Thursday, September 23, 2021

Russia in Review: September 1 – September 21, 2021

Russia’s Ruling United Russia Party Maintains Majority in Parliament by Leveraging New Electronic Voting Manipulation amid Declining Popularity

By Mason Clark and George Barros

Russia’s ruling United Russia Party retained its majority in highly falsified parliamentary elections. The State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, conducted its five-year elections from September 17-19. The Kremlin-run Central Elections Commission (CEC) reported in preliminary results on September 21 that the United Russia party won 49.8 percent of the vote, securing 324 out of 450 seats, and announced a turnout of 52 percent.[1] United Russia held 343 seats before the election. The CEC will announce the final results on September 24. Independent statisticians have issued preliminary estimates that genuine support for United Russia was at 32 percent and turnout around 38 percent, mirroring pre-election polls placing United Russia’s support at 30 percent.[2]

The Kremlin leveraged online voting to manipulate national election results for the first time. The Kremlin used a remote electronic voting system for the first time during the September 2021 Duma elections. Russian opposition parties reported voting pattern discrepancies in the elections after the CEC began counting electronic votes.[3] Several Russian Communist Party candidates who were leading in many Moscow districts suddenly lost to trailing United Russia candidates after the CEC counted electronic votes, for example. The only way these shifts could have been legitimate would be if United Russia held a commanding lead among online voters; there is no evidence of such a lead. The Kremlin also engaged in prolific conventional ballot-stuffing typical of Russian elections.[4]

Russian opposition parties did not hold significant protests following the Kremlin’s electoral manipulation. The Communist Party—which has long been part of the Kremlin’s “managed opposition” and not a true opposition party—rejected the egregious electronic voting results in Moscow and called for protests on Pushkin Square on September 20, 21, and 25.[5] Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin immediately banned the protests, claiming they would violate COVID-19 public health regulations.[6] Approximately 200 protesters gathered on Pushkin Square to support the Communist Party on September 20 and peacefully dispersed after a few hours.[7] Russian police did not interfere or detain any protesters on September 20, likely to avoid provoking larger protests. Protesters did not congregate on Pushkin Square on September 21 and are unlikely to gather on September 25.[8] Russian opposition elements are unlikely to organize meaningful protests against the Duma election results.

The Kremlin leveraged its illegal proxy republics in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova to boost support for United Russia and likely create justifications to support “Russian voters” abroad in the future. Charter busses transported residents of Russia’s proxies in occupied eastern Ukraine, the Donetsk Peoples Republic (DNR) and Luhansk Peoples Republic (LNR), to polling places in Rostov, Russia.[9] DNR and LNR residents also voted in the Duma elections via online voting.[10] The Kremlin also established polling stations in Transnistria in de jure Moldova and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, de jure Georgia.[11] Russian efforts to involve its proxy republics in Russian elections are likely intended to support false Kremlin claims that Moscow has legitimate legal reasons to protect its constituents in these exclaves. The Kremlin will likely increasingly leverage information operations about “protecting Russian voters’ rights” in former Soviet republics as a part of Russia’s hybrid war toolkit. 

The Kremlin suppressed the opposition’s “smart voting” tactics through consolidated control of Russian cyberspace, including capitulation from Apple and Google. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s team urged Russian voters to use “smart voting” tactics – voting for the candidate most-likely to beat the United Russia Party candidate in any given electoral district, regardless of their party affiliation or policies. Navalny’s team developed smartphone apps and other digital resources to help Russian voters identify which candidate to vote for in their district. The Kremlin cracked down on these resources on the first day of voting, September 17. The Kremlin compelled Apple and Google to remove smart voting apps from app stores in Russia and compelled Telegram messenger app CEO Pavel Durov to block a popular Telegram channel designed to disseminate smart voting tactics information.[12] The Kremlin has prioritized consolidating control over the Russian internet for several years and will likely increasingly rely on censorship and other forms of information control to stifle critics and preserve Putin’s regime. This effort will increasingly pressure Western companies to consolidate control of the Russian information space.[13]

The Kremlin retained United Russia’s two-thirds majority in parliament at the cost of further eroding Russia’s democratic facade and potentially alienating the managed opposition. United Russia requires a two-thirds majority in parliament to enact constitutional changes, such as those in early 2020 that reset Putin’s Presidential term limits and enabled him to effectively stay in power for life.[14] With true support for United Russia around 30 percent, the Kremlin had to balance the need to falsify results with the need to avoid provoking a large-scale protest response. The Kremlin’s extensive pre-election crackdown on Navalny’s team successfully prevented protests in response to what is likely modern Russia’s most falsified vote to date. However, the Kremlin must manage the costs of further eroding Putin’s veneer of legitimate public support and risks growing discontent among the Communist Party and other managed opposition groups. The Kremlin and Untied Russia are highly likely to remain stable for several years, but the 2021 Duma elections indicate the Kremlin will likely need to expand its authoritarian toolkit ahead of Russia’s next presidential election in 2024.

