedure for the Western Balkans, calling the region their “top priority,” on February 5.[2] An enlargement procedure is a plan for an EU candidate country to meet the necessary criteria for EU membership. The EU intensified outreach to Serbia after struggling to restart normalization talks between Kosovo and Serbia since 2018.[3] The talks stalled when Kosovo imposed a 100-percent tariff on Serbian goods in response to Serbia blocking Kosovo’s bid to join Interpol in November 2018.[4] Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo and normalization of relations between the two countries are preconditions for both Serbia and Kosovo’s EU accession processes.[5]

French President Emmanuel Macron pledged “unconditional support” for Serbia’s pursuit of its “European path” in a call with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on April 2.[6] Macron also reversed his opposition to EU expansion in Albania and North Macedonia in February, when he said France is open to both countries beginning EU accession talks.[7] The change in Macron’s rhetoric likely indicates consolidating political consensus in the EU on expanding into the Balkans. The EU planned a Western Balkans summit in Zagreb for May 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the bloc to postpone it.[8]

President Vucic is responding positively to the EU’s outreach, and Kosovo might be setting conditions to renew talks. Vucic said in January that the Serbian people “don’t see a real alternative” to joining the EU.[9] Vucic met with Kosovo’s president and top US officials in Washington, DC, in March – representing progress in Serbia and Kosovo’s stalled dialogue.[10] Vucic called for “compromise” on Kosovo resulting in “guarantees for a much better future” during his US trip, likely referencing EU membership guarantees in exchange for recognizing Kosovo.[11] Vucic expressed support for the EU’s new enlargement procedure on February 6.[12] Vucic is doubling down on his pro-European rhetoric after balancing between Europe and Russia for several years.[13] Vucic may be setting expectations for the Serbian people for a deal in which Serbia recognizes Kosovo in exchange for EU membership guarantees.

Kosovo might be setting conditions to renew normalization talks with Serbia. Kosovo lifted its 100-percent tariff on Serbian goods – a major impediment to Kosovo and Serbia’s normalization talks – on April 1.[14] However, Kosovo’s outgoing interim prime minister, Albin Kurti, threatened to reimpose the tariffs unless Serbia delivered reciprocal concessions by June 15.[15] That said, Kurti’s threat to reinstate the tariff may be hollow; he lost a vote of no confidence on March 25 and may not be prime minister when the June 15 deadline passes.[16] Kurti likely agreed to completely remove the tariff only after he failed his vote of no confidence in an attempt to expand his political leverage inside Kosovo. Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi is attempting to remove Kurti and is likely supportive of removing the tariff and resuming talks with Serbia.[17] US officials pressured Kurti for refusing to completely remove Kosovo’s tariff against Serbia in February.[18]

Vucic is likely trying to extract major political concessions from Kosovo and the EU during Serbia’s accession process. Serbian officials expressed discontent with Kosovo’s tariff removal because the lifting came with additional demands from Kurti.[19] Serbian officials likely understand that Kosovo may not reimpose the tariff on June 15 due to Western political pressure and uncertainty about Kurti’s tenure as interim prime minister and may refuse to make concessions as a result. Regardless of the outcome of Serbia and Kosovo’s political maneuverings, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely stall progress on the countries’ normalization talks.

The Kremlin is mitigating a potential loss of influence in Serbia by increasing its outreach there.

The Kremlin’s objectives in the Balkans include maintaining influence in Serbia and non-recognition of Kosovo. The Kremlin describes NATO’s 1999 military intervention in Serbia and the subsequent creation of Kosovo as a classic example of an “illegal NATO intervention.”[20] The Kremlin opposes EU and NATO expansion into Serbia. Serbia and Kosovo’s mutual recognition would open a pathway for Serbia’s EU accession, eroding Kremlin influence in the Balkans. Russia also seeks to maintain its cultural influence in Serbia and the reach of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Kremlin increased its military outreach to Serbia as the EU increased engagement with Serbia. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu met with Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin in Serbia on February 17.[21] A Russian shipment of Pantsir-S1 air defense systems arrived in Serbia on February 24.[22] The Kremlin is likely trying to cultivate new and reinforce existing human connections and institutional links in Serbia’s defense establishment to consolidate opposition to future talks with Kosovo and Serbia’s integration with the West. The Kremlin may exploit its influence among Serbian defense officials to set conditions for political and military resistance against the expansion of Western structures in Serbia.[23] The Kremlin has been carrying out a campaign to expand its influence in Serbia at all levels, including the military, economy, and infrastructure spheres – a campaign ISW analyzed in detail.[24]

The Kremlin is exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to increase its influence in Serbia and the Republika Srpska – as the Kremlin likely previously did in Italy and the United States. The Russian Air Force sent at least 87 military specialists with military and medical equipment to Serbia on April 3-4.[25] The Kremlin sent military cargo planes with medical supplies and military experts to the Republika Srpska – the political entity for Serbs within Bosnia – on April 10.[26] Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik thanked the Kremlin for its assistance.[27] The Kremlin may also be using counter-COVID-19 measures as a pretext to deploy military units to collect intelligence on Serbia and Europe, as Russian military intelligence likely did when the Kremlin deployed Russian military assets and “humanitarian aid” to Italy and the United States in March.[28]




