Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Russia in Review: March 15 - 26, 2019

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: March 15 - 26, 2019 (read the previous Russia in Review here)

AuthorsNataliya Bugayova, Alexander Begej, and Darina Regio

Key Takeaway: Russia is expanding its economic and military hold over the Arctic in order to preposition for its long-term bid to secure resources, expand its defense posture, and gain strategic advantage over the U.S. and China. The Kremlin is establishing its control in the Northern Sea Route, following its success in claiming sovereignty over the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea in November 2018.

Russia is intensifying its efforts to expand its economic control over the Arctic. Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the development of the major Kharasaveyskoye Gas Field on the Yamal Peninsula in Northern Russia on March 20.[1] The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources submitted a comprehensive plan regarding the Arctic on March 13.[2] The plan included over one hundred projects intended to develop mineral resources in the region as the polar icecaps continue to shrink. Putin is increasingly prioritizing investment in the Arctic as a source of potential future economic growth for Russia.[3] The Arctic currently accounts for 12-15% of Russia’s GDP.[4] Putin signed a decree granting additional authorities over socioeconomic development in the Arctic to the Russian Ministry of Far East Development in February 2019.[5]

The Kremlin is also continuing its military buildup in the Far North. Russian Northern Fleet Commander Adm. Nikolay Yevmenov stated that the Russian Armed Forces would soon finish a new air defense base in the village of Tiksi above the Arctic Circle.[6] Russia has been expanding its military presence in the region in recent years with new military installations, additions to its already-dominant icebreaker fleet, and deployments of area defense systems including the S-400 and Tor-M2DT Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (SAMS) and Bastion Anti-Ship Missiles.[7] The Kremlin aims to solidify Russia’s position as a dominant power in the Arctic primarily to secure uncontested access to economic resources in the Arctic Circle as well as the Northern Sea Route. Russia will likely expedite this effort in tandem with the release of a new U.S. Arctic Strategy currently set to be presented to the U.S. Congress by June 2019.[8]

Russia is asserting its control over the Northern Sea Route (NSR) to secure access to future maritime trade and gain strategic advantage over the U.S. and China. Pro-Kremlin Izvestia reported on March 6 that new regulations would oblige foreign military vessels to notify Russia at least forty-five days in advance of their plans for transiting the Northern Sea Route and accept onboard pilots from Russia.[9] The Kremlin has not yet confirmed these claims. Russian officials did previously announce work on legislation to restrict foreign naval access to the Arctic in November 2018, shortly after Russia attacked the Ukrainian Navy in the Kerch Strait connecting the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea.[10] The Russian Parliament also granted Rosatom - the state-owned nuclear energy corporation - vast new authorities to manage and develop infrastructure, security, and trade along the Northern Sea Route in December 2018.[11] Putin has ambitiously ordered his government to achieve an eight-fold increase in annual cargo traffic through the Northern Sea Route by 2024.[12] The route is likely to become increasingly viable for commercial use given the melting polar icecaps, presenting new economic opportunities in global trade to Russia. The Kremlin intends to leverage its control over this emerging route to maximize its future economic benefit and gain strategic advantage over rivals in the Arctic such as the U.S. and China. The Kremlin likely views this effort as part of its larger campaign to expand its influence over major maritime shipping routes around the globe. The Kremlin was emboldened by the lack of response to its violent assertion of sovereignty over the Kerch Strait and will likely continue to contest international waters in the absence of pushback from the U.S. and NATO.

Russia could pursue joint operations with China to achieve its goals in the Arctic. Russia lacks the financial resources to develop the Arctic. The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources’ development plan for the region called for investments of 10.5 trillion rubles (roughly $163 billion) drawn from private investment rather than the federal budget. Russia may attempt to secure part of this investment from China. China is a strategic competitor to Russia in the Arctic. It declared itself a ‘Near Arctic Power’ in its 2018 Arctic Policy and identified the ‘Polar Silk Road’ as an extension of its Belt and Road Initiative.[13] China is keen to gain access to the Northern Sea Route to expedite its own shipments to Europe. The Kremlin’s short-term need for investment nonetheless might push it to cooperate (rather than compete) with China in the Arctic. China is a part owner of Russia’s large-scale liquid natural gas facility on the Yamal Peninsula and continues to invest in similar projects in the Far North. Chinese and Russian scientists agreed to cooperate on joint scientific exploration in the Arctic during a symposium in Beijing on March 25.[14] Putin may secure further cooperation during upcoming meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April and June 2019.[15] China and Russia’s deepening cooperation could limit the freedom of movement of the U.S. in the Arctic. The U.S. should consider the potential implications of this cooperation as well as the precedent set by the Kremlin’s continued violations of international norms on maritime passage as the Pentagon prepares its updated Arctic Strategy.