  1. Russia and Belarus signed a package of roadmaps for further integration under the Kremlin-dominated Union State on September 10, a major milestone in the Kremlin’s campaign to gain control of Belarus through the Union State. Self-declared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to 28 Union State economic integration roadmaps in Moscow on September 9 and codified the agreements the following day.[15] The roadmaps primarily create regulations and measures to unify Russian-Belarusian monetary and fiscal policies under the Union State, a Russian-dominated supranational organization. Putin and Lukashenko also discussed “building a single defense space and ensuring the security of the Union State,” likely a reference to further joint military exercises and a possible permanent base for Russian ground forces in Belarus. Russia and Belarus also agreed to create a unified gas market by December 2023 and a government body that will create a “unified methodology” for addressing economic integration issues. Putin said Belarus and Russia are not ready yet for a unified currency but may create one in the future. Lukashenko’s acceptance of the Union State roadmaps is a major concession to the Kremlin. Russia and Belarus have negotiated the 28 roadmaps for much of the past year, and Lukashenko previously refused to sign any roadmaps until all 28 were finalized, delaying Russian integration efforts.[16] The Kremlin likely secured these Belarusian concessions by intensifying Russian military pressure on Belarus and promising economic support to counteract Western sanctions.[17] 
  2. The Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Rapid Reaction Force conducted the joint exercise “Rubezh-2021” with Kyrgyz and Kazakh forces at the Edelweiss Training Ground in Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan, from September 7 to 9. Over 1,000 servicemen participated, including a battalion-sized element (300 personnel) of the Russian 55th Separate Motor Rifle Mountain Brigade, unspecified Russian Central Military District military police elements, CSTO Central Asian Regional Collective Rapid Reaction Forces elements, Kyrgyz artillery elements, and unspecified Kazakh elements.[18] Russian Central Military District army aviation Su-25 attack aircraft and Mi-8 helicopters provided air support.[19] Tajikistan canceled its planned participation in Rubzezh-2021 on September 6 without providing a reason.[20] The exercise simulated a joint operation to destroy a militant force attempting to establish a base of operations on the territory of a CSTO member state.[21] Russian and other partner forces have held multiple major exercises in Central Asia since July 2021 to prepare for potential operations to combat jihadist groups using Afghanistan as a base for international attacks.[22] Rubezh-2021 was the first exercise near Afghanistan conducted by the CSTO’s rapid reaction force. Previous exercises in the area since late July have been primarily coordinated by Russian forces directly. The Kremlin may increasingly leverage the CSTO as part of its military deployments near Afghanistan to further normalize multilateral operations.
  3. The Kremlin announced several infrastructure investments in Russia’s far east and signed a key digital cooperation deal with Kazakhstan during the annual Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok, Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted the forum on September 3.[23] The presidents of Mongolia and Kazakhstan virtually attended the forum, which the Kremlin uses to promote economic investment and infrastructure development in Russia’s far east. Russia and Kazakhstan signed a memorandum of cooperation on “data-driven government” during the forum.[24] Kazakhstan will cooperate with Russian state-owned banking and finance company Sberbank on three digital initiatives to incorporate artificial intelligence and data analysis into Kazakhstan’s bureaucratic procedures. Putin and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev previously discussed the data-driven government concept in December 2020. The Kremlin seeks to build dependence on Kremlin-run systems across the former Soviet Union and integrate state bureaucracies under Moscow’s direction. Putin also signed several domestically focused projects during the forum, including plans to establish a new city with a population of 300,000 near Vladivostok and several new infrastructure projects across Russia’s far east.[25] The Kremlin has increased its investment in Russia’s far east in recent years to increase its influence in Central and East Asia and compete with Chinese investment in Kazakhstan and other former Soviet states.
  4. The Kremlin is leveraging a European gas crisis to pressure European authorities to certify the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. European gas prices exceeded $950 per 1,000 cubic meters for the first time in history in mid-September, and Russian state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom refused to increase gas sales to stabilize the market.[26] Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov added on September 15 that Nord Stream 2’s immediate launch would ease Europe’s gas crisis.[27] The Kremlin is withholding Gazprom’s gas sales to coerce Germany into approving Nord Stream 2 quickly. Russian state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom announced the completion of Nord-Stream 2’s physical construction on September 10.[28] The pipeline is not yet operational due to ongoing European certification processes that will likely take until May 2022.[29] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated on September 15 that the Kremlin hopes to obtain necessary regulatory permits by January 2022 if not sooner.[30] Nord Stream 2’s launch will diversify Russia’s gas supply routes to Europe and allow the Kremlin to leverage those routes for political gain—both by increasing Germany’s reliance on Russian gas and by depriving Ukraine of gas transit fees.
