Sunday, December 23, 2018

Warning Update: Russian Preparations for Military Operations in Ukraine Continue

By Catherine Harris, Frederick W. Kagan, Kimberly Kagan, and the ISW Russia Team

Russia continues to build up and prepare its military forces for possible offensive operations against Ukraine from the Crimean Peninsula and the east. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has been warning that Russia could conduct such operations at short notice since December 11, 2018. It remains impossible to assess whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to launch an offensive or will do so, or whether the visible military preparations are intended to pressure Ukraine and its partners without escalating to additional open conflict. The data suggests that Putin is preparing to attack, although alternative interpretations are possible. One can make reasoned arguments about why it would be unwise for him to attack now (or, indeed, at all). The West should nevertheless focus first on the data itself and the risks that flow from it, rather than on reasoning about Putin’s intentions.

Since ISW’s last warning on December 17, 2018, ISW has observed the following additional data points:
  • 19 DEC: Russia is moving military convoys north on the Simferopol-Armyansk highway toward the border between Kherson Oblast’ in Ukraine and Crimea. These convoys include artillery, armored personnel carriers, trucks and a field kitchen. The correspondent of RFE/RL in Crimea observed these convoys moving on December 19 in the village of Pervomayskoye roughly 30 miles from the border with the Ukrainian mainland. ISW cannot assess the sizes of these movements at this time. 
  • 20 DEC: Russia is increasing its information campaign to frame Ukraine as the military aggressor should Putin decide to invade. Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, and the head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, are continuing to warn about an imminent Ukrainian attack on Russia-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine and on the Kherson-Crimea Oblast border at the end of December 2018.[1] This propaganda effort could serve multiple purposes. The Russians may be intending fabricate a threat to rally separatist forces to escalate in eastern Ukraine in order to distract from Russia’s main effort north of Crimea. The Kremlin may also be attempting to frame Ukraine as the main aggressor ahead of a Russia-backed provocation in order to obfuscate blame. 
  • 21 DEC: Unidentified Russian submarines of the Black Sea Fleet conducted planned drills in the Black Sea to practice covert movements while submerged.[2] The crew of one submarine carried out separation from surveillance while the crew of another one maintained surveillance as long as possible. The crews attempted to maneuver as covertly as possible during the submerged position. 
  • 21 DEC: A Reuters witness spotted a Russian missile frigate 1.5 km off the coast moving from Feodosia towards the Sea of Azov. A helicopter was visible on-board. 
  • 22 DEC: Russia shifted 'more than a dozen Su-27 and Su-30 fighter jets' to Belbek Airbase near Sevastopol, Crimea according to an unidentified 'Reuters witness.' The Russian Ministry of Defense had announced on 17 DEC that it would relocate ten Su-27SM and Su-30M2 fighter jets from Krymsk airfield in Krasnodar Territory to the Belbek airfield in Crimea.[3]
These data points are consistent with preparations for an attack from the northern Crimean Peninsula toward the Dnepr River near the city of Kherson. Such an attack could be intended to seize the canal supplying fresh water to Crimea, which Ukraine has blocked since the 2014 Russian invasion. Putin would likely unjustifiably claim the right to invade to stop a humanitarian crisis resulting from the blockage of the canal. Such a claim has no legal validity since Crimea remains legally part of Ukraine over which Russia has no rights, and thus the status of the canal is, in law, an entirely internal Ukrainian matter. Accepting Putin’s justification would ipso facto accept the legality of the Russian annexation of Crimea.

A Russian occupation of Kherson would allow Russian forces to interfere with—and possibly cut off—ship movement into and out of Mykolaiv, one of Ukraine’s most important ports and shipbuilding centers. Such a development, together with the illegal seizure of Sevastopol and aggression around the Kerch Strait, would leave Ukraine only a single major port (Odesa) outside the Russian area of military influence.

