Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Turkey Will Likely Leverage Syrian Proxies for Afghanistan Mission

 By Ezgi Yazici

Key Takeaway: There are increasing reports of Turkey’s plans to recruit Syrian fighters for deployment to Afghanistan as Ankara finalizes a deal to secure the Kabul International Airport. Turkish officials may be in talks with at least six Turkish-backed Syrian factions to prepare an initial round of 2,000 Syrians as private contractors for deployment to Afghanistan. Reporting is still limited as of July 20. Ankara’s deployment of Syrian proxies to expand the Turkish footprint and offset casualty risks for the Turkish Armed Forces in Afghanistan would be consistent with recent Turkish military behavior in Libya and Azerbaijan. A long-term Turkish presence in Afghanistan with the risk of Taliban attacks may not serve Ankara’s strategic interests at home or abroad in the long term, however.

Turkey may be preparing to deploy Syrian proxies to Afghanistan in September 2021. Local Syrian sources report that Turkey is recruiting Syrian mercenaries to deploy to protect the Kabul airport, government institutions, and international forces for a relatively large monthly salary of 3,000 USD.[1]  Turkish intelligence officials reportedly asked at least five Turkish-backed Syrian National Army factions to prepare an initial batch of 2,000 troops by September during an alleged meeting in northern Syria in late June. [2]  Turkish private military company SADAT will likely lead the recruitment and transfer of Syrian mercenaries to Afghanistan in line with its past responsibilities in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.[3]  SADAT is a Turkish private security company founded by close Erdogan ally and retired Brigadier General Adnan Tanriverdi. SADAT has drawn domestic and international criticism for its reported role in training Islamist militias in Syria.[4]

Turkey and Russia may seek to move extremist groups out of Idlib to Afghanistan, according to low-confidence reporting from Russian news sources.  Russian news outlet ANNA News claimed that Turkey and Russia may be negotiating for Turkey to fulfill its promise to clear the extremist presence from Idlib in Syria by moving fighters to Afghanistan or the borders of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.[5] ANNA News has previously reported accurate information on Russian deployments in Syria, but the source of this report remains unverified. This reporting follows Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's (HTS) campaign to provide international legitimacy to its quasi-security institutions by offering rival and independent groups the option to either “join HTS or leave Idlib.[6] The HTS campaign could push groups with organic connections to Afghanistan to move operations and recruits to Afghanistan.[7] Both Turkish and Russian interests would benefit from an exodus of foreign fighters from the Idlib area. However, a Turkish role or Russian support in facilitating such a movement of fighters is unclear.

Turkey’s Play in Afghanistan

A successful bid in helping stabilize Afghanistan or backing the right internal leaders could demonstrate that Turkey is a necessary player in the region and an important security partner to its allies in and outside NATO. Ankara could improve US-Turkish relations and build Turkish leverage over the United States by stepping up for a key NATO-encouraged mission in Afghanistan. A Turkish military-diplomatic foothold in Afghanistan could provide additional gains for Turkey like economic access, improvements to its global security posture, and greater power projection in Central Asia.

Turkey likely seeks to leverage the NATO departure and the Taliban’s advance as an inflection point to maximize its impact in Afghanistan. Turkish officials timed Turkey’s involvement in Libya and its support for Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh around similar inflection points where limited Turkish involvement had an outsized impact in shaping the military conflicts to favor Turkish interests. Both military campaigns led to mixed post-conflict diplomatic and strategic results, however. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia outmaneuvered Turkey in delivering the diplomatic victory in Azerbaijan. In Libya, Turkey’s long-term influence is in question despite its significant role on the battlefield. President Erdogan will likely attempt to position Turkey as a unique actor that could leverage its Muslim outreach for a unique stabilizer role between Afghanistan’s different stakeholders. Erdogan already stated on July 19 that Turkey is planning direct talks with the Taliban despite two statements calling for Turkish troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.[8] The details of future Turkey-Taliban talks are unknown as of July 20.

Expanding the Turkish presence with Syrian proxy support could better secure Turkish troops and maximize Turkey’s powerbroker role.  Turkey may seek to spread its political and military presence beyond the airport to add operational depth to its Afghanistan missions. Turkey also seeks to send “domestic security advisors” to the Afghan government, according to anonymous Turkish government sources. Turkey will likely support pro-Turkey and Turkey-amenable actors inside the former Northern Alliance against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Turkish officials seek to minimize their risk of casualties and financial cost by discussing security arrangements with the United States, Iran, Afghanistan, and Afghanistan’s bordering countries. However, securing the Kabul airport will remain a high-risk mission for the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) amid public Taliban threats. Acquiring backroom assurances and security understandings from regional partners like Pakistan or from the Taliban will likely be a requirement for Turkey to maintain troops after the NATO withdrawal.

Turkey’s Need for Proxies

Syrian mercenaries can deliver Turkey additional power projection capabilities without further Turkish deployments. Turkey is more casualty-averse and less experienced than the other states with active interests in Central Asia. Turkey has used Syrian forces in combination with its air support and military advising abilities to achieve a military impact that rivaled states like Russia on the ground. Turkey could leverage Syrian recruits to achieve its initial operational objective of securing the Kabul Airport and key locations in Kabul at a lower cost than if it relied solely on TSK forces. Turkey’s ability to fund, command, and control proxy forces will become even more critical if Ankara seeks to support Afghan political leaders related to the former Northern Alliance more actively.

