Thursday, November 15, 2018

Turkey's Near Abroad Expansion

By Elizabeth Teoman

Key Takeaway: Turkey has effectively annexed large portions of Northern Syria. This land grab is similar to its occupation of Northern Cyprus and demonstrates that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is applying a strategy of expeditionary imperialism across the former Ottoman Empire. Erdogan’s adventurism - coupled with Turkey’s complicated instability - risks undermining U.S. and NATO interests. The U.S. must hold Turkey accountable for its disruptive actions and encourage it to engage productively in its near abroad in line with the shared strategic objectives held by the U.S. and NATO.

Turkey has effectively annexed large parts of Northern Syria since 2016. Turkey seized control of a wide swath of terrain along the Syrian-Turkish Border in two separate operations against ISIS and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey has installed local proxies to manage the region - but these proxies remain subordinate to state institutions in Turkey. Gaziantep and Kilis Provincial governors in Southern Turkey exercise direct oversight of governance in Northern Syria. The Turkish Police Academy is training a force of Free Syrian Police while the Turkish Armed Forces is organizing opposition groups into a parallel Syrian National Army. These institutions could ultimately expand to other parts of Northern Syria including Idlib Province.

Turkey is enforcing economic integration upon its territories in Northern Syria. Turkey has funneled all economic activity in the area - including the payment of salaries and cross-border trade - through the Turkish Lira. It is investing in a new highway network to expedite trade between Southern Turkey and Northern Syria as well as a new industrial center in Al-Bab in Syria. Turkey is using these economic ties to bolster its own struggling economy and entrench the influence of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For example, Erdogan authorized agricultural imports from Northern Syria to stabilize rising food prices ahead of the 2018 Turkish General Elections.

Turkey is also conducting a parallel campaign of cultural integration in Northern Syria. Turkey has institutionalized the use of Turkish as the formal language of governance in Northern Syria. It has rebuilt local infrastructure across the area based on its own models including hospitals, universities, post offices, and cell towers. Turkey is also engineering demographic shifts that favor its long-term agenda in Northern Syria. It is resettling internally displaced persons including former opposition fighters in areas under its control at the expense of local Syrian Kurds. It is also attempting to alleviate its own domestic burden by encouraging the return of refugees from Turkey to Northern Syria. These returns may not always be voluntary.

Turkey’s actions in Northern Syria reflect lessons from its occupation of Northern Cyprus. Turkey invaded Northern Cyprus in 1974 to block a perceived threat from nationalist Greeks and preserve its own strategic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. It quickly acted to implement a program of political, economic, and cultural integration with Turkey. Turkey built and provided military protection for the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It cultivated economic dependence through an entrenched network of telecommunications and postal services, investments in manufacturing centers, and exclusive export partnerships reliant upon the Turkish Lira. It also systematically relocated ethnic Turks to Northern Cyprus in order to dilute the influence of Greek Cypriots. Turkey is visibly pursuing the same lines of effort in Northern Syria.

Turkey likely plans to maintain a long-term strategic presence in Northern Syria. Turkey maintains its occupation of Northern Cyprus in order to exert influence across the Mediterranean Sea. Erdogan likely perceives similar geopolitical value in Northern Syria. Northern Syria provides a sustained source of leverage over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Russo-Iranian Coalition. Erdogan - a major backer of the armed opposition - is unwilling to permit the full recapture of Syria by Assad. He has repeatedly applied military and diplomatic pressure to block pro-regime offensives against opposition-held Idlib Province in Northern Syria. He has also linked any potential military withdrawal to the need for free and fair elections in Syria - a condition unlikely to be met given the intransigence of Assad. Northern Syria also provides a base for Turkey to challenge the YPG in Eastern Syria. Erdogan is attempting to exploit seams between local Arabs and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the primary partner of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Syria. His ongoing efforts to undermine these governance structures and stir ethnic tensions in the region is facilitated by access to opposition and tribal networks in Northern Syria

Erdogan will likely undertake similar interventions under his vision of Neo-Ottomanism. Erdogan views the former Ottoman Empire as a model for a more assertive and quasi-imperial Turkey that exerts military, economic, social, and cultural influence across the Middle East. He champions Turkey as the only legitimate defender of Sunni Muslims. He is expanding a regional military footprint with bases in Northern Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Qatar, and Somalia. He has also expressed interest in gaining a naval port on the Red Sea. These efforts are likely to accelerate in the coming months. Erdogan stated that Turkey will increase the number of troops deployed to Northern Cyprus as recently as September 16. He could order a similar boost to counterinsurgency operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Northern Iraq. He may also intensify efforts to reestablish a socio-cultural foothold in the Balkans amidst rising interference by Russia.

Turkey may not be able to sustain its current level of regional involvement under Erdogan. Turkey is suffering from rising inflation that threatens to collapse its economy. This instability is already spreading to its de facto statelets in Northern Cyprus and Northern Syria. Locals in Northern Syria held protests and launched general strikes in October 2018 to condemn low wages and the economic hardship caused by the increasingly volatile Turkish Lira. Turkish Cypriots held similar protests expressing frustration towards their prolonged economic dependence on Turkey in September 2018. Erdogan is attempting - thus far unsuccessfully - to alleviate these concerns by securing reconstruction aid from Europe. Germany and France have thus far been reluctant to promise explicit economic packages in support of Turkey. Even if granted, international aid will likely remain insufficient to backstop the foreign interventions undertaken by Erdogan.

The U.S. must nonetheless adapt to a quasi-imperial Turkey. Erdogan continues to accelerate his interventionism in his near abroad. He is leveraging his expeditionary foreign policy in order to assert a role as a regional and international powerbroker. His adventurism - coupled with his own domestic instability - risks undermining regional security at the expense of the U.S. and NATO. At minimum, Erdogan’s inability to maintain security in Northern Syria presents an opportunity for renewed expansion by Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Turkey’s persistent interference with its neighbors also fosters instability that could be exploited by Iran and Russia. The U.S. must hold Turkey accountable for its disruptive actions and encourage it to engage productively in its near abroad in line with the shared strategic objectives held by the U.S. and NATO.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Turkey Brief: Erdogan Ramps Up Pressure on the U.S.

Turkey Brief 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 Turkish government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them.

Reporting Period: October 20 - November 6, 2018

Authors: Elizabeth Teoman with Jennifer Cafarella, John Dunford, Paul Becker, and Kieran Hatton

Key Takeaway: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is attempting to pressure U.S. President Donald Trump into making new concessions in Syria by threatening an offensive against the primary partner of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Northern Syria. Erdogan has not yet set the military conditions required to follow through on this threat. He most likely intends to use the threat of violence to win political concessions that roll back the gains won by Syrian Kurds along the Syrian-Turkish Border. He is nonetheless setting long-term conditions to challenge security and governance structures established by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Eastern Syria by exploiting seams between local Arabs and Kurds.

Turkey is escalating its attacks against the primary partner of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Syria. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) began cross-border shelling of military positions held by the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Northern Syria on October 28. The shelling targeted positions near a number of urban centers along the Syrian-Turkish Border including Kobani, Tel Abyad, Ras al-Ayn, and Qamishli. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the strikes represented the first phase of a “more extensive and effective” operation on October 30. Opposition groups backed by Turkey have also warned of upcoming attacks against the SDF in Northern Syria. Hamza Division Commander Saif Polat - a Syrian Turkmen - claimed ongoing preparations for a campaign east of the Euphrates River on November 6.[1] The Hamza Division is a former partner of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. It is currently backed by Turkey and participated in past offensives against the SDF in Northern Syria.

