Friday, September 28, 2018

Syria Situation Report: September 13 - 26, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

This graphic marks the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and Syria Direct. The map depicts significant developments in the war in Syria during the period September 13 - 26, 2018.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Russia in Review: September 14 - 25, 2018

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 at

Reporting Period: September 14 - 25, 2018 (The previous Russia in Review INTSUM is available here.)

Authors: Catherine Harris and Jack Ulses with the ISW Research Team

Key Takeaway: Russia is setting conditions to escalate militarily in Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin may seek to use this buildup to intimidate and influence the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election; to respond to pushback by the U.S. and Turkey in Syria and Ukraine; to distract from continued domestic discontent in Russia; or all of the above. The Kremlin is simultaneously driving protests in Latvia in a likely effort to confuse the West and preclude a swift response by NATO to Russia’s main effort to destabilize Ukraine. NATO must be prepared for the Kremlin to escalate one or more of these conflicts simultaneously in order to uphold the alliance and deter further aggression by Russia.

Russia is setting conditions to escalate militarily in Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin is assembling new military units under its command and control to deploy in Eastern Ukraine. Russia may be repurposing preexisting (or building new) units of Russian Cossacks to function as rapid reaction forces under the Russian 8th Combined Arms Army positioned near the Russia-Ukraine Border. Ukrainian Military Intelligence reported that some of these detachments are deployed alongside other separatist forces led by Russia in Eastern Ukraine as of September 13.[1] The size of these new units remains unclear.

Russia is also consolidating control over its existing proxy forces in Eastern Ukraine. Elements likely backed by the Kremlin assassinated separatist Donetsk People’s Republic President Alexander Zakharchenko on August 31. Zakharchenko had reportedly refused to integrate his militias into command structures led by Russia. The Kremlin may be tightening control over its proxies to dampen ongoing militia infighting and protect its efforts to influence the March 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election. These efforts also set conditions for a future escalation by Russia in Ukraine, even if that is not their present purpose.

The Kremlin attempted to use large-scale military exercises to conceal its condition-setting on the Russia-Ukraine Border. The Kremlin capitalized on international focus on its scheduled Vostok-2018 military exercises to shift assets from Eastern and Central Russia to the Russia-Ukraine Border. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry reported that Russia transported artillery units from Eastern Russia to the Russia-Ukraine Border during Vostok-2018 from September 11 - 17. The Kremlin in recent weeks also reportedly shifted large numbers of T-62 tanks from Eastern Russia to the Russia-Ukraine Border.[2] Estimates of the transfer range from five hundred to one thousand tanks. The Kremlin may intend to assign some of this equipment to its proxy forces during large-scale snap military exercises that will occur in the Southern Military District through the end of October 2018.[3]

Russian President Vladimir Putin may escalate in Eastern Ukraine in response to recent deterrence efforts by NATO. The Trump Administration’s decision to prolong its military engagement in Eastern Syria places long-term constraints on Russia. The U.S. also backed a successful effort by Turkey to block an offensive by Syria, Russia, and Iran in Northern Syria. Turkey is also contesting other areas of strategic interest for the Kremlin. Turkey and Ukraine agreed to strengthen defense cooperation on the Black Sea on September 7. The Kremlin likely perceives this agreement as a threat to Russia. The Kremlin uses the Black Sea to project power into both the Mediterranean Sea and Ukraine. Turkish Eastern Orthodox leadership may also soon erode another tool of political leverage for the Kremlin in Ukraine by granting a writ of autocephaly (self-rule independent of the Moscow Patriarchate) to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.[4] The Kremlin could turn to military escalation in Eastern Ukraine as a means to regain leverage in the face of these positive steps by the U.S. and Turkey to counter a revisionist Russia.