The Turkish government will likely use Syrian recruits to mitigate domestic skepticism of the mission in Afghanistan. The Turkish military role in Afghanistan lacks public support. Most Turks view Afghanistan as too far afield and not a Turkish responsibility—unlike perceived counterterrorism operations against Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq. Employing Syrian mercenaries could allow Turkey to pursue high-risk missions without suffering the domestic political cost of a major casualty attack that might damage President Erdogan’s credibility. Ankara will likely seek to avoid creating a large Turkish troop presence in Afghanistan. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar stated that Turkey is not planning to deploy more Turkish troops to Afghanistan beyond the existing 600. However, Turkish-backed proxies remain plagued by in-fighting, limited operational security, and weak command structures. It is also unclear how well Syrian mercenaries will interact with Turkish troops on the ground.

Implications and Risks

A Turkish deployment of Syrian mercenaries could challenge Turkish-US security negotiations in Afghanistan. NATO allies will likely seek to keep Syrian mercenaries out of another NATO ally’s mission in Afghanistan—particularly after the US condemnation of Turkey for a Turkish-backed Syrian faction’s use of child soldiers on July 1, 2021.[9] SADAT may offer official contracts to the mercenaries for the first time to “legalize” their presence, according to Syrian opposition sources.[10]  Contracting Syrian fighters could make the Turkish government's often opaque and arbitrary arrangements with Syrian recruits more binding while still posing challenges to Turkish-US cooperation in Afghanistan.

Turkey risks facing Taliban or other Salafi-Jihadi attacks in Afghanistan without the NATO safety net. Erdogan stated that Turkey will negotiate with the Taliban [CM1] A further deterioration Ankara-Taliban relations could lead to a high-casualty Taliban attack in Afghanistan or a greater Salafi-Jihadi targeting of Turkish assets across the Middle East and put significant public pressure on Turkish officials. Moreover, the potential influx of radical Islamist groups into Afghanistan could deteriorate the security environment further and increase Turkey’s dependency on outsourcing fighters from Syria.

Turkey will likely struggle to translate its military presence in Afghanistan to its strategic advantage. Turkey’s most ambitious military presence abroad poses both opportunities and risks. Turkey has struggled to translate similar military opportunities in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh into long-term strategic advantages, likely due to relative inexperience with such deployments. Ankara may be unable to stabilize Afghanistan rapidly or without higher casualty and financial costs even with the proxy presence or allies’ support.



[1] The London-based Syrian Observatory has often reported accurate information on Turkish-backed Syrian National Army factions due to its network of well-placed activists in northern Syria.

ISW assesses with medium-high confidence that Turkish officials are indeed describing the position as such to recruit enough Syrian fighters. Turkish officials could expand the mission description arbitrarily or in exchange for extra pay.












 [CM1]Is this the end of a sentence?




Friday, July 9, 2021

Iranian Proxies Increase Attacks on US Forces to Catalyze a US Withdrawal from Iraq

 By Katherine Lawlor and Nicholas Carl

Contributor: Camille Jablonski

Key takeaway: Iran’s Iraqi proxies have likely become more willing to kill Americans and may soon do so to catalyze the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and Syria. These proxies are advancing an Iran-directed campaign that has increased in frequency, accuracy, and lethality since January 2021. This campaign is expanding to include not just Iraq but also Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria. Proxies have also begun using more lethal munitions and drones that can bypass US defenses. Attacks will continue until US forces withdraw from Iraq and Syria or reestablish deterrence with both Iran and its proxy network.

The Iran-directed escalation campaign to expel US forces from Iraq and Syria has changed in five ways since the Biden administration took office in January 2021:

  1. Proxies are increasing the frequency of their attacks against US forces in Iraq. The militias have conducted 20 rocket attacks and 11 drone attacks on US personnel and facilities in Iraq and Syria since President Biden took office in January 2021.[1] Six of those attacks occurred in the first week of July alone. That is a dramatic increase in tempo compared to the five proxy rocket attacks conducted in the final three months of the Trump administration. Iran and its proxies remain demonstrably undeterred. [2]
  2. Proxies are increasingly attacking US intelligence and military assets in the once-protected Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). Iran’s proxies conducted their first known attack on US forces in the KRI under in September 2020, firing six rockets at Erbil International Airport from beyond the KRI borders. The small-caliber rockets caused no casualties. Proxies have attacked US facilities inside the KRI five times since then, including a 14-rocket barrage in February 2021.[3] Drone attacks targeted an alleged CIA hangar at Erbil International Airport in April, a presumed US Joint Special Operations Command headquarters at Harir airbase near the Iranian border in May, a civilian house in Erbil Province in June, and Erbil Airport again in July.[4] The June attack triggered US retaliatory airstrikes along the Iraq-Syria border.
  3. Proxies are increasing the geographic scope of their escalation to include US basing in Syria. The US retaliatory strikes struck minor Iranian proxy facilities in Iraq’s Anbar Province and Syria’s Deir ez-Zor Province on June 28.[5] Proxies fired 34 122 mm rockets at US forces stationed at a counter-ISIS forward operating base in Deir ez-Zor known as Green Village hours after the US strikes.[6]  US air defenses at Green Village prevented injury—never a guarantee with such large salvos of high-caliber munitions. [7] Proxies conducted another drone attack against the same US base on July 7, likely demonstrating their intention to continue targeting forces in Syria as well as Iraq.[8]
  4. Proxies appear increasingly willing to inflict US casualties. The June 28 attack on Green Village in Syria is one of the largest attacks against the United States in the Middle East since US forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011—second only to Iran’s ballistic missile attack on Ain al-Assad airbase after the killing of Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. The scale of the Green Village attack indicates that Iran and its militias intended to inflict casualties. The 122 mm rockets used are larger and more lethal than the usual 107 mm Katyushas that proxies use in harassing attacks throughout the region. Other attacks in 2021 have also demonstrated a readiness to inflict casualties, including the February 15 attack on Erbil International Airport that killed one and injured 14 and the July 7 rocket barrage on Ain al-Assad that injured two.[9]
  5. Proxies are demonstrating increasingly advanced drone capabilities to bypass US defenses. Iran-backed Iraqi militants conducted their first drone attack targeting a presumed CIA hangar in Erbil on April 14, 2021. They have since conducted nine additional drone attacks in Iraq and Syria. The drones used are coded with their targets’ GPS coordinates, often evade the US air defense systems that regularly intercept rocket attacks, and have struck multiple sensitive US assets.[10]

