Friday, January 29, 2021

Syria Situation Report: January 8-29, 2021

By Isabel Ivanescu

Key Takeaway: Fighting between pro-Assad regime forces and local opposition elements in Dera’a Province is at its most intense since Russia brokered reconciliation agreements between the two factions in 2018. Iranian-backed regime units have surrounded the town of Tafas after suffering several casualties while trying to storm the town. Russia-backed forces have pursued their standard approach, pushing for a negotiated solution while other factions in the pro-regime bloc prepare to use force. There has been an inflection in Russian behavior, however; Russia did not intervene to stop the first assault on the town by Iranian-backed forces and threatened to itself carry out airstrikes in the vicinity if locals refused to turn over individuals wanted by the regime. This may represent a Russian belief that Tafas, a hub of anti-Assad activity, will be less likely to capitulate than other towns in which similar events have previously transpired.

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Thursday, January 28, 2021

Belarus Warning Update: Moscow and Minsk Hold Simultaneous Combat Readiness Exercises in Kaliningrad, Mainland Russia, and Belarus

By George Barros

January 28, 2021, 5:00 pm EDT

Russian Western Military District (WMD) and Belarusian forces began simultaneous, large combat-readiness exercises in Kaliningrad, Belarus, and mainland western Russia on January 25, 2021. The Russian and Belarusian exercises are nominally separate and do not mention any joint activity; however, the exercises’ similarities in timing, geographic proximity, scale, and type of activity in resemblance to previous joint exercises indicate they are likely connected and complimentary.

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Russia’s Western Military District (WMD) began a brigade-sized readiness exercise in Kaliningrad on January 25. Brigade-sized elements (approximately 3,000 personnel) of the Russian Baltic Fleet began comprehensive combat readiness exercises with ground, naval, naval infantry, naval aviation, and air defense units in Kaliningrad on January 25.[1] The Russian Ministry of Defense claims these exercises are preplanned and did not specify their end date. Baltic Fleet exercises have continued through January 28 as of this writing.[2]

The WMD also conducted command and control (C2) and signals exercises across five regions (oblasts) in the WMD on January 25. Roughly reinforced-battalion-sized (approximately 800 personnel) signals elements of the Moscow-based First Tank Army conducted communications and C2 exercises across five unspecified oblasts in the WMD on January 25.[3] Belarus borders three oblasts in the WMD.

Belarus began a snap countrywide readiness exercise on January 25. Unspecified elements of Belarus’ Minsk-based 120th, Slonim-based 11th, and Liepiel-based 19th mechanized brigades; the Vitebsk-based 103rd airborne brigade; and other unspecified Belarusian military units are participating.[4] These ongoing exercises include air, air defense, engineer, signals, and other support units. This snap exercise is likely a large-scale strategic readiness exercise given its size, scope, and that the four of Belarus’ six brigades are participating.[5] The Belarusian Ministry of Defense has not specified where else in Belarus the exercises are occurring, or an end date. 

The WMD began another brigade-sized exercise on January 28. Approximately 3,500 personnel of the Russian 6th Combined Arms Army began exercises in Voronezh, Belgorod, Bryansk, Smolensk, Kursk, and Moscow on January 28.[6] This exercise includes C2, signals, electronic warfare, reconnaissance, and chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense (CBRN) activity. The Russian Ministry of Defense claims this exercise was also preplanned and has not specified when it will end. This exercise is occurring in tandem with the ongoing “preplanned” exercises in Kaliningrad and snap readiness exercises in Belarus. Smolensk and Bryansk border eastern Belarus.

These exercises are likely the January 2021 iteration of the monthly joint Russo-Belarusian exercises and are intended to support Russian-Belarusian military integration at the upcoming Zapad 2021 exercises.[7]

Russian and Belarusian forces have conducted joint military exercises on an almost monthly basis since August 2020.[8] Russian President Vladimir Putin and self-declared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko agreed in September 2020 to hold “almost monthly” joint military exercises in both Belarus and Russia starting in 2021.[9] Western Military District Commander Alexander Zhuravlev said preparations for the Zapad 2021 exercises had already begun in December 2020.[10] A large joint Russian-Belarusian exercise in January 2021 would thus be consistent with the pattern of frequent joint Russian-Belarusian exercises that ISW has observed since August 2020.

The activities from the simultaneous ongoing exercises in Russia and Belarus are consistent with activities from previous observed joint Russian-Belarusian exercises since August 2020.