[1] "Launch of Kharasaveyskoye Gas and Condensate Field," Kremlin, March 20, 2019, en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60113; “Gazprom Starts Kharasaveyskoye Development,” Oil and Gas Journal, March 21, 2019,
[2] [“Comprehensive Plan - ‘Implementation of the Mineral and Logistical Potential of the Arctic’ - Developed by the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia, Sent to the Government of the Russian Federation,”] Russian Ministry of Natural Resources, March 13, 2019,
[3] Lincoln Edson Flake, “Russia’s Security Intentions in a Melting Arctic,” INSS Military and Strategic Affairs Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 2014),; [“Putin: Russian Priorities in the Arctic Are Unlikely to Change,”] TASS, March 30, 2017, https://tass(.)ru/ekonomika/4139391; Aleksandr Pilyasov, [“Russian Arctic: State and Perspectives,”] Russian North, March 25, 2019, http://www.rosnord(.)ru/%0Bstrategy/standpoint/65-arktika-rossii-sostoyanie-i-perspektivy.
[4] Pilyasov, [“Russian Arctic: State and Perspectives,”] Russian North, http://www.rosnord(.)ru/%0Bstrategy/standpoint/65-arktika-rossii-sostoyanie-i-perspektivy.
[5] [“Putin Created the ‘Ministry of the Arctic’,”] Vzglyad, February 26, 2019, https://vz(.)ru/news/2019/2/26/966119.html.
[6] [“Military Camp for the Air Defense Forces of the Northern Fleet in Tiksi Is Ready for Occupation,”] TASS, March 13, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/armiya-i-opk/6211255.
[7] Bogdan Stepovoy and Aleksey Ramm, [“Triumph of the Arctic: The S-400 Is Prepared for the Polar Cold Weather,”] Izvestia, January 10, 2019, https://iz(.)ru/822659/bogdan-stepovoi-aleksei-ramm/triumf-arktiki-s-400-gotoviat-k-poliarnym-kholodam; [“The Russian Army in the Arctic Received the S-400 ‘Triumph’ and Pantsir-S Complexes,”] Interfax, December 30, 2018, https://www.interfax(.)ru/russia/644649; “Russia Will Deploy New Missiles to Defend Arctic, Admiral Says,” Moscow Times, March 13, 2019,; [“Security in the Arctic - Our Priority Task,”] Red Star, March 13, 2019, http://redstar(.)ru/bezopasnost-v-arktike-nasha-prioritetnaya-zadacha; Sergey Sukhankin, "The Arctic ‘Trilistnik’: Russia’s Bid for Regional Military Superiority," Jamestown Foundation, September 12, 2018,; Atle Staalesen, “Big Upgrade for Russian Northernmost Airstrip,” Barents Observer, September 26, 2018,; Mark Episkopos, “How Russia is Getting Ready for War in the Arctic,” National Interest, December 1, 2018,
[8] Dan Lamothe, “Trump Administration’s New Arctic Defense Strategy Expected to Zero In on Concerns About China,” Washington Post, March 15, 2019,
[9] Aleksey Kozachenko, Bogdan Stepovoy, and Elnar Bainazarov, [“Cold War: Foreigners Are Given Northern Sea Route Passage Rules,”] Izvestia, March 6, 2019, https://iz(.)ru/852943/aleksei-kozachenko-bogdan-stepovoi-elnar-bainazarov/kholodnaia-volna-inostrantcam-sozdali-pravila-prokhoda-sevmorputi.
[10] “Russia Will Restrict Foreign Warships in Arctic Ocean, Defense Official Says,” Moscow Times, November 30, 2018,
[11] “On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation,” Russian State Duma, December 28 2018, http://kremlin(.)ru/acts/news/59539.
[12] [“On the National Goals of the Strategic Objectives of the Development of the Russian Federation for the Period Up to 2024,”] March 16, 2019," Kremlin, March 16, 2019, http://static.kremlin(.)ru/media/acts/files/0001201805070038.pdf.
[13] “China’s Arctic Policy,” Chinese State Council, January 2018,
[14] [“Russian and Chinese Scientists Will Jointly Study the Ocean, the Arctic, and Antarctica,”] TASS, March 24, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/nauka/6252825.
[15] "Xi Jinping Accepts Putin's Invitation to Attend St. Petersburg Economic Forum Next Year," TASS, December 1, 2018, http://tass(.)com/politics/1033748; "Putin to Visit Beijing on April 26 - 27 for One Belt, One Road Summit," TASS, February 14, 2019, http://tass(.)com/economy/1044615.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Syria Situation Report: March 6 - 19, 2019

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 March 6 - 19, 2019.

Click image to enlarge.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Turkey Brief: January 23 - March 18, 2019

Turkey Brief is an 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: January 23 - March 18, 2019

Authors: Elizabeth Teoman with Monica Ma, Matti Suomenaro, Darina Regio, and Michael Land

Key Takeaway: Turkey is deepening its strategic cooperation with Russia as the U.S. draws down its forces in Syria. Turkey is strengthening its naval coordination with Russia in the Black Sea and negotiating to expand bilateral economic ties. In Syria, Turkey and Russia agreed to create a joint coordination center to conduct joint military patrols along frontlines in Northern Syria on March 14. They are also working together to begin trade from Turkey into regime-held parts of Aleppo Province. Turkey’s deepening cooperation with Russia undermines the cohesion of NATO and jeopardizes the prospects for a deal between the U.S. and Turkey to stabilize Eastern Syria.

