Friday, July 9, 2021

Russia in Review: June 23 – July 6

  By Mason Clark

July 8, 2021

ISW has revamped its Russia in Review product to provide more-complete snapshots of Russian activity around the globe.

Russian Navy Increases Number of Aggressive Actions to Counter NATO Exercises and Freedom of Maneuver Operations in the Black Sea

NATO is currently conducting its largest-ever Black Sea naval exercises to strengthen maritime collective defense and resist Russian efforts to limit international access to the Black Sea. Sea Breeze 2021 is the largest iteration yet of NATO’s annual Sea Breeze exercises, held in the Black Sea since 1997 to strengthen interoperability between NATO and partner navies. The United States and Ukraine are cohosting the ongoing Sea Breeze 2021 exercise, which runs from June 28 to July 10, in the Black Sea.[1] NATO explicitly intends Sea Breeze 2021 to “demonstrate presence and assure allies of [NATO’s] maritime commitment to collective defense.” The exercises involve 32 states, 5,000 personnel, 32 ships, and 40 aircraft.[2] Participating warships and personnel will practice multiple types of operations, including amphibious warfare, maritime interdiction, air defense, and anti-submarine warfare.[3]

The Kremlin decries Sea Breeze 2021 as a NATO provocation and violation of Russian waters and is conducting several naval exercises in response. Five Russian warships in Russia’s Mediterranean Taskforce, including the missile cruiser and Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva, the frigates Admiral Essen and Admiral Makarov, and two submarines began exercises in the Mediterranean Sea on June 25.[4] The exercises practiced repelling simulated air attacks and defending Russia’s naval base in Tartus, Syria. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, based in Crimea, began conducting air defense training checks on June 29 (the day after the start of Sea Breeze 2021) including several S-400 and Pantsir air defense systems and 20 aircraft.[5] The Moskva and Admiral Essen redeployed from the Mediterranean to Crimea on June 5 to replenish supplies and join these ongoing Black Sea Fleet training checks.[6] The Russian Black Sea Fleet and Mediterranean Task Force will likely continue to hold exercises parallel to Sea Breeze 2021 to demonstrate Russian capabilities and imply limits on NATO freedom of action in the Black Sea.

The Kremlin increased its aggressive responses to NATO and Ukrainian actions in international waters in June prior to Sea Breeze 2021. The Kremlin claimed its forces fired warning shots and dropped bombs near the Royal Navy’s HMS Defender while it conducted a freedom of navigation operation off the shore of occupied Crimea on June 23.[7] The United Kingdom denied Russian claims of bombing the HMS Defender and asserted the United Kingdom’s freedom of navigation rights near Crimea.[8] Russian aircraft have shadowed NATO warships in the Black Sea throughout June, and the Kremlin likely used electronic warfare to falsify the locations of several NATO warships in late June, making them appear to be violating Russia’s claimed territorial waters.[9]

Expanded NATO exercises and freedom of maneuver missions are necessary to support US partners in the Black Sea region and counter the Kremlin’s illegal efforts to limit international access to the Black Sea. The Kremlin seeks to limit Ukraine and NATO’s freedom of action in the Black Sea to cement Russian dominance over this region and pressure US allies including Ukraine, Georgia, and Turkey. The Russian Navy has expanded its aggressive actions in the Black Sea in 2021 and intends to normalize Russian dominance over international waters in violation of international law.