Russian and Belarusian exercises in January 2021 have similar air defense elements. A battalion-sized air defense element (200 personnel), likely of the Russian Baltic Fleet’s 22nd Anti-Aircraft Missile Regiment, began conducting air defense exercises in Kaliningrad on January 24.[11] This exercise was likely connected to the larger brigade-sized exercise that began on January 25, given their close timing. Unspecified elements of the Belarusian Brest-based 115th Anti-Aircraft Rocket Regiment began air defense exercises as in Brest on January 26 as part of Belarus’ larger snap exercise.[12]

Russian and Belarusian military-technical cooperation since August 2020 has emphasized joint air defense.[13] The Kremlin likely seeks to integrate Belarus’ currently independent air defense systems into Russia’s own national air defense system by leveraging the Zapad 2021 exercises.[14] Nominally independent but effectively joint air defense exercises in Kaliningrad and Brest could help prepare for this assessed effort.

Both Russian and Belarusian exercises in January 2021 have similar C2 and signals elements. The pattern of C2 and signals activities in Belarus and the WMD in these late January exercises is consistent with Belarusian and WMD exercises that also emphasized C2 and signals activity throughout fall 2020.[15]

The Kremlin is likely intensifying its operational security to obfuscate its efforts to integrate Belarus’ military into Russia’s. A Kremlin information operation is likely framing these complementary and simultaneous Russian-Belarusian exercises as “independent.” The Kremlin deliberately misrepresented its snap exercises with Belarus in fall 2020 by branding them as “preplanned exercises” to create a false sense of normality.[16]

Minsk’s assertion that Belarusian exercises are “snap” against the Russian claims that WMD exercises are “preplanned” may indicate a Belarusian effort to resist a Kremlin information operation or a lack of information operation coordination. It is also possible that the exercises are unconnected, though that is unlikely given the exercises’ strong correlations and consistency with previously observed patterns of activity.

Forecast: The Zapad 2021 exercises will likely support Putin’s efforts to establish a continuous Russian military presence in Belarus. Zapad 2021 will emphasize the logistical activities necessary to establish supply lines that could support a sustained Russian presence in Belarus. Kremlin-linked newspaper Izvestia reported that Zapad 2021 participants—likely Russian WMD logistics units—will establish a special logistics base to supply troops participating in Zapad 2021 with fuel, lubricants, food, and other materials.[17] This revelation is the latest in a series of indicators of Russia setting conditions to create supply lines to Belarus to support a permanent or near-permanent deployment.[18] The Russian Ministry of Defense announced exercises to transport ammunition and fuel closer to Belarus in early October 2020, for example.[19]

ISW will continue monitoring the situation and providing updates.


[1] dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12341121@egNews; dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12341121@egNews; dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12340594@egNews; dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12340792@egNews; dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12341172@egNews

[2] dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12341121@egNews

[3] dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12340507@egNews

[4] dot by/ru/news/109800/; dot by/ru/news/109816/; dot by/ru/news/109859/; dot by/ru/news/109916/; dot by/ru/news/109867/; https://1reg dot by/2021/01/26/puskovyie-ustanovki-pod-brestom-pereveli-v-boevoe-polozhenie/

[5] Belarus’ likely principle maneuver units are the 6th, 11th, 19th, 120th, 103rd, and 38th brigades. 

[6] dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12341119@egNews

[7] https://actualnews dot org/exclusive/379417-the-national-interest-rossija-gotovitsja-k-voennomu-triumfu-v-baltijskom-regione.html



[10] dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12332338@egNews

[11] https://radiosputnik.ria dot ru/20210124/kaliningrad-1594373776.html; https://eadaily dot com/ru/news/2021/01/24/v-kaliningrade-gotovyatsya-otrazit-uslovnyy-raketnyy-udar-protivnika; https://klops dot ru/news/2021-01-25/227035-sistemy-s-400-triumf-i-kompleksy-pantsir-s-1-v-kaliningradskoy-oblasti-prohodyat-ucheniya-baltflota

[12] https://1reg dot by/2021/01/26/puskovyie-ustanovki-pod-brestom-pereveli-v-boevoe-polozhenie/





[17] https://iz dot ru/1115704/roman-kretcul-aleksei-ramm/armeiskaia-druzhba-rossiia-i-belorussiia-provedut-rekordnoe-chislo-uchenii





Thursday, January 14, 2021

Belarus Warning Update: Belarus Confirms Plans to Purchase Advanced Air Defense Systems from Russia

January 14, 2021 2:30 EDT

By George Barros

The Kremlin will likely employ Russian S-400 advanced air defense systems in Belarus as ISW forecasted. The commander of Belarus’ Air Force and Air Defense Forces announced on January 14, 2020, that the Belarusian Defense Ministry (MoD) is conducting pre-contract work to equip Belarus’ anti-aircraft missile divisions that currently operate the S-300 system with S-400 and Pantsir-S systems.[1] ISW first warned of this threat in August 2020, after the MoD reportedly signed a contract for cooperation on air defense systems with the holding company for the manufacturers of the Russian S-300, S-400, and S-500 air defense systems.[2]

