Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Russia in Review: September 26 - October 3, 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.

Reporting Period: September 26 - October 3, 2018 (The previous Russia in Review INTSUM is available here.)

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

Key Takeaway: Russia is leveraging limited military expansion in multiple theaters to reduce the geopolitical influence of the West. The Kremlin is setting conditions to bolster its security role in Afghanistan as a low-cost means to undermine the U.S. and NATO. Russia may also leverage the deployment of advanced military hardware in the Arctic to secure new trade routes and deter expansion in the area by the West and China. Russia continues to block access to economic resources in the Sea of Azov to Ukraine and could further intensify its threat of military escalation to delegitimize the current Ukrainian Government.

Russia is using the threat of deteriorating security in Afghanistan to expand its footprint in Central Asia. Russia has intensified its rhetoric and engagement surrounding the terrorist threat in Central Asia.[1] The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - a regional cooperation organization in the Former Soviet Union led by Russia - announced that it will conduct several large-scale counter-terrorism drills in late 2018.[2] China, India, Iran, and Afghanistan also agreed to create a joint terrorist database using data from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).[3] The Kremlin likely fears that Salafi-Jihadist groups will exploit safe havens in Afghanistan to threaten Central Asia as well as Russia. The Kremlin has blamed the lack of stability on the U.S. in Afghanistan. Russia is attempting to broker peace talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban in order to sideline the U.S. and NATO. The Kremlin is nonetheless unlikely to push for an imminent full withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan. Russia does not possess the military capacity to replace the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan. Russia instead will likely provide increased diplomatic and military support to both the Afghan Government and the Taliban in order to incentivize participation in a peace process led by the Kremlin. Russia could thereby both bolster its own international standing as a legitimate peace broker and undermine the long-term presence of the U.S. in Afghanistan.

Russia may be forced to reconsider its relatively limited military investments in the Arctic. The Kremlin is pursuing military expansion to open trade routes and bolster its sphere of influence in the Arctic. The Russian Defense Ministry deployed Bastion Coastal Defense Missile Systems to the 99th Tactic Arctic Group on Kotelny Island in a likely effort to bolster the capabilities of Russia’s Northern Fleet.[4] Russia nonetheless currently lacks the resources to deter long-term expansion into the Arctic by the West and China. The Kremlin decreased its budget allocations for infrastructure in the Arctic from $209 billion to $12 billion in 2018 - 2020.[5] Rival powers have meanwhile expanded their operations in the Arctic. The United Kingdom will send 800 Royal Marines to conduct regular cold weather training in Norway. China recently began production of its first icebreaker (expected to be operational in 2019) and has outlined a policy objective to turn the Arctic into a Polar ‘Silk Road’.[6] The Kremlin will therefore likely be forced to recalculate its military investments in the Arctic. The Kremlin could use potential increased maritime commerce to justify military expansion in the area. A Danish shipping vessel recently completed a trial voyage through the Northern Sea, which will likely prompt other companies to consider low-cost trade routes through the Arctic. The Kremlin may also attempt to secure investment from other regional actors in order to block access to investment opportunities in the Arctic. Russia could also increase the rapid reaction or advanced hardware capabilities of its own military forces in the Arctic in order to threaten - or at minimum deter – further expansion in the region by the U.S., NATO, and China.

Russia likely will not be deterred from further aggression in Eastern Ukraine despite a military buildup by Ukraine in the Sea of Azov. Ukraine is bolstering its military presence near the Sea of Azov to counter recent aggression by Russia. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that Ukraine will open a new naval base in Berdyansk in Eastern Ukraine while the U.S. agreed to supply two patrol boat cutters to the Ukrainian Navy.[7] The Ukrainian Defense Ministry also recently conducted a series of coastal exercises to enhance interoperability between the Ukrainian Navy and Ukrainian Ground Forces.[8] These developments will likely not successfully deter Russia from blocking access to the Sea of Azov. Russia continues to intimidate local populations in the area in a likely bid to block shipping and commerce by Ukraine via Mariupol. The Kremlin will likely continue to block access to the area in order to strain local coastal communities and posture for the threat of military escalation in Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin likely calculates that sustained economic pressure will ultimately delegitimize the Ukrainian Government and lead to favorable results for Russia in the March 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Elections.