Turkey is expanding its strategic cooperation with Russia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly chosen to fortify his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the expense of Turkey’s alliance with NATO. Erdogan has taken a number of major steps toward a strategic realignment with Russia in 2019.
  • Military: Erdogan has decided not to meaningfully challenge Russia’s increasingly assertive posture in the Black Sea. Turkey conducted a joint naval drill with Russia in the Black Sea on March 8 despite mounting international pressure on Russia after its escalation against Ukraine in the Kerch Strait in November 2018. The exercise marked only the second joint maneuver between the two countries since Russia formally suspended its participation in the Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Group in response to the downing of a Russian Su-24 ‘Fencer’ fighter jet by Turkey in November 2015.[1] Erdogan likely seeks to avoid disrupting the final constructions stages of the joint TurkStream Pipeline which runs under the Black Sea from Russia through Turkey.
  • Commercial: Russia agreed to double import quotas for agricultural products from Turkey after a meeting between Erdogan and Putin in Moscow on January 23. The deal will help Erdogan stabilize rising food prices, which he has also attempted to mitigate through nationwide subsidies ahead of local elections in Turkey scheduled for March 31. Turkey and Russia may separately be nearing a milestone agreement to resume visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to Russia. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced a possible breakthrough after months of negotiations on March 1.[2] The Kremlin punitively suspended visa-free travel agreement with Turkey in November 2015. Erdogan and Putin will hold their next meeting on bilateral trade and economic ties in Moscow on April 15.
  • Defense: Erdogan reaffirmed his intent to purchase the Russian-made S-400 Surface-to-Air Missile System (SAMS) throughout February 2019 despite significant pressure from the U.S. that included threats of possible sanctions. Erdogan also rejected an counteroffer from the U.S. to provide the Patriot SAMS to Turkey. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe / U.S. EUCOM Commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti recommended against providing the F-35 ‘Lightening’ fighter jet to Turkey due to risks to NATO on March 5. Erdogan subsequently stated that Turkey could purchase the Russian S-500 SAMS in addition to the S-400 in a signal of his determination to pursue closer defense ties with the Kremlin on March 6.
Turkey is also deepening its cooperation with Russia in Syria even as the U.S. executes a partial drawdown in Eastern Syria. Russia and Turkey have taken steps to slowly negotiate an expansion of their coordination in Syria. Putin, Erdogan, and Rouhani met under the auspices of the Astana Process on February 14, where they likely agreed to the contours of future cooperation in Northern Syria. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu previously reached a “mutual understanding” on cooperation in Idlib Province on February 11.[3] Russian and Turkish military officials held a series of meetings on March 11 to discuss the developing situation around Idlib Province as well as possibly the status of the contested town of Manbij, which likely produced a deal on the specific routes of future joint patrols near Tel Rifaat north of Aleppo City. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov similarly planned to discuss bilateral issues including Syria in a meeting in Turkey on March 12 that has been delayed twice due to reported scheduling difficulties.

Russia and Turkey are expanding cooperation in three key geographic areas in Syria:
  • Greater Idlib Province: Turkey and Russia are implementing the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by Erdogan and Putin on September 18, 2018, which called for coordinated patrols and enhanced functions for a joint Iranian-Russian-Turkish Coordination Center. Both countries formally agreed to create a bilateral joint coordination center on March 14 to oversee their deepening military cooperation in Idlib Province after Turkey announced plans for joint military patrols with Russia on March 8 and conducted a patrol on the same day along the strategic M-5 Highway south of Aleppo City. Turkey subsequently conducted a second frontline patrol in Idlib Province without Russia on March 17. Joint patrols will likely follow in coming weeks. The Turkish Armed Forces deployed additional reserves into Greater Idlib Province to prepare for expanded coordination throughout February and March 2019.[4] Turkey and Russia’s coordinated military operation in Idlib Province will likely set conditions for the resumption of traffic along the key M-4 and M-5 Highways, a goal stipulated in the September 2018 MoU.
  • Greater Idlib Province: Turkey may also be providing targeting intelligence for Russian and Syrian airstrikes against al Qaeda-linked forces in Northern Syria despite denials of such coordination from Turkey. Turkey may be attempting to gain greater freedom of maneuver in Greater Idlib Province and circumvent constraints imposed by al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). HTS accompanied the initial deployments of the Turkish Armed Forces to frontlines in Idlib Province that began in October 2017 and may have delayed at least one of the frontline patrols conducted by Turkey in March 2019. Turkey may also have agreed to provide intelligence on HTS as a concession to Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated that HTS was attempting to collapse the implementation of the Russo-Turkish MoU on Northern Syria in November 2018. Putin later announced that Turkey and Russia would take additional steps to stabilize Idlib Province against al Qaeda following a meeting with Erdogan on January 23.
  • Aleppo Province: Turkey and Russia are negotiating a similar cooperation agreement in Northern Aleppo Province. Both countries seek to reopen trade between Turkey and Syria by creating a suitable security environment along the highway between Aleppo City and the opposition-held town of Azaz on the Syrian-Turkish Border. Erdogan aims to stimulate Turkey’s faltering economy by integrating his domestic market with markets in Northern Syria. The Kremlin aims to use renewed trade to boost its narrative of normalization under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkish and Russian Armed Forces conducted their first joint patrol near Tel Rifaat north of Aleppo City on February 14. Turkey later announced the re-opening of the key Bab al-Salama Border Crossing north of Aleppo City on March 5.[5] Turkey and Russia will likely conduct additional such patrols. The Turkish Defense Ministry confirmed ongoing efforts for further joint patrols near Tel Rifaat on March 12.
  • Manbij: Turkey may agree to a takeover of the contested town of Manbij in Eastern Aleppo Province by Russia as the U.S. reduces its footprint in Northern Syria. Erdogan is dissatisfied with progress on a roadmap between the U.S. and Turkey to remove the Syrian Kurdish YPG from Manbij. Erdogan may thus seek a separate deal with Russia to supplant the U.S. in Manbij regardless of withdrawal ordered by the Trump Administration. Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin stated that Russia agreed to implement the Manbij Roadmap on February 4. The Kremlin reportedly reached a verbal agreement with Manbij Military Council Co-Chair Abu Adel on March 9 to protect Manbij from Turkey in the event of a withdrawal by the U.S. The Russian Armed Forces previously began joint patrols with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) west of Manbij on January 7.
Turkey’s growing cooperation with Russia undermines NATO cohesion and jeopardizes the prospects for a deal between the U.S. and Turkey to stabilize Eastern Syria. The Kremlin’s cooptation of Turkey could disrupt the consensus-driven decision-making of the NATO North Atlantic Council. Russia could ultimately use Turkey’s dissent to obtain a de facto veto on the application of force through Article 5 of NATO’s Washington Treaty. Erdogan has pursued separate negotiations between the U.S. and Russia over Eastern Syria since the U.S. announced its intent to withdraw in December 2018. He likely seeks to identify which actor will provide a more advantageous option to advance his interests in Syria.
  • U.S.-Turkey Track: The U.S. is proposing the establishment of safe zone in Northern Syria secured by a residual force drawn from the U.S. and Europe. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar met with U.S. officials to negotiate the terms of this zone in Washington, D.C. on February 22. Erdogan nonetheless publicly rejected an international presence in any safe zone along the Syrian-Turkish Border the day after the meeting between Dunford and Akar. U.S. Presidential Advisor Jared Kushner was similarly unable to assuage Erdogan during a meeting in Ankara on February 27. The current status of the negotiations is unclear although U.S. officials have broadly characterized them as productive. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford stated that the U.S. and Turkey are refining an “initial concept” for Turkey’s security concerns in Syria on March 18. Dunford may be referencing the original proposal or a narrower agreement between the U.S. and Turkey that could include provisions for a greater monitoring presence for Turkey along the Syrian-Turkish Border.
  • Turkey-Russia Track: Putin may currently be providing a more preferable option to Erdogan in Syria. Putin signaled his openness to possible military operations by Turkey in Northern Syria after a bilateral meeting with Erdogan in Moscow on January 23. Putin referenced the Syrian-Turkish 1998 Adana Agreement, which allegedly authorized Turkey to conduct counterterrorism operations up to five kilometers inside Syria if Damascus fails to eliminate safe haven for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates inside of Syria.[6] Erdogan and Putin could agree to conduct simultaneous operations against the SDF in Eastern Syria, exploiting the vulnerabilities of the remnant force left by the U.S.
Turkey and Russia’s alignment over Syria may still falter, however. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad aims to limit the expanding economic integration and political influence held by Turkey in Northern Syria in order to retain leverage in future negotiations to end the Syrian Civil War. Assad continues to conduct airstrikes against Idlib Province in an attempt to assert its continued independence in the face of deals between Russia and Turkey. He also could exploit an influx of trade to spoil an agreement by siphoning off goods at a sufficient rate to provoke reprisals from Turkey. Pro-regime forces have systematically confiscated goods from Turkey along frontlines in Northern Hama Province since February 2019. Al Qaeda in Idlib Province could also spoil the agreement by attacking future joint patrols or commercial trade to impose cost on Turkey.