Turkey has not yet set conditions for a major cross-border intervention in Northern Syria. The ongoing shelling is not yet concentrated enough to represent effective condition-setting for an offensive by the Turkish Armed Forces. It remains much more limited than the bombardment that preceded the start of ground operations by Turkey in the majority-Kurdish Afrin Canton in Northern Syria in January 2018. Other typical indicators of an upcoming ground campaign have also not yet emerged in openly-available sources as of November 8. The Turkish Air Force has not engaged in airstrikes against the SDF in Eastern Syria as it did ahead of operations to seize Afrin Canton. The Turkish Armed Forces also have not yet sent reinforcements to the Syrian-Turkish Border east of the Euphrates River or removed portions of the border wall in Northern Syria. Turkey has instead deployed additional military units into Idlib Province in Western Syria, suggesting that it remains focused on the preservation of a de-escalation zone brokered with Russia and Iran in September 2018. Turkey has never conducted cross-border ground operations without some participation from the Turkish Special Operations Forces or Turkish Army.

Turkey has mobilized some of its existing opposition proxies in Northern Syria. These efforts do not yet seem focused on preparations for a major offensive against the SDF. Activists sources reported that Turkey relocated up to 1,200 Syrian opposition fighters to frontline areas near the contested town of Manbij in Eastern Aleppo Province in early November 2018. Manbij is the largest outpost of the SDF west of the Euphrates River and a historic source of friction between the U.S. and Turkey. Erdogan likely intends to apply military pressure on Manbij in order to contest the area and generate local instability that discredits the SDF-affiliated Manbij Civil Council. He nonetheless remains unlikely to launch a direct attack against Manbij that could result in casualties from U.S. forces.

Turkey is likely attempting to use the threat of military escalation to extract concessions from the U.S. on the political future of Northern Syria. Erdogan is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump in Paris on November 11.[2] He may seek to win direct concessions on the final status of Manbij. The U.S. and Turkey reached a roadmap for tactical de-escalation over Manbij on June 4. The deal included coordinated and later combined joint patrols along frontlines north of Manbij. The first such joint patrol occurred on November 1. This agreement has nonetheless failed to temper the wider dispute between Turkey and the SDF. Erdogan threatened to conduct additional military operations across Northern Syria during negotiations over Manbij in March 2018. He also continues to claim that the Syrian Kurdish YPG – the dominant faction of the SDF - has not abided by promises to withdraw from Manbij. [3]

Erdogan may alternately use the threat of escalation to extract other near-term demands from the U.S. in Syria. He could demand that the U.S. support an effort to build and install a border security force led by opposition groups backed by Turkey east of the Euphrates River. The U.S. announced plans to establish a similar “border security force” with the SDF in January 2018, fueling Erdogan’s decision to launch ground operations in the Afrin region and threaten further action in Eastern Syria. Erdogan may also seek additional investment from the U.S. in reconstruction projects by Turkey in Northern Aleppo Province as an alternative to the SDF. Erdogan nonetheless remains unlikely to change his long-term goal to dismantle and otherwise eliminate the SDF in Northern Syria. He regards the SDF as an outgrowth of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and thus an existential threat to the territorial cohesion of Turkey.

Turkey is nonetheless setting long-term conditions to challenge the SDF in Eastern Syria. Turkey is currently testing its ability to exploit seams between local Arabs and the SDF along the Syrian-Turkish Border, particularly in majority-Arab Tel Abyad in Northern Ar-Raqqa Province. The SDF seized Tel Abyad from ISIS in June 2015. It rapidly installed formal governance structures that alienated local Arabs. It has also faced accusations of the forced displacement of Arabs near Tel Abyad. Turkey is attempting to exploit this seam. Hamza Division Commander Saif Polat posted a message calling on Arabs in Tel Abyad to participate in a protest against the SDF on November 11. Turkey is also reportedly recruiting opposition fighters from Tel Abyad who could potentially act as a future proxy force in Ar-Raqqa Province. The degree of success experienced by this effort thus far remains unclear.

Turkey is also attempting to degrade the stability of majority-Arab Deir ez-Zour Province under the SDF. Harakat al-Qiyam - a militant group likely backed by Turkey - announced its intent to assassinate the current head of the SDF-affiliated Deir ez-Zour Military Council (DMC) on November 5. The group has previously claimed a number of assassination attempts targeting the SDF including an attack on Manbij Military Council (MMC) Chair Mohammad Abu Adel in November 2017. Turkish media also recently highlighted claims by Imed Said - a former leader of the DMC - that local populations will not support governance by the SDF in Eastern Syria. Turkey is currently conducting active propaganda and tribal outreach efforts in Deir ez-Zour Province. It may ultimately intend to organize militant proxy forces for an insurgent campaign against the SDF in Eastern Syria. These efforts could be particularly effective after the end of ongoing operations by the DMC and SDF against ISIS in Southern Deir ez-Zour Province.

The U.S. has taken tentative steps to realign itself with Turkey but remains dedicated to its partnership with the SDF in Northern Syria. The U.S. announced multimillion-dollar rewards for information leading to the location of senior leaders of the PKK following the visit of a high-level delegation to Turkey on November 6. The Turkish Foreign Ministry welcomed the decision as a “positive development” but stressed its continued desire for “concrete action” with respect to the YPG in Syria.[3] The U.S. has thus far taken no serious action in Eastern Syria to address the fundamental concerns held by Turkey regarding the SDF. This effort thus is unlikely to generate a serious rapprochement with Erdogan.

The U.S. also remains dependent on the role played by the SDF in the Anti-ISIS Campaign in Syria. The SDF announced a temporary pause in its campaign against ISIS in Southern Deir ez-Zour Province on October 31 in protest against the cross-border shelling by Turkey. The U.S. later conducted joint patrols with the SDF in all of the major towns shelled by Turkey along the Syrian-Turkish Border. These patrols have thus far failed to deter further shelling but have thus far provided sufficient reassurance to preclude a major counter-escalation or redeployment to the border by the SDF.


The Trump Administration is right to focus on a wider realignment with Turkey. Its policy reorientation will nonetheless likely prove insufficient to repair the relationship unless they include meaningful change to the structure and composition of the SDF. Turkey’s efforts to challenge the SDF will likely prompt the SDF to become even less tolerant of its political opponents and persist in its marginalization of local Sunni Arabs, which will in turn create conditions conducive to ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other Salafi-Jihadist Groups. ISIS already appears to be resurgent in Ar-Raqqa City. The issue is urgent.

The U.S. nonetheless cannot wholesale accede to Turkey. The U.S. must recognize that Turkey’s threat to the SDF in Eastern Syria poses a serious risk to the overall success of the Anti-ISIS Campaign. Turkey’s efforts to destabilize the SDF will generate security and governance gaps that could be exploited by ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The Russo-Iranian Coalition is simultaneously conducting its own tribal outreach in Eastern Syria with the intent to undermine the SDF and U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. Turkey is thus advancing the strategic objectives of multiple fundamental adversaries of the U.S. and NATO.

The status quo is not tenable in Northern Syria. The U.S. faces the looming risk of a wider war between Turkey and the Kurds. The YPG has thus far refrained from participating directly in domestic attacks in Turkey. It would likely recalculate if abandoned by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. Turkey’s opposition proxies meanwhile are vulnerable to infiltration by Al-Qaeda and thus are not a viable candidate for unconditional support by the U.S. and NATO. The Trump Administration must chart a new course forward in Northern Syria that prioritizes the needs of local populations ravaged by ISIS and sustains our partnership with the SDF even as it creates opportunities for constructive involvement by Turkey. The alternatives invariably lead to further instability and long-term damage to the interests of the U.S. in Syria.

[1] Goksel Caglav, [“FSA is Preparing for East of the Euphrates,”] Yeni Akit, November 6, 2018, https://www(.)
[2] [“We Are Ranked 17th in National Income in the World and 13th in Terms of Purchasing Parity,”] Turkish Presidency, November 6, 2018, https://www(.)
[3] Fatih Hafiz Mehmet, “Erdogan Calls on Terrorists to Leave Syria's Manbij,” Anadolu Agency, November 3, 2018. https://www(.)
[4] [“Statement of the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Hami Aksoy, in Response to a Question Regarding a Decision Taken by the U.S. State Department,”] Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 7, 2018, http://www(.)

