Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Russia in Review: June 24, 2019 - July 2, 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.

Authors: Darina Regio, Mason Clark, Nataliya Bugayova, and Michaela Walker

Key Takeaways: The Kremlin achieved an interim success in its campaign to normalize its violations of international law. The EU’s Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe reinstated Russia’s voting privileges initially revoked after its illegal occupation of the Crimean Peninsula. The Kremlin will use this success to bolster its international legitimacy and intensify its campaign to remove sanctions imposed by Europe. The Kremlin has also boosted its rhetorical support to Iran amidst rising tensions in the Strait of Hormuz and will likely work to harden Iran’s defenses to deter a potential escalation by the U.S. or Israel. 

The Kremlin for the first time successfully lifted an international constraint imposed on it by Europe after its illegal occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted overwhelmingly to reinstate voting rights for Russia on June 25.[1] PACE is Europe’s top human rights body with a stated purpose to hold governments accountable for human rights violations. PACE revoked voting rights for Russia in 2014 due to Russia’s violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.[2] It later issued numerous resolutions calling on the Kremlin to halt its human rights violations in Russia.[3] The Kremlin suspended its membership payments (worth 13% of the total budget) to PACE in 2017 and threatened to withdraw from the body entirely in April 2019.[4] The Kremlin noted that Russia would retroactively pay its membership dues if PACE reinstated its voting privileges.[5] 

The vote to restore Russia’s privileges in PACE deepened friction within the EU. Several leaders including British Prime Minister Theresa May justified the decision as a means to preserve “one of the few ways available to the international community to hold Russia to account for its human rights violations.”[6] May noted that if Russia left PACE, Russian citizens facing human rights abuses at home would no longer hold the legal standing to seek justice before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).[7] Germany and France also claimed that the decision will “promote dialogue” with Russia.[8] Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia, and Poland walked out of the Assembly on June 27 in opposition to Russia.[9] Ukraine later noted its intent to suspend its own membership in PACE.[10] The Kremlin will likely exploit these frictions to drive wedges within Europe and the West and potentially lift sanctions against Russia.[11] 

The Kremlin will likely derive outsized value from its restored status in PACE. Russian President Vladimir Putin is investing significant resources to promote himself (and Russia) as a legitimate global actor with influence over world events.[12] This influence is one of the core value propositions made by Putin to average Russians. PACE’s choice to reinstate Russia preserves access to the ECHR for Russian citizens but it also provides a legitimacy boost to Putin and his malign activity at home and abroad. The Kremlin is already promoting this message through its vast domestic and international information campaigns.

The U.S. cannot rely on Russia to constrain Iran. The Kremlin has launched a broad information campaign supporting Iran’s false narrative that Iran is the victim - and not the aggressor - in the recent tensions in the Strait of Hormuz. Russian National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev doubled down on Russia’s public support of Iran on June 25 after a meeting with his counterparts from the U.S. and Israel. Patrushev praised Iran as Russia’s “ally and partner” and condemned efforts to frame Iran “as the main threat to regional security… on par with ISIL or other terrorist groups” in the Middle East.[13] He praised Iran’s contribution to counterterrorism and stabilization efforts in the Syrian Civil War and indirectly called on Israel to cease its air campaign against Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria.[14] He also supported Iran’s framing of events regarding its attack on a U.S. surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz on June 20 and rejected evidence of Iran’s involvement in recent attacks against oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.[15] The Kremlin is likely trying to sow doubt and confusion to protect its ally as Russia has previously done regarding chemical strikes by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine.[16] The U.S. and Israel should not therefore expect the Kremlin to apply any meaningful constraints to Iran in Syria.[17] 

The Kremlin will also likely help harden Iran’s defenses to increase the cost of any potential escalation by the U.S. or Israel. The Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation stated on June 28 that it was ready to consider supplying Iran with advanced Russian S-400 Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (SAMS) but had not received any official request from Iran.[18] The Kremlin has previously rejected Iran’s requests to buy S-400s.[19] Iran’s acquisition of the S-400 would extend Russia’s anti-access / area denial (A2AD) network in the Middle East and increase the cost of deterring future malign actions by Iran. Russian military sources alleged on July 27 that the Russian Defense Ministry had deployed air defense systems, electronic warfare systems, and advisers to the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant in Southern Iran.[20] These claims remain unconfirmed. The Kremlin nonetheless intends to preserve Iran as its key partner in the Middle East at the expense of the U.S. and NATO. Russia thus will likely shape the information environment and ground conditions to prevent a major escalation by the U.S. or Israel against Iran.