The U.S. is currently unlikely to achieve a change in Erdogan’s behavior and close the widening strategic gap with Turkey. The U.S. has not publicly rebuked Turkey’s military cooperation with Russia in Syria. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan discussed the situation in Idlib Province ahead of the release of a statement by the U.S. State Department condemning airstrikes against civilians in Northern Syria on March 14. The statement reiterated the Trump Administration’s opposition to a pro-regime offensive into Idlib Province, which strengthens Erdogan’s leverage with Putin but does not fundamentally alter the current trajectory of Turkey’s relationship with Russia. Erdogan’s recent steps toward deeper alignment with Russia are emboldening Putin. Putin invited Erdogan to the opening ceremony of a mosque in the occupied Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine scheduled for March 22. If Erdogan accepts the invitation, it would mark a major inflection in Turkey’s long-standing opposition to Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and a major victory for Russia against NATO.

[1] “Russia Suspends Participation in BLACKSEAFOR Drills After Turkey’s Downing of Russian Jet,” TASS, November 27, 2015, http://tass(.)com/defense/839869.
[2] Deniz Acik, “Turkey Seeking End to Need for Visas with Russia,” Anadolu Agency, March 1, 2019,
[3] [“Meeting Between Minister Akar and Russian Defense Minister Shoigu,”] Turkish Ministry of Defense, February 11, 2019,
[4] [“Military Shipments to the Syrian Border,”] Anadolu Agency, February 2, 2019,
[5] Izzet Mazi, “Turkey Reopens Key Border Crossing with Syria,” Anadolu Agency, March 5, 2019,
[6] “Minutes of the Agreement Signed by Turkey and Syria in Adana (Unofficial Translation) - 20 October 1999,” October 20, 1998, Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, http://www.mafhoum(.)com/press/50P2.htm.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Russia in Review: March 1 - March 18, 2019

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: March 1 - March 18, 2019

AuthorsNataliya Bugayova, Darina Regio and Andrea Snyder with Michaela Walker

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is tightening its domestic control over the information space through new censorship laws that establish unprecedented oversight over the media, stifling the political opposition and further limiting freedom of expression in Russia. The Kremlin also continues to shape political conditions in Ukraine in the lead-up to the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election on March 31. The Kremlin and opponents of incumbent Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko are setting conditions to challenge the legitimacy of the election and potentially instigate violence if Poroshenko wins reelection.