The Russian Orthodox Church may lose influence in Montenegro – another state in the Balkans. Montenegrin President Milos Djukanovic signed a law in December that could strip the Serbian Orthodox Church of hundreds of religious sites in Montenegro.[29] The Serbian Orthodox Church denounced the law and organized protests that injured four Montenegrin police officers.[30] The Serbian Orthodox Church is allied with the Russian Orthodox Church, a Kremlin foreign policy tool.[31] Djukanovic accused the Serbian Orthodox Church of promoting policies that undermine Montenegro, a NATO member and EU membership candidate.[32] A loss of Serbian Orthodox Church influence in Montenegro would likely prelude a loss of Kremlin influence in Montenegro. The Kremlin is likely using its influence in the Serbian Orthodox Church to undermine Montenegro’s EU membership aspirations.[33]

The EU forced the Kremlin to cut energy prices for Bulgaria. Russian state-owned gas operator Gazprom cut gas prices to Bulgaria by 40 percent to comply with a European Commission antitrust ruling on March 3.[34] Bulgaria is the latest of eight European states, including the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia, to agree on gas price cuts with Gazprom under the European Commission’s ruling.[35] The Kremlin regularly seeks energy deals that place other countries at a disadvantage, though it typically casts these deals as fair trades or even concessions by Russia. For example, the West allowed the Kremlin to secure a deal with Ukraine in December 2019 that eroded Ukraine’s long-term energy leverage against Russia.[36] In contrast, Western intervention, specifically by the European Commission, cost the Kremlin leverage over Bulgaria and reduced Russian revenue. Furthermore, Bulgaria, like other European actors, is diversifying its gas imports, eroding a key point of Russian leverage.[37]

The Kremlin was unable to stop the NATO accession of North Macedonia, another Balkan state. North Macedonia joined NATO on March 27.[38] The Kremlin accused NATO of “procedural and legislative violations” in North Macedonia’s accession. The Kremlin claimed there is no “single clear justification” for North Macedonia’s NATO membership, that it does not offer any national security value for Europe or Macedonia and only creates further divisions.[39] The Kremlin tried to use an information operation to disrupt the process of North Macedonia’s renaming, a condition for North Macedonia’s NATO membership.[40] The Kremlin similarly tried and failed to stop the NATO accession of Montenegro in 2017.[41] These events mark significant setbacks for the Kremlin’s efforts to prevent NATO expansion in the Balkans.


Implications and Recommendations:

The Kremlin likely overestimated its ability to curb Serbia’s European aspirations. The Kremlin will leverage its instruments of influence in Serbia, such as Serbia’s defense establishment, in an attempt to spoil the normalization talks between Serbia and Kosovo. The COVID-19 pandemic will likely slow Serbia and Kosovo’s normalizations talks and support the Kremlin’s efforts. The Kremlin will likely continue to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to intensify these shaping operations. The United States should support the EU and NATO’s efforts to integrate the Western Balkans. The United States should set conditions to advance talks between Kosovo and Serbia with the end goal of securing Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo. The EU should reschedule its postponed EU-Western Balkans summit to advance the EU accession of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.
______________________________