What to Watch For

The Kremlin may retaliate against domestic opposition parties following the September 2018 Russian Regional Elections. Russian President Vladimir Putin directly endorsed several candidates from his political party - United Russia - in an effort to secure their victory in the September 2018 Russian Regional Elections. These candidates nonetheless lost several key races to domestic opposition parties. The Kremlin also reportedly failed in efforts to bribe several opposition candidates to withdraw from the election in exchange for government positions.[9] Putin may therefore systematically punish political parties that won local elections against United Russia. The Kremlin may deny opposition parties the right to run in future elections in Russia. Putin may also interfere in remaining runoff elections scheduled for December 2018 in order to ensure victory for new candidates from United Russia.
[1] [“Russian Foreign Ministry: IG is preparing to escalate the political situation in Central Asia,”] TASS, September 30, 2018, https://tass(.)ru/politika/5621031
[2] [“Russia and six countries of the CIS began large-scale military aviation exercises,”] RBC, September 27, 2018, https://www.rbc(.)ru/politics/27/09/2018/5bac6f789a794770fa0bd642; [“In the CIS until the end of the year will be four major military exercises,”] MK.RU, September 26, 2018,
[3] “Afghanistan, Iran, China back creating terrorist database shared with Russia,” The Nation, September 27, 2018,; [“Four countries supported the creation of a common database of terrorists with Russia,”] RT, September 26, 2018, https://russian.rt(.)com/world/news/558173-baza-dannyh-terrorizm; [“Dossier terrorists,”] RG.RU, September 26, 2018, https://rg(.)ru/2018/09/26/patrushev-zaiavil-ob-opasnosti-povtoreniia-v-afganistane-sirijskogo-scenariia.html
[4] [“The Northern Fleet completes the next Arctic campaign,”] MK.RU, October 1, 2018, https://murmansk(.) social/2018/10/01/severnyy-flot-zavershaet-ocherednoy-arkticheskiy-pokhod.html; [“Russia develops "Bastion" in the Arctic,”] YTPO.PY, September 25, 2018, https://utro(.)ru/army/2018/09/25/1375055.shtml
[5] [“The government is thinking about reducing the cost of the Arctic 17 times,”] RBC, June 30, 2017, https://www. rbc(.)ru/business/30/06/2017/59550a479a794700f2cca257?from=center_4
[6] [“China launched the first self-produced icebreaker,”] RIA Novosti, September 10, 2018, https://ria(.)ru/economy/ 20180910/1528169823.html; “China’s Arctic Policy,” The State Council: The People’s Republic of China, January 26, 2018,
[7] “Ukraine creating naval base in Sea of Azov – Poroshenko,” UNIAN, September 23, 2018, https://www. unian(.)info/politics/10271577-ukraine-creating-naval-base-in-sea-of-azov-poroshenko.html
[8] “Ukraine conducts exercises on the coast of the Azov Sea,” UA Wire, September 27, 2018, https://uawire(.)org/ ukraine-conducted-exercises-on-the-coast-of-the-azov-sea#; “Ukrainian Navy conducts exercises in the Black and Azov Seas,” UA Wire, September 30, 2018, https://uawire(.)org/ukrainian-navy-conducted-exercises-in-the-black-and-azov-seas
[9] [“The main beneficiary of the gubernatorial election was the Liberal Democratic Party,”] Vedomosti, September 24, 2018, https://www.vedomosti(.)ru/politics/articles/2018/09/24/781849-glavnim-benefitsiarom-gubernatorskih-okazalas