Thursday, December 19, 2019

Syria Situation Report: December 4 - 17, 2019

By Michael Land (ISW Syria Team) and Nada Atieh (Syria Direct)

The following Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map summarizes significant developments in the war in Syria during the period December 4 - 17, 2019. Key SITREP events include an expansion of the anti-Bashar al-Assad regime insurgency in Southern Syria, joint Assad regime-Russia airstrikes in Idlib Province, and Russia-Turkey cooperation in reopening a section of the M4 Highway in Northern Syria.

Click the image to view an enlarged version of the map.

Iraq Situation Report: December 10 - 18, 2019

By Brandon Wallace and Katherine Lawlor

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) is assessing the ongoing unrest in Iraq and its effects on political-security dynamics. The Iraq Situation Report (SITREP) series summarizes key events and likely developments to come. This Iraq SITREP map covers the period December 10 - 18, 2019.

Key Takeaway: Iraq’s political elite has oriented around three initiatives to placate protesters before holding new parliamentary elections: 1) to create a new electoral commission to oversee future elections; 2) to pass an electoral law reforming how seats are won in the parliament, and 3) to choose a prime minister to replace the resigned, but still caretaker, PM Adel Abdul Mehdi until elections occur. Iraq’s parliament, the Council of Representatives (CoR), approved a new electoral commission on December 5. The CoR twice failed to reach consensus on a new election law before the scheduled votes on December 11 and 18. President Barham Salih extended the deadline to select a replacement prime minister but attempted to pass his constitutional responsibility to identify the largest parliamentary bloc to the CoR speaker. Neither official has identified the largest bloc and no coalition has consolidated around any one candidate, exacerbating infighting among political elites and their militias. Iran’s proxy militias, meanwhile, continue to deliberately and violently target three groups—protesters, nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his supporters, and the U.S.-led Coalition—in order to drive political action in Iran’s favor. Sadr, who is in Iran, willingly or unwillingly made two concessions in the face of Iranian pressure: shutting down his popular Facebook page and closing some offices affiliated with the Sadrist Movement for a period of one year. Sadr, however, retains his core sources of political power: his militia, his personal brand, and popular religious veneration for his family. Sadrist parliamentarians continue to oppose all PM candidates proposed by Iran-friendly political parties.

11 Dec: Iraqi Parliament Fails to Vote on Electoral Reform. The Council of Representatives (CoR) convened in a scheduled session to vote on an electoral reform law but adjourned after failing to hold a vote. Members of Parliament (MPs) stated that the disagreement between blocs is primarily over Article 15 of the bill, which will determine what percentage of MPs will derive from party lists or independent candidacies. All current MPs won their seats by party list and wish to maintain the status quo. Sadr’s populist Toward Reform bloc is the only party advocating for abolishing list-based voting completely.

15 Dec: President Salih Attempts to Dodge Constitutional Requirements and Deadlines. Iraqi President Barham Salih sent a formal letter requesting that CoR Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi identify the largest bloc in the CoR. The President of Iraq is constitutionally responsible for inviting the largest bloc within the CoR to designate a prime minister, who then has 30 days to form a Council of Ministers. President Salih never formally identified the largest bloc during the 2018 elections, but rather allowed an informal coalition to nominate the consensus candidate, Adel Abdul Mehdi. Salih stated in his letter to Halbousi that the resignation letter of Caretaker PM Mehdi reached the President’s office on December 4, not December 1 as previously understood. Salih used this legal loophole to extend the 15-day deadline to nominate a new PM to December 19.

16 Dec: Parliament Ducks Salih’s Request. CoR Speaker Halbousi did not respond to President Salih’s letter, but CoR Deputy Speaker and Toward Reform member Hassan al-Kaabi responded to President Salih’s request with a formal letter stating that Salih had been “notified” of the largest bloc following the 2018 election. Kaabi implied that the largest bloc which elected current Caretaker PM Mehdi could again choose a new PM. The coalition of parties which compromised to elect Mehdi has since splintered into opposing blocs.

13-16 Dec: Political Blocs and Grand Ayatollah Sistani Reject Possible PM Deal. Iran-friendly Conquest Alliance (47 parliamentary seats) likely floated the name of Mohammed Shi’a al-Sudani as a replacement PM candidate. Sudani immediately resigned from the Dawa Party and the State of Law Alliance (25 seats) in order to appear more independent. Iranian proxy militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) organized a protest march in Central Baghdad in support of Sudani on December 14. Anonymous sources in Najaf close to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani told AFP that Sistani vetoed Sudani as a candidate. One hundred seventy members of the CoR also reportedly signed a petition on December 16 stipulating that the new PM must not be a member of a political party, must not have held any political office since 2003, and must not hold dual citizenship—stipulations which Sudani clearly does not meet. Sudani has served in multiple cabinet and elected positions since 2003. One hundred sixty-five MPs constitute the absolute majority required in Iraq’s parliament in order to approve a new government. Demonstrators have vocally denounced Sudani.

18 Dec: Political Blocs Provide Last-Minute Candidates as Acceptable Replacements for PM Deal. Several political blocs and independent candidates put forward names to fill the PM post in the hours before the December 19 deadline to designate a new prime minister. Iran-friendly parties State of Law (25 seats) and Conquest Alliance (47 seats) put forward a new candidate, Qusay al-Suhail, who is the current Minister of Higher Education in PM Mehdi’s caretaker government. He is a former member of Sadr’s Toward Reform party but left to join the State of Law Coalition. Alternatively, a representative of Wisdom Trend (29 seats) suggested that Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the current head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, has the best chance of becoming PM because he is not linked to any political party. Political blocs did not vocally reject Kadhimi. Current MP Faiq Sheikh Ali also announced his independent candidacy in a letter to President Salih. Ali is a proponent of electoral reform, a secular liberal, and a longstanding critic of the Iraqi political establishment. He enjoys a significant social media following but has not yet been backed by a powerful bloc.

18 Dec: Parliament Fails Again to Vote on Electoral Reform. The CoR held two consecutive sessions in a failed attempt to pass an electoral reform bill. The CoR voted in the first session to pass just 14 of the 50 total articles comprising the pending bill, stopping short of the key reform. CoR Speaker Halbousi immediately started a new session, but the total number of present MPs fell from 224 to 207. Halbousi received requests to postpone votes on Articles 15 and 16 for further discussion and amendment, but only 71 of the 207 MPs voted to postpone. Halbousi, however, was forced to abruptly end the session because the CoR lost quorum. The CoR is scheduled to reconvene on December 23.

11-13 Dec: Demonstrators Kill and Lynch Boy. Unidentified demonstrators killed and lynched a 16-year-old from a traffic light near Wathba Square in Central Baghdad on December 11. The boy reportedly fired a weapon into the air in order to deter protesters from congregating near his home. Protesters then swarmed and stabbed him repeatedly before hanging his body from a lamp post. Police were present at the scene but did not intervene. Nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stated that if the persons responsible for the killing were not found within 48 hours, he will order the Blue Hats to withdraw from the square. The Blue Hats are a reference to men loyal to the Sadrist Movement who wear blue baseball caps and are under orders to protect protesters. Some Blue Hats have been given training by Sadr’s militia, Saraya al-Salam. The Blue Hats reportedly conducted a de facto citizens’ arrest of four people on December 13 in relation to the December 11 attack.

13 Dec: Sadr Attempts to Deescalate With Some Concessions, But Retains Key Capabilities. Moqtada al-Sadr closed a massively popular Facebook page that he uses to communicate with followers following targeted violence by Iranian proxy militias. The page, “Mohammed Saleh al-Iraqi,” posted one word: “Goodbye.” It has not yet been updated. Sadr also issued an official statement announcing the closure of the offices of the Sadrist Movement for one year. Sadr notably “excluded” his personal office, thereby retaining his personal brand; the shrines of his father and two brothers, thereby retaining his religious influence; and the Saraya al-Salam militia, thereby retaining his ability to participate in armed conflict. The members of Sadr’s political party, Toward Reform, continued to participate normally in parliamentary proceedings.

10-16 Dec: Iranian Proxies Continue Targeted Attacks on Protesters. Iranian proxies escalated their campaign against activists and organizers in Baghdad and across Southern Iraq using kidnappings, knives, guns, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Militias are identifying protesters through security cameras and government databases, according to Iraqi newspaper al-Mada. The widespread kidnappings, torture, and assassinations targeted at least 18 activists and their families between December 10-16 in Baghdad, Basra, and Diwaniyah. Most of these incidents are not reported to authorities. Hundreds of protesters are reportedly still missing following recent kidnappings in Baghdad alone. Several activists were immediately admitted into intensive care units following their release.

10-13 Dec: Iranian Proxy Forces Exchange Assassination Attempts with Sadrists Following Clashes in Baghdad. Likely Iranian proxy militias detonated an IED targeting the home of a Sadrist official in Amarah, Maysan Province, after midnight on December 10. Likely Sadrist Saraya al-Salam militants detonated three IEDs on the same night in Amarah targeting the leader of local Iranian proxy militia Ansar Allah al-Awfiya', a medical complex affiliated with Iranian proxy AAH, and an unspecified local AAH leader. Masked gunmen, likely from Iranian proxy militias AAH and Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), clashed with unarmed Sadrist Blue Hats in Central Baghdad on December 6. Assessed Iranian proxies performed a drive-by shooting targeting a vehicle containing the son of Ja'far al-Musawi, a spokesman for the Sadrist movement, in the Zafaraniya District in Baghdad on December 13. Musawi’s son survived.

11 Dec: Iranian Proxies Conduct Another Rocket Attack Near Baghdad International Airport. Iranian proxy militias, assessed to be KH and AAH, fired two Katyusha rockets which struck the “outside perimeter” of Baghdad International Airport near a base holding U.S.-led Coalition forces. The rockets caused no significant damage. This latest attack brings the total number of attacks on or near Coalition positions to at least ten since protests began in October.

11-15 Dec: U.S. Officials Openly Identify and Call Out Iran for its Proxy Violence toward Coalition Soldiers. Anonymous senior U.S. military officials told Reuters and the New York Times on December 11 that Iranian proxy militias, specifically KH and AAH, are to blame for the recent rocket attacks on facilities housing American personnel in Iraq. At least 11 separate rocket attacks have targeted such facilities since early October. U.S. officials said that Iranian proxy militias are approaching a “red line.” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo warned in an official statement on December 13 that “any attacks by [Iran], or [its] proxies of any identity, that harm Americans, our allies, or our interests will be answered with a decisive U.S. response.” U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spoke with PM Mehdi by phone on December 15 and asked Iraq to help prevent such attacks.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Russia in Review: The Kremlin's Block in the Balkans

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: Nataliya Bugayova and Anthony Yanchuk

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is increasing its influence in Serbia in support of Russia’s strategic objective – preventing the Balkan states from integrating with the West. The Kremlin secured new security and economic deals with Serbia. The Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) signed a free trade agreement with Serbia. Russia is launching new infrastructure and energy projects, including a nuclear research center. Russia has sold Serbia advanced air defense systems and signed several agreements with Serbian law enforcement agencies. The Kremlin is also using its information operations to undermine the normalization of the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo. The normalization talks have stalled for over a year now, which precludes either Kosovo or Serbia from joining the European Union (EU). The Kremlin is facing some pushback to its efforts in the Balkans, including its attempts to further deepen military cooperation with Serbia and expand the EEU in the Balkans. These setbacks reveal the limitations of Russia’s value proposition – even to its close partners – and provide an opportunity for the West to counter the Kremlin’s subversion.