Russian and proxy forces remain poised on Ukraine’s eastern border, near the contested port city of Mariupol and to its north, although ISW has not noted any further major military movements in this area, apart from mining activities and reports of the deployment of an additional sniper unit into this area.[4] It is possible but less likely that Putin could be aiming to seize the areas around this port city, perhaps bypassing the city itself, in an effort to establish control over the coastline along the Sea of Azov.

The risk of Russian offensive operations in the last week of December is modestly mitigated by weather. The weather for the next few days appears marginal for an air-ground operation of the sort that would likely be needed for Russian forces to take Kherson, with temperatures forecast to be between 21 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit with periods of rain and snow showers.

The disadvantages of weather are temporary. The well-known challenges of fighting in Russia in the winter largely do not apply to southern Ukraine. Rostov-na-Donu, home of the largest concentrations of Russian conventional military power in the region, is roughly 600 miles south of Moscow. The region’s position on the ocean tempers its climate further, compared to the bitter cold of interior Russia. Frozen ground, even with snow, allows rapid armored movements. The Soviets launched the World War II Battle of Stalingrad, 250 miles northeast of Rostov-na-Donu, in late November 1942 and continued it in subsequent operations through February 1943. The principal climatological challenge of fighting in Ukraine is not winter but the spring thaw, which turns vast areas into deep mud. If Putin intends to invade southern Ukraine, climatological considerations would cause him either to move during winter itself or after the thaw.

The U.S., NATO countries, and the international community have taken some steps to attempt to deter Russian aggression in Ukraine following the Russians’ illegal seizure of Ukrainian coast guard ships off the Kerch Strait on November 25, 2018. The United Kingdom is sending HMS Echo to the Black Sea, increasing port visits and protecting freedom of navigation. And the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution on December 17, 2018 calling for Russia to withdraw its armed forces from Crimea and another on December 22, 2018 reaffirming the UN’s position that Crimea is Ukrainian territory and condemning Russian human rights violations during its unlawful occupation of the peninsula. It is possible that Putin is conducting a show of force in response to that resolution, although the buildup is somewhat more extensive and expensive than pure posturing warrants.

ISW therefore assesses that Russia has the capability to go on the offensive in Ukraine imminently and is conducting military maneuvers consistent with that intent.

[1] “Lavrov Discusses Ukraine’s Plans to Instigate a Provocation on the Border with Crimea in December” (https://www(.)
[2] “Russian submarines conducting drills off coast of occupied Crimea”
[3] “More than 10 Fighters Transferred to Crimea” (https://www(.)
[4] “Russia sends Chechen snipers to positions outside Ukrainian-controlled Mariupol” (https://www(.)

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Looming Vacuum in Syria

By the ISW Research Team

Key Takeaway: Russia and Iran are poised to exploit the U.S. withdrawal from Syria announced by U.S. President Donald Trump on December 19. They and their proxies hold positions along the Syrian-Iraqi Border surrounding areas that the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition and allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) currently hold. Russia and Iran will undoubtedly attempt to fill the security vacuum left behind by the U.S. in Eastern Syria. The Russo-Iranian Coalition is nonetheless stretched thin and likely cannot secure this new terrain without opening exploitable vulnerabilities for ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq. Turkey and other regional actors will also likely attempt to exploit this opening to compete for terrain and influence in Syria.

This map depicts the Russo-Iranian Coalition’s known positions in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq as of December 21. Position locations are based on information available in open sources reviewed by the Institute for the Study of War. The map does not depict positions held by the SDF and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). It also does not include locations held solely by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).

Map Credit: Matti Suomenaro, Samantha Leathley, and Aaron Hesse

UPDATE: The map below was updated with additional data. See the new map with additional data on deployments as of December 19, 2018 here. A subsequent assessment of the Russo-Iranian coalition's posture in early January 2019 is available here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

ISIS Threat Update - December 2018

By Brandon Wallace with Jennifer Cafarella

The U.S. and its allies have not defeated ISIS in Iraq or Syria. ISIS has fixed the attention of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition on the last remaining territorial pocket of its caliphate even as it regroups in other parts of Syria. ISIS is also reconstituting in its traditional strongholds in Iraq. Current conditions on the ground do not warrant the withdrawal of the U.S. from Syria.