[1] Tsvetelia Tsolova, “UPDATE 2-Bulgaria Agrees Deal to Cut Price of Russian Gas Imports by 40%,” Reuters, March 3, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/bulgaria-russia-gas-prices/update-2-bulgaria-agrees-deal-to-cut-price-of-russian-gas-imports-by-40-idUSL8N2AW22T ; “North Macedonia joins NATO as 30th Ally,” NATO Press Center, March 27, 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_174589.htm.
[2] “A More Credible, Dynamic, Predictable and Political EU Accession Process - Commission Lays Out its Proposals,” European Commission Press Center, February 5, 2020. https://ec.europa(.)eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_20_181.
[3] Michaela Walker, Andrea Snyder, Darina Regio, and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Balkans Campaign Update” Institute for the Study of War, May 9, 2019, https://www.iswresearch.org/2019/05/russia-in-review-balkans-campaign-update.html.
[4] Plator Gashi, Eve-anne Travers and Filip Rudic, “Kosovo’s Bid to Join Interpol Fails,” Balkan Insight, November 20, 2018, https://balkaninsight(.)com/2018/11/20/kosovo-s-bid-to-join-interpol-fails-11-20-2018/ ; “Kosovo Slaps 100 Percent Tariffs On Serbia, Bosnia To 'Defend Vital Interest,'” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 21, 2018, https://www.rferl.org/a/kosovo-slaps-100-percent-tariffs-on-serbia-bosnia-to-defend-vital-interest-/29613285.html.
[5] “Remarks by Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi at the Joint Press Point with Aleksandar Vučić, President of Serbia,” European Commission Press Center, February 6, 2020, https://ec.europa(.)eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/varhelyi/announcements/remarks-commissioner-oliver-varhelyi-joint-press-point-aleksandar-vucic-president-serbia_en.
[6] “Telephone Conversation with the President of the Republic of France,” The President of the Republic of Serbia Press Center, April 2, 2020, https://www.predsednik(.)rs/en/press-center/press-releases/telephone-conversation-with-the-president-of-the-republic-of-france.
[7] John Irish and Robin Emmott, “Macron Opens Door to North Macedonia, Albania EU Accession Talks,” Reuters, February 15, 2020, https://www.reuters(.)com/article/us-germany-security-macron-balkans/macron-opens-door-to-north-macedonia-albania-eu-accession-talks-idUSKBN2090DM.
[8] “EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb Postponed, New Date Possible in June,” European Western Balkans, April 8, 2020, https://europeanwesternbalkans(.)com/2020/04/08/eu-western-balkans-summit-in-zagreb-postponed-new-date-possible-in-june/.
[9] “Serbia Committed to Joining European Union, says President Aleksandar Vučić,” Euronews, January 23, 2020, https://www.euronews(.)com/2020/01/23/serbia-committed-to-joining-european-union-says-president-aleksandar-vucic.
[10] “Vucic, Thaci Hold Meeting in Washington,” Independent Balkan News Agency, March 3, 2020, https://balkaneu(.)com/vucic-thaci-hold-meeting-in-the-us/ ; Dagmar Skrpec, “Playing the Field in Serbia: Aleksandar Vucic’s Dance between Russia and the West,” Foreign Affairs, September 11, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/serbia/2015-09-11/playing-field-serbia.
[11] Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer, “Vucic: Most Serbs Prefer a ‘Frozen Conflict’ with Kosovo,” Foreign Policy, March 4, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/04/serbian-president-aleksandar-vucic-interview-frozen-conflict-kosovo/.
[12] “Serbia's Vucic Backs Changes To EU Accession Process,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 6, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/serbia-s-vucic-backs-changes-to-eu-accession-process/30421003.html.
[13] Aleksandar Vasovic, Ivana Sekularac, “Serbia's Vucic Confirms Domination with Presidential Win,” Reuters, April 1, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-serbia-election/serbias-vucic-confirms-domination-with-presidential-win-idUSKBN1733VI ; Dagmar Skrpec, “Playing the Field in Serbia: Aleksandar Vucic’s Dance between Russia and the West,” Foreign Affairs, September 11, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/serbia/2015-09-11/playing-field-serbia.
[14] “Kosovo Lifts All Tariffs on Serbian, Bosnian Goods,” DW, April 1, 2020, https://www.dw(.)com/en/kosovo-lifts-all-tariffs-on-serbian-bosnian-goods/a-52975561.
[15] Llazar Semini, “Kosovo Lifts 100% Tariff on Serb, Bosnian Goods,” Associated Press, March 31, 2020, https://apnews.com/bc2a6ce8674ab51d18fe7c5496b898cd.
[16] Xhorxhina Bami, “No-Confidence Vote Topples Kurti Govt in Kosovo,” Balkan Insight, March 25, 2020, https://balkaninsight(.)com/2020/03/25/no-confidence-vote-topples-kurti-govt-in-kosovo/ ; Xhorxhina Bami, “Kosovo President Presses Leaders Over Unity Govt,” Balkan Insight, April 1, 2020, https://balkaninsight(.)com/2020/04/01/kosovo-president-presses-leaders-over-national-unity-govt/.
[16] “Kosovo Lifts 100 Percent Tariff On Serbia; Belgrade Calls It 'Fake News,'” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 1, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/kosovo-lifts-serbia-tariffs-belgrade/30521305.html ; Xhorxhina Bami, “No-Confidence Vote Topples Kurti Govt in Kosovo,” Balkan Insight, March 25, 2020, https://balkaninsight(.)com/2020/03/25/no-confidence-vote-topples-kurti-govt-in-kosovo/ ; Xhorxhina Bami, “Kosovo President Presses Leaders Over Unity Govt,” Balkan Insight, April 1, 2020, https://balkaninsight(.)com/2020/04/01/kosovo-president-presses-leaders-over-national-unity-govt/.
[16] “Kosovo Lifts 100 Percent Tariff On Serbia; Belgrade Calls It 'Fake News,'” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 1, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/kosovo-lifts-serbia-tariffs-belgrade/30521305.html.
[17] Xhorxhina Bami, “Thaci Push for Unity Government in Kosovo Deemed Futile,” Balkan Insight, March 30, 2020 https://balkaninsight(.)com/2020/03/30/thaci-push-for-unity-government-in-kosovo-deemed-futile/ ; Xhorxhina Bami, “Policy Rift Widens Between Kosovo President and PM,” Balkan Insight, March 10, 2020, https://balkaninsight(.)com/2020/03/10/policy-rift-widens-between-kosovo-president-and-pm/ ; “Thaci Urges Kosovo’s Lawmakers To Consider Western Ties When Talking Tariffs,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 1, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/thaci-urges-kosovo-s-lawmakers-to-consider-western-ties-when-talking-tariffs/29746136.html ; “Clash of Thaçi and Kurti Over Tariffs Continues,” European Western Balkans, March 12, 2020, https://europeanwesternbalkans(.)com/2020/03/12/clash-of-thaci-and-kurti-over-tariffs-continues/.
[18] “U.S. Envoy Calls Kosovo's Decision To Partially Lift Serbian Import Tariffs A 'Serious Mistake,'” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 28, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/u-s-envoy-calls-kosovo-s-decision-to-partially-lift-serbian-import-tariffs-a-serious-mistake-/30459227.html.
[19] “Kosovo Lifts 100 Percent Tariff On Serbia; Belgrade Calls It 'Fake News,'” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 1, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/kosovo-lifts-serbia-tariffs-belgrade/30521305.html.