Russia in Review: Russia's Lessons Learned in Syria

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.

Special Topic Update: Russian Military Doctrine and Lessons Learned in Syria

Authors: Catherine Harris and Mason Clark

Russia is committing fully to hybrid warfare as the likely nature of its future wars. Senior Russian military officers writing in prominent military journals are publishing their insights from Russia’s combat experience in Syria and Ukraine. They are also deriving lessons learned from the past few decades of military operations by the West in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. These officers - including two potential candidates to become the next Russian Chief of the General Staff - are lobbying for a holistic change to military doctrine that will likely shape the long-term development of the Russian Armed Forces.

ISW has begun a project to identify and understand the key drivers of doctrinal change in Russia. The set of lessons learned below constitutes a partial assessment. Many of these changes will reflect insights based on ground experiences in Syria. Russian officers derive these lessons from their perception of events, which are not always aligned with reality. The following analysis does not attempt to evaluate these claimed experiences as the emerging doctrine flows from the perceptions themselves regardless of accuracy.

The following lessons learned are based on essays by five senior officers of the Russian Armed Forces. Colonel-General Aleksander Vladimirovich Dvornikov and Lieutenant-General Aleksandr Pavlovich Lapin are currently the respective commanders of the Russian Southern and Central Military Districts. Russian Military Districts are roughly equivalent to U.S. Combatant Commands. These officers are potential successors to Russian Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov. Their insights take the form of after-action reviews praising the Russian Armed Forces for their accomplishments in Syria. Dvornikov served as the first Commander of the Russian Forces in Syria from September 2015 until July 2016. Lapin served as the Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces in Syria until November 2017.

Major-General Sergei Leonidovich Pechurov, Colonel (Ret.) Aleksander Nikolaevich Sidorin, and Colonel Aleksander Vladimirovich Vdovin by contrast are military academics who offer abstracted recommendations about how Russia should adapt its military doctrine to the 21st Century. Pechurov is Chief Researcher at the Research Department of the Russian Defense Ministry and holds a Doctorate of Military Sciences. Sidorin is a professor and specialist in electronic warfare at the Russian Combined Arms Forces Academy. Vdovin draws his insights from both the combat experiences of Russia as well as recent foreign interventions by the U.S. and NATO through May 2018. All of the listed authors draw the same general conclusions about the relevant lessons learned and their application to future wars.

Russian officers repeatedly underscore the need to end the distinction between non-military and military operations on the battlefield. Pechurov and Sidorin both write that these functions should instead be perceived as a single undertaking. Their recommendations seek to blur the lines between these traditionally-separate roles conducted by separate bodies by creating a “superiority of management” that accelerates decision-making on the battlefield.[1]

Dvornikov claims to have implemented this model of ‘superiority of management’ in Syria. Dvornikov claims that the Russian Armed Forces created an integrated structure of military and non-military bodies to plan and coordinate all battlefield activity and thereby accelerate decision-making in Syria. Russia headquartered this structure at its Hmeimim Airbase on the Syrian Coast. The Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria (led by a lieutenant-general) is located at Hmeimim Airbase, for example.[2] The Center is responsible for facilitating negotiations with opposition groups as well as organizing humanitarian aid deliveries.[3] This integrated structure is likely led by the Commander of the Russian Forces in Syria. Russia aims to build a unified information space and develop superiority of management in order to adapt to what it sees as the increasing pace of modern combat. Dvornikov claims that officers dispersed across battlefields in Syria remained in constant contact with headquarters at Hmeimim via video-conferencing, which shortened the process of combat decision-making.[4]

Dvornikov stresses the importance of fighting with allied combat-capable ground elements. Dvornikov states that the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) was fatigued and ineffective at the start of the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015. The Russian Armed Forces therefore prioritized assistance to the most combat-effective ground elements including irregular and tribal forces. These units consisted of “scattered irregular armed formations” such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Lebanese Hezbollah, the SAA 5th Assault Corps, the Desert Falcons, and the SAA Tiger Forces led by Syrian Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan. Dvornikov singles out Hassan as the “most capable commander” in the SAA, noting that he “achieved considerable success, avoided templates, and competently used various methods of conducting a special operation” in Syria.

Dvornikov states that these disparate groups were “united under the control of the commander…from the Russian Federation” and operated “according to a single plan” drafted by Russia. He also alludes to major challenges with the initial integration of Russia in Syria. The original plan envisioned that the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces would carry out all “overall planning” for operations with the responsibility for enriching the plan with details left to unit commanders on the ground in Syria. However, Russia was forced to take the lead on all preparations for combat operations due to the ineffectiveness of the SAA General Staff. Dvornikov notes that this management structure was improved by the direct participation of “operational groups” from all “formations” (including the IRGC, Hezbollah, Syrian Intelligence, and the Syrian National Defense Forces) at Hmeimim Airbase. Russia further optimized by deploying its own “operational groups” to “tactical directions” in accordance with “zones of responsibility” in Syria. The size of these groups ranged from five to twenty personnel specialized in intelligence, logistics and maintenance support, and translation depending on the required tasks.[5]

ISW cannot independently assess the extent to which this integrated structure functioned as claimed in Syria, although it generally assesses that the IRGC and Hezbollah played a much more significant role in the planning and execution of pro-regime operations than granted by Dvornikov. ISW’s prior assessments about the changing nature of pro-regime operations nonetheless partially support the claim. The Battle of Aleppo heavily reflected the doctrine and campaign design of Russia - such as the initiation of a “cauldron battle” - rather than Iran or Syria. Dvornikov notably does not describe any specific challenges faced with the recruitment or integration of irregular forces in Syria. It is likely that some elements, such as the SAA 5th Assault Corps organized by Russia, integrated much more smoothly into this structure than foreign units such as the IRGC and Hezbollah, which likely accepted only a limited degree of direction from Russia. ISW continues to track efforts by Russia and Iran to coopt and recruit tribal fighters in Eastern Syria as part of their wider challenge to the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition and its partnered Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Dvornikov also emphasizes the effectiveness of deploying specialized units to support these partnered ground forces. Dvornikov emphasizes that “boundaries between strategic, operational, and tactical-level tasks were erased, and strategic (operational) goals were achieved by the work of military units at the tactical level” in Syria. He notes that Russian Spetsnaz conducted “sabotage” operations against key opposition positions and infrastructure while other naval, air, and special operations forces played a critical role in support of partnered ground forces in “mountainous Latakia, Palmyra, Kuweires, Aleppo…Uqayribat, Hama, and Deir ez-Zor” in Syria.[6]

Dvornikov stresses the importance of coordinating long-range fire support with partner ground components. He notes that the Russian Armed Forces supported the pro-regime offensive to retake Deir ez-Zor City in late 2017 by launching naval cruise missiles from its Mediterranean Task Force off the Syrian Coast. This fire support - including airstrikes and cruise missile strikes - allegedly allowed pro-regime forces to seize and secure a bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River and ultimately capture Deir ez-Zor City. (These assertions are generally in line with ISW’s assessments regarding the key air support role provided by Russia during the pro-regime ground campaign against ISIS in Eastern Syria.)