  1. The European Union (EU) rejected a Franco-German proposal to hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. France and Germany submitted a proposal to the European Council on June 23, 2021, without advance notice, calling for a summit between EU leadership and Putin to develop closer EU-Russia engagement.[10]  The European Council rejected this proposal during a private meeting on June 25, instead issuing a joint statement calling on Russia to “demonstrate a more constructive engagement” as a condition of further EU outreach.[11]  Central and Eastern European states—particularly Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania—publicly decried France and Germany’s call for closer relations with Russia as a dangerous concession in the absence of changes to Russia’s malign actions in Europe.[12]  French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated their intent to meet with Putin independently of the EU following the June 25 European Council summit.[13]  Macron directly called for a “structured dialogue” with Russia during a call with Putin on July 2.[14]  Direct engagement with the Kremlin by EU members without substantial changes in Russian malign behavior will undermine collective European policies and further embolden Putin to act without fear of repercussions.
  2. Belarus withdrew from the EU's Eastern Partnership cooperation initiative after the EU levied sectoral sanctions against Belarus. The EU approved sectoral sanctions against the Belarusian economy on June 24 in response to Belarus' grounding of Ryanair flight 4978 on May 23.[15]  Belarus suspended its participation in the EU’s Eastern Partnership Initiative—an EU framework to promote trade, travel agreements, and democracy between Western Europe and former Soviet states, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—in response on June 28.[16]  EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated the EU is ready to continue working with the “Belarusian people” despite the Belarusian government’s withdrawal from the Eastern Partnership, likely through communication with exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.[17]  The Kremlin will likely take advantage of Belarus’ increasing isolation from non-Russian partners to further isolate Belarus and integrate it into Russian-controlled structures.[18]
  3. Russia and China signed a five-year extension to the Sino-Russian friendship treaty. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a five-year extension of the Sino-Russian Treaty on Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation (signed in 2001) on June 28.[19]  Putin praised the agreement for reaffirming mutual support for protecting “state unity and territorial integrity,” (referencing Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea) and the rejection of the first use of nuclear weapons. Putin claimed that joint Sino-Russian economic projects and Sino-Russian cooperation have a stabilizing role in world affairs, highlighting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS, and Sino-Russian cooperation in the Korean Peninsula, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran. President Xi Jinping praised Sino-Russian efforts to build a multipolar world order and said he appreciated that Russia and China support each other's interests on the international stage. The Kremlin continues to be threatened by rising Chinese power but will increasingly seek to selectively leverage China against US efforts to counter Russia’s aggressive foreign policy.
  4. The Russian Pacific Fleet was highly active during June 2021. The Russian Pacific Fleet conducted its largest naval exercises since the Cold War in the central Pacific Ocean and near Hawaii from June 14 to 30, practicing the simulated destruction of an enemy carrier strike group and strikes against shore facilities.[20]  Approximately 20 warships participated, including the missile cruiser Varyag (the Pacific Fleet’s flagship), two destroyers, three corvettes, a missile-tracking ship, an unspecified number of submarines and support vessels, and at least 20 aircraft. A US Navy Indo-Pacific Command spokesperson said some of the Russian vessels operated 20 to 30 nautical miles off the coast of Hawaii.[21]  The US scrambled F-22 fighters in Hawaii on June 14, likely in response to this Russian activity.[22]  The Russian MoD additionally announced on June 29 that the Russian Pacific Fleet will expand the infrastructure at its Kamchatka submarine base by the end of 2021.[23]  The Russian Navy is increasing its power projection capabilities in the Pacific to support the Kremlin’s campaign to expand its global military footprint.
  5. The Kremlin likely continued to pressure Belarus for additional concessions on Russo-Belarusian government integration. Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikita Patrushev—a senior Kremlin security official close to Vladimir Putin—and self-declared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko discussed Russo-Belarusian security cooperation issues “not subject to public disclosure” in Minsk on June 29.[24]  Lukashenko atypically declined to make any public statement on the meeting. The unusually sensitive nature of their conversation indicates they likely discussed Russo-Belarusian security and military integration. Senior Russian-Belarusian meetings at this level have historically precipitated significant Belarusian security integration concessions and new deals for the Kremlin.[25]  Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko held another call on July 1, discussing further security and economic cooperation.[26]  The Kremlin is continuing to advance its campaign to establish a permanent military presence in Belarus postured against NATO and Ukraine.[27] 
  6. Russian President Vladimir Putin approved an increasingly combative National Security Strategy (NSS) that removed all mention of cooperation with the West. Putin approved the new NSS on July 3, replacing the existing NSS written in 2015.[28]  The new NSS paints an increasingly alarmed picture of perceived Western threats. The NSS increases formal emphasis on protecting Russia’s “cultural sovereignty” and traditional values against perceived Western pressure, policy changes the Kremlin has prioritized since 2015. The NSS removes all references to cooperation with the United States and NATO, as well as specific arms control and nuclear non-proliferation objectives previously included in the 2015 strategy. Much of the strategy remains the same from 2015, and the Kremlin has already enacted many of the policy changes and adaptations formalized in this document.[29]  The Kremlin’s formalization of its defensive worldview and removal of all mentions of cooperation with the West indicate an increasingly combative mindset that is unlikely to respond to Western outreach or strategic dialogue in good faith.
  7. Tajikistan will mobilize military reservists to the Afghan border with Kremlin promises of support. Tajik President Emomali Ramhmon ordered the mobilization of 20,000 reservists to support ongoing military deployments to Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan on July 5 in response to Taliban advances in Afghanistan.[30]  Putin promised his counterparts from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan support from the Russian military both bilaterally and through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) on July 6.[31]  The Russian Foreign Ministry further stated Russia’s 201st military base in Tajikistan— Russia’s only formal international military base—is equipped with “everything necessary” to support Tajikistan if required.[32]  The Kremlin will likely increase its military presence in Central Asia to counter the potential threat of a jihadist resurgence in Afghanistan. The Kremlin will also prioritize maintaining its dominant influence in Central Asia and advancing its unitary security interests; its deployments to the area are unlikely to effectively replace NATO security operations in Afghanistan.