  5. The Kremlin’s proxies in eastern Ukraine announced plans to create a unified economic and customs zone from 2022 to 2024. Leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Denis Pushilin and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Leonid Pasechnik announced plans to create a unified economic, tax, and customs zone between the DNR and LNR during a joint press conference on September 6.[31] Pasechnik stated that the DNR and LNR would create the customs space “in accordance with” Russian laws.[32] This economic integration measure is the Kremlin's latest effort to improve links between the DNR and LNR’s economies, likely to improve living standards for residents of the DNR and LNR and make them easier to manage by Russian authorities.[33] The Kremlin likely additionally seeks to build loyalty among Donbas residents who received Russian passports and voted in Russia’s parliamentary elections September 17-19 to strengthen this new voting bloc for the ruling United Russia party. DNR and LNR leadership have unsuccessfully advocated for their full integration into the Russian Federation for several years; the Kremlin has not supported that goal and instead has pressured Ukraine to include the DNR and LNR in regular Ukrainian elections, seeking to reintegrate the Kremlin-run regions into Ukraine as permanent spoilers in Ukrainian politics.[34] Increased economic integration between the DNR and LNR would likely decrease the economic—but not political—costs for the Kremlin to fully annex those territories, though the Kremlin remains unlikely to seek direct annexation at this time.
  6. A reported deal between Mali and Kremlin-backed private military company Wagner will likely destabilize the Sahel region and provide Russia with a foothold in West Africa. Reuters reported on September 13 that the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched a diplomatic campaign to stop a deal for Kremlin-run private military company (PMC) Wagner to deploy at least 1,000 personnel to Mali for personnel protection and to train the Malian army.[35] Local Malian media additionally reported Wagner would protect gold and magnesium mines.[36] French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on September 14 that Paris would withdraw from Mali if Wagner entered the country and expressed concern that the Russian mercenaries would undermine counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda and ISIS in the Sahel.[37] Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov stated no Russian forces are in Mali but did not deny the report of negotiations between Mali and Wagner.[38] Wagner is highly unlikely to negotiate a major contract without the Kremlin’s approval, at a minimum, and likely direct oversight from the Russian military.[39] Wagner and other Russian PMCs provide security and training services to several African states and protect mineral resources for Kremlin-run companies. A French withdrawal from Mali due to a Wagner-Mali deal would likely impede counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel region, as Wagner would be unlikely to fully replace the capabilities that French forces currently provide. The Wagner Group’s presence in West Africa would support the Kremlin’s campaign to secure new economic resources, develop additional international military ties, and reduce Western influence in the region.
  7. The Kremlin will likely meet Sudanese demands for further economic support in exchange for a long-planned naval base in Port Sudan that expands the Russian Navy’s global footprint. Kremlin-run news outlet Ria Novosti reported on September 12 that Sudan seeks to alter the terms of a deal granting the Russian Navy access to a naval base and logistics center in Port Sudan, and is asking Russia to provide unspecified economic assistance in exchange for five years of Russian access with a possible 25-year agreement extension.[40] The Chief of Staff of Sudan’s Armed Forces announced a possible revision of the agreement, initially announced in November 2020, in June 2021.[41] The Sudanese government appears to be backtracking on Russia and Sudan’s announcement in mid-July that both states would begin the official ratification process of the deal and had already resolved Sudan’s concerns.[42] The Kremlin has not issued any official comment on the reports as of September 22. Sudan will likely be able to secure some measure of economic concessions from the Kremlin, which has sought for several years to secure a naval base in East Africa to support the Russian Navy’s efforts to reestablish a global footprint. 
  8. Russia’s plan to suspend a multinational monitoring mission on Ukraine’s occupied border with Russia could facilitate preparations for a Russian military escalation in the winter of 2021-2022. Russian officials announced on September 2 that Russia will not support an extension of the OSCE Border and Observer Mission (BOM) at the Donetsk and Gukovo checkpoints on the Russian-Ukrainian border beyond the mandate’s current expiration date of September 30.[43]  Both checkpoints are in territory controlled by the Kremlin’s proxies in eastern Ukraine. The BOM has operated at the Gukovo and Donetsk border checkpoints since July 2014 and has observed at least 102 Russian material convoys, likely including weapons, deploy to Donbas as of August 12, 2021.[44] Ukraine’s Military Intelligence Directorate has previously reported that the Kremlin uses the two checkpoints to transit ammunition into Donbas and extract dead Russian servicemen from Ukraine.[45] The Kremlin’s decision to end the OSCE observer mission at the Russian-controlled checkpoints could support preparations to intensify military operations against Ukraine in winter 2021-2022.
  9. The Kremlin expanded its outreach to regional organizations in September to create a unified, and Kremlin-dominated, response to Afghanistan in the former Soviet Union but did not make any major policy changes. The Kremlin continued its “wait and see” approach to the Taliban in September, calling on remaining resistance forces to submit to the Taliban and praising NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan while declining to state a timeline for recognizing the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government. Russia participated in several major regional summits in Tajikistan from September 15 to 17—a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) minister summit, a CSTO heads of state summit, and a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) heads of state summit—to align security responses to Afghanistan.[46] The CSTO issued a joint declaration calling for increased military cooperation, devoting funds to jointly strengthen the Tajik-Afghan border, and rejecting the possibility of a US or NATO base in Central Asia in response to instability in Afghanistan.[47] The SCO discussed aligning member state responses to Afghanistan but did not announce any concrete policies.[48] The Kremlin will likely continue to expand its military presence in Central Asia and seek to control a unified response to the Taliban to maintain itself as an essential actor in Central Asia. 