Dvornikov states that Russia improved its capability to destroy static and mobile targets through the effective use of forward observers in Syria. He claims that the Russian Armed Forces launched air or naval strikes only with target verification from at least three sources during the offensive to retake Aleppo City in late 2016. This assertion sheds an interesting light on the likely deliberate nature of pro-regime airstrikes against hospitals, breadlines, and other civilian targets protected under the laws of armed conflict. Russian Spetsnaz often acted as forward observers for these strikes. ISW assessed in February 2017 that Russia also trained Iranian-backed proxies to support its air campaign.[7] Dvornikov states that the Russian Armed Forces focused its airstrikes on the outer defenses of Aleppo City while ground artillery and rocket systems targeted the urban center. Russia conducted many of these operations at night.[8]

Russian officers repeatedly highlight the critical role played by information warfare in offensive operations. Dvornikov stresses that information warfare was one of the most effective assets used in urban combat operations in Syria, particularly Aleppo City, Deir ez-Zor City, and the Eastern Ghouta Suburbs of Damascus. His definition of “information warfare” remains unclear but likely includes the use of targeted humanitarian assistance, on-the-ground negotiations with combatants, and messaging campaigns on the radio and social media. Lapin similarly suggests that “humanitarian operations” led to military victories in Aleppo City and Eastern Ghouta.[9] Dvornikov notes that information warfare directly affected global public opinion of operations by Russia in Syria.[10] He may be alluding to the highly-centralized state propaganda campaign intended to portray Russia as the leading actor against ISIS.[11]

Russian officers praised the use of local negotiations to clear urban areas and divide their opponents. The Russian Armed Forces allegedly brokered the majority of negotiated settlements with opposition forces in Syria.[12] Vdovin states that civilian populations often did not have strong allegiances to opposition forces and displayed a willingness to negotiate the peaceful surrender of urban areas. He claims that evacuations of more hardline opposition groups unwilling to reconcile “took place under the personal guarantees of our officers” in Syria.[13] These political lines of effort also enabled attempts to turn opposition forces against one another. Russia uses Sunni Muslims in the Russian Armed Forces to interface with opposition groups in Syria.[14] Russia frequently deploys military police units from regions with a high concentration of Sunni Muslims - such as Chechnya, Dagestan, North Ossetia, and Ingushetia - to broker reconciliations and enforce order in Syria. These units are highly valuable as political representatives due to their linguistic and religious alignment with Syrian Sunnis as well as their official association with Russia rather than Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russian officers promote the use of electronic warfare to disrupt planning and coordination by adversaries. Vdovin notes that Russia was able to exploit the common use of open radio channels for communication and planning by opposition forces in Syria. He emphasizes that ground commanders should take advantage of the lack of operational-level coordination and planning by opposition groups by isolating individual opposition commanders.[15] Russia may have used its electronic warfare capabilities to effectively jam cell phone and radio signals on battlefields in Syria similar to its prior operations in Ukraine. ISW cannot independently assess the effectiveness of electronic warfare operations in Syria at this time.

Dvornikov claims that Russia created an entity directly responsible for countering attacks by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Dvornikov stated that the Russian Armed Forces stood up a UAV Control Group headed by a senior shift officer with the mission to coordinate the use of electronic warfare, ground and aviation forces, and communications equipment against the threat of UAVs. Russia experienced multiple drone swarm attacks against its Hmeimim Airbase and Tartus Naval Facility in 2018. Some of these attacks - likely launched by opposition groups backed by Turkey - successfully damaged Russian aircraft at Hmeimim. The formation of this coordination body may partially explain recent successes in disrupting additional drone attacks against Russia on the Syrian Coast.[16]

Russian officers also highlight the importance of combat engineering in offensive and defensive operations in Syria. The Russian Armed Forces witnessed the widespread use of tunnels by opposition forces in Damascus, Homs Province, and Deir ez-Zor City, according to Lapin and Dvornikov. Opposition units used these tunnels to travel between defensive positions in urban areas and stealthily approach pro-regime positions during assaults, according to Dvornikov. The opposition also used these tunnels to deploy landmines and sabotage regime-held positions. Vdovin recommends the use of counter-tunnels and “anti-tunnel ditches” to manage the use of tunnels in future conflicts.[17] Russian officers conversely highlight the innovation of pro-regime forces in repurposing civilian construction equipment for defensive operations in Syria. Dvornikov in particularly praises the SAA Tiger Forces for the development of the “Syrian Shaft” - the tactic of using civilian construction equipment to rapidly build barriers of sand with gaps through which armored vehicles can maneuver and provide fire support.[18] The Tiger Forces used the ‘Syrian Shaft’ to attack stationary targets such as artillery and mortar positions while concealing and protecting their advancing armor.[19]

Russia’s new way of war will have significant implications for the U.S. and NATO. The new doctrines and methods of warfare detailed above come at a much lower cost than the traditional large-scale deployments of conventional forces practiced by the Soviet Union. These innovations are suited to the weak economy of modern Russia. Their emphasis on coalition warfare and information operations also allow Russia to continue to obfuscate its aggressive foreign policy around the globe. The Kremlin will almost certainly implement these lessons learned in order to advance its strategic objective to reassert itself as a global power at the expense of the U.S. and NATO. The West should prioritize deterrence against this developing multi-domain threat rather than the conventional strength of the Russian Armed Forces.

[1] S. L. Pechurov and A. N. Sidorin, [“Lessons from Coalition Wars in Interpreting Western Military Theory,”] Voennaya Mysl’, April 2017,
[2] [“Ten Civilians in Syria Were Hit by Militants in Idlib,”] Interfax, October 25, 2018, https://www.interfax(.)ru/world/635102.
[3] “Reconciliation Process in Syria Supported by 1,475 Settlements,” TASS, April 30, 2017, http://tass(.)com/world/944035.
[4] A.V. Dvornikov, [“Headquarters for New Wars,”] Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kur'yer, July 23, 2018, https://vpk-news(.)ru/articles/43971.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ralph Shield, [“Russian Airpower’s Success in Syria: Assessing Evolution in Kinetic Counterinsurgency,”] Slavic Military Studies, February 2018,
[8] Dvornikov, [“Headquarters for New Wars,”] July 23, 2018.
[9] A.P. Lapin, [“Syrian Academy,”] Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kur'yer, April 24, 2018, https://vpk-news(.)ru/articles/42359.
[10] Dvornikov, [“Headquarters for New Wars,”] July 23, 2018. .
[11] “Russia Versus ISIL in Syria,” Sputnik, https://sputniknews(.)com/trend/russia_versus_isil_in_syria/.
[12] Dvornikov, [“Headquarters for New Wars,”] July 23, 2018.
[13] A. V. Vdovin, [“An Adaptive Approach to the Use of Forces and Means to Combat Terrorists from the Experience of Armed Conflicts Outside of Russia,”] Voennaya Mysl’, May 2018,
[14] Kamal Alam, “Russia's Strategy in Syria Shows How to Win a Middle East War,” Middle East Eye, July 9, 2018,
[15] Vdovin, [“An Adaptive Approach to the Use of Forces and Means to Combat Terrorists from the Experience of Armed Conflicts Outside of Russia,”] May 2018.
[16] “Drone Attack on Russia’s Syrian Airbase Was Elaborate Pentagon Operation, Says Expert,” TASS, October 25, 2018, http://tass(.)com/defense/1027834.
[17] Vdovin, [“An Adaptive Approach to the Use of Forces and Means to Combat Terrorists from the Experience of Armed Conflicts Outside of Russia,”] May 2018.
[18] Dvornikov, [“Headquarters for New Wars,”] July 23, 2018.
[19] [“The Syrian Shaft’ and Tank Carousel,”] Voennoe Obozrenie, October 10, 2017, https://topwar(.)ru/126788-siriyskiy-val-i-tankovaya-karusel.html.

Syria Situation Report: October 25 - November 8, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

This graphic marks the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and Syria Direct. The map depicts significant developments in the war in Syria during the period October 25 - November 8, 2018.

Click image to enlarge.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Russia in Review: The Gerasimov Doctrine Is Here To Stay

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.