The Kremlin is raising the threshold of its military cooperation with Serbia, where Russia likely seeks to establish a military footprint in the long term. Russia deployed Pantsir and S-400 air defense systems to Serbia during the “Slavic Shield-2019” joint exercises from October 24-27.[1] This deployment marked the first time Russia used these systems in military exercises outside of Russia and Crimea, Ukraine (illegally occupied by Russia).[2] Serbia purchased the Pantsir system from Russia following the drills, which Russia says it will deliver in coming months.[3] Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic expressed his desire on December 2 to buy the more advanced S-400, but complained about the system’s high cost.[4] Russia likely seeks to use military exercises and sales of advanced weapons to set conditions for a long-term Russian military presence in Serbia. A strategic Russian military position in Serbia would be an inflection. It would enable Russia to pressure NATO from within its geographical boundaries and to block Balkan states’ integration with the EU – an objective of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin’s outreach in Serbia also supports a wider effort to expand Russia’s military footprint through the deployment of additional S-400 systems. Russia has advanced this effort this year in the Arctic, and in Kaliningrad. Russia has also boosted sales of the S-400 to other countries, including U.S. partners Turkey (a NATO member) and India.[5] Russia will also likely use joint air defense drills like “Slavic Shield” to market its air defense systems to other countries.

Western actions and exposed Russian influence campaigns in Serbia are likely slowing the Kremlin’s recent push to expand its military ties with Serbia. Vucic walked back his statement regarding a future S-400 purchase. He said on December 3 that Serbia will stop buying arms and refocus on modernizing its military.[6] Vucic’s statement might have been a result of the U.S. cautioning Serbia against buying the S-400, citing a “risk” of sanctions.[7] Vucic also said on December 7 that he “could not confirm” Serbia’s plans to jointly produce military equipment with Russia – contradicting a December 4 statement by the Serbian ambassador to Russia who said that Russia and Serbia had plans for joint production of weapons.[8] Vucic continues to attempt to balance between Russia and the West.

Covert Russian efforts to court Serbian military officials have also been exposed recently, straining Serbian-Russian ties. Serbian investigators stated on November 21 that former Russian Assistant Military Attaché to Serbia Lt. Col Georgy Kleban bribed Serbian military officials.[9] Vucic later confirmed the allegations.[10]

Putin attempted to smooth over tensions during his meeting with Vucic on Dec 4.[11] Russia delivered four Mi-35M helicopters on December 2 previously purchased by Serbia ahead of schedule, likely to set favorable conditions before the meeting.[12] Putin also assured Vucic that Russia would support Serbia’s energy needs.[13] Serbia currently depends on Russian gas supplies.[14] Russia will likely continue pushing for an S-400 deal if only to increase acceptance for lower profile Russian activities in Serbia, such as the sale of Pantsir systems and other types of military support.

Russia is simultaneously expanding its influence over Serbian law enforcement using the umbrella of counter-terrorism cooperation. Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic signed two agreements on November 20 to fight organized crime and terrorism.[15] The Serbian Ministry of Justice signed a cooperation agreement with the Russian Prosecutor General office to expand Russian-Serbian judicial cooperation on cybersecurity, drug trafficking, and accelerated criminal proceedings on September 27.[16] The Kremlin is using cooperation on counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, and drug trafficking – areas in which Russia is often a malign actor – as a means to pull countries into Kremlin-led partnerships and narratives, as well as to expand influence over the bureaucracies of its partner states.

The Kremlin is expanding the range of economic instruments it uses in its campaign to prevent the Balkan states’ integration with Western economic structures.

The Kremlin is attempting to expand the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in the Balkans. Serbia and the EEU signed a free trade agreement (FTA) on October 25.[17] The EU would require Serbia to nullify the FTA to obtain full membership in the EU.[18] The EU warned Serbia of this condition prior to the signing of the FTA with Russia.[19] Serbia is not the EEU’s only target. Russia invited Albania and North Macedonia to sign FTA agreements with the EEU after French President Emmanuel Macron blocked Albania’s and North Macedonia’s EU membership talks on October 30.[20] Northern Macedonia declined Russia’s offer and Albania reaffirmed its commitment to the EU.[21]

The Kremlin will also likely leverage the new free-travel zone between Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia to expand its influence in Albania and North Macedonia through Serbia. The three countries signed an agreement to create a “mini-Schengen” on October 10 that emulates the European Schengen Zone and allows the free movement of capital, goods, services, and people across national borders.[22] Officials in Kosovo – which shares borders with the three states – warned that the “mini-Schengen” enables Russian and Chinese influence in the Balkans.[23]

The Kremlin is unlikely to sway the Balkans away from their EU aspirations through the EEU, but Russia will attempt to expand the EEU’s geopolitical weight. The EEU’s value proposition remains limited. The EU is the Balkans states’ main trading partner. Serbia sells $13 billion in goods to the EU annually, compared to $1.1 billion in goods sold to the EEU.[24] The economic benefits of this FTA for Serbia are also nominal.[25] Serbia already had free trade agreements with three of the five EEU members.[26] The Kremlin, however, is using FTAs as a vehicle to expand the EEU, as Russia’s initial push to engage countries through formal membership failed.[27] The EEU signed an FTA with Singapore, began preferential trade with Iran in October 2019, and is negotiating future FTAs with numerous countries.[28]

Russia is expanding its influence over Serbian infrastructure and energy. Russian Railways signed a $230 million deal with Serbia on October 19 to modernize rail from Belgrade to the border with Montenegro and to build a rail logistics center.[29] Russia will provide Serbia with $179 million in credits to finance these projects. Russian Railways may also take over the management of a portion of Serbian railways through a future concession agreement. Several Russian companies producing railway and automotive equipment plan to localize production in Serbia.[30] Russia is additionally expanding its energy ties in Serbia. Russia’s state atomic energy corporation Rosatom signed an agreement in October to build a nuclear research center in Serbia.[31] The research center will host a reactor and labs to train specialists on nuclear energy.[32] The Kremlin is engaged in a global effort to cultivate nuclear energy markets. Rosatom signed multiple similar agreements with African countries this year.[33] Rosatom likely aims to secure a deal to build a nuclear power plant in Serbia. Rosatom is currently building numerous power plants in Europe, including in Finland and Hungary. Russia likely seeks to make Serbia more dependent on Russian products and services, and expand its physical presence in Serbia through infrastructure projects.

The Kremlin is boosting Serbia’s campaign to deny the legal status of Kosovo in the information space. Russia maintains a stake in preventing diplomatic normalization between Serbia and Kosovo that could enable one or both of them to join the EU. The Kosovo-Serbia peace talks have stalled for more than a year.[34] American and European officials have stated that Serbia must recognize Kosovo’s independence in order to join the EU.[35]

The Kremlin supports Serbia’s campaign to frame Kosovo as an illegitimate entity. Russian officials called Kosovo a “quasi-state entity” on September 5 and added that the “growing number of countries, which revoked recognition of Kosovo’s ‘independence,’ confirms this [status as a ‘quasi-state entity’].”[36] Kremlin-run media outlets also amplify often inaccurate reports from Serbian officials about additional countries’ withdrawals of recognition of Kosovo.[37] The Kremlin has long opposed the independence of Kosovo as an “illegal unilateral action” imposed by NATO on Serbia in 1999.[38] The Kremlin also likely fears that recognition of Kosovo would embolden similar independence claims by autonomous regions in Russia in the long term.

The West should counter the Kremlin’s efforts to curb the Balkan states’ aspirations to integrate with the EU and NATO. The Kremlin will continue to use a diverse toolkit, including economic influence (especially energy) and its information operations, to undermine progress towards normalization between Serbia and Kosovo and hinder the EU and NATO in the Balkans. Russia’s recent outreach in Serbia, however, demonstrates the limitations of the Russian value proposition. It also demonstrates that the West has more leverage than it often perceives to curb the Kremlin’s subversive efforts.