Putin could also use a foreign policy distraction in Ukraine to divert attention from increasing discontent in Russia. Putin faces mounting domestic unrest over controversial results in the September 2018 Russian Regional Elections. Putin’s direct endorsement of preferred political candidates failed to ensure victory in several key districts across Russia. The Kremlin allowed local party branches to use slogans linking Putin directly to his political party - United Russia.[5] Several candidates nonetheless lost in districts where the slogan was used.[6] The Kremlin also fabricated election results in Eastern Russia to guarantee victory for a candidate from United Russia but subsequently annulled the results to save face after public outcry.[7] The Kremlin thus may seek to refocus the domestic population on its foreign policy. This effort will likely fail. Putin’s approval ratings remain at their lowest level since February 2014.[8] An independent polling center also recently found that only 16% of Russians approve of the foreign policy pursued by Putin with citizens growing increasingly frustrated with spending abroad at the expense of social services in Russia.[9] Putin continues to demonstrate that he is out of touch with his population and might miscalculate that displays of a strong foreign policy could alleviate domestic pressure on his government.

The Kremlin still remains most likely to use the threat of military action to support its ongoing low-costs efforts to destabilize Ukraine. Russia stands to pay a high cost for military escalation at this time. The U.S. and EU are likely to pass additional sanctions on the Kremlin in response to any operation in Eastern Ukraine. Russia would also be forced to fund a sustained ground operation at a time when its economy is weakening. The Kremlin will likely wait until the conclusion of the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election to determine whether or not a military escalation would produce a net gain for the Kremlin. Indicators of such a future escalation include the mobilization (rather than just reinforcement) of the Russian Armed Forces along the Russia-Ukraine Border, the deployment of military assets to reinforce separatist rear areas within Eastern Ukraine, and Russia’s formal withdrawal from the Minsk II Agreement.

NATO must nonetheless be prepared for a near-term escalation in multiple theaters by the Kremlin. Russia is simultaneously attempting to escalate tensions among ethnic Russians in Latvia. Kremlin-backed elements held demonstrations in Latvia on September 15 ahead of the October 6 Latvian Parliamentary Elections.[10] The protests condemned a controversial language law that will phase out the use of Russian in schools in Latvia. Russia is likely attempting to garner additional support ahead of the elections in an effort to secure a new government of Latvia friendlier to the Kremlin. These protests are the latest reflection of the multiple subversive campaigns undertaken by Russia at minimal cost to contest the U.S., EU, and NATO. The U.S. and its allies must be prepared to counter and respond to escalation by Russia in multiple theaters over a relatively short amount of time in order to demonstrate their strong commitment to NATO.

[1] [“The Kremlin got into an interesting dead end, in the Donbass,”], June 18, 2018, https://inosmi(.)ru/politic/20180618/242514038.html ; “Russian-led forces ban military-age males from leaving "LPR/DPR" to Russia,” UNIAN, September 24, 2018 https://www.unian(.)info/society/10272453-russian-led-forces-ban-military-age-males-from-leaving-lpr-dpr-to-russia-intel.html
[2] [“Radio Svoboda traced the route of Russian tanks from Buryatia to the Ukrainian border,”] Radio Svoboda, September 4, 2018, https://www.radiosvoboda(.)org/a/russian-tanks-from-buryatia-near-ukrainian-border/29470360.html
[3] [“About 45,000 military of the South-Eastern Military District are involved in the exercises until the end of October,”] RIA Novosti, September 17, 2018, https://ria(.)ru/defense_safety/20180917/1528683799.html?referrer_block=index_archive_1
[4] “Patriarch of Constantinople Pledges to Grant Autocephaly to Ukraine Church Soon,” Sputnik, September 23, 2018, https://sputniknews(.)com/world/201809231068271418-patriarch-constantinople-ukraine-autocephaly/
[5] [“"United Russia" party declared himself president in crisis regions,”] Svoboda, August 22, 2018, https://www.svoboda(.)org/a/29447068.html
[6] “United Russia loses ground, as the Communist Party gains it. Here are the main results of Sunday's regional elections,”, September 10, 2018, https://meduza(.)io/en/feature/2018/09/10/united-russia-loses-ground-as-the-communist-party-gains-it-here-are-the-main-results-of-sunday-s-regional-elections
[7] [“The Bell: the purpose of rigging elections in Primorye was not the victory of the governor, but the cancellation of results,”], September 19, 2018, https://meduza(.)io/news/2018/09/19/the-bell-tselyu-falsifikatsiy-na-vyborah-v-primorie-byla-ne-pobeda-gubernatora-a-otmena-rezultatov
[8] “Putin’s Approval Ratings,” Yuri-Levada Analytical Center, http://www.levada(.)ru/en/ratings/
[9] [“Relationship with Putin,”], August 9, 2018, https://www.levada(.)ru/2018/08/09/otnoshenie-k-vladimiru-putinu-3/
[10] “About 5,000 rally in Riga against reform of Russian-language schools in Latvia,” TASS, September 15, 2018, http://tass(.)com/society/1021758 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Russia in Review: August 28 - September 13, 2018

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 at

Reporting Period: August 28 - September 13, 2018 (The previous Russia in Review INTSUM is available here.)