[20] NATO’s 2011 military intervention in Libya is another of the Kremlin’s examples of “illegal NATO intervention.” [“Statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry Concerning the Anniversary of NATO’s Aggression Against the Union of the Republic of Yugoslavia,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, March 27, 2001, https://www.mid(.)ru/ru/maps/rs/-/asset_publisher/GLz7aPgDnSfP/content/id/587216 ; [“‘An Absolute Violation of International Law’: How NATO’s Bombing of Yugoslavia Changed the World,”] RT, March 24, 2019, https://russian.rt(.)com/world/article/614701-nato-yugoslavia-bombardirovki.
[21] Dusan Stojanovic, “Russian Defense Minister Visits Serbia Amid Balkan Tensions,” ABC News, February 17, 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/russian-defense-minister-visits-serbia-amid-balkan-tensions-69031454.
[22] “Serbia Receives Delivery Of Russian Antiaircraft Systems Despite U.S. Sanction Threats,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 24, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/serbia-receives-delivery-russian-antiaircraft-systems-despite-u-s-sanction-threats/30450693.html.
[23] Nataliya Bugayova and Anthony Yanchuk, “Russia in Review: The Kremlin's Block in the Balkans,” Institute for the Study of War, December 17, 2019, https://www.iswresearch.org/2019/12/russia-in-review-kremlins-block-in.html.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Lina Davydova, [“Virologists and Therapists: A Colonel of the Medical Service Spoke about the Specialists who Arrived in Serbia,”] Tv Zvezda, April 4, 2020, https://tvzvezda(.)ru/news/forces/content/20204493-RR9HX.html ; “All 11 Il-76 Aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces with Military Epidemiologists Arrived in Serbia,” Newsfront, April 4, 2020, https://en.news-front(.)info/2020/04/04/all-11-il-76-aircraft-of-the-russian-aerospace-forces-with-military-epidemiologists-arrived-in-serbia/ ; “The 11th Plane with Russian Aid Arrives in Serbia,” Oculus News, April 5, 2020, https://www.ocnal(.)com/2020/04/the-11th-plane-with-russian-aid-arrives.html.
[26] “Russian Aid Delivery to Republika Srpska Complete,” TASS, April 10, 2020, https://tass(.)com/society/1142823.
[27] “Three Russian planes has Delivered Aid to Republika Srpska,” Russian Aviation, April 10, 2020, https://www.ruaviation(.)com/news/2020/4/10/14942/?h ; “Russian Aid Delivery to Republika Srpska Complete,” TASS, April 10, 2020, https://tass(.)com/society/1142823 ; [“A Russian Plane with Medical Aid arrived in the Republika Srpska,”] EurAsia Daily, April 10, 2020, https://eadaily(.)com/ru/news/2020/04/10/v-respubliku-serbskuyu-pribyl-rossiyskiy-samolet-s-medicinskoy-pomoshchyu.
[28] John Follain, Alessandro Speciale, and Stepan Kravchenko, “Italy Questions Russians Over Their Goodwill Virus Gestures,” Bloomberg, April 3, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-03/italy-questions-russians-over-their-goodwill-virus-gestures ; Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood, “Russian Coronavirus Aid Delivery to US Prompts Confusion and Criticism,” CNN, April 2, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/02/politics/russia-medical-supplies-us-propaganda/index.html
[29] The law requires Montenegrin religious communities to prove they owned their property before 1918, when the Kingdom of Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. If religious communities cannot prove ownership, the state will take over ownership of their property. Samir Kajosevic, “Montenegro President Warns Party Members to Avoid Church Protests,” Balkan Insight, February 5, 2020, https://balkaninsight(.)com/2020/02/05/montenegro-president-warns-party-members-to-avoid-church-protests/ ; Andy Heil, “Montenegro's Not-So-Merry Legal Challenge To The Serbian Orthodox Church Riles Society,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, December 29, 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/montenegro-s-not-so-merry-legal-challenge-to-the-serbian-orthodox-church-divides-society/30347966.html.
[30] “Montenegrin Protesters Clash with Police Over Religion Law,” Reuters, December 30, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/montenegro-protests/montenegrin-protesters-clash-with-police-over-religion-law-idUSL8N2930LF.
[31] Brandon Davis, “Holy War: How Putin Weaponized the Russian Orthodox Church,” Naval Postgraduate School, September 2019, https://calhoun.nps.edu/handle/10945/63444.
[32] Aleksandar Vasovic, “Montenegro's President Accuses Serbia and Russia of Undermining Independence,” Reuters, February 28, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-montenegro-protest-president/montenegros-president-accuses-serbia-and-russia-of-undermining-independence-idUSKCN20M2SS.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Tsvetelia Tsolova, “UPDATE 2-Bulgaria Agrees Deal to Cut Price of Russian Gas Imports by 40%,” Reuters, March 3, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/bulgaria-russia-gas-prices/update-2-bulgaria-agrees-deal-to-cut-price-of-russian-gas-imports-by-40-idUSL8N2AW22T.
[35] “Antitrust: Commission Imposes Binding Obligations on Gazprom to Enable Free Flow of Gas at Competitive Prices in Central and Eastern European Gas Markets,” European Commission Precess Center, May 24, 2018, https://ec.europa(.)eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_18_3921.
[36] George Barros and Nataliya Bugayova, “Europe Cedes Opportunity in Russia-Ukraine Energy Deal,” Institute for the Study of War, January 30, 2020, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2020/01/europe-cedes-opportunity-in-russia.html.
[37] [“Became Abroad: Bulgaria Intends to Abandon Russian Gas,”] Izvestia, February 3, 2020, https://iz(.)ru/970847/aleksandr-sidorov/stala-zagranitcei-bolgariia-namerena-otkazatsia-ot-rossiiskogo-gaza.
[38]“North Macedonia joins NATO as 30th Ally,” NATO Press Center, March 27, 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_174589.htm.
[39] [“Russian MFA Information and Press Department Commentary Regarding North Macedonia's Accession to NATO,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, March 31, 2020, https://www.mid(.)ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4093913.
[40] Greece demanded that then-“Macedonia” formally rename itself as “North Macedonia” as a condition for North Macedonia to join NATO. Idrees Ali, “U.S. Defense Secretary Warns of Russian Meddling in Macedonia Referendum,” Reuters, September 17, 2018,
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-macedonia-usa/mattis-warns-of-russian-meddling-in-macedonia-vote-idUSKCN1LX0ER?il=0 ; “Macedonia is a Tiny Country with a Giant Russia Problem,” The Washington Post, September 20, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/macedonia-is-a-tiny-country-with-a-giant-russia-problem/2018/09/20/47a674d2-bb6b-11e8-a8aa-860695e7f3fc_story.html.
[41] Julian Borger, Andrew MacDowall, and Shaun Walker, “Serbia Deports Russians Suspected of Plotting Montenegro Coup,” The Guardian, November 11, 2016, https://www.theguardian(.)com/world/2016/nov/11/serbia-deports-russians-suspected-of-plotting-montenegro-coup.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Iraq Situation Report: April 8 - 14, 2020