[1] “Russia, Serbia Follow ‘Slavic Shield’ With Second Joint Military Drill,” The Moscow Times, November 11, 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes(.)com/2019/11/01/russia-serbia-follow-slavic-shield-with-second-joint-military-drill-a68000; “Crimean air defense troops start drills with S-400 missile systems,” TASS, February 8, 2019, https(:)//
[2] [“S-400 division and a ‘Pantsir-S’ battery of the Russian Aerospace Forces are transferred to Serbia, where they will take part for the first time in exercises in the territory of a foreign state,”] Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, October 24, 2019,
[3] “Serbia To Receive Russian Antiaircraft Missiles Despite U.S. Sanctions Risk,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, November 7, 2019,
[4] “Serbia To Receive Russian Antiaircraft Missiles Despite U.S. Sanctions Risk,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, November 7, 2019,; [“Serbia expressed interest in purchasing S-400,”] Izvestia, December 2, 2019, https://iz(.)ru/949683/2019-12-02/v-serbii-vyrazili-zainteresovannost-v-pokupke-s-400. Aleksandar Vasovic, “Serbia faces risk of U.S. sanctions over Russian arms deal,” Reuters, November 8, 2019,; “Serbia gives up purchase of S-400 systems over threat of US sanctions,” TASS, November 6, 2019, https://tass(.)com/defense/1087242.
[5] Jeremy Chin, “Russia Deploys Fourth S-400 Battalion in Crimea,” Missile Threat: CSIS Missile Defense Project, November 29, 2018; “Russia deploys a battery of S-400 missile systems in Kaliningrad region,” UAWIRE, March 16, 2019, https://uawire(.)org/russian-deploys-a-battery-of-s-400-missile-systems-in-kaliningrad-region; [“The Ministry of Defense Deployed S-300 Missile System to the Afghan Border,”] RBK, October 26, 2019, https://www.rbc(.)ru/politics/26/10/2019/5db412c19a7947180b68e72c; Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “India's plan for S-400 gets boost from Turkey's defiance on US sanctions,” The Economic Times, June 25, 2019, https://economictimes.indiatimes(.)com/news/defence/indias-plan-for-s-400-gets-boost-from-turkeys-defiance-on-us-sanctions/articleshow/69932396.cms?from=mdr.
[6] Maja Zivanovic, “Serbia to Stop Buying Weapons, President Says,” Balkan Insight, December 3, 2019,
[7] Aleksandar Vasovic, “Serbia faces risk of U.S. sanctions over Russian arms deal,” Reuters, November 8, 2019,; “US cautions Serbia against acquiring ‘significant Russian military systems,’” The Defense Post, November 10, 2019, https://thedefensepost(.)com/2019/11/10/us-serbia-russia-military-systems-pantsir-s-400/.
[8] “Serbia: Vucic denied joint production of weapons with Russia,” Nuova Europa, December 7, 2019, http://www.ansa(.)it/nuova_europa/en/news/sections/politics/2019/12/07/serbia-vucic-denied-joint-production-of-weapons-with-russia_69cf1a66-e74e-4b78-9dbb-062e560472e2.html; “Serbia Exploring Possibility of Purchasing Russian MC-21,” Sputnik News, December 6, 2019, https://sputniknews(.)com/military/201912061077494387-serbia-exploring-possibility-of-purchasing-russian-mc-21/; [“RTV (Serbia): what did the meeting between Putin and Vučić bring to Serbia?”] Inosmi, December 8, 2019, http://www.inosmi(.)info/rtv-serbiya-chto-prinesla-serbii-vstrecha-putina-i-vuchicha.html.
[9] Aleksandar Vasovic, “Serbia's president accuses Russia of spying,” Reuters, November 21, 2019,
[10] “Serbia's president Aleksandar Vucic confirms Russian spy operation after bribe video,” DW, November 21, 2019, https://www.dw(.)com/en/serbias-president-aleksandar-vucic-confirms-russian-spy-operation-after-bribe-video/a-51359672
[11] [“Vladimir Putin in Sochi receives President of Serbia Alexander Vucic,”] First Channel, December 4, 2019, https://www.1tv(.)ru/news/2019-12-04/376834-vladimir_putin_v_sochi_prinimaet_prezidenta_serbii_aleksandra_vuchicha.
[12] [“Vuchich thanked Russia for the early delivery of Mi-35 helicopters,”] RIA Novosti, December 4, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20191204/1561944054.html; Maja Zivanovic, “Serbia to Stop Buying Weapons, President Says,” Balkan Insight, December 3, 2019,
[13] [“RTV (Serbia): what did the meeting between Putin and Vučić bring to Serbia?”] Inosmi, December 8, 2019, http://www.inosmi(.)info/rtv-serbiya-chto-prinesla-serbii-vstrecha-putina-i-vuchicha.html.
[14] “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security,” Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, January 10, 2018,
[15] “Serbia’s Minister signs two security deals in Moscow,” N1, November 20, 2019, https://rs.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a545609/Serbia-s-Interior-Minister-signs-two-Belgarde-Moscow-deals-on-security-issues.html; [“Heads of Security Councils of the Russian Federation and Serbia agree to cooperate in the fight against crime and terrorism,”] TASS, November 22, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/7178665.
[17] “Serbia Signs Trade Agreement With Russia-Led Eurasian Economic Union,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, October 25, 2019,
[18] Milica Stojanovic, “Serbia Signs Trade Deal With Russia’s Eurasian Union,” Balkan Insight, October 25, 2019, https://balkaninsight(.)com/2019/10/25/serbia-signs-trade-deal-with-russias-eurasian-union/; Dominik Istrate, “Serbia signs FTA with Eurasian Economic Union,” Emerging Europe, October 28, 2019,
[19] “EU warns Belgrade over free trade deal with Russia’s Eurasia,” Euractiv, October 22, 2019, https://www.euractiv(.)com/section/politics/news/eu-warns-belgrade-over-free-trade-deal-with-russias-eurasia/.
[20] “European Union warned of 'historic mistake' as Emmanuel Macron blocks Balkan enlargement talks,” The Telegraph, October 18, 2019,; James McAuley, “France’s Macron Wants to Make it Harder to get into the E.U. Club,” Washington Post, November 22, 2019,, Aleksandar Borisov, [“Albania and North Macedonia were invited to the EAEU,”] Rossiskaya Gazeta, October 10, 2019, https://rg(.)ru/2019/10/30/albaniiu-i-severnuiu-makedoniiu-pozvali-v-eaes.html; “No Consensus – Three EU Countries Oppose Accession Talks with Albania and N. Macedonia,” Exit News, October 15, 2019, https://exit(.)al/en/2019/10/15/no-consensus-three-eu-countries-oppose-accession-talks-with-albania-and-n-macedonia/.
[21] Guy Delauney, “European snub to North Macedonia fuels frustration in Balkans,” BBC News, November 2, 2019,; Georgi Gotev, “Albania offers first comments on Macron’s enlargement damper,” Euractive, October 31, 2019, https://www.euractiv(.)com/section/enlargement/news/albania-offers-first-comments-to-macrons-enlargement-damper/.
[22] Luke Bacigalupo, “Western Balkans: A ‘Mini-Schengen’ Zone,” Global Risk Insights, October 20, 2019, https://globalriskinsights(.)com/2019/10/western-balkans-a-mini-schengen-zone/.
[23] [“‘Mini-Schengen’ as a door for Russia and China in the Balkans,”] Bota Sot, November 21, 2019, https://www.botasot(.)info/lajme/1190719/mini-shengeni-si-dere-per-rusine-dhe-kinen-ne-ballkan/.
[24] Misha Savic and Gordana Filipovic, “Serbia Inks Deal With Russia’s Answer to the EU Following Snub,” Bloomberg, October 25, 2019,
[25] EEU member states include Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
[26] Serbia has an EEU with Russia, Belarus and KZ “Free Trade Investments,” Development Agency of Serbia, Accessed December 13, 2019,
[27] Golam Mostafa and Monowar Mahmood, “Eurasian Economic Union: Evolution, challenges and possible future directions,” Sage Journal of Eurasian Studies, July 1, 2018, https://journals.sagepub(.)com/doi/full/10.1016/j.euras.2018.05.001; Rilka Dragneva and Kataryna Wolczuk, “The Eurasian Economic Union: Deals, Rules and the Exercise of Power,” Chatham House, May 2017, https://www.chathamhouse(.)org/sites/default/files/publications/research/2017-05-02-eurasian-economic-union-dragneva-wolczuk.pdf.
[28] George Barros and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: The Kremlin's Outreach to Singapore,” Institute for the Study of War, October 18, 2019,, “Interim Agreement leading to formation of a free trade area between the Eurasian Economic Union and its Member States, of the one part, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, of the other part,” Eurasian Economic Commission, Accessed December 13, 2019, http://www.eurasiancommission(.)org/ru/act/trade/dotp/Pages/%d0%92%d1%80%d0%b5%d0%bc%d0%b5%d0%bd%d0%bd%d0%be%d0%b5-%d1%81%d0%be%d0%b3%d0%bb%d0%b0%d1%88%d0%b5%d0%bd%d0%b8%d0%b5-%d1%81-%d0%98%d1%80%d0%b0%d0%bd%d0%be%d0%bc.aspx, [“EAEU sets deadline for creating free trade zones with Singapore and Egypt,”] RBK, September 30, 2019, https://www.rbc(.)ru/politics/30/09/2019/5d891b059a79470807abedb7?from=from_main, Chhut Bunthoeun, “Nation set to ink agreement with Russia-led economic bloc,”Khmer Times, November 6, 2019, https://www.khmertimeskh(.)com/657467/nation-set-to-ink-agreement-with-russia-led-economic-bloc/, “Trade agreement with EAEU officially declared to Iranian customs,” Tehran Times, November 8, 2019, https://www.tehrantimes(.)com/news/441768/Trade-agreement-with-EAEU-officially-declared-to-Iranian-customs.
[29] [“Russian Railways and the Government of Serbia agree on the modernization of the railway line from Belgrade to the border with Montenegro,”] Investing, October 20, 2019, https://ru.investing(.)com/news/economy/article-1922906, [“Russian Railways and Serbia agree to implement a number of railway projects,”] RIA Novosti, October 19, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20191019/1559979230.html.
[30] [“We take a loan from Russia for the construction of a railway of 172 million euros,”] Nova Ekonomija, November 4, 2019, https://novaekonomija(.)rs/vesti/vesti-iz-zemlje/od-rusije-uzimamo-kredit-za-izgradnju-%C5%BEeleznice-od-172-miliona-evra; Zeeshan Aziz, “Moscow, Belgrade Sign Agreements On Export Loan, Localization Of Russian Enterprises,” UrduPoint, October 19, 2019, https://www.urdupoint(.)com/en/business/moscow-belgrade-sign-agreements-on-export-lo-741267.html; “MIL-OSI Russia: The Ministry of industry and trade: some Russian companies interested in placing production in Serbia,” Foreign Affairs, October 20, 2019,
[31] “Medvedev’s visit to Serbia,” Accessed December 13, 2019, Government of the Republic of Serbia,
[32] “Russia, Serbia to build nuclear research centre,” World Nuclear News, October 21, 2019,; “Russia, Serbia sign deal on cooperation in construction of Center for Nuclear Science, Technology and Innovations,” NS Energy, October 21, 2019, https://www.nsenergybusiness(.)com/news/russia-serbia-sign-deal-on-cooperation-in-construction-of-center-for-nuclear-science-technology-and-innovations/; “Serbia, Russia sign interstate agreements,” Government of the Republic of Serbia, January 27, 2019, Serbia’s nuclear aspirations with Russia began when the two states signed a cooperation agreement during Vladimir Putin’s visit to Serbia on January 17.
[33] Nataliya Bugayova, Mason Clark, Michaela Walker, Andre Briere, Anthony Yanchuk, and George Barros, “The Kremlin’s Inroads After the Africa Summit,” Institute for the Study of War, November 8, 2019,
[34] Misha Savic, “”Kosovo’s Election Winner Signals Tough Stance Toward Serbia,” Bloomberb, October 6, 2019,
[35] “US diplomat pushes for return to Kosovo-Serbia dialogue,” Prishtina Insight, November 11, 2019, https://prishtinainsight(.)com/us-diplomat-pushes-for-return-to-kosovo-serbia-dialogue/; Snezana Bjelotomic, “Palmer: ‘Serbia will not join the EU unless it recognizes Kosovo’s independence,’” Serbian Monitor, November 4, 2019, https://www.serbianmonitor(.)com/en/palmerserbia-will-not-join-the-eu-unless-it-recognizes-kosovos-independence/; Fatos Bytyci, “Serbia must accept Kosovo independence to join EU: German foreign minister,” Reuters, February 14, 2018,
[36] Russian Mission OSCE, Twitter, September 6, 2019,
[37] Talha Ozturk, “Ghana withdraws recognition of Kosovo: Report,” AA, November 13, 2019, https://www.aa(.); Agata Palikova, “15 countries, and counting, revoke recognition of Kosovo, Serbia says,” Euractiv, August 27, 2019, https://www.euractiv(.)com/section/enlargement/news/15-countries-and-counting-revoke-recognition-of-kosovo-serbia-says/; “Nauru withdraws recognition of Kosovo’s independence, Pristina denies,” N1, November 22, 2019, http://rs.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a546106/Dacic-says-95-countries-do-not-recognise-Kosovo-as-state-after-Nauru-s-withdrawal.html; “Serbia’s gratitude for Suriname’s decision to revoke recognition of the unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia, November 2, 2017, http://www.mfa(.); [“Dacic: Burundi withdraws recognition, fragile independence of Kosovo,”] N1, February 17, 2018,
“’We’re Friends of All, Enemies of None’: Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister,” Sputnik News, November 14, 2018, https://sputniknews(.)com/interviews/201811141069786451-papua-new-guinea-russia/; [“The Kingdom of Lesotho withdrew recognition of Kosovo,”] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia, October 16, 2018, http://www.mfa(.); [“Union Chamber withdraws recognition of Kosovo,”] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia, November 7, 2018, https://www(.); “Another county no longer recognizes Kosovo- FM announces,” B92 News, November 2, 2018, https://www(.); “Grenada retracts recognition of Kosovo, N1 Belgrade, November 4, 2018, ”http(:)//; Xhemajl Rexha, [“Exclusive: Solomon Islands notify Kosovo government of withdrawal of recognition,”] Koha net, December 2, 2018, https(:)//; Renaud Raharijaona, [Serbia announces Madagascar cancels recognition of Kosovo,”] Orange Madagascar, December 8, 2018,; [“Republic of Palau annuls recognition of Kosovo,”], Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia, January 21, 2019, http://www.mfa(.); Eve-anna Travers “Kosovo’s foreign policy ‘needs a software update,’”] Pristina Insights, August 2, 2019,; [“Republic of Naurus recognizes the Republic of Kosovo,”] Office of the President of Kosovo, February 17, 2008,,6,860; “Ghana withdraws recognition of Kosovo as an independent state,” November 12, 2019,; Rudic Filip, Die Morina, “Kosovo Accuses Serbia of Bribing Countries with Arms,” Balkan Insight, July 23, 2018,
[38] [“Speech by the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation A. Lukashevich at a Meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council on the 20th Anniversary of the NATO Bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, March 30, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/web/guest/vistupleniya_rukovodstva_mid/-/asset_publisher/MCZ7HQuMdqBY/content/id/3595333.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Iraq Situation Report: November 29 - December 9

By Jason Zhou, Brandon Wallace, and Katherine Lawlor

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) is assessing the ongoing unrest in Iraq and its effects on political-security dynamics. The Iraq Situation Report (SITREP) series summarizes key events and likely developments to come. This set of Iraq SITREP maps covers the period November 29 - December 9, 2019.




Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Perils of Talks on Russia's War in Ukraine

By Nataliya Bugayova with George Barros

Key Takeaway: The West is drifting toward empowering Vladimir Putin as he continues the illegal Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Putin’s priority in the December 9 Normandy Four talks with Ukraine, France, and Germany is not peace in Ukraine. Putin is positioning Russia to regain control of Ukraine’s decision-making, legitimize a revanchist foreign policy, and remove international constraints on his ambitions. Putin seeks to secure a renewed, exploitative gas deal with Ukraine and the legitimization of Russia’s proxies from the upcoming meeting. The West must ensure that Russia does not pressure Ukraine into compromising its sovereignty by conceding on either Donbas, where Russia is waging war, or Ukrainian energy independence. Putin’s success in Ukraine would not only put the future of Europe at risk – it would also empower Putin to accelerate his global campaigns.

The Kremlin’s Pre-Normandy Meeting Campaign

Russia has waged war on Ukraine since 2014. Russia, in concert with its proxies, continues its illegal occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and of territory in Ukraine’s Donbas region. The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany are expected to meet in Paris on November 9 regarding the conflict in Ukraine. Representatives from this group – the Normandy Four – have met on a number of occasions since 2014 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.[1] The talks stalled after the Normandy Four last met in 2016 as Russian-controlled forces continued to violate the ceasefire and the Kremlin continued to demand the legitimization of its proxies.[2]

Russian President Vladimir Putin has exploited Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky’s peace aspirations. Zelensky, in office since May 2019, made an election promise to Ukrainian voters: to achieve peace in Ukraine. Zelensky has called for talks with Putin since he won election in April 2019.[3] Putin responded to Zelensky’s overtures with a list of demands. The Kremlin pushed for Ukraine to accept the so-called “Steinmeier Formula.”[4] The proposal would grant Russian-occupied regions “self-governance” after they hold local elections. Zelensky also agreed to withdraw troops in three locations in Ukraine. Zelensky agreed to meet both demands despite major domestic backlash.[5]

Photo: Volodymyr Zelensky visits the frontlines in Eastern Ukraine, October 2019 (President of Ukraine).

Putin has made no meaningful concessions, continued to build pressure, and kept Ukraine on the defensive over the past six months. Kremlin-controlled forced have continued to launch daily attacks, killing two Ukrainian servicemen as recently as December 1.[6] Russia has expanded control over its proxies, indicating that Putin has no intention to cede influence.[7] The Kremlin-controlled, self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) proposed extending its borders to the entire Donetsk region – more than half of which is controlled by Ukraine – in late November.[8] The Kremlin dismissed the idea of dissolving the DNR and the neighboring “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR). It took this position despite the premise of the Steinmeier Formula: that elections should be conducted under Ukrainian law, implying Ukrainian control over the territories (which are within Ukraine’s borders).[9] Russian-controlled forces delayed the disengagement in at least one of three locations by violating the ceasefire and restricted the movement of international observers.[10] Putin launched a disinformation campaign accusing Ukraine of stalling the peace process, and publicly questioned Zelensky’s ability to control his forces.[11] Putin tried to pressure Zelensky to disengage Ukrainian troops along the entire conflict line that lies entirely inside Ukraine’s borders.[12] The Kremlin has a history of applying pressure in advance of major talks. Russia launched some of its deadliest attacks against Ukrainian forces in 2014 and 2015 to compel former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to accept unfavorable Minsk I and Minsk II peace deals.

Putin also conducted outreach to key European leaders, attempting to exploit their desire to end the conflict in Ukraine. An end to the conflict – whether or not it delivers a credible peace – would provide an excuse for Germany and France to lift sanctions and reestablish economic ties with Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron, the host of the Normandy Four talks, has called for reengaging Russia and stated in November that Russia is not a threat to NATO.[13] German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Putin agreed during a call in November that Ukraine’s Donbas region should receive a “special status” – Putin’s central demand.[14]

The Kremlin continues to hold Ukraine in suspense ahead of the talks. The Kremlin’s representatives have urged attendees “not to set high expectations” for the talks, continued to obfuscate the agenda, and said that a planned one-on-one meeting between Putin and Zelensky might be “informal.”[15]

Ukraine is thus coming to the negotiating table weakened and with its sovereignty at risk.

The Stakes in Paris

Legitimization of Russian Intervention

A major risk for Ukraine and the West is the legitimization of Russia’s violation of sovereignty through military force and the resulting consequences. This risk will be realized if Russia pressures Ukraine to hold elections in Donbas or to grant special status to the region without Ukraine regaining full military and political control over its territory.

Putin has said that the special status issue will be central in the Normandy Four meeting.[16] The temporary Ukrainian law that provides Donbas with a limited autonomy expires on December 31, 2019.[17] Putin wants Ukraine to extend this law and eventually enshrine a much broader autonomy for Donbas in the Ukrainian Constitution. Putin also wants Ukraine to hold elections in the occupied territories that Russia can manipulate to retain control over its proxies. The Kremlin will insist that Ukraine satisfies political preconditions – elections – before Ukraine regains control over its border. This way the Kremlin can maintain control over its proxies in signature “hybrid warfare” fashion – by masking the proxies as local police, for example. Zelensky suggested on December 6 an idea to create a municipal guard in Donbas that would include representatives of Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the “non-combatant” elements of the LNR and DNR structures.[18] This concept is exactly the type of hybrid vehicle that the Kremlin would seek to hijack and exploit.

Any legitimization of Russian-controlled regions would irreversibly undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty. Putin would gain a permanent lever of influence over Ukraine’s policies. Russia might also attempt to use the precedent of Donbas as a model to push over time for the federalization of other regions in Ukraine. Major concessions to Russia will also fuel tension between Ukraine’s civil society and Zelensky. This tension could trigger an internal conflict in the most dangerous scenario, which would benefit the Kremlin. Ukraine would also lose leverage with Russia and the West if it voluntarily legitimizes Russian intervention.

Acceptance of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine would also legitimize Putin’s broader foreign policy vision. Russia would have established the principle that it can invade another country, manipulate the political environment, and force the country to submit to its power – all while claiming to support “peace” and presenting itself as a neutral arbiter. This will open an opportunity for Putin to legitimize its other illegal formations (e.g., in Georgia’s Abkhazia). It will create an international precedent that other countries can emulate.

Finally, submission to Russia’s hostility will empower Putin. Ukraine is a major dampener on Putin’s ambitions. Putin’s Ukraine campaign consumes a large number of the limited, high-quality assets Russia has for such interventions; drains Putin’s own bandwidth; and expends additional resources. Success in Ukraine will free up Putin’s resources and enable him to press his advantage elsewhere, from expanding Russia’s military footprint to undermining NATO to regaining suzerainty over the territories of the former Soviet Union.

Energy Dependence

Another core risk to Ukraine’s sovereignty is renewed Ukrainian dependence on Russian energy, which will likely become a topic of discussion in Paris. The Kremlin suggested at the last minute that Putin and Zelensky might discuss an existing Russia-Ukraine gas deal, which expires on January 1, at the Normandy Four talks.[19] Russia recently cleared the final procedural obstacle to the construction of its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. [20] The pipeline’s construction has been delayed, and Putin has claimed that Russia will continue using gas transit through Ukraine, but its eventual development would enable Russia to bypass the Ukrainian transit system.[21] The Nord Stream 2 project both weakens Ukraine’s position in the long term and strengthens Russia’s leverage over Europe.

Putin is trying to dilute Ukraine’s leverage by bundling the issues of energy and “peace” talks. Ukraine currently has a strong negotiating position despite the Nord Stream 2 pipeline advances. Ukraine has worked diligently to reduce its dependency on Russian gas and has gained room to maneuver.[22] Russia stands to lose revenue from gas sales and influence from the non-renewal of the contract. Russia, for example, also depends on Ukraine to deliver on its energy deals in Moldova, where Putin has a major ongoing effort to regain influence.[23] Russia also wants Ukraine to drop international arbitration claims against Russian gas giant Gazprom. Gazprom owes Ukraine $3 billion.[24] Ukraine’s additional outstanding claims against Gazprom total about $22 billion.[25]

Putin might present Zelensky with an empty concession on Donbas to secure a new energy deal on Russia’s terms.[26] The Kremlin is aware of the domestic pushback to Zelensky’s efforts to reach a deal with Russia (Ukrainian civil society members and military veterans are already preparing a major rally post-Normandy Four talks if Zelensky concedes to Putin).[27] Russia would then use a new energy deal as a major vehicle to rebuild its influence in Ukraine over time. ISW forecasted that Russia would attempt to regain its influence through economic vehicles during Zelensky’s presidency.[28]

What Can the West Do?