Contributors: Mason Clark, George Barros, and Kateryna Stepanenko


[1] The State Duma uses a mixed voting system, in which half of the Duma’s 450 seats are allocated through proportional party list voting and half are appointed through majority voting in 225 constituencies. Vote falsification, crackdowns on the opposition, and gerrymandering enabled United Russia to win two thirds of Duma seats with less than half of the (claimed and falsified) vote. “Voting System of the Russian Federation (Elections to the State Duma),” State Duma, October 29, 2018, dot ru/en/news/28612/; [“CEC Processed 100 Percent of the Protocols for Elections to the State Duma,”] Rossiskaya Gazeta, September 21, 2021, https://rg dot ru/2021/09/21/cik-er-pobedila-na-vyborah-v-gd-posle-obrabotki-100-protokolov.html; [“The Party ‘United Russia’ Will Receive 324 Seats in the New Convocation of the State Duma,”] Gazeta, September 21, 2021, https://www.gazeta dot ru/politics/news/2021/09/21/n_16569002.shtml; [“Ella Pamfilova Announced Preliminary Results of Elections of Deputies of the State Duma,”] CEC of the Russian Federation, September 20, 2021, http://www.cikrf dot ru/news/cec/50563/.

[2] Jake Cordell, “Statisticians Claim Half of Pro-Kremlin Votes in Duma Elections Were False,” Moscow Times, September 21, 2021,

[3] [“In Moscow, at the Duma Elections, the Results Have Abnormally Changed in Favor of United Russia,”] Znak, September 20, 2021, https://www.znak dot com/2021-09-20/v_moskve_na_dumskih_vyborah_anomalno_izmenilis_rezultaty_v_polzu_edinorossov; Felix Light, “Russian Opposition Calls Foul After Ruling Party Landslide in Parliamentary Elections,” Moscow Times, September 20, 2021, https://www.themoscowtimes dot com/2021/09/20/russian-opposition-calls-foul-after-ruling-party-landslide-in-parliamentary-elections-a75089.

[4] Robert Coalson, “Russian Social Media Swamped with Video Evidence of Ballot-Box Stuffing,” RFE/RL, September 18, 2021,; Daria Litvinova, “Mop Up: Ballot-stuffing Videos Taint Russian Election,” ABC, September 20, 2021,

[5] [“Communist Party Refused to Recognize the Results of Electronic Voting in Moscow,”] Dozhd, September 20, 2021, https://tvrain dot ru/news/kprf_otkazalas_priznat_rezultaty_elektronnogo_golosovanija_v_moskve-538237/?from=rss; [“Moscow Authorities Refused to Approve the Actions of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation on September 20, 21 and 25,”] Interfax, September 20, 2021, https://www.interfax dot ru/moscow/792415.

[6] [“Moscow Mayor’s Office did not Approve Rallies at the Request of the Communist Party,”] Ria Novosti, September 20, 2021, https://ria dot ru/20210920/kprf-1750973118.html.

[7] Mouthpiece of Moscow, [“Protest rally on Pushkinskaya Square after the elections in Russia / LIVE 09/20/2021,”] YouTube, September 20, 2021,

[8] Two picketers protested during the day on Pushkin Square on September 21. There is no evidence suggesting these two picketers are affiliated with the Communist Party. Russian police detained and released the two picketers on September 21. [“Picketers who Stood for Fair Elections Detained in Moscow,”] OVD Info, September 21, 2021, https://ovdinfo dot org/express-news/2021/09/21/v-moskve-zaderzhali-piketchikov-vystupavshih-za-chestnye-vybory?utm_source=tw&utm_medium=social.

[9] Alena Mironova, [“Columns of Buses with Russian Citizens left the DNR and LNR to Participate in the Elections,”] TV Zvezda, September 17, 2021, https://tvzvezda dot ru/news/2021917837-qfMtj.html.

[10] [“In the Rostov Region Told About the Voting of Residents of the LNR and DNR in the Elections to the State Duma in the Region,”] RT, September 20, 2021, https://russian.rt dot com/russia/news/908815-rostovskaya-oblast-gosduma.