Iran has likely calculated that causing US casualties will motivate a US withdrawal from Iraq and Syria. Iranian leadership holds that the United States is extremely casualty-averse.[11] Tehran and its proxies likely believe that even a small number of US casualties in Iraq and Syria could convince the Biden administration to withdraw forces from those theaters—a key Iranian strategic objective. Iran and its proxies are likely emboldened by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and believe that a similar bleeding of the US political will to remain will achieve the same outcome in Iraq. The head of the Iran-backed militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Qais al-Khazali, announced in April that “dialogue and logic does not work … the Afghan method is the only way to expel [US forces from Iraq].”[12]

Iran will continue its campaign to expel US forces from Iraq and Syria regardless of the outcome of US-Iran negotiations to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran’s leadership has seemingly assessed that the Biden team is prioritizing the JCPOA above all else. That calculation has also emboldened them. Tehran is likely concerned that a future American president will pursue another “maximum pressure” policy similar to that of the Trump administration. The regime will therefore try to prepare itself economically and militarily to better resist coercion upon the potential return of maximum pressure during or after the Biden administration. Proxy attacks will likely continue so long as Iranian leaders see little risk and the potential for a huge reward (the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and Syria).[13]

Forecast: Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Syria will likely continue to escalate against US forces and facilities until the United States withdraws its forces or reestablishes deterrence. Escalations will likely include simultaneous rocket and drone attacks to better evade US defenses in Iraq and Syria, the use of larger, more lethal munitions like 122 mm rockets, and the continued targeting of alleged US intelligence assets in Iraqi Kurdistan. Proxies will increasingly aim to inflict US casualties to create a politically untenable situation for the Biden administration, thereby catalyzing a US withdrawal.


This analysis is co-published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.



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[12] https://t dot me/Tura313/13542






Russia in Review: June 23 – July 6

  By Mason Clark

July 8, 2021

ISW has revamped its Russia in Review product to provide more-complete snapshots of Russian activity around the globe.

Russian Navy Increases Number of Aggressive Actions to Counter NATO Exercises and Freedom of Maneuver Operations in the Black Sea

NATO is currently conducting its largest-ever Black Sea naval exercises to strengthen maritime collective defense and resist Russian efforts to limit international access to the Black Sea. Sea Breeze 2021 is the largest iteration yet of NATO’s annual Sea Breeze exercises, held in the Black Sea since 1997 to strengthen interoperability between NATO and partner navies. The United States and Ukraine are cohosting the ongoing Sea Breeze 2021 exercise, which runs from June 28 to July 10, in the Black Sea.[1] NATO explicitly intends Sea Breeze 2021 to “demonstrate presence and assure allies of [NATO’s] maritime commitment to collective defense.” The exercises involve 32 states, 5,000 personnel, 32 ships, and 40 aircraft.[2] Participating warships and personnel will practice multiple types of operations, including amphibious warfare, maritime interdiction, air defense, and anti-submarine warfare.[3]

The Kremlin decries Sea Breeze 2021 as a NATO provocation and violation of Russian waters and is conducting several naval exercises in response. Five Russian warships in Russia’s Mediterranean Taskforce, including the missile cruiser and Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva, the frigates Admiral Essen and Admiral Makarov, and two submarines began exercises in the Mediterranean Sea on June 25.[4] The exercises practiced repelling simulated air attacks and defending Russia’s naval base in Tartus, Syria. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, based in Crimea, began conducting air defense training checks on June 29 (the day after the start of Sea Breeze 2021) including several S-400 and Pantsir air defense systems and 20 aircraft.[5] The Moskva and Admiral Essen redeployed from the Mediterranean to Crimea on June 5 to replenish supplies and join these ongoing Black Sea Fleet training checks.[6] The Russian Black Sea Fleet and Mediterranean Task Force will likely continue to hold exercises parallel to Sea Breeze 2021 to demonstrate Russian capabilities and imply limits on NATO freedom of action in the Black Sea.

The Kremlin increased its aggressive responses to NATO and Ukrainian actions in international waters in June prior to Sea Breeze 2021. The Kremlin claimed its forces fired warning shots and dropped bombs near the Royal Navy’s HMS Defender while it conducted a freedom of navigation operation off the shore of occupied Crimea on June 23.[7] The United Kingdom denied Russian claims of bombing the HMS Defender and asserted the United Kingdom’s freedom of navigation rights near Crimea.[8] Russian aircraft have shadowed NATO warships in the Black Sea throughout June, and the Kremlin likely used electronic warfare to falsify the locations of several NATO warships in late June, making them appear to be violating Russia’s claimed territorial waters.[9]

Expanded NATO exercises and freedom of maneuver missions are necessary to support US partners in the Black Sea region and counter the Kremlin’s illegal efforts to limit international access to the Black Sea. The Kremlin seeks to limit Ukraine and NATO’s freedom of action in the Black Sea to cement Russian dominance over this region and pressure US allies including Ukraine, Georgia, and Turkey. The Russian Navy has expanded its aggressive actions in the Black Sea in 2021 and intends to normalize Russian dominance over international waters in violation of international law.