[1] “U.S. Sixth Fleet Announces Sea Breeze 2021 Participation,” US Navy, June 21, 2021,

[2] The states participating in Sea Breeze 2021 include Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, France, Georgia, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Morocco, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Senegal, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and the United States.

[3] “NATO Allies and Partners Ready for Exercise Sea Breeze 2021,” Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, June 25, 2021,

[4] [“Ships of the Russian Navy repelled an Attack of a Mock Enemy During Exercises in the Mediterranean Sea,”] TASS, June 27, 2021, https://tass dot ru/armiya-i-opk/11765763.

[5] [“Pilots of the Naval Aviation of the Black Sea Fleet and Aviation of the Southern Military District Checked the Air Defense System of Crimea,”] Russian MoD, June 29, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12369232@egNews.

[6] [“Guards Missile Cruiser ‘Moskva’ and frigate ‘Admiral Essen’ of the Black Sea Fleet are Returning from the Mediterranean Sea,”] Russian MoD, July 5, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12370157@egNews.

[7] “Russian Border Guards to Continue Thwarting Provocations in the Black Sea – Kremlin,” TASS, June 24, 2021, https://tass dot com/politics/1306799; “Any Actions Possible in Response to Provocations Violating Russian Borders, Says Kremlin,” TASS, June 24, 2021, https://tass dot com/politics/1306821.

[8] Ben Wallace, “Exercises In the Black Sea,” UK Parliament, June 24, 2021,

[9] “Black Sea Fleet Monitor US Destroyer Entering Black Sea – Russian Defense Ministry,” TASS, June 26, 2021, https://tass dot com/defense/1307593; H I Sutton, “Positions of Two NATO Ships Were Falsified Near Russian Black Sea Naval Base,” USNI News, June 21, 2021,

[10] Sam Fleming, Valentina Pop, Mehreen Khan, Michael Peel, Henry Foy, and Victor Mallet, “Berlin and Paris Propose Reset for EU Relations with Moscow,” Financial Times, June 23, 2021,

[11] European Council Conclusions on External Relations, 24 June 2021,” European Council of the European Union,  June 24, 2021, https://www.consilium.europa dot eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/06/25/european-council-conclusions-on-external-relations-24-june-2021/.

[12] “European Council Conclusions on External Relations, 24 June 2021,” European Council of the European Union,  June 24, 2021, https://www.consilium.europa dot eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/06/25/european-council-conclusions-on-external-relations-24-june-2021/; Sabine Siebold, Robin Emmott, and Gabriela Baczynska, “France and Germany Drop Russia Summit Plan after EU's East Objects,” Reuters, June 25, 2021,; “Kremlin 'Regrets' EU Rejection Of Proposed Summit With Putin,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, June 25, 2021

[13] David Herszenhorn, “Summit Exposes Stark Clash of EU Views on Russia,” Politico, June 25, 2021, https://www.politico dot eu/article/emmanuel-macron-russia-vladimir-putin-european-union/.

[14] [“Telephone Exchanges with Mr Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation,”] French Presidency, July 2, 2021,; [“Telephone Covnersation with French President Emmanuel Macron, Kremlin, July 2, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/66055.

[15] “EU Imposes Sanctions on Belarusian Economy,” European Council of the European Union, June 24, 2021, https://www.consilium.europa dot eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/06/24/eu-imposes-sanctions-on-belarusian-economy/.

[16] Olga Demidova, [“Belarus Suspends Participation in Eastern Partnership,”] Deutsche Welle, June 28, 2021, https://www.dw dot com/ru/belarus-priostanovila-uchastie-v-vostochnom-partnerstve/a-58080349.