By: Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace

ISW is assessing the ongoing unrest and its effects on political-security dynamics in Iraq. The Iraq Situation Report (SITREP) map series summarizes key events and likely developments to come. The following SITREP map covers the period April 8 - 14, 2020.

Key Takeaway: The United States, Iran, and most of Iraq’s political elites agreed to support Iraq’s new prime minister (PM)-designate, Iraqi National Intelligence Director Mustafa al-Kadhimi, following Iran’s successful political proxy campaign to sink the PM-designation of Adnan al-Zurfi. Most of Iran’s political and militia proxies fell in line behind Kadhimi but conditioned their support on the rapid expulsion of US forces from Iraq. However, key proxy militia Kata’ib Hezbollah maintains its firm anti-Kadhimi stance and may escalate to violence if the government formation process does not favor Iran's preferred outcomes, including key cabinet appointments and 2020 budget allotments. Iran’s proxies are conducting an information operation consisting of rhetorical threats to shape Kadhimi's proposed cabinet and to increase Iraqi political support for ending the US force presence ahead of a US-Iraq strategic dialogue slated for June. Meanwhile, Iran’s proxy militias created a fourth new Shi’a militia group to increase rhetorical and kinetic pressure on US forces.


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




Monday, April 13, 2020

Russia in Review: Kremlin Tests Authoritarian Societal Control Measures during COVID-19 Crisis

By: Mason Clark and Aidan Therrien 

Key Takeaway: Putin’s response to the COVID-19 crisis is focused on shaping reality to conform to his desired narrative. The Kremlin is restricting the free flow of information on COVID-19, jailing doctors, and obfuscating its public infection numbers to support Putin’s central narrative that COVID-19 will affect Russia less than much of the world. The Kremlin is additionally testing new methods of societal control as part of its efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. The Kremlin will retain these improved authoritarian tools for use against future opposition.

Putin delayed responding to COVID-19 in Russia until late March to continue advancing his power retention campaign. Russia closed its land border with China on January 30, but delayed implementing quarantines and other travel restrictions throughout February and March.[1] Kremlin-run media claimed Russia would combat the virus without major disruptions.[2] Putin claimed as late as March 17 that the situation was “under control” and infections had been “contained.”[3] Kremlin-run media have repeatedly claimed the West is targeting Russia with disinformation exaggerating the scale of COVID-19. [4] The Kremlin has simultaneously conducted disinformation campaigns on COVID-19 around the world.[5] Kremlin officials continue to deny widespread reports Russia is underreporting its infection numbers.[6]

Putin likely downplayed the scale of COVID-19 to minimize disruption to his ongoing campaign to retain power beyond 2024. The Kremlin planned to hold a national referendum on April 22 to legitimize Putin’s sweeping constitutional changes, passed in early March. One of the changes would allow Putin to run for president in 2024 by resetting his term limits.[7] The Kremlin initially resisted delaying the referendum and announced on March 19 that Russia’s Central Election Commission was considering holding electronic voting amid the pandemic.[8]

Putin shifted his rhetoric in late March, warning during a G20 meeting that the problems caused by COVID-19 would exceed the shocks of the 2008 global recession.[9] He postponed the national referendum indefinitely and enacted a nationwide paid holiday – later extended through the end of April.[10] The Kremlin pledged $18 billion to combat the economic shocks of COVID-19 and falling oil prices after initially denying either event would affect the Russian economy.[11]

Putin is increasingly centralizing Russia’s response to COVID-19 as the crisis worsens. The Kremlin did not initially impose any nationwide controls, initially delegating decision making to regional administrations. All 85 of Russia’s federal regions imposed emergency measures by March 19, but procedures were not centrally coordinated.[12] Putin ordered regional governments on April 2 to respond to COVID-19 by increasing sanitary health, closing non-essential businesses, and restricting travel within each district.[13] Putin likely spread responsibility to allow local leaders to tailor their responses, in addition to dispersing potential blame for mishandling the pandemic response away from the Kremlin, an approach Putin has taken in past crises.[14]

The Kremlin recentralized control of Russia’s COVID-19 response in early April. The Russian Parliament passed a law on March 31 providing the Russia’s Cabinet of Ministers the ability to declare an emergency – previously a power reserved for the Kremlin.[15] The law additionally grants the central government control of a newly created “Unified State System for the Prevention and Liquidation of Emergencies.”[16] The Kremlin pressured three regional governors to resign due to their reportedly insufficient responses to COVID-19 in early April.[17] The Kremlin additionally reprimanded Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in early April after Kadyrov closed Chechnya’s borders to the rest of Russia. [18] Chechnya is a Russian Federal subject in the Caucasus region. Prime Minister Mishustin further warned all regional leaders to not step outside the bounds of their own authority on April 6. [19] While Kadyrov holds unique independent authority compared to Russia’s other regional leaders, the Kremlin will likely punish – not only reprimand – any further violations of central policy by Russian regional leaders.