See the previous version of this assessment published in October 2018 here.

ISIS in Syria:
  • The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition has not yet destroyed the final physical stronghold of ISIS along the Middle Euphrates River Valley in Eastern Syria. ISIS retains control over roughly twenty kilometers of terrain that it uses as a staging ground for counterattacks on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF reportedly seized the majority of the town of Hajin on December 14. The urban center remains contested and partner forces were only able to progress after an intense and sustained air campaign by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition.[1]
  • ISIS is intensifying its campaign to destabilize Ar-Raqqa City – its de facto former capital and the nucleus for reconstruction efforts by the U.S.Anti-ISIS Coalition in Northern Syria. ISIS detonated a Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) in Ar-Raqqa City on November 4. The blast marked the first such attack in Ar-Raqqa City since its seizure by the SDF and U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in October 2017. ISIS has expanded the support zones where it enjoys freedom of movement in rural Ar-Raqqa Province.
  • ISIS still retains a support zone in the rural desert of Central Syria. ISIS scattered its fighters into Eastern Homs Province after the conclusion of a pro-regime offensive on the Al-Safa Region on the Syrian-Jordanian Border on November 17. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) claimed to defeat ISIS in Al-Safa while activists reported that ISIS had evacuated under a deal brokered by Russia.[2] ISIS likely maintains access to the Syrian-Jordanian and Syrian-Iraqi Borders as well as the key crossroads town of Palmyra in Central Syria.
  • ISIS has also expanded its support zone in the rural desert near Abu Kamal in Southern Deir ez-Zour Province. ISIS has relied upon a dense network of caves and tunnels as well as the transfer of reinforcements from the Al-Safa Region of Southern Syria in November 2018. ISIS has thus far conducted only limited operations near Abu Kamal but it could threaten key oil infrastructure such as the T2 and T3 Pumping Stations in Central Syria.

ISIS in Iraq:
  • ISIS has built upon its support and attack zones near Mosul in Northern Iraq. ISIS detonated a VBIED in Mosul on November 8. The blast marked the first such attack in Mosul since its seizure by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in July 2017. ISIS had previously demonstrated its regenerating capabilities with additional VBIEDs in Southern Ninewa Province on October 23, Kirkuk City on October 13, and Northern Salah ad-Din Province on September 12. ISIS has also sustained its assassination campaign targeting Sunni tribal leaders near Mosul. The cell responsible for this campaign is likely based in a support zone in the Adayah Foothills southwest of Mosul.
  • ISIS is consolidating its durable support zone in Northern Diyala Province. ISIS expanded its attack zone northeast of Lake Hamrin near Khanaqin on the Iraqi-Iranian Border. ISIS has also raided villages around the triangle formed by Qara Tapah, Jalula, and Khanaqin. The ISF remains largely fixed in a static military base in Sadiyah south of Jalula.[3] The ISF failed to secure this area during celebrations of Arbaeen by Iraqi Shi’a in October 2018.[4]
  • ISIS is resurging in the Western Baghdad Belts. ISIS has sustained an assassination campaign targeting Sunni tribal leaders west of Baghdad despite clearing operations by the ISF and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). ISIS also detonated a VBIED in Fallujah on October 6. The blast marked the first such attack in Fallujah since its seizure by the ISF and U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in June 2016.

[1] “Continuous Clashes Between SDF and ISIS in Areas Within the Last Enclave East of Euphrates,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, November 19, 2018, http://www(.)
[2]  “After the Deal of Handing Over the Kidnapped People, Hundreds of ISIS Members Vanish from Tlul al-Safa After 116 Days of the Deadliest Attack Ever in Al-Suwaida,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, November 17, 2018, http://www(.)
[3] [“Leader in the Popular Mobilization Forces Killed During a Security Operation in Diyala,”] Al-Ghad Press, November 18, 2018, https://www(.)
[4] Karzan Sulaivany, “Iraqi Police Arrest Suspect Who Tried to Plant Bomb at Security Members Home,” Kurdistan24, October 30, 2018, http://www(.)

