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