Special Topic Update: Russian Military Doctrine and Lessons Learned in Syria and Ukraine

Authors: Mason Clark and Catherine Harris with Jennifer Cafarella

Key Takeaway: The U.S. and NATO are preparing for the wrong type of war with Russia. The Russian Armed Forces has determined that hybrid warfare will characterize future conflict and is actively preparing for that future. NATO in turn remains excessively focused on the conventional threat. Russia is developing its military doctrine for hybrid warfare through discourse among high-ranking military officers in military journals based on their experience in conflicts abroad, namely Syria and Ukraine. The pattern of these discussions is similar to the discourse that shaped military thought and development in the Soviet Union. These doctrinal changes will shape and guide the Kremlin’s broader effort to modernize the Russian Armed Forces in support of its strategic objective to rebuild the global power of a revisionist Russia.

Russia is learning lessons for future wars from its combat experience in Syria and Ukraine. Russia has experienced both successes and failures in its invasion of Eastern Ukraine and its intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Its high-level military discourse seeks to understand these lessons. Russian military publications currently emphasize the need to apply lessons learned from both conflicts in order to adapt to the changing nature of future conflicts. Russian officers are specifically highlighting current gaps in modernization priorities and seeking to rewrite components of military doctrine accordingly. The lessons taken from their involvement in Ukraine include the importance of information campaigns and special operations actions as well as the effective use of poorly-equipped proxy forces.[1] The lessons derived from their campaign in Syria include the importance of coalition-building and management, the need to create a unified information space to streamline decision-making, the effective use of air and naval assets in support of proxy ground forces, and the refinement of tactics to combat militant groups.[2]

These lessons are not always rooted in reality. Some clearly come from the officers' perceptions of events on the ground while others simply reflect the authors' transposition of desired points onto the battlefields of Syria and Ukraine. ISW's Russia Team has not undertaken to verify the validity of these claimed experiences because perceptions are what matter in the shaping of military intellectual discourse. The Russian Armed Forces will likely alter its modernization, training, and deployment of forces in the future based on these perceptions and writings regardless of their accuracy or adherence to events on the ground. 

The Russian Armed Forces is working through significant doctrinal changes in high-level military publications based on its combat experiences abroad. Both Russia and the Soviet Union have historically worked through major doctrinal issues in military journals before implementing results at the institutional level. Current discourse in prominent military journals such as Voennaya Mysl’ and Voyenno-promyshlennyy Kur'yer (VPK) reflects the understanding that Russia should shift its modernization priorities to prepare for unconventional “hybrid” warfare. Russian officers note that “new forms and ways of achieving political and strategic goals have been found by initiating local wars [and] conflicts; political, economic, [and] information pressure; and subversive actions within the opposing state” and Russia must therefore develop the capabilities and structures to bolster these non-military operations.[3] 

Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov articulated this requirement in 2013 in an article entitled “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight” - referred to by some as the Gerasimov Doctrine.[4] The West’s preoccupation with the conventional military threat posed by Russia has led some to push back against the notion of a coherent Gerasimov Doctrine.[5] But Russian officers of all ranks do not doubt either its existence or its dominance. Russia’s operations in Ukraine and Syria put Gerasimov’s ideas into practice. Major Russian military journals are now incorporating insight from these conflicts in order to inform future planning for the unconventional and hybrid conflicts discussed by Gerasimov. These articles are part of a clear effort to drive the doctrine deep into the institutional thought of the Russian Armed Forces, which would likely shape its development for years to come. The Gerasimov Doctrine is here to stay.

Russia’s effort to reform its military doctrine is a key component of the Kremlin’s objective to modernize the Russian Armed Forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin has prioritized large-scale military reform after the exposure of significant shortcomings in the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. Russia has pushed forward structural and doctrinal changes in addition to hardware modernization as part of its strategic objective to expand and strengthen the Russian Armed Forces. Some of these changes emphasize the integration of military and non-military bodies to achieve political and strategic objectives. Other changes involve the development of new capabilities and doctrine to address the growing prominence of electronic and information warfare; new technological developments that increase pace of warfare; and the preeminence of long-range standoff systems such as cruise missiles.[6] 

The U.S. and NATO are preparing to fight and win the wrong type of war against Russia. The U.S. aims to modernize and expand its military capabilities in the event of a large-scale conventional conflict with Russia as stated by the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy. The lessons learned being debated by the Russian Armed Forces suggest that Russia does not intend to fight this type of war against the U.S. or NATO. Russia instead is attempting to offset - rather than match - the capabilities of the U.S. and NATO. The West should expect Russia to bring to bear significant non-military capabilities supported by conventional military force in future conflicts. The U.S. and NATO must reorient their modernization priorities to confront this developing form of unconventional warfare and counter a revisionist Russia that is actively attempting to fracture NATO. 

ISW will publish future products that analyze the specific lessons learned by Russia in Syria and Ukraine, and identify the consequent requirements moving forward for U.S. and NATO.

[1] [“Friction and Turbulence in Hybrid War,”] A.A. Bartosh, Voennaya Mysl’, January 2018,; [“Features of Tactical Intelligence in a Hybrid War,”] Yu. A. Popkov, Voennaya Mysl’, August 2017,; [“Lessons from Coalition Wars in Interpreting Western Military Theory,”] S. L. Pechurov and A. N. Sidorin, Voennaya Mysl’, April 2017,
[2] [“To the Question of Domination in Aerospace,”] A. V. Rudenko, O. V. Milenin, and A. V. Bykadorov, Voennaya Mysl’, March 2017,; [“Features of Tactical Intelligence in a Hybrid War,”] Yu. A. Popkov, Voennaya Mysl’, August 2017,; [“Lessons from Coalition Wars in Interpreting Western Military Theory,”] S. L. Pechurov and A. N. Sidorin, Voennaya Mysl’, April 2017,; [“An Adaptive Approach to the Use of Forces and Means to Combat Terrorists from the Experience of Armed Conflicts Outside of Russia,”] A. V. Vdovin, Voennaya Mysl’, May 2018,
[3] [“Evolution of the Essence and Content of the Concept of "War" in the 21st Century,”] S. G. Chekinov and S. A. Bogdanov, Voennaya Mysl’, January 2017,
[4] [“The Value of Science Is in the Foresight,”] Valery Gerasimov, VPK, March 5, 2016, https://vpk-news(.)ru/sites/default/files/pdf/VPK_08_476.pdf.
[5] “I’m Sorry for Creating the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine,” Mark Galeotti, March 5, 2018, Foreign Policy,
[6] [“Evolution of the Essence and Content of the Concept of "War" in the 21st Century,”] S. G. Chekinov and S. A. Bogdanov, Voennaya Mysl’, January 2017,

Friday, October 26, 2018

Syria Situation Report: October 11 - 24, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

This graphic marks the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and Syria Direct. The map depicts significant developments in the war in Syria during the period October 11 - October 24, 2018.

Click image to enlarge.

Russia in Review: October 18 - 25, 2018

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.

Reporting Period: October 18 - 25, 2018

Author: Jack Ulses

Forecast: Russia is attempting to undermine Western efforts to constrain the Kremlin. Moscow may exploit proposals to modernize the Kosovo Security Force to fuel regional ethnic tensions and call for the removal of the NATO Mission in Kosovo. The Kremlin is also setting conditions to evade Western sanctions in Egypt and may export this model to other emerging markets such as Vietnam and Indonesia.