Monday, December 17, 2018

Russia's Pressure Points on Ukraine

By the ISW Russia Team

Key Takeaway: Russia is expanding the variety of means it uses to threaten Ukraine along multiple borders - from the Sea of Azov and Donbas to Western Ukraine. The Kremlin retains the capability and intent to escalate these threats as necessary in order to challenge the Government of Ukraine. The Kremlin is attempting to inflame religious and social tensions to polarize Ukraine ahead of Ukraine’s 2019 Presidential and Parliamentary Elections. Russia will continue to use all means necessary to advance its long-term objective to reassert its sphere of influence over Ukraine.

Russia continues to bolster its military capabilities on the occupied Crimean Peninsula, including air, naval and anti-access area-denial assets, in order to create a credible deterrent against a potential response by NATO. 


Russia continues to threaten military escalation and maintain a de-facto blockade of Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov. Russia’s likely long-term objective is to gain total control over the Sea of Azov and the port city of Mariupol. The blockade fosters economic grievances among Ukrainians in Berdyansk and Mariupol and is intended to further weaken the fragile Government of Ukraine.

Russia is fueling tensions over the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s recent acquisition of autonomy from Moscow to polarize Ukraine. Ukrainian officials warned that the Russian Security Services (FSB) are organizing violent demonstrations in Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, Kherson, and Mykolayiv Oblasts against the autocephalous status of the Ukrainian Eastern Orthodox Church. Russia however failed in its attempts to disrupt a significant meeting to recognize the Ukrainian Eastern Orthodox Church on December 15. The threat nonetheless remains a pressure point for future relations between Ukraine, Russia, and Turkey.

Russia is preparing its separatist proxies for a potential escalation in Donbas in Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin is flooding the information space with false warnings that indicate its intentions to spread fear about an upcoming attack. The Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that Ukraine and the West are planning imminent attacks in Donbas. Russian-backed separatists alleged that Ukraine and its allies plan to conduct a chemical weapons attack near separatist-held Eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian Armed Forces Commander Gen. Viktor Muzhenko confirmed a buildup of Russian T-62s along the Russian-Ukrainian Border since October 2018.

Russia is subverting the upcoming elections in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Security Services (SBU) accused Russia of using “troll factories” to interfere in the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential and Parliamentary Elections.

Russia is intensifying its information campaign in Southern Ukraine in order to sow distrust and weaken the legitimacy of the Government of Ukraine. Russian media claimed that Ukraine plans to attack Kherson Oblast near Crimea in Southern Ukraine on December 24 - 25.

Russia is targeting the borders of Western Ukraine. Russia continues to use subversive tools to inflame ethnic tensions and separatist sentiments in Zakharpatiya Oblast in order to drive a wedge between Ukraine and its neighbors in Poland and Hungary. Russia hackers attacked the computer systems of more than one hundred military and state institutions in Western Ukraine on December 14, according to the SBU.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Syria Situation Report: November 29 - December 12, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

The following 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 November 29 - December 12, 2018.
Click image to enlarge.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Russia Sees Opportunity in Europe's Crises

By Jason Zhou with the ISW Russia Team

Key Takeaway: Russia is poised to escalate its campaign in Ukraine at a time when domestic crises, partly fueled by the Kremlin, distract key U.S. allies in Europe. America’s three most important allies in NATO - France, Germany, and the United Kingdom - face ongoing political instability even as events in Eastern Europe divert the attention of NATO. These crises all have domestic roots, but nearly all of them are being fanned or influenced by the Kremlin. The crises occupy the attention of critical political leaders in NATO and have already contributed to weak responses by NATO and the EU to Russia’s aggression in the Kerch Strait. Russian President Vladimir Putin likely calculates that crucial NATO leaders are currently too weak and preoccupied with domestic affairs to respond meaningfully to further escalation. This calculus increases the likelihood that Putin may commit additional acts of aggression, such as the seizure of additional territory in Eastern Ukraine.