The Kremlin is tightening its domestic control through new censorship laws that further limit freedom of expression in Russia. The Russian Parliament approved two bills prohibiting online insults against the government and the dissemination of “inaccurate information” in the media on March 13.[1] Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely soon sign the bills into law. The first measure enables the Russian Federal Communication Supervision Service (Roskomnadzor) to demand the removal of so-called “fake” news within twenty-four hours from registered entities and immediately remove such content from unregistered websites. It also authorizes fines for such content ranging up to 500,000 rubles (roughly $8,000). The law does not specify a mechanism for identifying “fake” news, granting the government broad latitude for arbitrary censorship. The second measures prohibits online insults against the government and state symbols, authorizing jail sentences up to fifteen days and fines up to 200,000 rubles (roughly $3,000).[2] The Presidential Human Rights Council of Russia and numerous human rights advocates have urged Putin to reject the bills, arguing that the laws empower government officials to review materials “under far-fetched and arbitrary pretexts” that violate protections for freedom of expression under Article 29 of the Russian Constitution.[3] The laws (if adopted) will expand the censorship powers and state control over the information space enjoyed by the Kremlin. The Russian Parliament has also considered other pieces of legislation to constrain the information space in Russia, including a “sovereign internet” bill that would require all Internet providers in Russia to install technical equipment provided by Roskomnadzor and a newly-adopted law that prohibits military personnel from posting any information about their military rank, geographic location, or other operational details online.[4] These bills in conjunction are a continuation of an extensive campaign by the Kremlin to curb any political disagreement with its policies, secure the regime’s political survival, and limit foreign interference in Russia.

The Kremlin and other opponents of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko are setting conditions to question the legitimacy of the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election if Poroshenko wins reelection. The Kremlin and its political allies in Ukraine as well as other opponents of incumbent Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko are setting conditions to contest the legitimacy of the upcoming 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election on March 31. The Kremlin is waging an information campaign against Poroshenko, emphasizing his high negative ratings and alleged involvement in a major money-laundering scheme.[5] Russia-backed media has exclusively focused on the criminal allegations against Poroshenko even though independent sources have also implicated several of his main political rivals in serious electoral manipulation and campaign finance violations.[6] Russian Federation Council Member Sergey Tsekov warned that Russia might not recognize the next President of Ukraine after the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry banned election observers from Russia.[7] Pro-Russian Opposition Platform - For Life Chairman Viktor Medvedchuk similarly stated that “corruption scandals” relating to the election could lead to a “third Maidan” in reference to the Orange Revolution in 2004 and Euromaidan Revolution in 2014.[8] Several other Russia-leaning candidates including Oleksandr Vilkul have also accused Poroshenko of being unwilling or unable to hold transparent elections.[9] Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has capitalized on a similar narrative to discredit Poroshenko based on the swirling corruption accusations as well as a recent attempt to launch impeachment proceedings against him in the Ukrainian Parliament.[10]

The Kremlin will likely instigate violence in Ukraine if Poroshenko wins the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Elections. ISW has assessed that Poroshenko is the least-preferred candidate of the Kremlin. The Kremlin will likely attempt to leverage local players to fuel discontent and undermine the election results in the event of a victory by Poroshenko. The Kremlin may attempt to leverage the activities of the far-right Ukrainian National Corps Party, a nationalist group that opposes the accession of Ukraine to the EU and NATO as well as involvement by Russia in Ukraine. The National Corps Party announced on March 6 that its militant National Militia would act as “observers” at polling stations and use force if they detected election fraud.[11] National Militia members have already incited violence in Kyiv and Cherkasy in Central Ukraine, where they injured at least twenty-two police officers during protests against Poroshenko.[12] ISW has not directly linked the National Militia to the Kremlin, but its actions align with Russia’s intent to discredit Poroshenko, undermine the state monopoly on the use of force, and sow doubt about the legitimacy of the elections. The National Militias is at minimum vulnerable to the infiltration and influence from the Kremlin. ISW has previously assessed that Russia leverages nationalist groups to advance its objectives in Ukraine. The Kremlin is likely to exploit actors such as the National Militia to instigate clashes after an election victory by Poroshenko to undermine the political environment in Kyiv and build support for candidates amenable to the Kremlin in the upcoming 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections in October. The Kremlin could use its political proxies including favorable political parties to call the legitimacy of the elections into question and create a pretense for more political violence. The U.S. should condemn both election interference by Russia in Ukraine as well as all actors who threaten violence during or after the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Elections. The U.S. should call on all parties to respect the outcome of the elections and stress the need for peace and calm regardless of the results.