[1] Denys Krasnikov and Jack Laurenson, “Ukraine Suspends Membership as PACE Reinstates Russia,” Kyiv Post, June 25, 2019,
[2] “Citing Crimea, PACE Suspends Voting Rights of Russian Delegation and Excludes It from Leading Bodies,” PACE, October 4, 2014,
[3] “Resolution 21333: Legal Remedies for Human Rights Violations on the Ukrainian Territories Outside the Control of the Ukrainian Authorities,” PACE, October 12, 2016,
[4] Tom Batchelor, “Russia Cancels Payment to Council of Europe After Claiming Its Delegates Are Being Persecuted Over Crimea,” The Independent, June 30, 2017,; [“Russia Suspends Payment of Membership Dues to the Council of Europe,”] TASS, June 30, 2017, https://tass(.)ru/politika/4378428.
[5] [“Matvienko: Russia Will Pay Its Dues to PACE When PACE Fully Restores Russian Membership Privileges,”] Kommersant, April 18, 2019, https://www.kommersant(.)ru/doc/3947518.
[6] “Theresa May: Russia’s Membership in Council of Europe Must Be Maintained,” Interfax, June 24, 2019,; “Theresa May Supports Russia’s Return to PACE,” 112 UA, June 24, 2019, https://112(.)international/politics/theresa-may-supports-russias-return-to-pace-41047.html.
[7] [“PACE Gave the Concession that Russia May Return to the Organization. Why Does Europe Need This? What Does Russia Get Out Of It?”] Meduza¸ June 25, 2019, https://meduza(.)io/feature/2019/06/25/pase-poshla-na-ustupki-chtoby-rossiya-vernulas-v-organizatsiyu-zachem-eto-nuzhno-evrope-chto-poluchit-rossiya.
[8] “PACE to Vote on Reinstating Russia in Human Rights Body,” RFE/RL, June 24, 2019,
[9] Denys Krasnikov and Jack Laurenson, “Ukraine Suspends Membership as PACE Reinstates Russia,” Kyiv Post, June 25, 2019,; Jack Laurenson, “7 Delegations Quit Strasbourg in Protest as Russia Returns to PACE,” Kyiv Post, June 27, 2019,
[10] “Rada’s Committee Backs Decision to Suspend Ukraine’s Participation in PACE,” UNIAN, July 1, 2019, https://www.unian(.)info/politics/10602156-rada-s-committee-backs-decision-to-suspend-ukraine-s-participation-in-pace.html.
[11] Frederick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.,” Institute for the Study of War / Critical Threats Project, June 2019,, p.9.
[12] Ibid.
[13] [“Patrushev Said That Attempts to Put Iran on Par with ISIS are Unacceptable for Russia,”] TASS, June 25, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/politika/6589602.
[14] [“Patrushev Said That Israel Can Achieve Its Goals Without Striking Syria,”] TASS, June 25, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/politika/6589679.
[15] Andrey Kuzmin, “Putin Aide: Downed U.S. Drone Was in Iranian Airspace,” Reuters, June 25, 2019,
[16] “Russia Warns U.S. Against Striking Syria Over Possible Chemical Attacks,” RFE/RL, August 30, 2018,; “In New Claim, Moscow Says MH17 Missile Came from Ukraine; Kyiv Cries ‘Fake’,” RFE/RL, September 17, 2018,
[17] David Halbfinger and Ben Hubbard, “Netanyahu Says Putin Agreed to Restrain Iran in Syria,” New York Times, July 12, 2018,
[18] [“Russia Is Ready to Supply Iran With S-400, Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation States,”] RIA, June 28, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20190628/1556012154.html.
[19] Zainab Fattah and Ilya Arkhipov, “Russia Rejected Iran S-400 Missile Request Amid Gulf Tension,” Bloomberg, May 30, 2019,
[20] “Russia Has Bolstered Iran’s Air Defenses with Technical Advisers,” Russia Insider, June 26, 2019, https://russia-insider(.)com/en/russia-has-bolstered-irans-air-defenses-technical-advisers/ri27334.