Update (December 14, 2018): The text for the fourth point in the map has been updated to reflect a significant development in Kosovo's Parliament.

Turkey Brief: November 27 - December 12, 2018

Turkey Brief is a biweekly 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 Turkish government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them.

Reporting Period: November 27 - December 12, 2018

Authors: Elizabeth Teoman with Paul Becker and Kieran Hatton

Key Takeaway: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is unlikely to meaningfully challenge Russia’s increasing aggression in the Black Sea despite its harm to the interests of both Turkey and NATO. He is instead remaining effectively neutral in order to preserve a cooperative relationship with the Kremlin that provides him economic benefits and freedom of action in Syria. Erdogan’s effective neutrality in the Black Sea is a boon to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is currently prepared to launch a renewed ground offensive against Ukraine.

Turkey is unlikely meaningfully to contest Russia’s recent aggression in the Black Sea. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been muted in response to Russia’s illegal attack against the Ukrainian Navy in the Kerch Strait on November 25. Russia’s aggression is a threat to the sovereign rights of Turkey in the Black Sea. Erdogan has nonetheless prioritized high-level diplomatic engagement over a military response. He urged de-escalation in separate phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and U.S. President Donald Trump on November 28. He later attempted but failed to mediate the release of the Ukrainians detained by the Kremlin.[1] Erdogan also ordered small-scale military exercises to reassure his population. The Turkish Navy began a limited three-day naval drill in the Black Sea on December 11.[2] It also will hold recurring small-scale exercises in the Dardanelles Strait throughout December 2018. These maneuvers are too limited in scope and scale to deter Russia.

Erdogan is likely unwilling to jeopardize his deepening bilateral relationship with the Kremlin by counter-escalating in the Black Sea. Turkey and Russia are jointly constructing the TurkStream natural gas Pipeline under the Black Sea. TurkStream grants greater leverage to Erdogan as a key energy transit hub to Europe while diversifying the export options available to Putin. Turkey also has a vested economic interest in the continued flow of commercial shipping to Ukraine and Russia via the Kerch Strait. Turkey remains heavily dependent on trade and tourism from Russia. Turkey similarly relies upon Russia to protect its freedom of action against the Syrian Kurdish YPG in Syria as well as to uphold a delicate demilitarized zone in al Qaeda-dominated Idlib Province. Erdogan may also doubt that NATO will fully support him in a confrontation with Russia in the Black Sea. His effective neutrality in the latest crisis is a boon for Putin, who is currently prepared to launch a renewed ground offensive against Ukraine.

Erdogan nonetheless hopes to retain a growing relationship with Ukraine despite his unwillingness to confront Russia over the Kerch Strait. Erdogan has forged closer economic, diplomatic, and defense ties with Ukraine since 2014. He has repeatedly reaffirmed support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.[3] Erdogan seeks to expand his indigenous defense industry through greater technology exchange with Ukraine. He also likely supported the recent decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to grant autonomy to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church on October 11. The Russian Orthodox Church in response severed ties with Constantinople. He has also preserved a historic cultural patronage of Ukraine’s Turkic Crimean Tatars - a population resistant to Russia’s illegal occupation of the Crimean Peninsula. Erdogan actively intervened to secure the release of two leading Crimean Tatars from Russia in October 2017. His government also plans to construct a Crimean Tatar Cultural Center in Kiev by 2019. Erdogan will likely sustain these lines of effort in order to counterbalance against Russia in the Black Sea.

[1] [“Response from Peskov to Erdogan: We Are Grateful But There Is No Need,”] Sputnik, November 29, 2018, https://tr(.)
[2] [“Safety of Navigation,”] Turkish Naval Forces Office of Navigation, Hydrography, and Oceanography, December 10, 2018, http://www(.)
[3] [“Visit of Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu in Milan to Attend OSCE 25th Council of Ministers Meeting, 6-7 December 2018,”] Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 7, 2018, http://www(.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Russia in Review: Russia Poised to Escalate Ukraine Campaign

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.