[11] [“Polling Stations for Elections to the State Duma of Russia Opened in South Ossetia,”] Caucasian Knot, September 17, 2021, https://www.kavkaz-uzel dot eu/articles/368165/; [“Polling Stations for Elections in the State Duma Opened in Transnistria,”] Ria Novosti, September 17, 2021, https://ria dot ru/20210917/pridnestrove-1750455153.html.

[12] Daria Mitvinova and Kelvin Chan, “Apple, Google Remove Opposition App as Russian voting Begins,” AP, September 17, 2021,; [“Pavel Durov Explained the Blocking of the Smart Voting Bot in Telegram by the Norm o the Legislation on the ‘Day of Silence.’ What’s Wrong with this Explanation,”] Meduza, September 18, 2021, https://meduza dot io/feature/2021/09/18/pavel-durov-ob-yasnil-blokirovku-bota-umnogo-golosovaniya-normoy-zakonodatelstva-o-dne-tishiny-chto-s-etim-ob-yasneniem-ne-tak; [“Pavel Durov Blocked the ‘Smart Vote’ Bot in the Telegram Messenger,”] Radio Svoboda, September 17, 2021,; [“Google Play and App Store Removed Navalny App on Election Day,”] BBC Russian, September 17, 2021,

[13] Mason Clark and Aidan Therrien, “Russia in Review: Kremlin Tests Authoritarian Societal Control Measures During COVID-19 Crisis,” Institute for the Study of War, April 13, 2020,; George Barros, “Russia in Review: Putin Deploys New Authoritarian Controls During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Institute for the Study of War, July 2, 2020,

[14] Nataliya Bugayova, “Vladimir Putin’s Staged Power Play,” Institute for the Study of War, January 31, 2020,

[15] [“Working Visit to the Russian Federation, Talks with Vladimir Putin,”] President of Belarus, September 9, 2021, dot by/ru/events/rabochiy-vizit-v-rossiyskuyu-federaciyu-1631167959; [“Press Conference Following Russian-Belarusian Talks,”] Kremlin, September 9, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/66648; [“Russian-Belarusian Negotiations,”] Kremlin, September 9, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/66646; [“Joint Statement by the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation and the Prime Minister of the Republic of Belarus on the Current Development and Further Steps to Deepen the Integration Processes Within the Union State,”] Russian Government, September 10, 2021, http://government dot ru/news/43234/.

[16] George Barros, “Belarus Warning Update: The Kremlin Prepares to Further Integrate Belarus,” Institute for the Study of War, September 2, 2020,

[17] Mason Clark and George Barros, “Russia’s Zapad-2021 Exercise,” Institute for the Study of War, September 17, 2021,; George Barros, “Russia in Review August 18 – August 31, 2021,” Institute for the Study of War,

[18] [“Servicemen of the Central Military District Arrived at the Point of Permanent Deployment After the Exercise ‘Rubezh-2021,”] Russian MoD, September 19, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12384638@egNews; [“Servicemen of the Central Military District Began Marching to the Edelweiss Training Ground, Located in Kyrgyzstan,”] Russian MoD, August 24, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12379223@egNews.

[19] [“In Kyrgyzstan, Russian Su-25 Attack Aircraft and Mi-8 Helicopters Provided Support for Troops in the Rubezh-2021 Exercise,”] Russian MoD, September 9, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12383075@egNews.

[20] [“Tajikistan Will not Participate in the CSTO Exercises ‘Rubezh-2021’ in Kyrgyzstan,”] Avesta, September 7, 2021, http://avesta dot tj/2021/09/07/tadzhikistan-ne-budet-uchastvovat-v-ucheniyah-odkb-rubezh-2021-v-kyrgyzstane/.

[21] [“Joint Exercise with the Collective Rapid Deployment Forces of the CSTO ‘Rubezh-2021’ Started in Kyrgyzstan,”] Russian MoD, September 7, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12382741@egNews; [“New Algorithms of Joint Actions were Tested in the Exercise ‘Rubezh-2021’ in Kyrgyzstan,”] Russian MoD, September 9, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12383082@egNews; [“Exercises of Four Countries ‘Rubezh-2021’ Entered an Ative Phase at the Edelweiss Mountain Range in Kyrgyzstan,”] Russian MoD, September 9, 2021, dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12383077@egNews.

[22] George Barros, “Russia in Review August 18 – August 31, 2021,” Institute for the Study of War,

[23] [“Plenary Session of the Eastern Economic Forum,”] Kremlin, September 3, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/66586.

[24] [“Signing Documents within the Framework of the EEF,”] Kremlin, September 3, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/66584.