  1. The European Union (EU) rejected a Franco-German proposal to hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. France and Germany submitted a proposal to the European Council on June 23, 2021, without advance notice, calling for a summit between EU leadership and Putin to develop closer EU-Russia engagement.[10]  The European Council rejected this proposal during a private meeting on June 25, instead issuing a joint statement calling on Russia to “demonstrate a more constructive engagement” as a condition of further EU outreach.[11]  Central and Eastern European states—particularly Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania—publicly decried France and Germany’s call for closer relations with Russia as a dangerous concession in the absence of changes to Russia’s malign actions in Europe.[12]  French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated their intent to meet with Putin independently of the EU following the June 25 European Council summit.[13]  Macron directly called for a “structured dialogue” with Russia during a call with Putin on July 2.[14]  Direct engagement with the Kremlin by EU members without substantial changes in Russian malign behavior will undermine collective European policies and further embolden Putin to act without fear of repercussions.
  2. Belarus withdrew from the EU's Eastern Partnership cooperation initiative after the EU levied sectoral sanctions against Belarus. The EU approved sectoral sanctions against the Belarusian economy on June 24 in response to Belarus' grounding of Ryanair flight 4978 on May 23.[15]  Belarus suspended its participation in the EU’s Eastern Partnership Initiative—an EU framework to promote trade, travel agreements, and democracy between Western Europe and former Soviet states, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—in response on June 28.[16]  EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated the EU is ready to continue working with the “Belarusian people” despite the Belarusian government’s withdrawal from the Eastern Partnership, likely through communication with exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.[17]  The Kremlin will likely take advantage of Belarus’ increasing isolation from non-Russian partners to further isolate Belarus and integrate it into Russian-controlled structures.[18]
  3. Russia and China signed a five-year extension to the Sino-Russian friendship treaty. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a five-year extension of the Sino-Russian Treaty on Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation (signed in 2001) on June 28.[19]  Putin praised the agreement for reaffirming mutual support for protecting “state unity and territorial integrity,” (referencing Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea) and the rejection of the first use of nuclear weapons. Putin claimed that joint Sino-Russian economic projects and Sino-Russian cooperation have a stabilizing role in world affairs, highlighting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS, and Sino-Russian cooperation in the Korean Peninsula, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran. President Xi Jinping praised Sino-Russian efforts to build a multipolar world order and said he appreciated that Russia and China support each other's interests on the international stage. The Kremlin continues to be threatened by rising Chinese power but will increasingly seek to selectively leverage China against US efforts to counter Russia’s aggressive foreign policy.
  4. The Russian Pacific Fleet was highly active during June 2021. The Russian Pacific Fleet conducted its largest naval exercises since the Cold War in the central Pacific Ocean and near Hawaii from June 14 to 30, practicing the simulated destruction of an enemy carrier strike group and strikes against shore facilities.[20]  Approximately 20 warships participated, including the missile cruiser Varyag (the Pacific Fleet’s flagship), two destroyers, three corvettes, a missile-tracking ship, an unspecified number of submarines and support vessels, and at least 20 aircraft. A US Navy Indo-Pacific Command spokesperson said some of the Russian vessels operated 20 to 30 nautical miles off the coast of Hawaii.[21]  The US scrambled F-22 fighters in Hawaii on June 14, likely in response to this Russian activity.[22]  The Russian MoD additionally announced on June 29 that the Russian Pacific Fleet will expand the infrastructure at its Kamchatka submarine base by the end of 2021.[23]  The Russian Navy is increasing its power projection capabilities in the Pacific to support the Kremlin’s campaign to expand its global military footprint.
  5. The Kremlin likely continued to pressure Belarus for additional concessions on Russo-Belarusian government integration. Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikita Patrushev—a senior Kremlin security official close to Vladimir Putin—and self-declared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko discussed Russo-Belarusian security cooperation issues “not subject to public disclosure” in Minsk on June 29.[24]  Lukashenko atypically declined to make any public statement on the meeting. The unusually sensitive nature of their conversation indicates they likely discussed Russo-Belarusian security and military integration. Senior Russian-Belarusian meetings at this level have historically precipitated significant Belarusian security integration concessions and new deals for the Kremlin.[25]  Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko held another call on July 1, discussing further security and economic cooperation.[26]  The Kremlin is continuing to advance its campaign to establish a permanent military presence in Belarus postured against NATO and Ukraine.[27] 
  6. Russian President Vladimir Putin approved an increasingly combative National Security Strategy (NSS) that removed all mention of cooperation with the West. Putin approved the new NSS on July 3, replacing the existing NSS written in 2015.[28]  The new NSS paints an increasingly alarmed picture of perceived Western threats. The NSS increases formal emphasis on protecting Russia’s “cultural sovereignty” and traditional values against perceived Western pressure, policy changes the Kremlin has prioritized since 2015. The NSS removes all references to cooperation with the United States and NATO, as well as specific arms control and nuclear non-proliferation objectives previously included in the 2015 strategy. Much of the strategy remains the same from 2015, and the Kremlin has already enacted many of the policy changes and adaptations formalized in this document.[29]  The Kremlin’s formalization of its defensive worldview and removal of all mentions of cooperation with the West indicate an increasingly combative mindset that is unlikely to respond to Western outreach or strategic dialogue in good faith.
  7. Tajikistan will mobilize military reservists to the Afghan border with Kremlin promises of support. Tajik President Emomali Ramhmon ordered the mobilization of 20,000 reservists to support ongoing military deployments to Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan on July 5 in response to Taliban advances in Afghanistan.[30]  Putin promised his counterparts from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan support from the Russian military both bilaterally and through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) on July 6.[31]  The Russian Foreign Ministry further stated Russia’s 201st military base in Tajikistan— Russia’s only formal international military base—is equipped with “everything necessary” to support Tajikistan if required.[32]  The Kremlin will likely increase its military presence in Central Asia to counter the potential threat of a jihadist resurgence in Afghanistan. The Kremlin will also prioritize maintaining its dominant influence in Central Asia and advancing its unitary security interests; its deployments to the area are unlikely to effectively replace NATO security operations in Afghanistan.