Special Topic Update: Russia Poised to Escalate Ukraine Campaign

Author: Catherine Harris, Mason Clark, and Nicole Geis with the ISW Research Team

Key Takeaway: Russia will likely escalate militarily against Ukraine imminently. Russia is setting military conditions to prepare its forces for open conflict with Ukraine. Russia is already creating the pretext to escalate by circulating the false narrative that Ukraine and the West are preparing imminent attacks, including a chemical weapons attack, in Eastern Ukraine. Russia may fabricate evidence of a chemical weapons attack – or may itself conduct a chemical weapons attack -- near Russia-backed areas of Ukraine to create chaos, justify the overt involvement of the Russian Armed Forces, and set conditions for future military operations. NATO’s inaction following Russia’s escalation in the Sea of Azov is likely emboldening Putin to continue challenging the West in Ukraine. NATO must reassess the threat that Russia poses to European security and the rules-based international order and respond decisively to deter an increasingly likely Russian military escalation in Ukraine itself.

Russia is taking overt steps towards open conflict with Ukraine. Russia has been waging a covert war against Ukraine using proxy separatist forces in eastern Ukraine since 2014. The Russian military is now preparing its forces for direct military involvement. The Kremlin is reinforcing ground, naval, and air elements in its Southern Military District - the command likely responsible for managing its ongoing war in Ukraine. Moscow may calculate that the international community will not meaningfully respond if the visibility of its role in the war now increases.

  • Ground: Russia reportedly transferred an additional mechanized regiment to the 150th Motor Rifle Division (MRD) on December 2.[1] The 150th MRD is a uniquely tank-heavy unit subordinate to the 8th Combined-Arms Army located 20-30 kilometers from the Russian-Ukrainian border. ISW previously assessed that the 150th MRD could support a ground advance by Russia along the northern coast of the Sea of Azov if the Kremlin launched a large-scale offensive against Ukraine. The Kremlin has also increased the number of armored vehicles along the Russian-Ukrainian border. Ukrainian Armed Forces Commander General Viktor Muzhenko has publicly warned of a significant buildup of Russian T-62M Main Battle Tanks along the Russian-Ukrainian border that had occurred by October 2018. ISW had previously warned about this mobilization in September 2018. 
  • Air: Russia is likely integrating additional airmobile units into existing units in the Southern Military District (SMD). SMD Commander Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov announced earlier this year that new airmobile units would begin training with naval infantry in the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian Flotilla beginning in December 2018.[2] It is not yet clear if these units have begun their training missions. 
  • Sea: Russia is also bolstering the capabilities of its Black Sea Fleet. Russia added a new corvette equipped with cruise missiles to the Black Sea Fleet on December 7.[3] Russia is expected to add four additional warships including patrol boats and minesweepers to the Black Sea Fleet by the start of 2019.[4] Russia also conducted naval and missile drills involving two submarines and Pantsir Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (SAMS) in the Black Sea and Crimean Peninsula on December 5. 
Russia may also be preparing its Central Military District to support the Southern Military District in a conflict. Russia began snap preparations for its “Center-2019” military exercise on December 1.[5] These exercises will not take place until September 2019.[6] This early start to the exercises is atypical and may signal preparation for open conflict with Ukraine under the auspices of military exercises. Russia has previously used military exercises as cover to prepare for offensive operations. The initial phase of the Center-2019 exercise includes “moving from peace to wartime posture” and moving supplies and field hospitals to aid potential casualties in combat. Russian units conducted these exercises in the Volga region northeast of the Southern Military District.[7] Russia may intend to use resources in the Central Military District to support the Southern Military District in rear areas. Alternatively, Russia may be attempting to deter a Ukrainian military response to Russia’s escalation against Ukraine in the Sea of Azov on November 24-25. Russia may however calculate that conditions are set such that Russia should escalate now.