[25] Other documents Putin signed within the framework of the Eastern Economic Forum included plans to develop the Udokan copper deposit; a directive to produce methanol-powered vessels at the shipyards of the Russian Federation; the establishment of a Far Eastern Children's Center for recreation and health improvement in the Khabarovsk Territory; and a new investment project for the integrated development of fishing logistics in Russia. [“EEF Approved the Construction of Sputnik City Near Vladivostok,”] Izvestia, September 3, 2021, https://iz dot ru/1216599/2021-09-03/na-vef-utverdili-stroitelstvo-goroda-sputnik-bliz-vladivostoka; [“Signing Documents within the Framework of the EEF,”] Kremlin, September 3, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/66584.

[26] https://apostrophe dot ua/en/news/economy/2021-09-15/tsena-na-gaz-v-evrope-pobila-istoricheskiy-rekord/243962;; https://tass dot ru/ekonomika/12455657

[27] Elena Gilmanova, [“Kremlin: early Launch of Nord Stream 2 will Balance Gas Prices in Europe,”] Komsomolskaya Pravda, September 15, 2021, dot ru/online/news/4440556.

[28] [“Alexey Miller: Construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas Pipeline is Fully Completed,”] Gazprom, September 10, 2021, https://www.gazprom dot ru/press/news/2021/september/article537301/.

[29] German regulator BNetzA must submit a draft decision on approving Nord Stream 2’s operation to the European Commission by January 8, 2022 to make a draft decision and submit it to the European Commission. The commission will then have two months to examine BNetzA’s draft decision, but can optionally extend this period another two months. The commission has not been supportive of Nord Stream 2 and is likely to closely examine the decision. Diane Elijah, “Topic Page: Nord Stream 2,” ICIS, September 13, 2021, https://www.icis dot com/explore/resources/news/2021/09/13/10463483/topic-page-nord-stream-2.

[30] [“Lavrov Called the Timing of Obtaining Permission from Germany for the ‘Nord Stream 2,’”] Izvestia, September 15, 2021, https://iz dot ru/1221920/2021-09-15/lavrov-nazval-sroki-polucheniia-razresheniia-ot-frg-na-severnyi-potok-2.

[31] [“DNR and LNR Agreed to Create a Single Economic Space,”] Izvestia, September 6, 2021, https://iz dot ru/1218031/2021-09-06/dnr-i-lnr-dogovorilis-sozdat-edinoe-ekonomicheskoe-prostranstvo; [“LNR and DNR Created a Single Customs Zone,”] Kommersant, September 15, 2021, https://www.kommersant dot ru/doc/4987369; [“LNR and DNR Will Create a Single economic and Customs Space – Pasechnik,”] Luhansk Information Center, September 6, 2021, https://lug-info dot com/news/lnr-i-dnr-sozdadut-edinoe-ekonomicheskoe-i-tamozhennoe-prostranstvo-pasechnik.

[32] [“LNR and DNR Will Create a Single economic and Customs Space – Pasechnik,”] Luhansk Information Center, September 6, 2021, https://lug-info dot com/news/lnr-i-dnr-sozdadut-edinoe-ekonomicheskoe-i-tamozhennoe-prostranstvo-pasechnik.

[33] The DNR and LNR previously created a unified electrical grid called “Donbas Energy” in May 2020, for example. [“Energy of Donbas will Ensure the Stable Operation of Enterprises in the LNR and DNR – Kozlov,”] LNR State Television, May 7, 2020, https://gtrklnr dot com/2020/05/07/energiya-donbassa-obespechit-stabilnuyu-rabotu-predpriyatij-lnr-i-dnr-kozlov/.

[34] George Barros and Joseph Kyle, “Putin will Likely Punish Kyiv for Not Holding Elections in Russian-Controlled Eastern Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, November 30, 2020,; “Rebel Leader Says East Ukraine Wants to Join Russia,” Moscow Times, April 9, 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes dot com/2019/04/09/rebel-leader-says-east-ukraine-wants-to-join-russia-a65162; “Kyiv: DPR Head Pushilin Intends to Ask Putin for Military Assistance and Accession to Russia,” UA Wire, April 11, 2021, http://www.uawire dot org/kyiv-dpr-head-pushilin-intends-to-ask-putin-for-military-assistance-and-accession-to-russia.

[35] John Irish and David Lewis, “EXCLUSIVE Deal Allowing Russian Mercenaries into Mali is Close- Sources,” Reuters, September 13, 2021,

[36] [“Mali: Imminent Agreement with Wagner, Russian Mercenaries Expected in Mali,”] Mali Actu, September 15, 2021,

[37] “France Criticises Deal Bringing Russian Mercenaries into Mali,” Reuters, September 15, 2021,

[38] [“The Kremlin Commented on the Information about the Deal with PMC Wagner in Mali,”] Lenta, September 15, 2021, https://lenta dot ru/news/2021/09/15/mali/.