[1] “U.S. Sixth Fleet Announces Sea Breeze 2021 Participation,” US Navy, June 21, 2021,

[2] The states participating in Sea Breeze 2021 include Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, France, Georgia, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Morocco, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Senegal, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and the United States.

[3] “NATO Allies and Partners Ready for Exercise Sea Breeze 2021,” Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, June 25, 2021,

[4] [“Ships of the Russian Navy repelled an Attack of a Mock Enemy During Exercises in the Mediterranean Sea,”] TASS, June 27, 2021, https://tass dot ru/armiya-i-opk/11765763.

[5] [“Pilots of the Naval Aviation of the Black Sea Fleet and Aviation of the Southern Military District Checked the Air Defense System of Crimea,”] Russian MoD, June 29, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12369232@egNews.

[6] [“Guards Missile Cruiser ‘Moskva’ and frigate ‘Admiral Essen’ of the Black Sea Fleet are Returning from the Mediterranean Sea,”] Russian MoD, July 5, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12370157@egNews.

[7] “Russian Border Guards to Continue Thwarting Provocations in the Black Sea – Kremlin,” TASS, June 24, 2021, https://tass dot com/politics/1306799; “Any Actions Possible in Response to Provocations Violating Russian Borders, Says Kremlin,” TASS, June 24, 2021, https://tass dot com/politics/1306821.

[8] Ben Wallace, “Exercises In the Black Sea,” UK Parliament, June 24, 2021,

[9] “Black Sea Fleet Monitor US Destroyer Entering Black Sea – Russian Defense Ministry,” TASS, June 26, 2021, https://tass dot com/defense/1307593; H I Sutton, “Positions of Two NATO Ships Were Falsified Near Russian Black Sea Naval Base,” USNI News, June 21, 2021,

[10] Sam Fleming, Valentina Pop, Mehreen Khan, Michael Peel, Henry Foy, and Victor Mallet, “Berlin and Paris Propose Reset for EU Relations with Moscow,” Financial Times, June 23, 2021,

[11] European Council Conclusions on External Relations, 24 June 2021,” European Council of the European Union,  June 24, 2021, https://www.consilium.europa dot eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/06/25/european-council-conclusions-on-external-relations-24-june-2021/.

[12] “European Council Conclusions on External Relations, 24 June 2021,” European Council of the European Union,  June 24, 2021, https://www.consilium.europa dot eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/06/25/european-council-conclusions-on-external-relations-24-june-2021/; Sabine Siebold, Robin Emmott, and Gabriela Baczynska, “France and Germany Drop Russia Summit Plan after EU's East Objects,” Reuters, June 25, 2021,; “Kremlin 'Regrets' EU Rejection Of Proposed Summit With Putin,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, June 25, 2021

[13] David Herszenhorn, “Summit Exposes Stark Clash of EU Views on Russia,” Politico, June 25, 2021, https://www.politico dot eu/article/emmanuel-macron-russia-vladimir-putin-european-union/.

[14] [“Telephone Exchanges with Mr Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation,”] French Presidency, July 2, 2021,; [“Telephone Covnersation with French President Emmanuel Macron, Kremlin, July 2, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/66055.

[15] “EU Imposes Sanctions on Belarusian Economy,” European Council of the European Union, June 24, 2021, https://www.consilium.europa dot eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/06/24/eu-imposes-sanctions-on-belarusian-economy/.

[16] Olga Demidova, [“Belarus Suspends Participation in Eastern Partnership,”] Deutsche Welle, June 28, 2021, https://www.dw dot com/ru/belarus-priostanovila-uchastie-v-vostochnom-partnerstve/a-58080349.

[17] Tweet. Josep Borrell Twitter Account, June 28, 2021,

[18] George Barros, “Belarus Warning Update: Forced Integration with Russia – Not the Protest Movement – is Lukashenko’s Biggest Threat,” Institute for the Study of War, February 19, 2021,

[19]  [“Conversation with President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping,”] Kremlin, June 28, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/65940; [“Joint statement of the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China on the Twentieth Anniversary of the Signing of the Cooperation Agreement on Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation Between the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China,”] Kremlin, June 28, 2021, http://static.kremlin dot ru/media/events/files/ru/hkwONx0FSpUGgXPaRU3xUHRmkRneSXIR.pdf.

[20] The Russian Ministry of Defense reported the “main part” of the exercises concluded on June 24. The final reported exercises concluded on June 30. Anna Berestovaya, Denis Ivlev, [“In the Central Part of the Pacific Ocean, the main Part of the Operational Exercises of the Pacific Fleet has been Completed,”] TVZvezda, June 24, 2021, https://tvzvezda dot ru/news/2021624254-pGRxa.html; [“The Crews of the Ships of the Pacific Fleet During the Exercise in the Far Sea Zone Worked out the Tasks of Destroying the Aircraft Carrier Strike Group of the Mock Enemy,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 21, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12367884@egNews; [“In the Central Part of the Pacific Ocean, an Operational Exercise of the Diverse Forces of the Pacific Fleet is Being Conducted,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 10, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12366072@egNews; [“A Squadron of Ships of the Pacific Fleet Conducted Rocket and Artillery Fires in the Pacific Ocean,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 30, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12369401@egNews; [“A Squadron of Ships of the Pacific Fleet Conducted Rocket and Artillery Fires in the Pacific Ocean,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 30, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12369401@egNews.