The West – including Normandy Four group members Germany and France – must ensure that Russia does not pressure Ukraine into compromising its sovereignty at the talks. Putin has been setting favorable conditions for these talks, but he has a number of vulnerabilities. The West has an opportunity to counter the Kremlin’s aggression and support Ukraine’s sovereignty in a number of ways:
  • Empower Ukraine to Dismiss Bad Deals. The West should provide Ukraine political cover to walk away from a deal that would surrender its sovereignty without being labeled as a “spoiler of peace” – false framing that the Kremlin continues to employ.
  • Reinforce Red Lines. The West should reinforce Zelensky’s original demand to reestablish the Ukrainian government’s full control of its borders before implementing political steps, such as elections.[29] The West should bolster Ukraine’s position that it is not possible to enshrine a “special status” for Donbas in Ukraine’s Constitution – and support Kyiv in defending the principle that Russian interference in Ukraine’s sovereign affairs, including the contents of its constitution, is unacceptable. The West should also help prevent the Kremlin from exploiting Ukraine’s ongoing decentralization reforms to mask Russia’s efforts to federalize Ukraine.
  • Deny Legitimacy. Western leaders should call out the Kremlin for what it is: a belligerent and not a mediator in the Ukrainian conflict. Putin does care about the perception of his legitimacy and invests resources in cultivating this perception. Being viewed as a legitimate actor is key to Putin’s core objective: to position Russia as a great power. The West should deny Russia international legitimacy until it changes its malign behavior. Conversely, the West should amplify the reality that Ukraine is legitimately defending its borders and its sovereignty against unprovoked and illegal Russian aggression.
  • Preserve Ukraine’s Leverage. Putin is bundling discussions regarding energy supplies with the Normandy Four talks to weaken Ukraine’s negotiating position. The West should deny this linkage and instead preserve Ukraine’s strong negotiation hand. The West should not push Ukraine to extend the existing law (expiring December 31) that provides limited special status to the DNR and LNR entities. The Kremlin’s proxies derive legitimacy for their regional autonomy in part from this law. The law’s expiration provides Kyiv a degree of leverage.
  • Leverage Sanctions. The West should not underestimate the value of sanctions against Russia, the importance of which Putin is intentionally downplaying. Sanctions, while they have not changed Putin’s intent, have dampened Russian aggression and raised the costs required for Putin to keep his inner circle and Russia’s population content. Putin is investing resources in a campaign to lift sanctions imposed following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. The West should hold firmly its position that it will maintain and even strengthen these sanctions until Russia changes its behavior.
  • Demand Concessions. The West should insist that the complete and verifiable dissolution of all Russian-controlled armed forces and political entities, including the DNR and LNR, precedes any discussion of the “special status” issue. The West should help Ukraine push back on additional Russian demands to withdraw Ukrainian troops. Zelensky has established an unambiguous intent to move towards peace. The West should demand real concessions from Russia as a precondition to any further steps from Ukraine.

[1]Minsk II Protocol was signed at the Normandy Format meeting in February 2015. The Minsk II Protocol contains a package of measures aimed at de-escalating conflict levels in Donbas. The Minsk II Protocol includes several security and political provisions. These include establishing a ceasefire, mutual withdrawal of heavy weapons, reestablishment of Ukrainian government’s control over Ukraine’s border, amnesty for Donbas militants from criminal prosecution, and a special status in Ukrainian law granting regional autonomy for the DNR and LNR. The Minsk II Protocol has several Kremlin-preferable preconditions. The main aspect the Kremlin exploits is the Minsk II Protocol’s lack of an implementation plan. The Kremlin demands that the political preconditions, such as elections and permanent special status, are satisfied first. Such a course of action would legitimize its proxies and undermine Ukrainian sovereignty.
[2] The Normandy Four last met in Berlin in October, 2016. After that meeting, Kremlin-controlled forces continued to violate regularly a ceasefire in Donbas and refused to negotiate in good faith with former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Poroshenko and Putin’s fundamental disagreement was over the sequencing for implementing the Minsk II Protocol’s provisions. Putin argues the political provisions (Donbas special status and local elections) should be implemented first. This would legitimize the Kremlin’s proxies in Ukraine and undermine Ukrainian sovereignty. Poroshenko pushed back and demanded that the security provisions (a sustained ceasefire, the full withdrawal of Russian military assets, and the Ukrainian Government’s reestablishment of control over Ukraine’s border) be implemented first.
[3] “Zelensky’s first steps as president in case he wins election runoff – media,” UNIAN, April 10, 2019, https(:)//
[4] Zelensky agreed to the so-called “Steinmeier Formula” on October 1 that risks holding elections in Donbas on Russian terms. Thousands of Ukrainians have since been protesting in Kyiv against what they view is a capitulation to Russia. The formula – at least in its current form – provides no mechanism for the verified withdrawal of Russian forces from Donbas during the elections. The presence of Russian troops precludes a legitimate vote. The Kremlin claimed that it does not have control over the DNR and LNR on October 7 in response to a question about the Kremlin’s willingness to guarantee the disengagement of its proxies. This feint indicates the Kremlin’s unwillingness to guarantee disengagement of its forces. The Kremlin might create a veneer of compliance using its signature hybrid tactics. For example, it may order some of its proxies to temporarily stand down or leave the territory, but the majority of the Russia-controlled forces will likely stay. This plan also ignores Russia’s control of the information space in Donbas that would influence any vote. Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Putin Advances in Ukraine and its Neighboring States,” The Institute for the Study of War, October 15, 2019.
[5] “Thousands in Kyiv Protest President's Plan for Local Elections in Eastern Ukraine,” Voice of America, October 6, 2019,
[6] [“Details about the Deaths of SBU Spetsnaz in Donbas Emerge,”] Lenta, December 5, 2019, https://lenta(.)ua/vyyasnilis-obstoyatelstva-gibeli-na-donbasse-ukrainskih-spetsnazovtsev-iz-sbu-alfa-30723/.
[7] Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Putin Advances in Ukraine and Its Neighboring States,” The Institute for the Study of War, October 15,2019,;[“Fighters from 'DNR' and 'LNR' Created a New Cross Border Concern,”] Lenta, August 8, 2019, https://lenta((.))ua/boeviki-iz-dnr-i-lnr-sozdali-novyy-transgranichnyy-kontsern-20873/; [“‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ Combined the Railways in the Concern ‘Railways of Donbass,”] Antikor, August 19, 2019, https://antikor(.), [“The Russian Federation is Preparing Occupied Donbas’ Banking System for Integration – InformNapalm,”] Gordon, August 21, 2019, https://gordonua(.)com/news/war/rf-gotovit-bankovskuyu-sistemu-okkupirovannogo-donbassa-k-integracii-informnapalm-1210939.html.
[8] [“Pushilin Commented on the Passage of the DNR Law on Borders,”] RIA Novosti, November 29, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20191129/1561764355.html.
[9] [“Pushkov Commented on Kyiv’s Demand to Dissolve the DNR and LNR,”] RIA Novosti, October 16, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20191016/1559836500.html; [“Putin Spoke about the Steinmeier Formula,”] RIA Novosti, November 14, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20191114/1560957297.html.
[10] “OSCE Daily Report 259/2019,” Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, November 1, 2019, https((:))//
[11] [“Putin: Zelensky Can Not Provide Withdrawal of Forces and Weapons from Donbas Because of Nationalists,”] TASS, October 11, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/politika/6988942.
[12] [“Putin Called for the Withdrawal of Troops Along the Entire Front Line in Donbas as Soon as Possible,”] Ukraina, November 15, 2019, https://ukraina(.)ru/news/20191115/1025679793.html.
[13] Mike Brest, “Macron says Russia is no longer NATO's enemy,” Washington Examiner, November 29, 2019,
[14] [“They Want a Special Status for Donbass: What Putin and Merkel Agreed on has Become Known,”] Obozrevatel, November 15, 2019, https://www.obozrevatel(.)com/abroad/putin-pogovoril-s-merkel-pro-donbass-novosti-mira-segodnya.htm.
[15] [“Putin Gave a Negative Outlook on the Normandy Meeting,”] Zik, November 30, 2019, https://zik(.)ua/ru/news/2019/11/30/u_putina_dali_negativnyy_prognoz_otnositelno_normandskoy_vstrechi_947507.
[16] [“’There is Nothing to Talk About’ Without the Law on Donbas Special Status, at the "Normandy Four" – Putin,”] Ukraina, November 15, 2019, https://ukraina(.)ru/news/20191115/1025680515.html.
[17] If the special status is not renewed by Ukrainian Parliament (the Rada) on December 31, 2019, the existing special status law is nullified via the sunset clause. Ukraine first adopted a law providing special status to the occupied areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in October in 2014. The law granted the DNR and LNR limited regional autonomy, self-determination in cultural and linguistic policies, a guarantee of amnesty for Russian proxies from criminal prosecution that the Kremlin demanded in the Minsk II Protocol. The Kremlin frames these political concessions as the necessary minimum requirements to resume diplomatic contact with Ukraine on the war in Donbas. The law on special status had a three-year sunset clause. The Rada passed a law on October 4, 2018, to extend Donbas special status’ sunset clause to December 31, 2019.
[18] [“Zelensky Proposed Creating of a ‘Municipal Guard’ in Donbas. The Kremlin Reacted,”] NV UA, December 6, 2019, https://nv(.)ua/ukraine/politics/zelenskiy-hochet-sozdat-municipalnuyu-strazhu-na-donbasse-reakciya-rossii-novosti-ukrainy-50057788.html.
[19] [“Putin Plans to Discuss a Gas Contract with Zelensky in Paris – Peskov,”] 112 Ukraine, November 11, 2019, https://112(.)ua/politika/putin-planiruet-v-parizhe-obsudit-s-zelenskim-gazovyy-kontrakt-peskov-516753.html.
[20] Stine Jacobsen, Vladimir Soldatkiv, “Nord Stream 2 clears major hurdle as Denmark OKs gas pipeline,” Reuters, October 30, 2019, “Russia won’t stop gas transit through Ukraine when Nord Stream 2 becomes operational – Putin,” RT, December 6, 2019, https://www.rt(.)com/business/475192-russia-nord-stream2-ukraine/.
[21] “Russia won’t stop gas transit through Ukraine when Nord Stream 2 becomes operational – Putin,” RT, December 6, 2019, https://www.rt(.)com/business/475192-russia-nord-stream2-ukraine/.
[22] Andriy Kobolyev, CEO of Ukraine’s state-owned gas operator Naftogaz, praised Ukraine’s energy independence from Russia on November 26. Kobolyev noted that Ukraine went from being "more than 90 percent" dependent on Russian gas in 2013 to not importing any Russian natural gas since 2015. Ukraine’s domestic gas production satisfies approximately two-thirds of Ukraine’s gas demand, with the remainder imported from over 65 companies from 18 different European suppliers. “Naftogaz CEO Touts Ukraine’s First Receipt Of U.S. Liquefied Gas,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, November 27, 2019,; [“Ukrainians Will be Offered the Insurance on the Gas Prices: What Does it Mean,”] Hvylya, November 22, 2019, https://hvylya(.)net/news/digest/ukraincam-predlozhat-strahovuju-cenu-na-gaz-chto-jeto-znachit.html.
[23] Russia needs Ukraine’s gas transit system to supply Moldova. Russia promised a significant gas discount to the new government in Moldova. Starting on January 1, 2020, Moldova will receive Russian gas at $173 per thousand cubic meters compared to the current price of $235. This is a 26% price reduction and will impact Gazprom’s income. Russian gas exports to Moldova depend on transit through Ukraine’s gas transit system. Russia’s logistical methods for gas export to Moldova are limited without Ukrainian transit. Ukraine offered Moldova’s state gas operator Ukrainian gas if Gazprom’s gas transit contract is not renewed. Nataliya Bugayova with Mason Clark and Andre Biere, “Russia in Review: the Kremlin Reverses Setbacks in Moldova,” The Institute for the Study of War, December 6, 2019,
[24] “Ukraine’s Naftogaz Pledges to Press on with Russia’s Gas Talks,” Reuters, November 25, 2019,
[25] Russia and Ukraine’s state-owned gas operators, Gazprom and Naftogaz, have been in deadlocked negotiations since September 2019. Ukrainian officials have signaled the Ukrainian Government is prepared for the potential end of gas transit with Russia. Ukraine stopped importing Russian gas for domestic consumption in 2015. Gazprom and Naftogaz have not been able to agree to renew their contract because Gazprom demands Ukraine must drop all its claims in international arbitration. Naftogaz previously said it would only drop its pending claims against Gazprom (which currently total $22 billion) if Gazprom presents incentives equivalent to the same value, such as those that could result from a lucrative long-term gas transit deal. Ukraine is not willing to nullify the $3 billion in damages Gazprom already owes Ukraine. Ukrainian officials argue that backing away from its claims makes is “not economically feasible,” as it means forgoing the $3 billion in awards already granted to Ukraine. “Naftogaz to Push Forward with Gazprom Legal Claims Despite Transit Warning,” S&P Global, November 13, 2019,
[26] The Kremlin demands Ukraine nullify the $3 billion in damages Gazprom already owes Ukraine over breeches in contracts and the pending $22 billion in pending international arbitration. The Kremlin also maintains Ukraine’s Antimonopoly Committee must annul its fine on Gazprom for alleged abuse of its dominant position and Naftogaz must withdraw its application to the European Commission to initiate an investigation against Gazprom for foul play. Stuart Elliott, “Gazprom makes official proposal to Ukraine's Naftogaz for 1-year gas transit deal,” S&P Global, November 18, 2019, https://www.spglobal(.)com/platts/en/market-insights/latest-news/natural-gas/111819-gazprom-makes-official-proposal-to-ukraines-naftogaz-for-1-year-gas-transit-deal.
[27] [“Tents and Sandwiches at Bankova: What for Maidan against Capitulation is being Prepared Against Zelensky,”] Depo.Ua, December 6, 2019, https://www.depo(.)ua/ukr/life/v-ochikuvanni-zradi-na-normandskiy-zustrichi-yak-v-kievi-gotuyutsya-do-tretogo-maydanu-201912061075415.
[28] Nataliya Bugayova, “Ukraine's New President: The Stakes for Ukraine and the West,” Institute for the Study of War, April 22, 2019,
[29] Oleksyi Vinogradov, Tetyana Yakubovych, [“The border should be ours,”] Radio Liberty, October 2, 2019,