[39] Sergey Sukhankin, “The ‘Hybrid’ Role of Russian Mercenaries, PMCs and Irregulars in Moscow’s Scramble for Africa,” Jamestown Foundation, January 10, 2020,

[40] [“Sudan Wants to Change the Military Base Agreement with Russia, Source Said,”] Ria Novosti, September 12, 2021, https://ria dot ru/20210912/sudan-1749760089.html.

[41] [“Sudan Decided to Revise the Agreement with Russia on the Creation of a Naval Base of the Navy,”] Ria Novosti, June 1, 2021, https://ria dot ru/20210601/baza-1735174544.html.

[42] Mason Clark and Rachel Kenny, “Russia in ReviewL July 7 – July 20, 2021,” Institute for the Study of War, July 22, 2021,

[43] [“Commentary by the Spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs M.V Zakharova in Connection with the Termination of the Activities of the OSC Observer Group at the International Automobile Checkpoints ‘Gukovo’ and ‘Donetsk’ of the Russian-Ukrainian Border,”] Russian MFA, September 3, 2021, https://www.mid dot ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4852270.

[44] “Kyiv Demands from Russia to Stop Sending ‘Humanitarian Convoys’ to Donbas,” Kyiv Post, August 12, 2021,

[45] [“Regarding Russia’s Logistical Support of Groups in the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine,”] Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate, December 7, 2020, dot ua/content/shchodo-lohistychnoho-zabezpechennia-rosiieiu-uhrupovan-na-tymchasovo-okupovanykh-terytoriiakh-ukrainy.html; [“The Bodies of 38 Servicemen were Taken from the Donbas to the Russian Federation, and the Militants are being ‘Staffed’ with Prisoners,”] Ukrainskaya Pravda, April 16, 2016, dot ua/news/2016/04/16/7105735/.

[46] [“The Collective Security Council on September 16 in Dushanbe Discussed the Problems of International and Regional Security and their Impact on the Security of the CSTO Member States,”] CSTO, September 16, 2021, https://odkb-csto dot org/news/news_odkb/soobshchenie-dlya-smi-sovet-kollektivnoy-bezopasnosti-16-sentyabrya-v-dushanbe-obsudil-problemy-mezh/; [“Meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the SCO Member States,”] Kremlin, September 17, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/66706; [“STATEMENT by the Member States of the Collective Security Treaty Organization on the Situation in Afghanistan,”] CSTO, September 15, 2021, https://odkb-csto dot org/documents/statements/zayavlenie-gosudarstv-chlenov-organizatsii-dogovora-o-kollektivnoy-bezopasnosti-o-polozhenii-v-afgan/.

[47] [“DECLARATION of the Collective Security Council of the Collective Security Treaty Organization,”] CSTO, September 16, 2021, https://odkb-csto dot org/documents/accepted-docs/deklaratsiya-soveta-kollektivnoy-bezopasnosti%2016%20sentiabrya%202021%20goda/.

[48] [“Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit Documents,”] Kremlin, September 17, 2021, http://kremlin dot ru/supplement/5698.


Friday, September 17, 2021

Recent Iranian Proxy Attack in Iraqi Kurdistan Unlikely a Signal for New Escalation

By: Katherine Lawlor

Contributors: Nicholas Carl, Dana Alexander Gray, Zach Coles, and Kitaneh Fitzpatrick

Key Takeaway: The recent Iranian proxy drone attack on Erbil International Airport was likely a stand-alone event and likely does not indicate the immediate resumption of large-scale Iranian proxy attacks on US facilities in Iraq. Iranian proxy militants launched two drones targeting what Iran assessed to be an Israeli intelligence asset at Erbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 11, 2021, possibly triggering an Israeli retaliatory strike on a proxy convoy in Abu Kamal, Syria, on September 14. Iran may have approved this attack after US and Israeli political and military leaders met in recent weeks to discuss their strategies for addressing the threat Iran poses to US, Israeli, and regional security. The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 New York terrorist attacks may have influenced the timing of the attack. Iran will likely maintain its ban on large-scale attacks on US facilities in Iraq until after Iraq’s October 10 elections and possibly until the end of 2021 unless the Iran-Israel escalation cycle spills further into Iraq. 


Iranian proxy militants launched two kamikaze drones toward US forces locations at Erbil International Airport on September 11, 2021, ending their halt of major attacks against US interests in Iraq since late July.[1] The attack caused no damage or injuries. US force protection countermeasures intercepted both drones.[2] An Iranian proxy Telegram channel affiliated with the militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq wrote that the attacks were intended to remind the United States of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.[3]  

The September 11 attack was the first Iranian proxy attack on or near US forces in Iraq since July 29.[4] Iran ordered its proxies to cease large-scale attacks on US forces and facilities in Iraq following the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue in late July.[5] That dialogue ended with a US agreement to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq and transition to a purely advisory mission by the end of the year. The authors forecasted that Iran would order a resumption of attacks either after Iraq’s October 10 parliamentary elections or around the December 2021 deadline for the withdrawal of US combat forces.