The Kremlin may attempt to marginalize NATO as a security guarantor in Kosovo. The Kosovo Parliament approved draft legislation on October 18 to expand the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) from 2,500 to 8,000 personnel.[1] The body is expected to vote on the final reading of the bill in the near term.[2] Legislators have not offered any clear reasons for its passage at this time but the measure may have gained urgency amidst recent interference by ethnic Serbs and Russia in the Balkans. The legislation has regardless inflamed ethnic tensions in Kosovo. Serbia reportedly pressured ethnic Kosovar Serbs to resign from the KSF following the initial proposed expansion in June 2018.[3] The Kremlin is well-positioned to exploit these tensions to destabilize the wider Balkans. Russia could attempt to link the KSF to ongoing nationalist movements among ethnic Albanians in order to encourage recruitment for paramilitary groups of ethnic Serbs such as the Serbian Honor.[4] The KSF’s expansion could also embolden newly-elected Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik to call for a similar reinforcement of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Tensions over the measure could also spoil negotiations over a land-swap agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. Russia could ultimately use the potential for ethnic tensions linked to the successful expansion of the KSF as a justification to call for the removal of the NATO Mission in Kosovo.[5]

The Kremlin is setting conditions to evade Western sanctions in Egypt. Russia announced that construction has begun on an exclusive industrial zone located on the Suez Canal prior to the recent visit of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to Moscow.[6] The Kremlin has sought to increase its influence in Egypt in order to secure access to strategic basing on the Mediterranean Sea and undermine U.S. influence in North Africa. Russia could use the new industrial zone as a vector to evade sanctions from the West. The Russian Export Center (REC) - a state-run joint stock company that supports overseas exports by Russia - will manage the industrial zone.[7] The REC has previously supported businesses sanctioned by the West.[8] The Kremlin could use this new zone to facilitate trade in non-dollar currencies and mitigate the financial impact of future sanctions. The Kremlin could also use the zone to obfuscate its ownership of large maritime shipments and potentially assist other malign actors in sanctions evasion. Russia may consider exporting this model if successful to other global emerging markets such as Vietnam and Indonesia.[9] The Kremlin can use these developments to set conditions to pursue an aggressive foreign policy even less constrained by the potential financial impact of sanctions by the West.

[1] Muhamer Pajaziti, “Kosovo: Parliamentary debates on the creation of the army expected to start,” Ibna, October 16, 2018, www.balkaneu(.)com/kosovo-parliamentary-debates-on-the-creation-of-the-army-expected-to-start/; Die Morina, “Kosovo President Warns Govt Over its Army Plans,” Balkan Insight, September 13, 2018, www.balkaninsight(.)com/en/article/kosovo-govt-approves-the-expand-of-competences-for-its-security-force-09-13-2018.
[2] [“Committee meeting: Committee on Internal Affairs, Security and Oversight of the Kosovo Security Force,”] Republic of Kosovo Assembly, October 23, 2018, www.kuvendikosoves(.)org/?cid=1,159,7664; Die Morina, “Kosovo Security Force competences to expand with newly-passed laws,” Prishtina Insight, October 10, 2018, https://prishtinainsight(.)com/kosovo-security-force-competences-to-expand-with-newly-passed-laws/.
[3] Dia Morina, “Belgrade 'Pressured' Serbs to Quit Kosovo Security Force,” Balkan Insight, September 19, 2018, www.balkaninsight(.)com/en/article/belgrade-pushed-kosovo-serb-ksf-members-to-resign-report-finds-09-19-2018; “KSF Serb members quit after pressure from Belgrade,” Gazetta Express, July 2, 2018, www.gazetaexpress(.)com /en/news/ksf-serb-members-quit-after-pressure-from-belgrade-174292.
[4] “Serbia puts military on high alert over incident involving ‘Kosovo special forces’,” RT, September 29, 2018, www.rt(.)com/news/439920-serbia-troops-high-alert/.
[5] Mira Kankaras Trklja, [“NATO kicks the last knife in Kosovo, Serbia is preparing the answer,”] Sputnik, October 19, 2018, https://rs.sputniknews(.)com/analize/201810191117553714-kosovo-vojska-amerika-/.
[6] “Construction of Russian Industrial Zone in Egypt Underway – Lavrov,” Sputnik, October 13, 2018, https://sputniknews(.)com/middleeast/201810131068848232-russia-egypt-lavrov-industrial-zone-creation/.
[7] [“On signing the Agreement between the Government Russian Federation and the Arab Government Of the Republic of Egypt on the creation and maintenance of conditions activities of the Russian industrial zone in the economic zone of the Suez Canal Arab Republic of Egypt,”] Russian Trade Ministry, April 30, 2018, http://static.government(.)ru/media/files/fCiWsxJxLCkTzNJXUIwQ0QODxut4RDv8.pdf; [“On approval by the Russian Party of the draft Agreement between the governments of Russia and Egypt on the creation and maintenance of conditions for the activities of the Russian industrial zone in the Suez Canal Economic Zone,”] Russian Trade Ministry, March 3, 2018, http://government(.)ru/docs/32536/.
[8] Tarek Bazza, “Russia’s Gazprom, Novatek Show Interest in Morocco’s Natural Gas,” Morocco World News, October 9, 2018, www.moroccoworldnews(.)com/2018/10/254868/russias-gazprom-novatek-show-interest-in-moroccos-natural-gas/.
[9] “Russia plans to launch four industrial zones abroad in 6 years,” TASS, September 12, 2018, http://tass(.)com/economy/1021304.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Kremlin's Campaign in Africa

By Nataliya Bugayova with Jack Ulses and Chase Johnson

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is expanding its outreach and influence in Africa. Russia is boosting its military sales and economic cooperation across Africa, entering the continent’s emerging nuclear energy market and expanding its access to mineral resources and sites for naval basing. The expansion in outreach followed a tour of five states in Africa by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in March 2018. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, Russian National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, and the heads of a number of state-owned enterprises are leading the push by Russia into Africa. Although Russia’s ambitions are primarily economic at this time, the Kremlin is adept at converting economic leverage into political gains. The U.S. should closely monitor these developments due to the growing strategic importance of Africa, the expansion into Africa by China, and the broader campaign by the Kremlin to undermine the U.S. globally.

This initial assessment examines the Kremlin’s objectives in Africa, the timing and the focus of its activities, and their implications for the U.S

The Kremlin is pursuing economic objectives with geostrategic implications in Africa. Russia primarily seeks access to resources, new markets, shipping routes, and additional naval basing in Africa. These efforts fit within its goal to establish a new multipolar world order. The Kremlin aims to counterbalance both the U.S. and China in Africa. It also likely aims to keep pace with other regional actors investing in Africa including Turkey and the Gulf States. Russia also intends to generate influence over powerbrokers that it can convert into political gains, including support from the African voting bloc in the United Nations.

The Kremlin’s campaign in Africa is driven by both opportunity and necessity. Russia likely perceives a ripe opportunity in Africa amidst a drawdown in economic support by the U.S. and Europe. The Kremlin nonetheless cannot compete with the volume of foreign aid from the U.S. or investment from China. Russia is instead focusing on its comparative advantage in certain sectors valued by local powerbrokers including energy, mineral resource exploitation, and weapons as well as growth markets in agriculture, nuclear energy, and hydrology.[1] The Kremlin could use these potential revenue streams to mitigate the negative economic effects of sanctions and diversify away from its long-term dependence on oil. Russia is managing its expansion into Africa by leveraging relationships, networks, and expertise dating to the former Soviet Union. It is also exploiting its increased influence and infrastructure in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Kremlin is pursuing several simultaneous lines of effort in Africa:

1. The Kremlin is attempting to secure military basing in Africa. Russia holds a long-standing goal to secure additional strategic basing as warned by ISW in March 2017.[2] The Kremlin seeks basing in Africa in order secure access to key trade routes and further project its military and economic power. The Kremlin may ultimately intend to contest access to maritime chokepoints in the Suez Canal and the Bab al-Mandab Strait. Russia announced plans to build a naval logistics center in Eritrea on August 31.[3] The facility would overlook major shipping routes through the Red Sea. The Russian Foreign Ministry is now pushing for sanctions relief for Eritrea in a likely bid to facilitate its operations in the country and encourage further concessions to Moscow.[4] Russia similarly discussed building a naval supply center in Sudan as recently as June 2018.[5] The Kremlin may also be pursuing a naval base in Somaliland on the Horn of Africa.[6] Moreover, a Russian Defense Ministry source stated in July 2018 that Russian PMCs were being used as security for a Russian base under construction in Burundi.[7] In North Africa, Russia likely holds basing aspirations in Egypt and Libya.[8] The Kremlin could ultimately intend to use former bases in Eastern Libya as part of a bid to control migrant routes to Europe.[9]