Friday, December 6, 2019

Iraq Situation Report: November 15 - 28

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) is assessing the ongoing unrest in Iraq and its effects on political-security dynamics. The Iraq Situation Report (SITREP) series summarizes key events and likely developments to come. This set of Iraq SITREP maps covers the period November 15 - 28, 2019.





Russia in Review: The Kremlin Reverses Setbacks in Moldova

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: Nataliya Bugayova with Mason Clark and Andre Briere

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is reversing setbacks it experienced in Moldova in recent years. Moldova paused key bilateral cooperation mechanisms with Russia over the last three years and expelled numerous Russian officials. Moldova’s Constitutional Court suspended the powers of the Kremlin-backed Moldovan President Igor Dodon five times in 2018.[1] The Kremlin has managed in the past six months to restart all key bilateral mechanisms with Moldova, sign several new deals, and host the Moldovan prime minister in Moscow after a seven-year hiatus. President Dodon secured control of the cabinet of ministers, Moldova’s security services, and the capital in November. The Kremlin achieved this progress by sidelining two competitors to its interests in Moldova – oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc in June 2019 and pro-European Prime Minister Maia Sandu in November 2019 – in a phased campaign. The Kremlin has not yet solidified its gains; it will require significant resources to maintain its position. Russia is nevertheless making progress in forcing Moldova back into Russia’s orbit. A successful Russian effort in Moldova, which shares borders with Romania and Ukraine, would expand pressure on NATO. Russia would leverage its dominance in Moldova to build on its campaign to assert influence in Ukraine. Russia also seeks to legitimize its military intervention in Moldova’s Transnistria region and set a precedent for the legitimization of its interventions elsewhere.

Moldovan President Igor Dodon forced Prime Minister Maia Sandu to resign on November 12. Kremlin-backed Dodon successfully facilitated a no-confidence vote against Sandu’s government and ended the coalition between his Socialist Party (PSRM) and Sandu’s pro-European ACUM party.[2] Dodon called for the vote after Sandu attempted to alter the procedure for appointing the general prosecutor. Sandu was likely trying to limit Dodon’s influence over the process.[3]

Dodon formed a minority government two days after the no-confidence vote. Ion Chicu, a former Dodon advisor, became the new prime minister.[4] Dodon secured 27 votes from the Democratic Party (PDM), led by exiled oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc. PDM conditioned its support for Dodon’s plan on “a state program we consider acceptable” and support for PDM’s desired domestically focused projects.[5] Dodon likely agreed to these conditions and may have given PDM members additional assurances to secure their votes. For example, Dodon could have promised not to push for prosecution cases against PDM members. Dodon’s PSRM nominated former PDM deputy Alexander Stoyanoglo as the prosecutor general on December 2, a move that may have been intended to help secure PDM support.[6]

Dodon has successfully expanded control over power structures. Dodon controlled the presidency prior to November 12, while his associate Zinaida Greceanii became the speaker of the parliament in June. Dodon now controls the cabinet given that his former aides occupy most cabinet positions.[7] Pavel Voicu, a former personal advisor to Dodon, replaced Sandu’s associate Andrei Nastase as minister of internal affairs, expanding Dodon’s control over the Moldovan security services. Victor Gaiciuc, another Dodon advisor, became minister of defense. Gaiciuc has said publicly that he admired the “courage” of Kremlin-controlled forces in Eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2016.[8] Several other new cabinet members are former Dodon appointees.[9] Dodon has secured influence over Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, as the city’s voters on November 4 elected PSRM candidate Ion Ceban to serve as mayor.[10] PSRM also won several seats in local elections on November 3.[11]

The newly formed government is a second victory for the Kremlin in Moldova this year and likely a planned phase in Russia’s campaign to regain influence there. Russia faced major setbacks in Moldova in recent years. The Kremlin managed to start turning the tide in June 2019 by facilitating a Moldovan parliamentary coalition between the ACUM and PSRM parties.[12] A nominal alignment with the West likely helped Russia legitimize its political client, Dodon. This brokering allowed Russia to achieve two goals: eliminate a key competitor to its interests, the formerly exiled oligarch Plahotniuc, and preserve Dodon’s power.

The Kremlin then likely shifted to sideline Dodon’s rival Sandu. Russia and Dodon likely assessed an opportunity to weaken Sandu and form a new cabinet expanding Dodon’s power. That perceived opening was the primary trigger for the no-confidence vote targeting Sandu. Control over the prosecutor general’s office, the ostensible basis for the vote, was important to Dodon but likely a secondary motivation. Dodon likely had an agreement with his eventual coalition government partner PDM even before the no-confidence vote given the speed with which PDM – formerly a rival to Dodon’s party – embraced Dodon’s agenda. 

Graphic: The Kremlin's Adaptations in Moldova [13]

The Kremlin is moving rapidly to secure its gains in Moldova. The Kremlin launched an outreach campaign targeting Moldovan officials following the new government’s formation.
  • Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev hosted newly appointed Prime Minister Chicu in Moscow on November 20 – the first visit by a Moldovan prime minister to Russia in seven years. Medvedev expressed hopes to recover the opportunities “lost between Moldova and Russia over the last few years.”[14]
  • Moldova and Russia signed several deals during Chicu’s visit. The Kremlin plans to lend Moldova $500 million to finance transportation infrastructure projects.[15] Russian Deputy Prime Minster Dmitry Kozak, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s key executive officer on Moldova, said that Moldova will buy Russian gas at $173 per thousand cubic meters starting January 1 2020 – a 26% decrease compared to the current price.[16] Russia plans to expand the list of duty-free goods exported from Moldova, and issue thousands of permits to Moldavan exporters to deliver goods to Russia.[17] Chicu also said that Moldova might “pause” its cooperation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) if the IMF is not flexible with its terms.[18] The Kremlin would welcome such a break, given that Moldova’s cooperation with the IMF helps integrate the country into the West. Diminished funding from the IMF could increase Moldova’s dependency on Russia.
  • Russian Ambassador to Moldova Oleg Vasnetsov initiated a meeting with Chisinau Mayor Ion Ceban on November 13 – just days after Ceban was elected.[19] Ceban met with Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin in Russia on November 28.[20] Ceban asked Sobyanin for support with municipal and investment projects to help develop Chisinau. Russian Deputy PM Kozak also met with Ceban to discuss Chisinau’s cooperation with other Russian cities.[21]
  • Another Dodon ally and Speaker of Moldova’s Parliament Zinaida Greceanii attended the Council of Independent States (CIS) Interparliamentary Assembly in St. Petersburg on November 20-22 after a two-year gap in Moldovan participation.[22] CIS is a largely Russia-led intergovernmental organization focused on cooperation between several former Soviet states. Greceanii expressed Moldova’s interest in more active work within CIS and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.[23] Dodon also stated that Moldova is considering joining the Russia-led Eurasian Development Bank on November 29.[24]
  • Dodon praised Russia’s proposal to destroy its ammunition depot in the separatist region of Transnistria as a step in the right direction towards settlement of the frozen conflict.[25] Dodon stated on November 22 that Gazprom should annul Transnistria’s $6.2 billion gas debt to Russia if the conflict is resolved.[26] Dodon is likely setting conditions in the information space to legitimize the acceptance of a permanent Russian military presence in Transnistria and a potential special status for the region.
  • Russian Security Council Chief Nikolai Patrushev signed a cooperation plan on November 21 with the national security councils of several former Soviet states, including Moldova.[27] This agreement is a component of Russia’s effort to regain control over Moldova’s security structures.
Russia’s recent outreach builds on the previous phase of the Kremlin’s campaign to regain influence in Moldova. The Kremlin moved equally fast to secure political influence during the previous window of opportunity in June 2019 when it facilitated a coalition between PRSM and ACUM. Russian officials announced that relations between Russia and Moldova were “unfrozen” on June 24.[28] Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu put a three-year military cooperation plan between Russia and Moldova on the table in August – a development that was hard to imagine even a year ago.[29] Moldova lifted a ban on Moldovan officials traveling to Russia in June.[30] Several bilateral cooperation mechanisms between Russia and Moldova resumed work after a three-year pause. Moldovan Speaker of the Parliament Greceanii chose Russia as the destination of her first foreign visit in June.[31] Moldovan companies signed several agreements with Russian businesses in September.[32] Dodon and Greceanii discussed in July the need to abolish the existing ban on Russian broadcasting in Moldova.[33]


Russia will attempt to advance its campaign aggressively while Dodon, its preferred political actor, retains expanded powers and faces fewer obstacles. The Kremlin will tailor its investments toward integrating Moldova into Russia’s formal and informal structures, and helping Dodon deepen his influence. The Kremlin will likely prioritize strengthening control over Moldova’s security services and national security establishment now that Dodon controls the ministries of defense and interior. Moldova is still considering the military cooperation plan with Russia proposed by Shoigu. Both the newly appointed minister of interior and minister of defense met senior Russian officials, including Shoigu and Patrushev, in recent months.[34] The Kremlin will leverage its new cooperation plan between the Moldovan and Russian national security councils to advance its security influence.

The Kremlin will attempt to legitimize its military intervention in Moldova and reintegrate Transnitria as a permanent lever of control. Dodon attempted to assure the West and Moldova that he does not plan to federalize Moldova but is considering a special status for Transnistria.[35] Russia likely aims to integrate Transnistria back into Moldova to expand the voting base for its interests without giving up its control and its force presence. Russia will regain dominant influence over Moldova’s decision-making if it succeeds in this effort. Russia’s success would also establish the principle that it can invade another sovereign state, manipulate the political environment to its advantage, and force the country to accept its version of peace. This would set an international precedent that the Kremlin will leverage in its efforts to solidify special status for the Kremlin-controlled, self-proclaimed “republics” in Ukraine.