Iran likely assessed that its proxies were targeting either an Israeli intelligence asset in the vicinity of the airport or a center for US-Israeli cooperation. Iranian state-run media reported that the attack targeted a Mossad “spy center” at the airport.[6] Iranian proxy Telegram channels associated with Kata’ib Hezbollah also circulated that claim, citing “informed sources.”[7] Iranian officials assess that much of the Israeli threat to Iran’s domestic assets, including its nuclear facilities, emanates from Israeli spy cells in Iraqi Kurdistan. Israel has no public presence inside Iraq and no formal diplomatic relations with the Iraqi state.

Strikes against an Iranian proxy convoy in Syria on September 14 were likely conducted by Israel and may have been in retaliation for the September 11 attack if Israel believed that strike targeted its interests or assets. The location suggests that Israel prefers to avoid opening an Iraqi front in its current conflict with Iran. Unidentified drones, likely controlled by Israeli Defense Forces, struck a three-car convoy belonging to likely Iranian proxy factions within the Popular Mobilization Forces just after the convoy crossed the Iraqi border into Syria.[8] The strikes destroyed the vehicles, which may have been carrying drones or other conventional proxy armaments, but caused no casualties. The US-led coalition denied responsibility for the strikes.[9] Israel rarely confirms or denies its activities in Syria.


Iran will likely revert to its ban on large-scale attacks on US forces until after Iraq’s October 10 elections and possibly until the end of 2021 unless US or Israeli retaliations trigger an escalation cycle that continues to spill into Iraq. Iran and its proxies are managing a regional conflict with Israel that could force Iran to re-evaluate its preferred plan for managing violence in Iraq through the end of the year.[10] Recent meetings between US and Israeli officials in which they emphasized their cooperation and commitment to countering Iran could have triggered the Iranian attack on what they believe to be an Israeli asset.[11] Earlier alleged Israeli actions against Iran’s nuclear program could also be a contributing factor. Iran likely ordered a one-time exception to its de-escalation due to US and Israeli rhetoric, the poignance of the September 11 anniversary, and alleged intelligence activities inside Iranian territory. Israel’s decision to retaliate inside Syria indicates that a larger-scale escalation in the Iraqi theater before October 10 remains unlikely.

However, attacks on US and allied assets in eastern Syria remain likely in the coming weeks. A likely Iranian proxy surveillance drone flew over Erbil Airport on August 21, possibly in preparation for the September 11 attack. [12] US aircraft shot down another drone near a US facility in eastern Syria that same day, indicating additional proxy preparation for attacks outside of Iraq.[13] Iran may allow its proxies to retaliate with attacks on US forces and facilities in eastern Syria, maintaining the Iraqi de-escalation while also increasing pressure on US forces. 


Additional Israeli or US strikes on Iranian proxy assets inside Iraqi territory could re-open the escalation cycle, end the Iranian-ordered ceasefire, and trigger a resumption in Iranian proxy attacks on US assets in Iraq. The recent strikes also increase the risk of attacks on US assets in eastern Syria, which have previously faced rocket and drone attacks.[14] One strong indicator for this trajectory has already been tripped: the leader of one Iranian proxy militia stated that the United States bears responsibility for the strike because it controls Iraqi airspace and because “everyone knows” that Israel cannot conduct strikes in  Iraqi territory without US permission.[15] The strikes were likely on the Syrian side of the border despite initial reporting that they took place in Qaim, on the Iraq side. Additional open-source indicators that Iran will rescind its ceasefire order would include statements by other Iraqi proxies asserting that the United States bears responsibility for the September 14 strikes and circulations of such claims by IRGC-affiliated Iranian media and additional surveillance drone flybys of US facilities. An escalation in the Syrian theater could also spill back into Iraq.






[6] mehrnews dot com/news/5303048/%D9%85%D8%B1%DA%A9%D8%B2-%D8%AC%D8%A7%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B3%DB%8C-%D9%85%D9%88%D8%B3%D8%A7%D8%AF-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%82%D9%84%DB%8C%D9%85-%DA%A9%D8%B1%D8%AF%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82-%D9%87%D8%AF%D9%81-%D9%82%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B1-%DA%AF%D8%B1%D9%81%D8%AA%D9%87-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA

[7] t dot me/Tura313/18605

[8] timesofisrael dot com/us-denies-carrying-out-strike-on-iran-backed-militia-convoy-on-syria-iraq-border/



[11] timesofisrael dot com/at-first-meeting-biden-pledges-to-bennett-that-iran-will-never-get-nukes/

[12] rudaw dot net/arabic/kurdistan/210820214



[15]t dot me/Tura313/18712