[1] “N 606593-7,” Legislation Council of the Russian Federation, March 15, 2019,; “N 606595-7,” Legislation Council of the Russian Federation, March 15, 2019,
[2] “Russia Passes Legislation Banning ‘Disrespect’ of Authorities and ‘Fake News’,” The Moscow Times, March 7, 2019,
[3] [“More Than a Hundred Journalists and Human Rights Defenders Opposed the Laws of Fake News and Insulting The Authorities on the Internet,”] Novaya Gazeta, March 12, 2019, https://www.novayagazeta(.)ru/news/2019/03/12/149945-bolee-sta-zhurnalistov-i-pravozaschitnikov-vystupilo-protiv-zakonov-o-feyk-nyus-i-oskorblenii-vlasti-v-internete.
[4] “N 608767-7,” Legislation Council of the Russian Federation, March 18, 2019,; [“Sovereign Internet in Russia Approved by the Duma in the First Reading,”] BBC, February 12, 2019,; [“Protection from Surveillance,”] Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 6, 2019, https://rg(.)ru/2019/03/06/voennym-zapretili-razglashat-sluzhebnuiu-informaciiu-v-socsetiah.html.
[5] [“Three Months Before the Election: Poroshenko - First in the Anti-Rating of Presidential Candidates,”] Strana, December 26, 2018, https://strana(.)ua/news/178483-rejtinh-poroshenko-upal-do-minimuma-pervyj-v-antirejtinhe-kandidatov-na-post-prezidenta.html; Oksana Grytsenko and Oleg Sukhov, “Allegations of Vote Buying Fly Before March 31 Contest,” Kyiv Post, March 1, 2019,; BIHUS Info, [“Friends of the President Are Stealing from Defense (Secret Correspondence, pg.1-2) /// Our Money No. 257 - 258,”] YouTube, February 25, 2019,; Lecya Ivanova, “Army. Friends. Dough. Part 1. (Without the Correspondence),” Bihus, February 28, 2019, https://bihus(.)info/army-friends-dough-part-1-without-correspondence.
[6] Oksana Grytsenko and Oleg Sukhov, “Allegations of Vote Buying Fly Before March 31 Contest,” Kyiv Post, March 1, 2019,; Denys Krasnikov, “SBU Says it Uncovered Network that Illegally Campaigned for Presidential Candidate,” Kyiv Post, February 21, 2019,; Oleksiy Sorokin, “Yuriy Tymoshenko Allegedly Offered Bribe to Quit Presidential Race,” Kyiv Post, March 7, 2019,
[7] “Ukraine Refuses to Register Russian Observers for Presidential Elections,” UA Wire, January 10, 2019, https://www.uawire(.)org/ukraine-refused-to-register-russian-observers-in-the-elections; [“Russia Will Seek Admission of Its Observers to the Ukrainian Elections – Karasin,”] Ukraina, March 12, 2019, https://ukraina(.)ru/news/20190312/1022960086.html.
[8] [“Medvedchuk Warned that Ukraine May Not Survive the Third ‘Maidan’,”] TASS, March 14, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/6217422.
[9] Yevchen Muraev, [“The Fact That the Falsifications Were Prepared,”] Facebook, March 11, 2019,; Oleksandr Vilkul, [“Do You Think the Government Will Falsify the Elections?”] Facebook, March 4, 2019,; Oleksandr Vilkul, [“Robbery of the Army,”] Facebook, February 26, 2019,
[10] Illia Ponomarenko, “Poroshenko Fires Hladkovskiy Amid Swirling Defense Corruption Scandal,” Kyiv Post, March 4, 2019,; [“We Are Initiating the Impeachment Process of President Poroshenko,”] Yulia Tymoshenko, February 26, 2019, https://www.tymoshenko(.)ua/news/pochynayemo-protseduru-impichmentu-prezydentu-poroshenku/; [“Yulia Tymoshenko Met with Higuom Mingarelli,”] Yulia Tymoshenko, March 14, 2019, https://www.tymoshenko(.)ua/news/yuliya-tymoshenko-zustrilasya-iz-hyugom-mingarelli; Oksana Grytsenko and Oleg Sukhov, “Allegations of Vote Buying Fly Before March 31 Contest,” Kyiv Post, March 1, 2019,; BIHUS Info, [“Friends of the President Are Stealing from Defense (Secret Correspondence, pg.1-2) /// Our Money No. 257 - 258,”] YouTube, February 25, 2019,; Lecya Ivanova, “Army. Friends. Dough. Part 1. (Without the Correspondence),” Bihus, February 28, 2019, https://bihus(.)info/army-friends-dough-part-1-without-correspondence; “Tymoshenko Accuses Parliament’s Leadership of Blocking Presidential Impeachment,” RFE/RL, February 28, 2019,
[11] “National Squads Militia Says Ready to ‘Use Force’ to Fight Fraud at Polling Stations,” UNIAN, March 6, 2019, https://www.unian(.)info/politics/10469865-national-squads-militia-says-ready-to-use-force-to-fight-fraud-at-polling-stations.html.
[12] Ibid.; “Police, Far-Right Protesters Clash in Kyiv, Cherkasy,” RFE/RL, March 9, 2019,

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Russia Set to Gain Ground in Ukrainian Elections

By Andrea Snyder

Russia will likely gain political ground in Ukraine regardless of the outcome of the upcoming 2019 Ukrainian Presidential and Parliamentary Elections scheduled respectively for March 31 and October 27. The majority of the leading presidential candidates are amenable in some degree to the Kremlin. Current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is the candidate most aligned with the West but his popular support has slipped due to his inability to deliver on key anti-corruption reforms as well as a sustained disinformation campaign by Russia. If Poroshenko wins the election, it will likely only be by a slim margin and his political bloc still stands to lose seats in the subsequent parliamentary elections. His opponents, by contrast, are populists willing to offer concessions to the Kremlin or politicians openly favorable towards Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia thus stands to advance its core strategic objectives in Ukraine - namely, reasserting political control over the Government of Ukraine and preventing its integration with the West. Russia must also extort or otherwise gain access to a supply of freshwater for the occupied Crimean Peninsula. Many of the presidential and parliamentary candidates are likely willing to support these types of concessions in exchange for limited economic or military deals with the Kremlin. Russia has deliberately cultivated these relationships with a wide range of politicians, shifting away from its prior tactics of investing in one major candidate or political party in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Western-oriented political reformists are active and still have a chance to make progress in the 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Election. The U.S. should engage with and support these reformists, who are facing pressures in advance of both elections, in order to counter Russia. Preserving reformers within the Government of Ukraine - particularly the Ukrainian Parliament - will be critical to Ukraine’s ability to withstand subversion by Russia and defend its pursuit of closer ties with the EU and NATO.