Authors: Catherine Harris, Jack Ulses, and Mason Clark, with Jennifer Cafarella, Elizabeth Teoman, Matti Suomenaro, John Dunford, and Michael Land

Key Takeaway: Russia is setting conditions to attack the U.S. and its partner forces in Syria in a limited and plausibly-deniable way in the near term. The Kremlin is also reshaping its proxy governments and their military forces in Ukraine to continue undermining Ukrainian integration into the West. These condition-setting activities would allow Putin to escalate militarily to challenge U.S. strategic interests in multiple theaters simultaneously if he so chose.

Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime will likely attack U.S. forces in Syria in the near-term. Western diplomatic support to Turkey likely reinforced Turkey’s ability to block a Russia-led ground offensive into Idlib Province in northwestern Syria, bordering Turkey. Pro-regime forces may now shift resources east to attack U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in Syria. Pro-regime forces already responded militarily to the U.S. decision to remain in Syria. U.S. defense officials stated Russia warned the U.S. that pro-regime forces are prepared to attack a U.S. base on the Jordan-Syria-Iraq border after pro-regime forces fired on this location on September 1. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has repeatedly warned that Russia, Iran, and the regime are preparing to attack U.S. forces and the U.S. primary ground partner – the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – in Eastern Syria. Russia will attempt to conceal its role in an attack on U.S. forces. The outcome of previous probing attacks in Eastern Syria indicate the U.S. will not hold the Kremlin accountable for attacks on U.S. forces conducted by non-uniformed Russian personnel. The Kremlin will likely use a mixture of plausibly deniable forces and attempt to foment a pseudo-insurgency in U.S.- and SDF-held terrain. Alternatively, Russia may bring to bear substantial conventional force against the U.S. and the SDF under the guise of counter-ISIS operations in Eastern Syria in a most dangerous scenario. An increase in the scale of advanced Russian hardware deployments into Syria may indicate the Kremlin is preparing to undertake this option.

The Kremlin may be preparing to escalate militarily in Donbas, Ukraine if its political efforts to destabilize Kyiv fail. Russia reportedly shifted between 500-1000 T-62 tanks from eastern Russia to the Russia/Ukraine border at the end of August. The Kremlin is also consolidating control over its proxies in a possible effort to exert more effective command and control before a military operation. The Kremlin will likely pursue a low-cost political course of action before a military operation, however. Russia is pushing to hold elections in Donbas in November 2018. Its new proxy leadership supports these elections. The Kremlin seeks to create the perception that its proxies are functioning political entities ahead of Ukrainian elections in 2019 in order to reset negotiations between newly elected Ukrainian officials and its proxies. Russia’s long-term objective is to integrate its proxies into Ukrainian government structures in order to acquire a degree of control over decision-making in Kyiv. This approach – if successful – would de facto legitimize Russia’s proxies and undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty from within its own government. Ukraine’s progress toward integration with Western structures, namely NATO and the EU, would be at risk of stalling or reversing.

What to Watch For

Russia is attempting to acquire naval basing on the Red Sea that will allow it to constrain U.S. freedom of movement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced plans to build a Russian logistics center at an undisclosed port in Eritrea following talks with Eritrean officials in Moscow on August 31. The Kremlin may deploy anti-access area-denial systems to this facility providing Russia with significant leverage to contest access to the Bab al-Mandab Strait. This position will also give Russia access to the Yemeni conflict that it may use to support Iranian-backed elements in the war and strengthen its regional coalition with Iran. This position will also allow the Kremlin to rotate private military contractors and deploy more advanced hardware, such as armored vehicles, into conflicts in Africa if desired.