2. The Kremlin is trying to capture the emerging nuclear energy market in Africa. Russia can use nuclear energy deals to market a wide range of related services including engineer training, fuel provision, and sales of defensive radar systems to protect key infrastructure.[10] Russia holds a competitive advantage in these fields relative to the U.S. and Europe.[11] Russia is also likely trying to preempt further expansion in the global nuclear energy sector by China.[12] Russia if successful could gain significant leverage over local governments via its role in nuclear energy provision similar to its influence over energy in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. [13]

Rosatom - the state-owned nuclear energy corporation of Russia - approached at least a dozen countries in Africa in 2018. Nigeria confirmed plans for the development of a nuclear power plant by Rosatom in July 2018.[14] Russia has also started initial talks on nuclear energy with Angola.[15] The Kremlin signed memorandums of understanding on atomic energy cooperation with Sudan, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018 following similar deals with Uganda and Morocco in 2017.[16] Russia already holds deals to finance and build nuclear power plants in Egypt, Turkey, and Hungary.[17]

Russia is also setting conditions for future deals by establishing Nuclear Science and Technology Centers to promote nuclear energy and train workers throughout Africa. Rosatom showcased a planned nuclear research facility at a major trade show in Zambia in August 2018.[18] Russia plans to establish a similar center in Ethiopia.[19] Rosatom similarly held a nuclear power workshop for youth in Kenya in July 2018.[20]

3. The Kremlin is expanding its security cooperation in Africa. Russia signed agreements on military cooperation with Guinea, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Madagascar, and the Central African Republic in 2018.[21] These framework agreements allow for the exchange of counterterrorism resources as well as the training of servicemen from Africa in Russia. Russia and Mozambique agreed to boost their counterterrorism cooperation in March 2018.[22] Russia and the Southern African Development Community signed a memo on military technical cooperation on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in August 2018.[23]

The Kremlin also pursued additional military sales in Africa in 2018. Russia National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov both stressed that Russia would like to expand its military cooperation with Algeria – one of the largest buyers of weapons from Russia in Africa - in 2018.[24] The Russia Defense Ministry provided small arms, ammunition, and instructors to the Central African Republic in early 2018. Russia will supply armaments and military training to the DRC[25]. Lavrov later met with Rwandan President Paul Kagame to discuss the delivery of air defense systems to Rwanda in June 2018.[26] Russia reportedly continues to supply weapons to a number of countries across Africa including Egypt, South Africa, Algeria, Mali, and Angola.[27]

4. The Kremlin is pursuing greater access to natural resources in Africa. Russia is currently prioritizing exploration for hydrocarbons and rare minerals in Africa. The Kremlin likely views resource extraction as more cost-effective in Africa than remote regions of Russia. Rosgeologia - a state-owned geological exploration company - signed an agreement with Sudan regarding natural gas in the Red Sea in July 2018.[28] Rosgeologia also signed deals with Madagascar and Algeria in 2018.[29] Gabon offered additional exploration rights to Russian oil company Zarubezhneft in 2018.[30] Mozambique is planning a similar deal on natural gas exploration with Russian oil company Rosneft.[31] Rosneft signed a deal with Libya’s National Oil Corporation in 2017.[32] Russia and Zimbabwe discussed cooperation in the diamond sector including a multi-billion joint project on platinum in March 2018.[33] Russian diamond company Alrosa secured a controlling stake in the largest diamond deposit in Angola in 2017.[34] Russian mining company Nordgold plans to expand its operations in Burkina Faso.[35] Rosatom is also attempting to obtain licenses for uranium exploration in Namibia.[36]

5. Russia is using Private Military Contractors (PMCs) to advance its campaign in Africa. Russian PMCs are training local security forces and supporting the push for mineral resources in Africa. The Russian Embassy in Sudan confirmed the presence of Russian PMCs in Sudan in July 2018.[37] Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir confirmed that "specialists" from Russia hold long-term training contracts for the Sudanese Armed Forces.[38] Russian PMCs likely also use Sudan as a staging area for operations in the Central African Republic (CAR). Russia has confirmed that at least 175 Russians - mostly “civilians” - are deployed to train local security forces in the CAR.[39] These trainers include fighters from the Russian Wagner PMC Group operating in Ukraine, Syria, and Africa.[40] Russia reportedly transfers these fighters from Syria to the CAR via Sudan.[41] The PMCs likely provide protection for resource extraction efforts by Russia. Russia holds concessions to explore for natural resources in the CAR as of March 2018.[42] The Kremlin is reportedly working to establish gold mines and explore for diamonds in the CAR.[43] The PMCs are also acting as political brokers to arrange negotiations between different factions in the CAR on behalf of Russia.[44] The Kremlin leverages PMCs in its global campaigns given their flexibility and the deniability provided to Russia.

6. Russia is expanding exports of its agricultural products to Africa. Russia is trying to enter wheat markets in Algeria, Libya, and Morocco.[45] Algeria - which predominantly imports wheat from France - will accept its first trial shipment of wheat from Russia in 2018.[46] Morocco will also remove its wheat tariff by the end of 2018 as a result of a request from Russia.[47] Russia has already established itself as a major source of imported wheat in Egypt. Russia holds a competitive advantage in wheat due to its lower operating costs.[48]

Results and Implications

The Kremlin has thus far experienced varying degrees of success in Africa. Russia has undoubtedly made significant advances in Africa. However, some of its recent efforts have stumbled. For example, the Kremlin failed to secure a major nuclear energy deal in South Africa that had been agreed upon by Russian President Vladimir Putin and former South African President Jacob Zuma.[49] South Africa withdrew from the deal due to perceived corruption under Zuma. Putin has attempted to resume the talks with no success thus far.[50] Russia is trying to pursue nuclear cooperation with Uganda. China will, however, help Uganda build its nuclear power plants. Russia’s basing aspirations in Africa are also advancing at a very slow pace.[51] Russia has not yet secured its desired naval basing in Egypt, Libya, or Sudan.

The U.S. should watch and be prepared to counterbalance outreach by the Kremlin in Africa. The U.S. has sufficient strategic interests at stake to remain committed to Africa.[52] The Kremlin’s campaign in Africa ultimately supports its grand strategic objective to weaken the U.S. globally and establish a multi-polar world order. Russia could gain strategic positioning on two strategic maritime chokepoints - the Suez Canal and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. The Kremlin’s actions also have long-term implications for the efficacy of coercive measures such as sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Russia. The Kremlin’s campaign in Africa could ultimately alleviate these pressures to some degree by diversifying its revenue streams and expanding its diplomatic support at the UN. Its economic engagement in Africa will raise the political cost and complexity of potential future sanctions by the West on Russia. There is also a substantial potential for illicit exploitation of natural resources given the generally-weak governance in Africa. The U.S. holds an explicit obligation to care about such exploitation per the Dodd-Frank Act Section 1502, in which the U.S. Congress expressed an interest in protecting against mineral resource exploitation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other states in Africa. The U.S. also holds an interest in stemming the human rights abuses resulting from the sale of weapons by Russia to hostile regimes in Africa. The Kremlin’s backing of these regime also stands to worsen popular grievances and set favorable conditions for Salafi-Jihadist groups in Africa.[53]