[17] Tweet. Josep Borrell Twitter Account, June 28, 2021,

[18] George Barros, “Belarus Warning Update: Forced Integration with Russia – Not the Protest Movement – is Lukashenko’s Biggest Threat,” Institute for the Study of War, February 19, 2021,

[19]  [“Conversation with President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping,”] Kremlin, June 28, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/65940; [“Joint statement of the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China on the Twentieth Anniversary of the Signing of the Cooperation Agreement on Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation Between the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China,”] Kremlin, June 28, 2021, http://static.kremlin dot ru/media/events/files/ru/hkwONx0FSpUGgXPaRU3xUHRmkRneSXIR.pdf.

[20] The Russian Ministry of Defense reported the “main part” of the exercises concluded on June 24. The final reported exercises concluded on June 30. Anna Berestovaya, Denis Ivlev, [“In the Central Part of the Pacific Ocean, the main Part of the Operational Exercises of the Pacific Fleet has been Completed,”] TVZvezda, June 24, 2021, https://tvzvezda dot ru/news/2021624254-pGRxa.html; [“The Crews of the Ships of the Pacific Fleet During the Exercise in the Far Sea Zone Worked out the Tasks of Destroying the Aircraft Carrier Strike Group of the Mock Enemy,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 21, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12367884@egNews; [“In the Central Part of the Pacific Ocean, an Operational Exercise of the Diverse Forces of the Pacific Fleet is Being Conducted,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 10, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12366072@egNews; [“A Squadron of Ships of the Pacific Fleet Conducted Rocket and Artillery Fires in the Pacific Ocean,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 30, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12369401@egNews; [“A Squadron of Ships of the Pacific Fleet Conducted Rocket and Artillery Fires in the Pacific Ocean,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, June 30, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12369401@egNews.

[21] William Cole, “Russian Naval Exercise Ends as Spy Ship Remains in Hawaii area,” Honolulu Star-Advertiser, June 21, 2021,; Brendan Cole, “Russian Navy Warships Come Within Two Dozen Miles of Hawaii,” Newsweek, June 23, 2021,

[22] Tyler Rogoway, “Hawaii-Based F-22s Scrambled on FAA's Request But Nobody Will Say Why (Updated),” The Drive, June 14, 2021

[23] Timur Sherzad, [“Kamchatka Submariners Will Receive Three Dozen New Structures by the End of the Year,”] Tv Zvezda, June 29, 2021, https://tvzvezda dot ru/news/20216291239-oEvxv.html.

[24] [“Lukashenko Discussed Issues with the Secretary of the Russian Security Council,”] Izvestia, June 29, 2021, https://iz dot ru/1185699/2021-06-29/lukashenko-obsudil-s-sekretarem-sovbeza-rossii-voprosy-bezopasnosti-stran.

[25] George Barros, “Belarus Warning Update: Belarus Confirms Plans to PurchaseAdvanced Air Defense Systems from Russia,” Institute for the Study of War, January 14, 2021,; George Barros, “Belarus Warning Update: Putin Intensifies Russian-Belarusian Military Integration,” Institute for the Study of War, October 27, 2020,

[26] [“VIII Forum of the Regions of Russia and Belarus,”] Kremlin, July 1, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/65982.

[27] George Barros, “Russia in Review: Russia Opens Permanent Training Center in Belarus and Sets Conditions for Permanent Military Basing,” Institute for the Study of War, April 8, 2021,

[28] [“On the National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation,”] Kremlin, July 3, 2021, http://static.kremlin dot ru/media/events/files/ru/QZw6hSk5z9gWq0plD1ZzmR5cER0g5tZC.pdf; [“On the National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation,”] Kremlin, December 31, 2015, http://static.kremlin dot ru/media/acts/files/0001201512310038.pdf. 

[29] Nataliya Bugayova, “Putin’s Offset: The Kremlin’s Geopolitical Adaptations Since 2014,” Institute for the Study of War, September 2020,

[30] [“Tajikistan Mobilizes 20,000 Personnel amid Taliban Offensive,”] RBC, July 5, 2021, https://www.rbc dot ru/politics/05/07/2021/60e3266e9a794748f0fb74fd; [“Meeting of the Security Council of the Republic of Tajikistan,”] President of the Republic of Tajikistan, July 5, 2021, http://president dot tj/ru/node/26124.

[31] [“Telephone Conversation with President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon,”] Kremlin, July 5, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/66143; [“Telephone Conversation with President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev,”] Kremlin, July 5, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/66144.

[32]  [“The Russian Foreign Ministry Said that the 201st Military Base is Equipped to Provide Assistance Near the Border with Afghanistan,”] TASS, July 6, 2021, https://tass dot ru/politika/11833209.