Belarus’ acquisition of S-400 systems poses a significant threat to US national security. The Kremlin likely seeks to integrate Belarus’ currently independent air defense systems into Russia’s own national air defense system, which would give Moscow control over their employment.[3] The Kremlin likely seeks to deploy new and control existing anti-access/area denial weapon systems in Belarus to contest NATO and Eastern European airspace more than it already does with systems deployed in Kaliningrad.[4] Such integration would degrade NATO’s ability to defend the Baltics—a risk ISW forecasted in September 2020.[5]

The Kremlin will likely use the upcoming Zapad 2021 exercise in September 2021 to further consolidate Russian control over Belarus’ anti-access/area denial systems. Russia’s next annual capstone strategic readiness exercise—Zapad 2021—will likely emphasize Russian-Belarusian air defense integration. Belarusian air and air defense forces conducted joint training emphasizing using “new and modernized weapons” to defend against precision weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles on January 14.[6] The MoD explicitly said the experience gained from this January 14 training will be used in joint exercises with Russian units during Zapad 2021.[7] Russia’s Western Military District (WMD) will likely conduct Zapad 2021 in western Russia and Belarus.[8] ISW warned in December 2020 that the Kremlin would likely use the Zapad 2021 exercise to further integrate Russian and Belarusian military units at deep levels.[9]

The Kremlin may field S-400 systems in Belarus before September 2021. The MoD’s confirmation of “new and modernized” air defense systems’ role in Zapad 2021 coincided with its confirmation of plans to purchase Russian S-400 systems. This coincidence may indicate that Moscow seeks to equip Belarusian air defense units with S-400 systems before September 2021 so Belarusian and Russian air defense units—both equipped with S-400 systems—can participate in an integrated fashion during Zapad 2021.

Russian security personnel in unmarked uniforms are reportedly operating in Belarus. A Belarussian protester claimed unmarked Russian personnel detained and beat him in Minsk on December 20, 2020.[10] The protester claimed that during his detention an unmarked Russian security agent said, “I came here from Moscow to help,” and, “Pray that Belarusian riot police detain you, and not us. Because we will simply kill you.”[11]

This testimony follows a series of indicators of Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) preparations to operate in Belarus. Unmarked Rosgvardia trucks reportedly were spotted in Smolensk heading toward the Belarusian Border on August 16, 2020.[12] Security personnel wearing unmarked uniforms appeared in Minsk for the first time on September 5, 2020.[13] Elements of two Rosgvardia units deployed to Minsk on September 28–October 3, 2020, for a small arms military sports tournament that was effectively a series of tactical exercises with Belarusian special forces.[14] Rosgvardia and the Belarusian Interior Ministry ratified a cooperation agreement on November 19, 2020, permitting Rosgvardia personnel to operate in Belarus.[15] The Kremlin already may have deployed Rosgvardia personnel to Belarus to augment Belarusian security forces, which are operating at reduced strength following a steady trickle of personnel resignations since the crisis began in August 2020.[16]

ISW will continue monitoring the situation and providing updates.


[1] https://www.belta dot by/society/view/armija-vypolnit-ljubuju-zadachu-dlja-sohranenija-territorialnoj-tselostnosti-strany-golub-424021-2021/; https://www.interfax dot ru/world/745186; https://russian.rt dot com/ussr/news/822235-belorussiya-kompleksy-s-400;





[6] dot by/ru/news/109473/

[7] dot by/ru/news/109473/








[15] An official Belarusian legal portal did not publish this document until December 18, 2020. https://pravo dot by/document/?guid=12551&p0=I02000029&p1=1&p5=0

[16] https://t dot me/By_Pol/146;;;



Monday, January 11, 2021

Syria Situation Report: December 16, 2020 - January 7, 2021

By Isabel Ivanescu

Key Takeaway: Salafi-jihadist organizations in Syria are growing more ambitious. Both ISIS and Hurras al-Din have recently carried out attacks in Turkish-controlled areas in which they had not previously been active. While these attacks were fairly ineffective, they demonstrate intent and capacity to expand operations. Meanwhile, ISIS carried out two ambushes of regime forces in Deir ez-Zour Province that resulted in dozens of casualties. ISIS and Hurras al-Din are well postured to exploit security gaps in both Turkish- and regime-controlled areas and will likely do so in the coming year.

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