[21] William Cole, “Russian Naval Exercise Ends as Spy Ship Remains in Hawaii area,” Honolulu Star-Advertiser, June 21, 2021,; Brendan Cole, “Russian Navy Warships Come Within Two Dozen Miles of Hawaii,” Newsweek, June 23, 2021,

[22] Tyler Rogoway, “Hawaii-Based F-22s Scrambled on FAA's Request But Nobody Will Say Why (Updated),” The Drive, June 14, 2021

[23] Timur Sherzad, [“Kamchatka Submariners Will Receive Three Dozen New Structures by the End of the Year,”] Tv Zvezda, June 29, 2021, https://tvzvezda dot ru/news/20216291239-oEvxv.html.

[24] [“Lukashenko Discussed Issues with the Secretary of the Russian Security Council,”] Izvestia, June 29, 2021, https://iz dot ru/1185699/2021-06-29/lukashenko-obsudil-s-sekretarem-sovbeza-rossii-voprosy-bezopasnosti-stran.

[25] George Barros, “Belarus Warning Update: Belarus Confirms Plans to PurchaseAdvanced Air Defense Systems from Russia,” Institute for the Study of War, January 14, 2021,; George Barros, “Belarus Warning Update: Putin Intensifies Russian-Belarusian Military Integration,” Institute for the Study of War, October 27, 2020,

[26] [“VIII Forum of the Regions of Russia and Belarus,”] Kremlin, July 1, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/65982.

[27] George Barros, “Russia in Review: Russia Opens Permanent Training Center in Belarus and Sets Conditions for Permanent Military Basing,” Institute for the Study of War, April 8, 2021,

[28] [“On the National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation,”] Kremlin, July 3, 2021, http://static.kremlin dot ru/media/events/files/ru/QZw6hSk5z9gWq0plD1ZzmR5cER0g5tZC.pdf; [“On the National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation,”] Kremlin, December 31, 2015, http://static.kremlin dot ru/media/acts/files/0001201512310038.pdf. 

[29] Nataliya Bugayova, “Putin’s Offset: The Kremlin’s Geopolitical Adaptations Since 2014,” Institute for the Study of War, September 2020,

[30] [“Tajikistan Mobilizes 20,000 Personnel amid Taliban Offensive,”] RBC, July 5, 2021, https://www.rbc dot ru/politics/05/07/2021/60e3266e9a794748f0fb74fd; [“Meeting of the Security Council of the Republic of Tajikistan,”] President of the Republic of Tajikistan, July 5, 2021, http://president dot tj/ru/node/26124.

[31] [“Telephone Conversation with President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon,”] Kremlin, July 5, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/66143; [“Telephone Conversation with President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev,”] Kremlin, July 5, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/66144.

[32]  [“The Russian Foreign Ministry Said that the 201st Military Base is Equipped to Provide Assistance Near the Border with Afghanistan,”] TASS, July 6, 2021, https://tass dot ru/politika/11833209.


Friday, June 25, 2021

Belarus Warning Update: Russia Expands Unit Integration with Belarusian and Serbian Militaries in June Slavic Brotherhood Exercises

By George Barros

Key Takeaway: The joint Russian-Belarusian-Serbian military exercise Slavic Brotherhood 2021 advanced Russian efforts to gain control over the Belarusian military and cultivate partner forces that the Kremlin can use in future Russian deployments. Russia and Belarus operated integrated combat units at the company level for the first time, building on previous exercises fielding combined battalions. The Kremlin practiced integrating non-Belarusian troops into Russian-controlled companies and platoons for the first time—a dangerous development that will expand Russian control over the militaries of sovereign states, enhance Russian force generation capabilities, and help the Kremlin obfuscate its military activity by framing Russian activities as multilateral. The Kremlin will develop these capabilities further in future exercises, including the upcoming annual capstone strategic readiness exercise, Zapad 2021, in September.

Joint military exercises among Russian, Belarusian, and Serbian forces from June 8 to 18, 2021, advanced ongoing Kremlin efforts to subordinate the Belarusian military to Russian-controlled structures and cultivate partner forces that the Kremlin can use in Russia’s future force deployments. The exercise was the sixth iteration of the annual Slavic Brotherhood exercises and involved almost 1,000 Russian, Belarusian, and Serbian troops in the Raevsky Training Ground in Novorossiysk, Russia.

Map: A battalion-sized Belarusian element (over 350 personnel) of the Vitebsk-based 103rd airborne brigade, a Russian-reinforced battalion (over 500 personnel) of the Novorossiysk-based 108th airborne regiment, and a roughly company-sized Serbian element (approximately 100 personnel) of the 63rd airborne and 72nd special operation brigades participated in Slavic Brotherhood 2021 at the Raevsky Training Ground in Novorossiysk, Russia, from June 8 to 18.[1]

Russian and Belarusian forces likely operated as a combined battalion, advancing the Kremlin’s efforts to integrate Belarusian combat units into Russian command structures. Russian and Belarusian forces formed an unspecified “consolidated unit” that served as Slavic Brotherhood 2021’s main operational group.[2] This force was likely comprised of one or more combined Belarusian-Russian battalions, though official sources did not confirm the exact unit structure unlike in previous exercises. Slavic Brotherhood 2021 had strong similarities with previous exerxises in which Russian and Belarusian forces formed combined battalions. Russian and Belarusian forces conducted exercises as a single combined combat battalion for the first time in September 2020 and formed three combined battalions in March 2021.[3]

Russia and Belarus operated integrated combat units at the company level for the first time—a development that could support a permanent Russian military presence in Belarus. The Russian Ministry of Defense stated that Belarusian forces operated “as part of an airborne company,” suggesting a Belarusian element was part of a larger combined Russo-Belarusian company.[4] Observed Russo-Belarusian unit integration previously has not occurred below the battalion level.[5] Combined Russo-Belarusian companies would be the next logical step in increased unit integration and would indicate progress in Kremlin efforts to control Belarusian tactical formations.