The Kremlin is limiting the free flow of information around the COVID-19 issue in Russia. Putin signed a sweeping package of legislation on COVID-19 into law on April 1.[20] The laws include punishments of up to five years in prison for spreading “misinformation” on COVID-19 and up to seven years of jail time for breaking quarantine.[21] Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal body responsible for media censorship, announced monitoring of all “mass-media, social networks, video hosting, and broadcasting companies” to identify inaccurate information about COVID-19 on March 18.[22] Rozkomnadzor quickly began cracking down on alleged misinformation, forcing multiple media organizations, Facebook, YouTube, and VKontakte to remove content disputing official Kremlin coverage of COVID-19.[23]

The Kremlin’s security forces are arresting individuals who dispute Kremlin claims. Russian police arrested Anastasia Vasilyeva, the head of Russian doctor’s union Doctor’s Alliance, on April 2.[24] The Doctor’s Alliance has publicly criticized the Kremlin for its poor response to COVID-19 and for shipping medical equipment abroad when Russian doctors lack supplies for their own patients.[25] Russian police arrested Vasilyeva on April 2 on charges of quarantine violation while she was delivering medical supplies to healthcare providers.[26]

The Kremlin is likely sending Russian nationals with COVID-19 to its proxy republics in Ukraine. The Foreign and Health Ministries of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in Ukraine– which are controlled by the Kremlin – announced their willingness to treat Russian COVID-19 patients in their own health facilities on March 22.[27] Ukraine’s Security Service (the SBU) reported separatist media says there are no COVID-19 cases on their territory. However, SBU sources claim at least 13 people have died in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic from COVID-19 symptoms. The SBU also claims COVID-19 patients are being intentionally falsely diagnosed with acute respiratory disease, a tactic the Kremlin has likely employed domestically as well.[28] The deportation of Russian nationals with COVID-19 allows the Kremlin to artificially keep their infection rates down while minimizing the risk of further infection of Russian medical professionals and citizens.

Russian authorities are testing a variety of new societal control technologies. Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced the use of city-wide facial recognition software to enforce quarantine restrictions on February 21.[29] Moscow installed this software, developed by a company partially owned by Russian state-owned defense giant Rostec, in January.[30] Rostec is run by Sergei Chemezov, a close associate of Putin.[31] The Kremlin is using the Moscow quarantine to experiment with the mass implementation of population monitoring software; COVID-19 provides the Kremlin a test case for the active use of the new camera system. In one instance, Russian police tracked a Russian national returning from China to her home to arrest her.[32] Sobyanin also announced that Moscow law enforcement and health professionals are carrying out “unpleasant, but necessary” raids on apartments, hotels, and other places of residence of Chinese nationals.[33] The Kremlin will continue to use these techniques on its citizens after the COVID-19 crisis has passed.

Russian regional administrations are testing societal control tech solutions as well. The administration of Nizhny Novgorod – a city with a population of over 1 million – rolled out a QR code system to track all resident movement, issuing each resident a code scanned by security personnel whenever they moved about the city.[34] The government announced security personnel will have the right to return any residents moving without a QR code to their homes. Moscow announced the creation of a similar QR code system on April 1 but said the system would be delayed on April 3.[35] Moscow authorities stated other measures have successfully kept Moscow residents home but threatened to impose QR code restrictions if more people broke quarantine.[36] Moscow authorities may have refrained from imposing additional population controls due to their potential political costs.

The Russian National Guard, Rosgvardia, is preparing for a large-scale domestic deployment to fight the COVID-19 outbreak, their first deployment for healthcare purposes. Putin directly commands Rosgvardia and has previously used it to suppress protests and control population.[37] Rosgvardia is creating teams of medical professionals from Russian government entities, such as the Ministry of Health and the Main Center for the State Sanitary and Epidemiological Research, to prepare for efforts to contain the virus and interact with suspected infected patients. Rosgvardia will also engage in “unscheduled inspections” on entities or citizens based on suspected threats to human life and health.[38] Putin’s deployment of Rosgvardia during the COVID-19 crisis allows the Kremlin to further test and expand its population control measures.

The Kremlin will likely apply authoritarian societal control measures refined during the COVID-19 crisis to future public discontent. The Kremlin is testing a new set of authoritarian tools – including facial recognition software, QR code systems, and extending the authority of domestic security services. The Kremlin will refine these tools during the COVID-19 crisis and likely use them to control public resistance to any future Kremlin policies. The Kremlin may overplay its hand in the information space to retain normalcy, however. Putin’s reluctance to pause his power retention campaign poses a potential test case to watch of the Kremlin’s risk of its information campaigns backfiring by impeding concrete action.