Russia may be preparing to fabricate or launch a chemical weapons attack in Ukraine in order to create a false pretext to escalate against Ukraine. Russia is currently flooding the information space with multiple narratives to alarm the local population in Ukraine and frame the West as the aggressor likely in order to set conditions for a future escalation by Russia. One Kremlin narrative claims that Western personnel are preparing to conduct a chemical weapons attack in territory currently controlled by Russia-backed separatists.[8] A spokesperson from the Russia-backed separatist region of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) claims that the Ukrainian Armed Forces will launch an assault on Mariupol on December 14. These false narratives may represent efforts by Russia to create a false justification for anticipated overt military involvement. This fabrication would be consistent with recent Russian provocations in Syria. Russia and the Syrian regime fabricated a chemical weapons attack in Syria on November 24. Russia responded to this fabricated chemical weapons attack with Russian airstrikes. The U.S. condemned Russia and the Assad regime for this fabrication but did not meaningfully respond. The Kremlin may therefore calculate that it can use the same play in Ukraine at this time.

Putin may seek to create a military distraction for Poroshenko’s government in order to disrupt an upcoming meeting that will formally announce the autocephalous status of the Ukrainian Orthodox church on December 15 in Kyiv. Ukraine’s recent autocephaly represents a loss of social influence that Russia formerly held over Ukraine. Putin may be attempting to cause widespread hysteria before the meeting in order to menace Ukraine and undermine its efforts to distance Ukraine from Russia. Russia may also seek to circulate these narratives to frame Ukraine as the aggressor ahead of a vote at the UN General Assembly to formally condemn Russian militarization of Crimea, the Sea of Azov, and the Black Sea on December 17. Russia is nonetheless demonstrating that it is preparing to engage Ukraine in open conflict.

Russia likely perceives the lack of a unified NATO response to Moscow’s aggression in the Sea of Azov as an opportunity to escalate against Ukraine and elsewhere in the future. NATO failed to agree on a unified course of action in response to Russia’s escalation in the Kerch Strait during a foreign ministerial meeting on December 4-5. Moreover, NATO member-states are signaling different degrees of concern over overt Russian escalation. None of the responses are likely sufficient to deter Putin, whereas the disagreement itself will likely embolden him.
  • United States: The U.S. has demonstrated the strongest response to Russia’s aggression, though it is likely insufficient to deter further offensive action by Russia in Ukraine. U.S. Commander of EUCOM and Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Scaparrotti will meet with Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov in Azerbaijan on December 12.[9] The U.S. is attempting to constrain Russia and prevent it from making future illegal claims to other bodies of water. The U.S. is preparing the option of sending a warship, likely from the 6th Fleet, to the Black Sea in coordination with Turkey in a likely effort to deter Russia from expanding its aggression into the Black Sea. The United States also conducted a freedom of navigation exercise in the Sea of Japan near the Russia-claimed Kuril Islands on December 5 in a move that U.S. officials called a direct challenge to Russian naval activity in the Pacific theater. This U.S. maneuver follows Russia’s announcement that it will pass legislation requiring foreign ships to notify the Kremlin before traversing the Northern Sea Route in 2019.[10] The U.S. with allies also conducted a flight over Ukraine under the Open Skies Treaty to reaffirm support for Ukraine and European nations on December 6. 
  • European Union: The EU will likely fail to pass additional sanctions on Russia. The UK called for the EU to enact “appropriate sanctions” in response to Russian aggression, though this effort will be unsuccessful. France and Germany have signaled their unwillingness to impose further sanctions on Russia and their preference to pursue a diplomatic solution to the escalation. French officials are furthermore currently distracted by large-scale protests in France that may be partially fueled by Russian disinformation.[11]
  • Turkey: Ankara is attempting to demonstrate Turkish resolve in the Black Sea. Turkey is currently conducting live-fire exercises in the southeastern portion of the Black Sea from December 10-14 and recently announced recurring small-scale exercises in the Dardanelles Strait throughout December.[12]
Russia will continue to divert attention away from Russia’s escalating pattern to undermine a stronger NATO response. Putin will likely use a mixture of incentives and pressures on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to increase the likelihood that Erdogan will not meaningfully challenge a future escalation by Russia against Ukraine. Russia likely already initiated this effort in the Syrian theater. Russia conducted airstrikes within hundreds of meters of a Turkish military position in Western Aleppo Province, Syria under the false pretext of retaliating against anti-Assad forces for using chemical weapons on November 26. Russia may have intended to use this set of airstrikes to test international reactions to a fabricated chemical weapons attack; to compel Turkey to back down in the Black Sea; and to divert international attention away from its military escalation against Ukraine and toward an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria. The Kremlin will also likely use subversive methods to fuel protests in France and possibly other NATO member-states in order to create distractions and divert resources away from a future escalation by Russia.