The Kremlin will push Moldova to expand cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and CIS. Russia granted Moldova observer status with the EEU in 2017 to keep Moldova engaged. Yet Moldova has not actively participated in the EEU’s activities since then as the previous government prioritized cooperation with the EU.[36] Russia’s long-term goal is Moldovan membership in the EEU, which Dodon expressed support for in the past. The rapid shift towards the EEU is likely politically unattainable for Dodon, however, especially in advance of the 2020 presidential race, as more Moldovans prefer joining the EU than the EEU.[37] Dodon has previously stated his intent to cancel Moldova’s existing association agreement with the EU, but later softened his rhetoric and expressed commitment to the EU association agreement. Moldova’s Prime Minister Chicu also that stated Moldova will honor its international agreements.[38] Russia will thus likely push for a free trade agreement (FTA) between Moldova and the EEU. An FTA falls short of full membership in the EEU. The Kremlin is using the FTA vehicle to expand the EEU globally as Russia’s initial push to engage countries through formal membership failed. Russia will continue to signal nominal alignment with the West but use it as a cover to gradually integrate Moldova without triggering a major political backlash. Russia will leverage institutions like the Eurasian Development Bank in this effort. It will also double down on its interparliamentary cooperation with Moldova and try to push through various “legislative harmonization” initiatives through this framework.[39]

The Kremlin will invest further to support Dodon, who has expanded but not yet solidified his grip on power. Russia is prioritizing investments in areas that will help Dodon secure broader support, such as in energy, infrastructure, and trade. Dodon is already championing Russian infrastructure loans as a means of creating employment opportunities for Moldovans.[40]

Russia will also double down on its information campaign to discredit Sandu. Dodon is already framing Sandu as incompetent during her five months as prime minister. Dodon blamed Sandu for deliberately provoking a crisis to distract from her “erroneous and ineffective” policies.[41] Russia has focused on a similar campaign in Ukraine, where the Kremlin sought to discredit Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ahead of the 2019 Presidential Election in Ukraine.[42] Russia will increase its efforts to regain a media presence in Moldova as Dodon prepares for presidential elections scheduled to take place in 2020. The Kremlin will likely attempt to pressure Moldova to lift the existing ban on Russian broadcasting.

Russia’s campaign in Moldova has vulnerabilities, however. Dodon does not have full support in the parliament and is dependent on a former rival party, PDM. Sandu’s ACUM openly opposes Dodon. PDM’s support for Dodon against ACUM was a transactional rather than a principled alignment with Dodon. There is no guarantee that PDM will vote for policies that do not directly benefit its interests or if the West is able to change PDM’s calculus. Russia will thus likely have difficulties passing major legislation in the short term. Russia will therefore focus on the aforementioned operational goals while it works to rebuild its influence networks and Dodon’s power.

Dodon will need to deliver for multiple constituencies to maintain political support. There is no guarantee that Dodon and his cabinet will be effective. Dodon raised the bar for his own performance by framing Sandu as an incompetent leader. Dodon and Chicu also made a number of ambitious promises, including a goal to increase social spending, raise pensions and salaries, complete justice system reform, attract investment, and fix roads throughout the country. Russia will need to increase its financial investment to help Dodon’s fulfill these promises to his constituencies and to generate concrete results from Dodon’s government work. Russia also needs to rebuild its influence over the information space – which Russia might not be able to do at the required speed – to provide political cover for Dodon’s potential failures.

Sandu could potentially come back as a strong opponent in the 2020 presidential race. Sandu may be temporarily weakened, but she can leverage the narrative of being the only non-corrupt candidate who did not attempt to cling to power and did not back down on judicial reform efforts. There is also a possibility in the future of an alliance between PDM and ACUM that could significantly change the balance of power.

Finally, Moldova’s political landscape is more nuanced than a simple “pro-Russia” and “pro-West” bifurcation. Dodon has a domestic political agenda and seeks to balance relationships with Russia and the West. Dodon has recently reinforced his commitment to the EU association agreement. Moldova also benefits from Western aid and trade, while a larger portion of the population – constituencies that Dodon cannot ignore – prefers the EU over the EEU.

Russia will likely expand its military posture in Moldova if the Kremlin succeeds in solidifying its gains in Moldova. This outcome would put additional pressure on NATO and Ukraine. ISW assessed previously that the Kremlin is working to expand and potentially link its military influence across states in its closest orbit – within and among Belarus, Moldova, and the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.[43] A special status in Transnistria will de facto legitimize Russia’s principle of illegal military intervention in a sovereign state, which would set an international precedent. Success in Moldova will accelerate Putin’s efforts to regain dominant influence in Belarus and Ukraine. The Kremlin is using Moldova as a test case of its ability to legitimize its clients via nominal alignment with the West. It is also testing a blueprint it could use in other places, most immediately in Ukraine.