Syria Situation Report: August 28 - September 12, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

This graphic marks the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and Syria Direct. The map depicts significant developments in the war in Syria during the period August 28 - September 12, 2018.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Syria Situation Report: August 6 - 28, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

This set of graphics marks the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and Syria Direct. The two maps depict significant developments in the war in Syria during the periods August 6-16 and August 16-28, 2018.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Intra Shi'a Civil War Begins in Iraq

By Jennifer Cafarella and Kimberly Kagan with Aaron Hesse, Samantha Leathley, and Jason Zhou

An intra-Shi’a civil war is beginning in Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and Iranian proxy leader Hadi al Ameri are locked in a power struggle to dominate the formation of the next Iraqi government. The U.S. is backing Abadi and temporarily disrupted Iran’s play in late August. ISW warned on August 28th that Iran could escalate militarily in response. Abadi and Ameri separately declared coalitions of Council of Representatives (CoR) members sufficient to gain the status of the “largest bloc” on September 2nd. The largest CoR block has the constitutional right to choose the next Iraqi Prime Minister.  The resulting stalemate has protracted government formation negotiations past legal deadlines. Each side is escalating with force in order to break this political stalemate.


Iran’s proxies conducted a warning shot against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in an attempt to compel Abadi to back down. Abadi visited the headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) on September 3rd and declared his authority over all of Iraq’s armed forces. [1] His goal was likely to disrupt Ameri’s ability to use Iranian proxies within the PMF as coercive leverage against either Abadi or members of Abadi’s coalition. In response, ten Iranian proxy militias within the PMF declared they will respond to Abadi’s “irresponsible takeover” of Iraqi institutions and called on the Dawa party to limit Abadi’s behavior on September 4th. [2] The groups stated they will use “all possible means” to force coalition troops out of Iraq. Multiple mortars landed near the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad at night on September 6th. ISW assesses that an Iranian proxy, likely Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq (AAH), conducted the attack.

Shi’a actors aligned with Abadi and with Ameri are also escalating within a pre-existing protest movement in Basra. Abadi has lost control in Basra, where Shi’a protesters have defied a curfew and unidentified Iraqi Security Force (ISF) units have used live fire ammunition against protesters on multiple occasions since August 31st. An appeal by Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani on September 4th did not prevent future use of live ammunition. Attacks in Basra targeted multiple government buildings in addition to Iranian proxy militia headquarters and the headquarters of militias and political parties aligned with Abadi on September 6th. It is possible but unlikely that protesters alone conducted these attacks. Militias aligned with nationalist Shi’a Cleric Muqtada al Sadr, a member of Abadi’s coalition, were likely involved in the attacks against Iranian proxy militia headquarters. Iranian proxies were likely similarly responsible for attacks against the Dawa party and possibly government buildings.  At minimum, the deteriorating conditions in Basra raise the likelihood of intra-Shi’a violence at a time when Shi’a powerbrokers have resorted to armed action to affect a protracted government formation struggle in Baghdad.

Mutual kinetic escalation between actors aligned with Abadi and those with Ameri will escalate into a full-blown civil war unless one side capitulates. ISW is monitoring the situation closely and will provide updates as appropriate.

[1] "Abadi leads the Popular Crowd," All Iraq News. September 3, 2018. Available: http://www.alliraqnews(.)com/modules/news/article.php?storyid=77269
[2] "10 Iran-backed Shia militia groups threaten Abadi, Foreign troops in Iraq," September 5, 2018. Available: http://www.kurdistan24(.)net/en/news/382a3b08-dc0c-4b3a-8703-90d9f37b8b26

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Russia in Review: The Kremlin's Campaign in the Balkans

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.

Special Topic Update: The Balkans

Authors: Catherine Harris, Jack Ulses, and Chase Johnson

Key Takeaway: Russia is waging a campaign to increase its influence and limit the growth of NATO and the EU in the Balkans. The Kremlin is establishing proxies and training local separatist forces from the Balkans in Russia. Russia is also actively attempting to sow internal discord within the Balkans in an effort to stall or block further expansion by NATO and the EU. Russia intends to use the Balkan Peninsula as a critical geographic foothold in Europe from which it can launch subversive operations meant to fracture the long-term unity of the West. Its activities could encourage a renewal of the ethnic violence of the 1990s and create fertile conditions for the expansion of Salafi-Jihadism among Muslims in the Balkans.