[1] “The Latest: Russia is Closing its Land Border with China,” AP News, January 30, 2020, https://apnews.com/4ab3d1f101c55f376e204727e620afc4.
[2] Andrew Higgins, “As Russia Braces for Coronavirus, Putin Lets Underlings Take the Heat,” The New York Times, March 30, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/30/world/europe/coronavirus-russia-putin.html.
[3] “Virus Situation in Russia ‘Under Control,’ Putin Says,” The Moscow Times, March 17, 2020 https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/03/17/virus-situation-in-russia-under-control-putin-says-a69659.
[4] “Coronavirus: Russia Denies Spreading US Conspiracy on Social Media,” BBC News, February 23, 2020,  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-51599009; Zlatica Hoke, “Analysts: Russia Using Virus Crisis to Sow Discord in West,” VOA News, March 20, 2020, https://www.voanews.com/science-health/coronavirus-outbreak/analysts-russia-using-virus-crisis-sow-discord-west.
[5] George Barros, “Viral Disinformation: The Kremlin’s Coronavirus Information Operation in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, March 11, 2020, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/viral-disinformation-kremlin%E2%80%99s-coronavirus-information-operation-ukraine.
[6] “[Sobyanin has Denied the Rumors about Underestimation of the Number of Infected COVID-19 in Moscow],” Interfax, March 15, 2020, https://www.interfax((.))ru/moscow/699171.
[7] “Russia’s Putin Orders April Vote on Constitutional Changes Despite Coronavirus,” Reuters, March 17, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-putin/russias-putin-orders-april-vote-on-constitutional-changes-despite-coronavirus-idUSKBN2143JC.
[8] Natalya Bashlykova, “[Adjusted for the Virus: How Will the Vote on the Constitutional Change Take Place],” Izvestia, March 19, 2020, https://iz((.))ru/988377/natalia-bashlykova/s-popravkoi-na-virus-kak-proidet-golosovanie-ob-izmenenii-konstitutcii.
[9] Alena Yakushova, “[Putin: Coronavirus Crisis will be Worse than in 2008],” Vedomosti, March 26, 2020, https://www.vedomosti((.))ru/politics/articles/2020/03/26/826337-putin-krizis-iz-za-koronavirusa-tyazhelee-chem-v-2008.
[10] “[Appeal to the Citizens of Russia],” Kremlin, March 25, 2020, http://kremlin((.))ru/events/president/news/63061; “Putin Extends Nationwide Paid Holiday as Coronavirus Numbers See Sharpest Rise Yet,” Moscow Times, April 3, 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/04/02/putin-extends-nationwide-paid-holiday-as-coronavirus-numbers-see-sharpest-rise-yet-a69847.
[11] Andrey Ostroukh, “Russia Earmarks $18 Billion to Tackle Coronavirus Crisis,” Reuters, April 1, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-russia-fund/russia-earmarks-18-billion-to-tackle-coronavirus-crisis-idUSKBN21J5VX.
[12] “[High Alert due to Coronavirus Introduced Throughout Russia],” TASS, March 19, 2020, https://tass((.))ru/obschestvo/8027563.
[13] “[Decree on Measures to Ensure the Sanitary and Epidemiological Well-being of the Population in Connection with the Spread of Coronavirus Infection],” Kremlin, April 2, 2020, http://kremlin((.))ru/events/president/news/63134.
[14] Fabrice Deprez, “Russia’s Confusing COVID-19 Response,” FPRI, April 7, 2020, https://www.fpri.org/article/2020/04/russias-confusing-covid-19-response/.
[15] “[Amendments to Emergency Measures Related to the Spread of Coronavirus Adopted],” State Duma, March 31, 2020, http://duma.gov((.))ru/news/48185/.
[16] “[Amendments to Emergency Measures Related to the Spread of Coronavirus Adopted],” State Duma, March 31, 2020, http://duma.gov((.))ru/news/48185/.
[17] Alexander Marrow, “Under Pressure from Putin and Coronavirus, Russian Governor Resigns,” Reuters, April 3, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-russia-regions/under-pressure-from-putin-and-coronavirus-russian-governor-resigns-idUSKBN21L2NR.
[18] “Russia’s Chechnya First Region to Seal Off Internal Borders Amid Coronavirus,” Moscow Times, April 1, 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/04/01/russias-chechnya-first-region-to-seal-off-internal-borders-amid-coronavirus-a69832; “[Mishustin Advised the Regional Authorities not to Confuse Their Powers with Federal],” Interfax, April 6, 2020, https://www.interfax((.))ru/russia/702737; “[Kadyrov refused to open the borders of Chechnya for residents of other regions],” Vedomosti, April 6, 2020, https://www.vedomosti((.))ru/politics/news/2020/04/06/827284-kadirov-otvetil-na-trebovanie-pravitelstva-k-regionam-otkrit-granitsi
[19] “[Mishustin Advised the Regional Authorities not to Confuse Their Powers with Federal],” Interfax, April 6, 2020, https://www.interfax((.))ru/russia/702737.
[20] “Russians Risk Fines, Jail Time for Dodging Coronavirus Quarantine,” Moscow Times, April 1, 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/04/01/russians-risk-fines-jail-time-for-dodging-coronavirus-quarantine-a69818.
[21] Elena Mukhametshina, “[State Duma Toughens Punishment for Quarantine Violations and Fake News on Coronavirus],” Vedomosti, March 31, 2020, https://www.vedomosti((.))ru/society/articles/2020/03/31/826686-gosduma.
[22] “[Roskomnadzor Warns of Responsibility for the Dissemination of False Information],” RKN, March 18, 2020, http://rkn.gov((.))ru/news/rsoc/news72342.htm.
[23] “Russian News Outlets Ordered to Take Down ‘Fake’ Coronavirus News,” Moscow Times, March 20, 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/03/20/russian-news-outlets-ordered-to-take-down-fake-coronavirus-news-a69699.