[1] [“Electoral Orientation of Ukraine’s Population: The Last Week of February 2019,”] Social Monitoring Center, March 4, 2019,;
[“Monitoring Electoral Mood of Ukrainians: February 2019,”] Rating Group Ukraine, March 4, 2019, http://ratinggroup(.)ua/research/ukraine/monitoring_elektoralnyh_nastroeniy_ukraincev_fevral_2019.html; [“Electoral Orientations and Protest Structures of Ukrainians in the Active Phase of the Election Campaign,”] Institute for Analysis and Forecasting, March 4, 2019,; [“Electoral Orientation of Ukrainian Citizens (March 2019),”] Sofia Center for Social Studies, March 2019,; [“Public-Political Mood of the Population of Ukraine: February 2019, No. 2,”] Blue Dawn Monitoring, February 22, 2019, https://www.slideshare(.)net/UkrN/blue-dawn-monitoring-2019-2; [“Four Leaders of the Presidential Race Have Been Identified,”] Advanced Legal Initiatives, February 16, 2019,
[2] [“Biography of Petro Oleksiyovych Poroshenko,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, February 7, 2019,; Photo Credit: [“Official Portrait of Petro Poroshenko,”] Digital Image, March 15, 2014, Accessed on Presidency of Ukraine,
[3] “Ukraine's Poroshenko: Billionaire Candy Man, Veteran Politician,” Voice of America, May 25, 2014,
[4] Agata Wierzbowska-Miazga and Tadeusz Olszanski, “Poroshenko, President of Ukraine,” Centre for Eastern Studies, May 28, 2014, https://www.osw.waw(.)pl/en/publikacje/analyses/2014-05-28/poroshenko-president-ukraine.
[5] [“Biography of Yulia Volodymyrivna Tymoshenko,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, January 25, 2019,; Photo Credit: Thomas Barthelet, “Tymoshenko 2010,” Digital Image, November 17, 2009, Accessed on Flickr,
[6] [“Biography of Yulia Volodymyrivna Tymoshenko,”] Civil Movement Chesno, February 25, 2019, https://www.chesno(.)org/politician/26674/.
[7] “Russia and Ukraine Agree Gas Deal,” The Guardian, January 18, 2009,
[8] Taras Kuzio, “Ukraine’s Populists Push Through Anti-IMF Yet Pro-EU Message,” Kyiv Post, November 8, 2018,
[9] [“Election Program of Yulia Volodymyrivna Tymoshenko,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, February 25, 2019,
[10] Ariana Gic, “Yulia Tymoshenko is a Threat to Pro-EU Reforms in Ukraine,” Emerging Europe, February 1, 2019,
[11] [“Biography of Volodymyr Olekcandrovich Zelensky,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, January 30, 2019.; Photo Credit: Kvartal95 Official, [“Volodymyr Zelensky 2018,”] Digital Image, July 24, 2016, Accessed on Wikimedia Commons,
[12] [“Zelensky Announced His Decision to Go to the Presidency (Video),”] UNIAN, January 1, 2019, https://www.unian(.)ua/elections/10396374-zelenskiy-zayaviv-pro-rishennya-yti-u-prezidenti-video.html.
[13] Mykola Vorobiov, “Oligarchs and Their Media Outlets Influence Ukrainian Presidential Elections,” Eurasia Daily Monitor Vol. 16, No. 19 (February 2019),; “Rule by Oligarchs: Kiev Appoints Billionaires to Govern East,” Russia Today, March 4, 2014, https://www.rt(.)com/news/ukraine-oligarch-rule-governors-512/.
Bermet Talant, “Kolomoisky Rails Against Ukraine and Poroshenko,” Kyiv Post, November 23, 2018,
[14] [“Election Program of Volodymyr Olekcandrovich Zelensky,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, February 27, 2019,
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Konstantin Skorkin, “How a Comedian Will Change Ukraine’s Election,” Carnegie Moscow Center, January 1, 2019, https://carnegie(.)ru/commentary/78218.
[18] [“Biography of Yuriy Anatolievich Boyko,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, January 22, 2019,; Photo Credit: Vadim Chuprina, “Boiko Yurii Wiki,” Digital Image January 29, 2019, Accessed on Wikimedia Commons,
[20] Shaun Walker, “Ukrainian Businessman Dmytro Firtash Arrested After Extradition Ruling,” The Guardian, February 21, 2017,; Vorobiov, “Oligarchs and Their Media Outlets,”
[22] [“Election Program of Yuriy Anatolievich Boyko,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, February 27, 2019,
[23] Roman Kravets [“Odd-Man-Out: Why Lyovochkin and Medvedchuk Are Preparing for the Election Without Akhmetov,”] Pravda, November 20, 2018,; [“Leader of the Ukrainian Party ‘Nashi’ Withdrew His Candidacy from the Elections,”] Radio Svoboda, March 7, 2019, https://www.svoboda(.)org/a/29809132.html.
[24] [“Biography of Oleksandr Yuriyovych Vilkul,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, January 25, 2019,; Photo Credit: Catrifle, [“Oleksandr Yuriyovych Vilkul 2017,”] Digital Image, January 31, 2018, Accessed on Wikimedia Commons,
[26] [“Leader of the Ukrainian Party ‘Nashi’ Withdrew His Candidacy from the Elections,”] https://www.svoboda(.)org/a/29809132.html.
[27] [“Biography of Oleh Valerievich Lyashko,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, January 25, 2019,; Photo Credit: Vadim Chuprina, [“Lyashko, Oleg Valerievich,”] Digital Image, November 9, 2015, Accessed on Wikimedia Commons,,_%D0%9E%D0%BB%D0%B5%D0%B3_%D0%92%D0%B0%D0%BB%D0%B5%D1%80%D1%8C%D0%B5%D0%B2%D0%B8%D1%87_0076_%D0%A7%D1%83%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%B8%D0%BD%D0%B0_%D0%92%D0%B0%D0%B4%D0%B8%D0%BC_%D0%90_(cropped).jpg.
[28] [“Biography of Oleh Valerievich Lyashko,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, January 25, 2019,
[29] Oleksiy Bratuschak, [“Lyashko Becomes a Mascot of Akhmetov,”] Pravda, May 9, 2018,
[30] Andrew Wilson, “Ukrainian Elections: Poroshenko and Proliferating Populists,” European Council on Foreign Relations, May 23, 2018, https://www.ecfr(.)eu/article/commentary_ukrainian_elections_poroshenko_and_proliferating_populists.
[31] “Europe Is Divided by a Line of Blood,” EU Today, October 13, 2017, https://eutoday(.)net/news/politics/2017/europe-is-divided-by-a-line-of-blood.
[32] “‘There Will Be No EU in 5 Years, Only Ukraine’ – Radical Party MP,” Russia Today, March 4, 2016, https://www.rt(.)com/news/334573-lyashko-eu-schengen-dissolution/; Volodymyr Yermolenko, “Ukraine’s New Populists: Who They Are and Why They’re Dangerous,” Atlantic Council, May 17, 2018,
[33] [“Biography of Anatoliy Stepanovich Hrytsenko,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, January 15, 2019,; Photo Credit: Antje Wildgrube, “42nd Munich Security Conference 2006: Anatoliy Hrytsenko, Minister of Defense, Ukraine,” Digital Image, February 4, 2006, Accessed on Wikimedia Commons,,_16.00_-_18.00-Grytsenko.jpg.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Turkey and Russia Prepared to Launch Joint Military Patrols in Syria’s Idlib