The Kremlin’s increasing capability to create integrated units with Belarus is likely intended to support a permanent Russian presence in Belarus. The Kremlin may also be preparing Russian forces to subsume elements of Belarusian combat units in the event of a Russian intervention against the will of the Belarusian government—an unlikely but dangerous course of action ISW has previously warned of.[6]

The Kremlin practiced integrating non-Belarusian troops into combined Russian-controlled companies and platoons for the first time—a significant Russian achievement that will enhance Russian force projection capabilities. Such unit integration will expand Russian control over the militaries of sovereign states, enhance Russian force generation capabilities, and help the Kremlin obfuscate its military activity by framing Russian activities as multilateral. The Kremlin likely seeks to replicate the combined combat unit integration it has achieved with Belarus and now Serbia (on a smaller scale) with other Russia-amenable states. The West must scrutanize Russian efforts to enlist non-Russian forces within Russian-controlled tactical formations. During the Slavic Brotherhood exercises, Serbian elements operated both as discrete country units and in combined companies and platoons.[7] Russian, Belarusian, and Serbian forces also conducted their first-ever joint parachute landing.[8] The Kremlin likely seeks to expand military unit integration with its partner forces below the battalion level.

The Kremlin used Slavic Brotherhood 2021 to develop Belarus’ ability to deploy forces long distances—supporting Russian capabilities to leverage Belarusian forces in future deployments.[9] The Kremlin likely seeks to develop Belarus’ ability to deploy forces long distances to support assessed Kremlin efforts to cultivate partner forces that the Kremlin can use to augment Russia’s own force deployments.[10] Belarus deployed armored vehicles and a battalion of airborne infantry from Vitebsk, Belarus, to Novorossiysk, Russia—a challenging logistical undertaking for Belarusian forces that typically do not deploy outside Belarus at that scale.[11] ISW forecasted in January 2021 that the Kremlin would likely leverage non-Russian forces in future expeditionary operations in and that the Kremlin may deploy Belarusian forces to Syria in September 2021.[12]

The Kremlin is progressing its effort to expand Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) interaction with non-CSTO states and to turn the CSTO Rapid Reaction Force (RRF)—a theoretically multinational rapid reaction force—into a Moscow-controlled force. The Kremlin likely used Slavic Brotherhood 2021 to practice Russo-Belarusian cooperation in the RRF. The RRF is a multinational CSTO contingent tasked with quickly responding to threats against CSTO member states. A Russian officer with senior RRF responsibilities and Belarus’ 103rd brigade—which contributes 2,000 personnel to the RRF—participated in Slavic Brotherhood 2021.[13] Serbia’s likely interaction with elements of the RRF in Slavic Brotherhood 2021 indicates the Kremlin is successfully expanding interaction between the CSTO and non-CSTO members. ISW has warned that the Kremlin may frame Russian expeditionary deployments as CSTO “peacekeeping missions” to obfuscate Russian actions.[14]

The Kremlin used Slavic Brotherhood 2021 to prepare for Russia’s upcoming annual capstone strategic readiness exercise, Zapad 2021. The Russian military’s primary stated objective for Slavic Brotherhood 2021 was to improve cohesion between the staff headquarters and combat units of participating states—a focus likely intended to support joint operations between Russian and Belarusian command staffs in Zapad 2021.[15] Slavic Brotherhood 2021 participants additionally conducted tactical tasks that Russian and Belarusian Zapad 2021 participants will likely repeat.[16] Russia and Belarus will likely intensify their unit and headquarters integration efforts in the buildup to Zapad, which will occur in September 2021.

ISW will continue monitoring the situation and providing updates.

[1] Belarusian participants returned to Vitebsk on June 19. [“Slavic Brotherhood 2021 Exercises,”] Serbian Ministry of Defense, June 9, 2021, http://www.vs dot rs/sr_cyr/vesti/C19D09D2C92E11EB8D050050568F5424/vezba-slovensko-bratstvo-2021; [“The Active Phase of the Russian-Belarusian-Serbian Tactical Exercise "Slavic Brotherhood-2021" Has Ended at the Raevsky Training Ground,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 18, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12367538@egNews; [“Units of the Vitebsk Airborne Formation of the Belarusian Special Forces Arrives in Novorossiysk for Joint ‘Slavic Brotherhood-2021’ Exercises,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 8, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12365830@egNews; [“Home With Victory!,”] Belarusian Ministry of Defense, June 19, 2021, dot by/ru/news/114031/.

[2] [“The Active Phase of the Russian-Belarusian-Serbian Tactical Exercise "Slavic Brotherhood-2021" Has Ended at the Raevsky Training Ground,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 18, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12367538@egNews; [‘Slavic Brotherhood-2021’ Exercise Participants Blocked and Destroyed the Illegal Armed Group Training Camp at the Training Ground in the Krasnodar Territory,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 18, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12367285@egNews.