[1] “Moldovan Constitutional Court Suspends President For Fifth Time,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, December 18, 2018,
[2] Dodon’s PSRM party and the PDM party previously led by Plahotniuc supported the no-confidence motion, while ACUM boycotted the vote and the minority Sor party abstained, passing the motion with 66 of 101 votes. Alexander Tanas, “Moldova’s Fledgling Government Brought Down by No Confidence Vote,” Reuters, November 12, 2019,; [“Moldovan Parliament Passes Vote of No Confidence in Sandu Government,”] Sputnik Moldova, November 12, 2019, https://sputnik((.))by/politics/20191112/1043216670/Parlament-Moldovy-vynes-votum-nedoveriya-pravitelstvu-Sandu.html.
[3] The Moldovan Cabinet of Ministers, led by PM Sandu, announced a planned amendment authorizing the PM to nominate candidates for the Prosecutor General position to the High Council of Prosecutors before approval by the president on November 6. Sandu and Justice Minister Olesea Stamate claimed PSRM members on the selection panel would “rig” the appointment of a new Prosecutor General in order to ensure a political appointee, necessitating an amendment changing the process. Sandu likely viewed the elimination of PSRM control of the Moldovan prosecution system as a necessary condition for further anti-corruption efforts. [“Maia Sandu’s Government Fell: 63 Deputies Vote of No Confidence,”] Sputnik Moldova, November 13, 2019, https://ru.sputnik((.))md/infographics/20191112/28178068/pravitelstvo-maia-sandu-palo-63-deputata-vyrazili-votum-nedoveriya.html; Madalin Necsutu, “Moldovan Socialists Topple Govt in No-Confidence Vote,” Balkan Insight, November 12, 2019,; [“Sandu Went to the World – That She Suggested that the Coalition Not Break Up,”] Sputnik Moldova, November 11, 2019, https://ru.sputnik((.))md/politics/20191111/28160602/sandu-poshla-na-mirovuyu-chto-ona-predlozhila-chtoby-koalitsiya-ne-raspalas.html; “Moldova’s Fledgling Government Brought Down by No Confidence Vote,” Reuters, November 12, 2019,
[4] [“The New Government of Moldova,”] Sputnik Moldova, November 14, 2019, https://ru((.))
[5] [“Will Democrats Support Chicu’s Candidacy as Moldovan Prime Minister,”] Sputnik Moldova, November 14, 2019, https://ru((.))
[6] Julia Semenova, [“A New Prosecutor General Appeared in Moldova,”] Deutsche Welle, November 29, 2019 https://www(.)
[7] Corneliu Popovich, a former advisor to Dodon, was named Minister of Education. Fadey Nagachevsky, a former party lawyer for PSRM, was appointed Minister of Justice. Aureliu Ciocoi, Dodon’s former Ambassador to Germany and former adviser for foreign policy, was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs & EU Integration. Viorica Dumbraveanu, the new Minister of Health, Labor and Social Protection, was formerly Dodon’s advisor on the same issues. Ion Perju, Dodon’s former advisor on agro-industrial and public administration issues, was named Minister of Agriculture. Sergey Pushcuta, the new Vice Premier, Minister of Finance, was a financial advisor to Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin (Communist Party) in 2009. Fadey Nagachevsky, the new Minister of Justice, was a PSRM lawyer and former advisor to Speaker of the Parliament Zinaida Greceanii (PSRM). Of the ten new key ministers seven are former presidential advisors, two are former Dodon appointees, and the last one was a PSRM lawyer and adviser to Zinaida Greceanii. [“Everything About the Ministers of Ion Chicu’s Government,”] Sputnik Moldova, November 27, 2019, https://ru(.)
[8] [“Moldovan Defense Minister Gaiciuc: Militants in the Donbass are Heroes, and the APU Will Never Defeat Them,”] Dialogue UA, November 19, 2019, https://www((.))
[9] Anatol Usatii, the new Minister of Economy and Infrastructure, was appointed by Dodon for his former position as Deputy Minister for Regional Development. Alexandru Flenchea, the new Deputy Minister for Reintegration, was previously appointed to be the head of the Bureau for Reintegration Policy. [“Everything About the Ministers of Ion Chicu’s Government,”] Sputnik Moldova, November 27, 2019, https://ru(.)
[10] “Socialist Ceban Elected New Mayor of Chisinau in Runoff,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 4, 2019,
[11] PSRM won the most regional centers out of all of Moldova’s political parties. PSRM won eight regional centers, primarily on the northern and eastern borders. PSRM took control in Briceni, Ocnita, Soroca, Floresti, Criuleni, Chisinau, Anenii Noi, and Gagauzia. “Socialist Ceban Elected New Mayor of Chisinau in Runoff,” RFERL, November 4, 2019,; [“Most Municipalities and District Centers, Won by PSRM, PN, and Independent Candidates,”] Unimedia, November 4, 2019, https://unimedia((.))info/ro/news/4aff2a7f6f32c831/infografic-cele-mai-multe-municipii-si-centre-raionale-castigate-de-psrm-pn-si-candidatii-independenti.html.
[12] Plahotniuc’s PDM party, which opposed the Kremlin largely to protect its own business interests, lost its parliamentary majority in February 2019. Russian Deputy PM Dmitry Kozak directly urged PSRM to enter coalition with the pro-EU ACUM. Plahotniuc fled Moldova under Russian and Western pressure in June 2019 after failing to use his influence to force Moldova’s courts to declare the new coalition government unconstitutional. Darina Regio and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Opportunity in Moldova,” Institute for the Study of War, June 24, 2019,
[13] This is the sourcing for the Moldova graphic.
  1. “Moldova Official: Russia Meddling in Presidential Race,” VOA News, October 4, 2016,
  2. Matthias Williams, “Moldova Bars Officials from Visiting Russia Citing "Abuse" Campaign,” Reuters, March 9, 2017,
  3. “Moldova Declares Russian Deputy PM Rogozin Persona Non Grata,” RFE/RL, August 2, 2017,
  4. Matthias Williams, “Exclusive: Russian Diplomats Expelled from Moldova Recruited Fighters – Sources,” Reuters, June 13, 2017,; “Moscow Threat as Moldova Expels Five Russian Diplomats,” BBC, May 30, 2017,
  5. Madalin Necsutu, “Moldova Extends Entry Ban on Russian Journalists,” Balkan Insight, November 29, 2017, https((:))//; “Two Russian TV Film Crews Refused Entry To Moldova,” Tass, February 19, 2019, https((:))//
  6. Liliana Barbarosie and Robert Coalson, “Banning Russian TV, Moldova Is Latest Hot Spot Fighting Kremlin Disinformation,” RFE/RL, February 1, 2018,
  7. “Prime Minister Of Moldova Calls For Withdrawal Of Russian Troops From Transnistria,” Tass, February 17, 2018, https((:))// 
  8. “General Assembly Adopts Texts Urging Troop Withdraw from Republic of Moldova, Strengthening Cooperation in Central Asia,” United Nations Press Office, June 22, 2018,
  9.  “Moldova Mulls New Gas Contract with Romania, Not Russia,” AP News, August 21, 2018,
  10. “Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia to Create Platform for Studying Russia’s Influence on Population in Occupied Territories,” Ukrinform, November 14, 2018, https://www((.)) 
  11. [“Report of the Commission of Inquiry on the Open Dialog Case Published,”] MoldPres, December 17, 2018, https((:))//
  12. “Moldovan Court Suspends President in Political Standoff,” U.S. News, September 24, 2018,; “Moldovan Constitutional Court Suspends President for Fifth Time,” RFE/RL, December 18, 2018,
  13. Darina Regio and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Opportunity in Moldova,” Institute for the Study of War, June 24, 2019,
  14. [“Medvedev and Dodon had a Constructive Conversation,”] Sputnik Moldova, June 21, 2019, https(:)//
  15. [“Dodon met with Kozak, Patrushev, and Karasin,”] Igor Dodon Facebook, June 24, 2019,
  16. [“Zinaida Greceanii Spoke at a Meeting of the State Duma of the Russian Federation,”] Arguments Facts, June 27, 2019,
  17. [“Dodon Promised to Appoint Co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Commission of Russia and Moldova,”] NOI Moldova, June 21, 2019, https((:))// 
  18. [“Sergei Shoigu's Visit to Moldova Proved That An Unofficial Tripartite Contract Is Valid,”] Vedomosti Moldova, August 29, 2019, http://www((.))
  19. Мikhail Kosov, [“Moldova-Russia: Reloading Relations,”] Komsomolskaya Pravda, September 24, 2019. https(:)//
  20. [“Meeting with President of Moldova Igor Dodon,”] Kremlin, September 7, 2019, http(:)//
  21. [“Russia and Moldova signed eight agreements under the MREF,”] Izvestiya, September 22, 2019, https((:))//; [“What Ended the Second Russia-Moldova Economic Forum,”] Sputnik Moldova, September 22, 2019, https://ru((.)); [“Partnership Without Borders: Results of the Second Moldovan-Russian Economic Forum,”], September 22, 2019, https(:)//
  22. [“Moldovan Parliament Voted To Resign Sandu Government,”] Tass, November 12, 2019, https((:))//
  23. [“Moldovan Government Swore Oath: What the New Prime Minister Said,”] Sputnik Moldova, November 14, 2019, https(:)//
  24. [“Moldovan Prime Minister Pays First Visit to Moscow: Agenda and Plans,”]Sputnik Moldova, November 11, 2019, https(:)//
  25. [“Gazprom Cuts Gas Price for Moldova by 26%,”] NV Ukraine, November 21, 2019, https://nv((.))ua/biz/markets/cena-gaza-rossiya-snizila-cenu-na-gaz-dlya-moldovy-novosti-mira-50054804.html; “Moldova’s New Cabinet Sets Course for Mending Strategic Relations with Russia — President,” Tass, November 20, 2019, https://tass(.)com/politics/1091311.
  26. [“Zinaida Greceanii Met in St. Petersburg with Valentina Matvienko,”] Accent TV, November 21, 2019, http(:)//
  27. [“Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev Holds Bilateral Meetings With Secretaries Of Security Councils Of Several CIS Countries,”] Security Council of the Russian Federation, November 20, 2019, http(:)//
  28. “Moldovan President Invites Putin to Visit Chisinau,” Tass, November 21, 2019, https(:)//
  29. “Moldova, Eyeing Russia Loan, May 'Pause' Cooperation with IMF: PM,” Reuters, November 26, 2019,      
[14] [“Medvedev at a Meeting With Chicu: ‘I Hope That Moldova and Russia Will Be Able To Catch Up All The Same Opportunities’,”] Komsomolskaya Pravda, November 20, 2019, https://www((.)); [“Sputnik Exclusive: Prime Minister Ion Chicu On How Negotiations Were Held In Russia,”] Sputnik Moldova, November 20, 2019, https://ru((.))
[15] [“Chicu: Moldova Will Soon Turn Into A Large Construction Site,”] Sputnik Moldova, November 20, 2019, https://ru((.))
[16] [“Kozak: The Price Of Russian Gas For Moldova From 2020 Will Drop To $173 Per Thousand Cubic Meters,”] Sputnik Moldova, November 20, 2019, https://ru((.))
[17] [“Dodon Said That The Russian Federation Is Ready To Expand The List Of Non-Taxable Goods From Moldova,”] Tass, November 20, 2019, https://tass((.))ru/ekonomika/7166513; “Moldova’s New Cabinet Sets Course For Mending Strategic Relations With Russia — President,” Tass, November 20, 2019, https://tass((.))com/politics/1091311; [“Moldovan Prime Minister Summarizes The Visit To Moscow,”] Gagauziya Radio Televizionu, November 21, 2019, https://grt((.))md/news/2019/11/21/%D0%BC%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%B4%D0%B0%D0%B2%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B8%D0%B9-%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%BC%D1%8C%D0%B5%D1%80-%D0%BF%D0%BE%D0%B4%D0%B2%D0%B5%D0%BB-%D0%B8%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%B3%D0%B8-%D0%B2%D0%B8%D0%B7%D0%B8/.
[18] Alexander Tanas and Pavel Polityuk, “Moldova, Eyeing Russia Loan, May 'Pause' Cooperation With IMF: PM,” Reuters, November 26, 2019,
[19] Alexander Isaev, [“ Chisinau Mayor Ion Ceban Meets With Russian Ambassador to Moldova,”] Sputnik Moldova, November 11, 2019, https(:)//; [“Ceban Met With Russian Ambassador To Moldova,”] Ion Ceban, November 13, 2019, https(:)//
[20] Oxana Serban, [“Ion Ceban and Sergei Sobyanin Agree to Renew Cooperation Agreement Between Chisinau and Moscow,”] TV 8 Moldova, November 29, 2019, http(:)//; [“We Will Adopt Many Projects: Ceban Told Sputnik About His Visit to Moscow,”] Sputnik Moldova, November 29, 2019, https(:)//
[21] Andrey Petrik, [“How Moscow Will Help Chisinau: Ceban and Sobyanin Meet in Russia,”] Sputnik Moldova, November 28, 2019, https((:))//
[22] [“Moldova Is Ready For Active Work Within The CIS and EAEU,”] Rhythm of Eurasia, November 22, 2019, https://www((.)); Alexander Isaev, [“Zinaida Greceanii Met With Valentina Matvienko At The IPA CIS Session,”] Sputnik Moldova, November 21, 2019, https://ru((.))
[23] [“Moldova Is Ready For Active Work Within The CIS and EAEU,”] Rhythm of Eurasia, November 22, 2019, https://www((.))
[24] The Eurasian Development Bank is a regional development bank established by the Kremlin in 2006. Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are the member states. [“Dodon: Moldova Will Discuss The Possibility Of Joining The Eurasian Development Bank,”] Eurasian Development Bank, November 29, 2019, https(:)//
[25] “Moldovan President Says Russia Has Made 'First Step' Toward Troop Withdrawal,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 2, 2019,
[26] [“Moldovan President Proposes To Annul Transnistria's Gas Debt Of $6.2 Billion,”] Interfax Ukraine, November 22, 2019, https://interfax((.))
[27] [“Secretary Of The Security Council Of The Russian Federation Signed A Cooperation Plan With Colleagues From The CIS,”] Rhythm of Eurasia, November 21, 2019, https://www((.))
[28] [“Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation: From Today, Bilateral Relations are Unfrozen,”] Sputnik Moldova, June 24, 2019, https((:))//
[29] [“Dodon: Russian Ministry of Defense is Preparing a Plan of Cooperation with the Defense Department of Moldova,”] Publika, August 27, 2019, https://ru((.))
[30] [“Moldova Lifts Ban On Russia Trips For Deputies And Officials,”] Radio Sputnik, Sputnik Moldova, July 29, 2019. https(:)//
[31] Zinaida Greceanîi, [“Zinaida Greceanîi Addressed Deputies of the Russian State Duma.”] Sputnik Moldova, June 27, 2019. https(:)//
[32] [“MREF-2019: The First Agreements Between The Regions of Russia and Moldova Are Signed.”] Sputnik Moldova, September 20, 2019, https(:)//; [“Partnership Without Borders: Results of the Second Moldovan-Russian Economic Forum,”], September 21, 2019, https(:)//
[33] [“Dodon Will Seek to Restore the Broadcasting of Russian Television Channels,”] Ren, July 31, 2019, http://ren(.)tv/novosti/2019-07-31/dodon-budet-dobivatsya-vosstanovleniya-veshchaniya-rossiyskih-telekanalov.
[34] [“Sergei Shoigu Handed Over To Pavel Voicu The Combat Banners Of The Soldiers Who Liberated Moldova,”] Sputnik Moldova, August 24, 2019, https://ru((.)); [“Secretary Of The Security Council Of The Russian Federation Signed A Cooperation Plan With Colleagues From The CIS,”] Rhythm of Eurasia, November 21, 2019, https://www((.))
[35] Madalin Necsutu, “Romania Opposes Federal Solution to Moldova’s Transnistria Problem,” Balkan Insight, September 26, 2019, https://balkaninsight((.))com/2019/09/26/romania-opposes-federal-solution-to-moldovas-transnistria-problem/.
[36] “Moldova Granted Observer Status In Eurasian Union,” Euractiv, April 19, 2017, https://www((.))
[38] [“First Statements By Prime Minister Ion Chicu - What Will The Government Do,”] Sputnik Moldova, November 14, 2019, https://ru(.)
[39] Nataliya Bugayova and Darina Regio, “Russia in Review: Diversifying Foreign Policy Tools”, Institute for the Study of War, October 1, 2019,
[40] [“Russia will provide Moldova a loan for infrastructure projects,”] Novosti, November 21, 2019, https(:)//; [“Russia Will Provide Moldova With $ 500 Million For Infrastructure Development,”] Eurasian Choice of Moldova and Transnistria, November 21, 2019, https(:)//
[41] Dmitry Olishevsky, [“Dodon Spoke to the Press Regarding the Resignation of the Sandu Government,”] Parliamentary News, November 12, 2019, https://www.pnp((.))ru/in-world/dodon-obratilsya-k-presse-v-svyazi-s-otstavkoy-pravitelstva-sandu.html.
[42] Nataliya Bugayova and Darina Regio, “Russia’s Long View on Ukraine’s Elections,” Institute for the Study of War, April 3, 2019,
[43] Nataliya Bugayova and Mason Clark, “Russia in Review, Military Exercises as Geopolitical Tools,” Institute for the Study of War, September 4, 2019,