Russia is supporting irregular forces in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina that it could use to destabilize the Balkans. The Kremlin is providing diplomatic and military support to the autonomous region of Republika Srpska as it seeks to secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Russian Security Services are training and developing local “special police” units in both Russia and the Republika Srpska. Russia also allegedly trains military personnel from Serbia who later return to develop and lead paramilitary groups in the Republika Srpska. These separatist groups reportedly train in “cultural centers” run by Russia in Serbia and recruit members from criminal networks in Serbia as well as populations that support Pan-Slavism. The Kremlin - in coordination with nationalists in Serbia - likely intends to leverage these forces to support hardline Bosnian Serbs (such as the current President of Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik) in their efforts to acquire independence from Bosnia-Herzegovina. This action would undo the agreements that ended the massive ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s. The Kremlin could also leverage a position in the Republika Srpska as a base for destabilization operations targeting regional member-states of the EU and NATO as part of its long-term effort to undermine institutions in the West. This instability could also provide an opportunity for Salafi-Jihadist groups to expand in the Balkans and Europe.

Russia is attempting to spoil ongoing negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo to block further expansion by NATO and the EU. Russia has used diplomatic pressure and cultural outreach to spoil normalization talks between Serbia and Kosovo that could position both states to join the EU. Serbia and Kosovo are holding formal negotiations to redraw their disputed border. Russia has responded by increasing its engagement with Serbia and will likely seek to pressure Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić to forsake normalization initiatives led by the West. The Kremlin has long opposed the independence of Kosovo as an illegal unilateral action imposed by NATO on Serbia. It also likely fears that recognition for Kosovo would embolden autonomous regions in the Caucuses to declare their own independence from Russia. Russia may nonetheless cite the ongoing border discussions as a legal precedent to legitimize its own support for separatist movements in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Donbas on the grounds that these breakaway regions hold the same legal authority to declare autonomy as Kosovo. The Kremlin has previously used operations by NATO in the Balkans as justification for its own aggression in the Caucasus.

Russia is also supporting nationalist groups to block the accession of Macedonia to NATO. Greece and Macedonia reached an agreement to settle their long-running dispute over Macedonia’s name in June 2018. The deal lifts the last obstacle blocking the accession of Macedonia to NATO. Greece later expelled several Russian diplomats attempting to bribe officials to block the deal and charged a Russian national with financing several nationalist groups to incite protests against the name change. Russia will likely continue such low-cost subversive activity - such as biker-gang tours, cultural outreach, and applied economic pressure - to raise tensions ahead of the scheduled referendum on the deal on September 30.

The Kremlin is increasing energy investment in key regional states to increase its leverage in the Balkans. The Kremlin will seek to secure its energy dominance on the Balkan Peninsula through a combination of maneuvers aimed at blocking investment in diversification measures from the West. The Balkans still rely heavily on energy imports from Russia. Russia has proposed to build power plants and gas pipelines in Croatia. It has also revamped negotiations to construct a nuclear power plant in Bulgaria despite the previous cancellation of the project due to financial sustainability concerns. Bulgaria reversed the decision and subsequently sought renewed investment from Russia following a series of high-level negotiations with counterparts in Moscow. Bulgaria has also expanded a regional gas pipeline to Turkey in a bid to convey natural gas from the Russia-Turkish TurkStream Pipeline into Europe.

Russia will likely escalate its subversive activities as the Balkans move closer to the West. Russia regularly intervenes to disrupt all stages of the accession of aspirant states into NATO and the EU, and it has a history of previous escalation in this regard in the Balkans. Russia will continue to stoke ethnic and nationalist tensions from the 1990s in order to fracture its opponents and build space for networks of deniable proxies that it can activate as needed. Russia - if left unimpeded - will successfully position itself to use diplomatic and military subversion to further challenge the southern flank of NATO. This instability could also provide an opening for the expansion of Salafi-Jihadist groups in the Balkans and Europe.