[3] George Barros, “Russia in Review: Russia Opens Permanent Training Center in Belarus and Sets Conditions for Permanent Military Basing,” Institute for the Study of War, April 8, 2021,; George Barros, “Belarus Warning Update: NEXTA Actively Encourages Belarusian Security Service Defections,” Institute for the Study of War, September 20, 2020,

[4] [‘Slavic Brotherhood-2021’ Exercise Participants Blocked and Destroyed the Illegal Armed Group Training Camp at the Training Ground in the Krasnodar Territory,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 18, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12367285@egNews.

[5] George Barros, “Russia in Review: Russia Opens Permanent Training Center in Belarus and Sets Conditions for Permanent Military Basing,” Institute for the Study of War, April 8, 2021,

[6] George Barros, “Belarus Warning Update: NEXTA Actively Encourages Belarusian Security Service Defections,” Institute for the Study of War, September 20, 2020,

[7] [“A Slavic Landing Fights Together,”] Belarusian Ministry of Defense, June 16, 2021, dot by/ru/news/113964/.

[8] [“‘Slavic Brotherhood-2021’: How the Exercises Are Conducted at a Training Ground that Has No Analogues in the World”] Sputnik Uzbekistan, June 18, 2021, https://uz.sputniknews dot ru/20210618/slavyanskoe-bratstvo-2021-kak-proxodyat-ucheniya-na-poligone-ne-imeyuschem-analogov-v-mire-19297969.html.

[9] [“During the Russian-Belarusian-Serbian Tactical Exercise ‘Slavic Brotherhood – 2021’ the Issues of Deployment of Troops Over Long Distances Were Worked Out,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 17, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12367095@egNews.

[10] Mason Clark, “The Russian Military’s Lessons Learned in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, January 2021,

[11] [“Units of the Vitebsk Airborne Formation of the Belarusian Special Forces Arrives in Novorossiysk for Joint ‘Slavic Brotherhood-2021’ Exercises,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 8, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12365830@egNews; [“The ‘Slavic Brotherhood – 2021’ Exercise Starts in Novorossiysk,”] Sputnik Belarus, June 8, 2021, https://sputnik dot by/defense_safety/20210608/1047828356/Uchenie-Slavyanskoe-bratstvo--2021-startuet-v-Novorossiyske.html.

[12] Mason Clark, “The Russian Military’s Lessons Learned in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, January 2021,; George Barros with Jennifer Cafarella, “Belarus Warning Update: Belarusian Forces May Deploy to Syria in Late 2021,” Institute for the Study of War, February 4, 2021,

[13] “Russia, Belarus, Serbia Kick Off Slavic Brotherhood Joint Counter-Terror Drills,” TASS, June 16, 2021, https://tass dot com/defense/1303171; Andrzej Wilk, “Russia’s Belarusian Army: The Pratcial Aspects of Belarus and Russia’s Militart Integration,” Centre for Eastern Studies, March 2021, https://www.osw.waw dot pl/sites/default/files/OSW-Report_Russia%E2%80%99s-Belarusian-army_net.pdf.

[14] George Barros, “Russia in Review: Putin’s ‘Peacekeepers’ Will Support Russian Wars,” Institute for the Study of War, November 16, 2020,; George Barros with Jennifer Cafarella, “Belarus Warning Update: Belarusian Forces May Deploy to Syria in Late 2021,” Institute for the Study of War, February 4, 2021,

[15] [“The International Tactical Exercise "Slavic Brotherhood-2021" Began in the Krasnodar Territory,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 16, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12367029@egNews.

[16] Slavic Brotherhood 2021 participants conducted airborne infantry jumps, river-crossings, envelopment maneuvers, and conducted an airborne assault to support the arrival of a main force. Slavic Brotherhood also had a combined arms component; Russian Aerospace Forces aircraft supported Slavic Brotherhood’s ground units and an Il-76 transport airdropped cargo onto the training ground. [“In Preparation for the ‘Slavic Brotherhood-2021’ Tactical Exercise, the First Classes Were Held with Landings from MI-8 AMTSh ‘Terminator’ Helicopters,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 11, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12366192@egNews; [“The Armed Forces of Russia, Belarus and Serbia Are Preparing for the ‘Slavic Brotherhood – 2021’ exercises,”] EurAsia Daily, June 11, 2021, https://eadaily dot com/ru/news/2021/06/11/vs-rossii-belorussii-i-serbii-gotovyatsya-k-ucheniyam-slavyanskoe-bratstvo-2021; Anna Berestovaya, [“The Military Worked Out Parachute and Parachute-Free Landing Before the ‘Slavic Brotherhood-2021’ Exercises,”] TV Zvezda, June 11, 2021, https://tvzvezda dot ru/news/2021611218-5a0y7.html; “Russia, Belarus, Serbia Kick Off Slavic Brotherhood Joint Counter-Terror Drills,” TASS, June 16, 2021, https://tass dot com/defense/1303171; [“Shoulder to Shoulder at the Raevsky Training Ground,”] Belarusian Ministry of Defense, June 18, 2021, dot by/ru/news/114017/; [“Servicemen of the Special Operations Forces of the Republic of Belarus Crossed a Water Barrier at the Raevsky Training Ground in Preparation for the ‘Slavic Brotherhood-2021’ Joint Exercise,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 15, 2021 dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12366752@egNews; [“The Active Phase of the Russian-Belarusian-Serbian Tactical Exercise "Slavic Brotherhood-2021" Has Ended at the Raevsky Training Ground,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 18, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12367538@egNews; [“The Closing Ceremony of the ‘Slavic Brotherhood-2021’ Joint Exercise Was Held at the Raevsky Training Ground,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 19, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12367549@egNews.