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.