By Elizabeth Teoman with the ISW Syria Team

Key Takeaway: Growing Turkish-Russian military cooperation in Syria is a dangerous sign of a wider shift to a closer strategic relationship between Turkey and Russia. Russia gave Turkey permission to fly air sorties into Northern Syria as part of an agreement for joint military patrols along the frontlines in Greater Idlib Province. The Turkish Armed Forces began joint frontline patrols with pro-regime forces on March 8 with accompanying overflights by the Turkish Air Force. The Turkish-Russian agreement in Idlib Province demonstrates that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is failing in his attempts to spoil the de-escalation zone in Northern Syria brokered by Russia, Iran, and Turkey in 2017. Turkey will likely soon begin independent joint patrols with the Russian Armed Forces. Turkey and Russia began joint patrols of a separate area near Tel Rifaat north of Aleppo City on February 14. Turkey’s deepening relationship with Russia in Syria decreases the likelihood that the U.S. will reach a negotiated agreement with Turkey over the status of Eastern Syria. Russia intends to use its engagement with Turkey in Western Syria to set conditions to cooperate with Turkey against the U.S.-Led Coalition and its partnered Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Eastern Syria. ISW is closely following the evolving situation in Idlib Province and will provide further updates as necessary.

The graphic below depicts the approximate route of the recent Turkish patrol based on open sources.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Disposition of Adversary & Friendly Forces in Eastern Syria: March 2019

By ISW Research Team

Key Takeaway: U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent decision to keep a residual force of at least 400 troops in Syria prevents the immediate takeover of valuable natural resources and infrastructure in Eastern Syria by Iran, Assad, and Russia. These actors nonetheless still have options that could lead to the defeat or expulsion of U.S. forces. The residual U.S. forces will operate at Al-Tanf on the Syrian-Jordanian Border as well as in Northern and Eastern Syria across the Euphrates River. The garrison at Al-Tanf is relatively defensible with secure supply lines to Jordan as well as a limited tactical requirement to defend the base and a surrounding fifty-five kilometer exclusion zone, which includes the Rukban IDP Camp. The U.S. is significantly more vulnerable east of the Euphrates River. Iran, Assad, and Russia are building up forces west of the Euphrates River and using outreach to local tribes to gain footholds on its eastern bank. Even a limited drawdown by the U.S. will create security gaps east of the Euphrates River that could be exploited by Iran, Assad, and Russia.

Map Methodology: This graphic depicts the disposition of both adversary and partnered forces deployed at key infrastructure locations and urban centers in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq. Position locations are based on information available in open sources reviewed by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). The list of locations and forces depicted on this graphic is not exhaustive but rather meant to show the presence of forces at assessed locations of vital strategic value or likely escalation. It also does not provide an assessment of the size of the deployed forces or their integration into wider command-and-control structures. The graphic does not depict the specific deployment locations of U.S.-Led Anti-ISIS Coalition forces beyond the garrison at Al-Tanf.  ISW will continue to update this dataset and publish updates as necessary. U.S. and allied government readers may contact ISW to request more details on the specific units and forces represented generally on this graphic.