The U.S. and NATO must be increasingly prepared for an emboldened Russia to escalate in multiple theaters. Russia has previously demonstrated its ability to simultaneously escalate its various malign campaigns against the West in multiple theaters. Russia likely feels more emboldened to do so at this time following NATO’s inaction. NATO must therefore be prepared for Russia to escalate in Ukraine but also in other theaters, such as Syria. ISW has repeatedly warned that Russia, Assad, and Iran are setting military conditions to ultimately expel the U.S.-led coalition from Eastern Syria. Russia may accelerate both of these efforts simultaneously in a most dangerous scenario. NATO must prioritize deterring an increasingly aggressive Russia in order to maintain the resolve of the NATO alliance and uphold the rules-based international order.

[1] Daria Mikhalina, [“A new regiment Formed As part of the 150th Motorized Rifle Division Near Rostov”,] TV Zvezda, December 2, 2018, https://tvzvezda(.)ru/news/forces/content/201812021804-73o7.htm
[2] [“Shoigu Stated Strategic Exercises “Tsentr-2019” Will Be Held in September”,] Rambler, December 4, 2018,
[3] “Russia deploys Latest Cruise Missile Corvette in Occupied Crimea – Media,” Unian, December 10, 2018,
[4] “Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to Get Four New Warships,”TASS, December 3, 2018, http://tass(.)com/defense/1033966
[5] Central MD Troops to Start Tarining for Tsentr 2018 CPX on December 1,” Russian MOD, November 30, 2018,
[6] [“Shoigu Announced Strategic Exercises “Center” in 2019”,] MKRU, December 4, 2018,
[7] [“The Second Army in the Volga Region Received a Rapid Deployment Hospital”,] RIA, July 6, 2018, https://ria(.)ru/20180706/1524084441.html
[8] “Kremlin’s Persistent Claim of “Expected Chemical Attack by Ukraine Armed Forces in Donbas” Worrying -MP,” Unian, December 10, 2018,
[9] “President Ilham Aliyev Received a Delegation Led by the Commander-in-Chief of the NATO Joint Armed Forces in Europe”, Azer Tas, November 12, 2018, https://azertag(.)az/ru/xeber/Prezident_Ilham_Aliev_prinyal_delegaciyu_vo_glave_s_glavnokomanduyushchim_Obedinennymi_vooruzhennymi_silami_NATO_v_Evrope-1223411
[10] “Russia Will Restrict Foreign Warships in Arctic Ocean, Defense Official Syas”, Moscow Times, November 30, 2018,
[11] “France Opens Probe Into Possible Russian Interference Behind “Yellow Vest” Protests – Media, Unian, December 9, 2018, https://www.unian(.)info/world/10369785-france-opens-probe-into-possible-russian-interference-behind-yellow-vest-protests-media.html
[12] “Gunnery Exercise, Between 10-12 DEC 18,” Turkish Naval Forces Office of Navigation, Hydrography and Oceanography,, “Firing Exercises, between 11-14 DEC 18” Turkish Naval Forces Office of Navigation, Hydrography and Oceanography,

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Syria Situation Report: November 8 - 29, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

These two graphics mark 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 maps depict significant developments in the war in Syria during the period November 8 - 29, 2018.

Map 1: November 8 - 19, 2018
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Map 2: November 19 - 29, 2018
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