[24] “Russia Doctor Who Criticized Government’s COVID-19 Response Detained,” Radio Free Europe, April 3, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/head-of-russian-doctors-union-arrested-on-trip-to-equip-provincial-hospitals-battling-virus/30527912.html; Doctor’s Alliance, Twitter, April 2, 2020, https://twitter((.))com/alyansvrachey/status/1245793613419876352?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1245793613419876352&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2F
[25] Doctor’s Alliance, Twitter, March 19, 2020, https://twitter((.))com/alyansvrachey/status/1240669524166402051; Anastacia Vasilyeva, Twitter, March 22, 2020, https://twitter((.))com/DrAnastasy/status/1241669421887827971; Anastacia Vasilyeva, Twitter, March 21, 2020, https://twitter((.))com/DrAnastasy/status/1241380032376983552; Doctor’s Alliance, Twitter, March 19, 2020, https://twitter((.))com/alyansvrachey/status/1240669524166402051; “Russia Doctor Who Criticized Government’s COVID-19 Response Detained,” Radio Free Europe, April 3, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/head-of-russian-doctors-union-arrested-on-trip-to-equip-provincial-hospitals-battling-virus/30527912.html; “FAQ,” Doctor’s Alliance, https://alyansvrachey((.))ru/#chastye-voprosy.
[26] “Russia Doctor Who Criticized Government’s COVID-19 Response Detained,” Radio Free Europe, April 3, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/head-of-russian-doctors-union-arrested-on-trip-to-equip-provincial-hospitals-battling-virus/30527912.html; Doctor’s Alliance, Twitter, April 2, 2020, https://twitter((.))com/alyansvrachey/status/1245793613419876352?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1245793613419876352&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2F
[27] “[DNR Invited Russians Affected by Coronavirus to Donetsk Hospitals],” News Sky, March 22, 2020, https://newssky.com((.))ua/dnr-priglasili-v-bolniczy-doneczka-zabolevshih-koronovirusom-rossiyan/; “[Media: The Hospitals of Donetsk are Ready to Accommodate Russian Patients with Coronavirus],” Donpress, March 22, 2020, https://donpress((.))com/news/22-03-2020-smi-v-bolnicah-donecka-gotovy-razmestit-bolnyh-koronavirusom-rossiyan;
“[The ‘DNR’ will Carry Patients with Coronavirus from Russia, Donetsk Hospitals are Preparing for the Mass Reception of Infected],” Dialogue, March 22, 2020, https://www.dialog((.))ua/ukraine/203630_1584863876.
[28] The Security Service of Ukraine, Facebook, April 3, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/SecurSerUkraine/videos/1280265678845330/; “What Exactly is Going On With Russia’s Low Coronavirus Numbers?” Radio Free Europe, March 24, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/what-exactly-is-going-on-with-russia-s-low-coronavirus-numbers-/30507115.html; Doctor’s Alliance, Twitter, March 19, 2020, https://twitter.com/alyansvrachey/status/1240669524166402051.
[29] “Moscow’s Coronavirus Quarantine Explained,” Moscow Times, April 3, 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/04/03/moscows-coronavirus-quarantine-explained-a69861; “Moscow Deploys Facial Recognition Technology for Coronavirus Quarantine,” Reuters, February 21, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-health-moscow-technology/moscow-deploys-facial-recognition-technology-for-coronavirus-quarantine-idUSKBN20F1RZ.
[30] “[Moscow Authorities will Monitor Isolation Through Face Recognition and Geodata],” RBC, March 31, 2020, https://www((.))rbc.ru/technology_and_media/31/03/2020/5e820b139a7947ce8c3d5830; James Vincent, “Moscow Rolls Out Live Facial Recognition System with an App to Alert Police,” The Verge, January 30, 2020, https://www.theverge.com/2020/1/30/21115119/moscow-live-facial-recognition-roll-out-ntechlab-deployment.
[31] Nataliya Bugayova, “How We Got Here With Russia: The Kremlin’s Worldview,” Institute for the Study of War, March, 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/report/how-we-got-here-russia-kremlins-worldview.
[32] “Moscow Deploys Facial Recognition Technology for Coronavirus Quarantine,” Reuters, February 21, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-health-moscow-technology/moscow-deploys-facial-recognition-technology-for-coronavirus-quarantine-idUSKBN20F1RZ.
[33] “Moscow Deploys Facial Recognition Technology for Coronavirus Quarantine,” Reuters, February 21, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-health-moscow-technology/moscow-deploys-facial-recognition-technology-for-coronavirus-quarantine-idUSKBN20F1RZ.
[34] “[The Size and Distribution of the Population],” GKS, http://www.gks((.))ru/free_doc/new_site/perepis2010/croc/perepis_itogi1612.htm; “[Gleb Nikitin approved a mechanism for monitoring compliance with self-isolation],” Government of Nizhny Novgorod, April 2, 2020, https://www.government-nnov((.))ru/?id=254621.
[35] Eduard Lysenko, “[About the Application for Monitoring Quarantined Muscovites],” Echo, April 1, 2020, https://echo.msk((.))ru/programs/razvorot-morning/2616757-echo/.
[36] Sergei Sobyanin, “[Coronavirus: Extension of the Home Regime, Transfer of the Introduction of Passes and Other Solutions 04/02/2020],” Sobyanin, April 2, 2020, https://www.sobyanin((.))ru/koronavirus-prodlenie-domr-perenos-vvedeniya-propuskov.
[37] “Russian Riot Police Launch Recruitment Drive ‘To Suppress Uprisings’ in Moscow,” Moscow Times, August 27, 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/08/27/russian-riot-police-launch-recruitment-drive-to-suppress-uprisings-in-moscow-a67039; “Russia: Over 1,000 Detained at Weekend Protest,” Human Rights Watch, August 6, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/08/06/russia-over-1000-detained-weekend-protest#.
[38] “[Rosgvardia prepares freelance teams against the virus],” Kommersant, March 31, 2020, https://www((.))kommersant.ru/doc/4309328.