[1] “Rosatom signs contract for small scale hydro facility in the Republic of South Africa,” Rosatom, January 29, 2018, www.rosatom(.)ru/en/press-centre/news/rosatom-signs-contract-for-small-scale-hydro-facility-in-the-republic-of-south-africa.
[2] Genevieve Casagrande, “Russia moves to supplant U.S. role,” Institute for the Study of War, March 22, 2017,
[3] “Russia In Talks With Eritrea To Set Up 'Logistics Center' On Red Sea Coast,” RFERL, September 1, 2018,
[4] “Russia-Eritrea Relations Grow with Planned Logistics Center,” VOA, September 2, 2018,
[5] “Russia, Sudan are discussing naval supply centre, not military base: diplomat,” Sudan Tribune, June 9, 2018, www(.); [“The Russian Navy negotiates to create a logistics center in Sudan,”] Sputnik, September 6, 2018, mundo(.); [“Russian Ambassador appreciates prospects for building a naval base in Sudan,”] RIA Novosti, September 6, 2018, www.ria(.)ru/world/20180609/1522412113.html.
[6] Ciaran McGrath, “Putin flexes muscles with plans for new African base - with chilling echoes of Suez,” Express, April 18, 2018,
[7] [“Fighters of PMC "Wagner" began training at the cottage Prigogine,”] Meduza, July 6, 2018, https://meduza(.)io/feature/2018/07/06/boytsy-chvk-vagner-nachinali-trenirovki-na-dache-prigozhina ; [“In Syria, a new Russian PMC began to fight,”] TV Rain, July 5, 2018, https://tvrain(.)ru/news/patriot-467148/?from=rss.
[8] Emily Estelle, “A Strategy for Success in Libya,” Critical Threats Project, November 2017,
[9] Tom Newton, “Putin Troops in Libya,” The Sun, October 8, 2018,
[10] “Russia to supply radar for protecting nuclear power plant in Pakistan,” TASS, August 30, 2018, www.tass(.)com/defense/1019325.
[11] “The world relies on Russia to build its nuclear power plants,” The Economist, August 2, 2018,
[12] “China to help Uganda build nuclear power plants,” Reuters, May 17, 2018,
[13] Alissa de Carbonnel and Andrius Sytas, “Baltic States to decouple power grids from Russia, link to EU by 2025,” Reuters, June 28, 2018,
[14] Darrell Proctor, “Russia Will Help Nigeria Develop Nuclear Plant,” Power Mag, July 1, 2018,
[15] “Russia discusses African nuclear power prospects,” World Nuclear News, March 8, 2018,
[16] “Press release on Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov’s meeting with Uganda's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Henry Oryem Okello,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, May 22, 2018, www.mid(.)ru/en/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3230839; “Uganda, Russia enter economic, scientific deal,” Edge, May 26, 2018, https://edge(.)ug/2018/05/26/ uganda-russia-enter-economic-scientific-deal/; [“Rosatom and the Sudan Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity Sign a number of cooperation documents,”] Rosatom, May 16, 2018, https://rosatom(.)ru/journalist/news/rosatom-i-ministerstvo-vodnykh-resursov-irrigatsii-i-elektroenergetiki-sudana-podpisali-ryad-dokumen/; “Russia and Rwanda sign a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in peaceful uses of atomic energy,” Rosatom, June 22, 2018, www.rosatom(.)ru/en/press-centre/news/russia-and-rwanda-signed-a-memorandum-of-understanding-on-cooperation-in-the-field-of-peaceful-uses-/; “Russia and Uganda sign a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in peaceful uses of atomic energy,” Rosatom, June 19, 2017, http://www.rosatom(.)ru/en/press-centre/news/russia-and-uganda-sign-a-memorandum-of-understanding-on-cooperation-in-peaceful-uses-of-atomic-energ/; [“Morocco and Rosatom have signed a cooperation agreement on the peaceful atom,”] TASS, October 11, 2017, www.tass(.)ru/ekonomika/4636660; “Russia and Congo to cooperate in nuclear power,” World Nuclear News, February 14, 2018,; “Russia, Rwanda establish nuclear energy ties,” World Nuclear News, June 27, 2018,
[17] “Hungary and Russia sign agreement on Paks nuclear power plant,” Daily News Hungary, January 14, 2014, https://dailynewshungary(.)com/hungary-and-russia-sign-agreement-on-paks-nuclear-power-plant; “Russia discusses African nuclear power prospects,” World Nuclear News, March 8, 2018,; Nataliya Bugayova and Jack Ulses, “The Kremlin's Campaign in Egypt,” Institute for the Study of War, June 20, 2018,; “Turkey grants Rosatom construction license for first unit of Akkuyu nuclear plant,” Reuters, April 2, 2018,
[18] “Zambia Center for Nuclear Science and Technology premiered at the largest Zambia trade show,” Rosatom, September 30, 2018, www.rosatom(.)ru/en/press-centre/news/zambia-center-for-nuclear-science-and-technology-premiered-at-the-largest-zambia-trade-show/.
[19] “Russia plans to build nuclear facility for Ethiopia,” Borkena, March 4, 2018, www.borkena(.)com/ 2018/03/04/russia-nuclear-facility-ethiopia-mof/.
[20] “Rosatom to host online nuclear power workshop for Kenyan youth,” Biztech Africa, July 7, 2018,
[21] [“Russia has signed an agreement on military cooperation with Burundi,”] RIA Novosti, August 23, 2018, https://ria(.)ru/defense_safety/20180823/1527113792.html; “Russia and Burundi signed an agreement on military cooperation,” Teller Report, August 23, 2018, http://tellerreport(.)com/news/--russia-and-burundi-signed-an-agreement-on-military-cooperation-.Sk0bTjhUQ.html; “Russia and Guinea signs intergovernmental agreement of military cooperation,” Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation,; Daria Mikhalina, [“Russia signed an agreement on military cooperation with Burkina Faso,”] TV Zvezda, August 21, 2018, https://tvzvezda(.)ru/news/forces/content/201808211416-b0cl.htm; “Russia, Madagascar sign agreement on military cooperation,” TASS, October 5, 2018, www.tass(.)com/defense/1024770; “Russia Signs Military Cooperation Deal With Central African Republic,” RFE/RL, August 22, 2018,
[22] Borges Nhamire, “Russia Boosts Military Cooperation With Mozambique After Attacks,” Bloomberg, March 7, 2018,
[23] “Russia boosts military-technical cooperation with southern African countries,” TASS, July 27, 2018, http://tass(.)com/politics/1015066.
[24] [“More confidence: Patrushev in Algeria discussed the joint struggle against terrorism,”], January 1, 2018, https://rg(.)ru/2018/01/31/patrushev-v-alzhire-obsudil-sovmestnuiu-borbu-s-terrorizmom.html; [“Russia intends to develop military-technical cooperation with Algeria,”] TASS, February 19, 2018, https://tass(.)ru/politika/4971531; “Algeria has bought half of the Russian weapons sold in Africa,” Middle East Monitor, July 20, 2018, www.middleeastmonitor(.)com/20180720-algeria-has-bought-half-of-the-russian-weapons-sold-in-africa.
[25] “Russia builds military ties with Africa,” DW, June 1, 2018,
[26] “Rwanda Wants Russia to Sign Deal on Air Defense Systems ASAP – Ambassador,” Sputnik, March 9, 2018, https://sputniknews(.)com/africa/201809031067705026-rwanda-deal-defence/.
[27] Andrew McGregor, “Defense or Domination? Building Algerian Power with Russian Arms,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 5, 2018,
[28] [“Rosgeologiya will start exploration on the Sudan shelf in 2019,”] RIA Novosti, November 9, 2018, https://ria(.)ru/economy/20180911/1528257947.html; [“Rosgeology will explore and develop a block on the Red Sea shelf,”] Rosegeology, July 23, 2018, www.rosgeo(.)com/ru/content/rosgeologiya-provedet-razvedku-i-osvoenie-bloka-na-shelfe-krasnogo-morya; “Rosgeologia signs exploration contract with Sudan to explore the Red Sea,” Interfax, July 25, 2018, http://interfaxenergy(.)com/gasdaily/article/31888/ rosgeologia-signs-exploration-contract-with-sudan-to-explore-the-red-sea.
[29] [“Russia and Madagascar will cooperate in the field of mineral exploration,”] RT, May 24, 2018, https://russian.rt(.)com/business/news/516378-rossiya-madagaskar-pmef; [“Russia will cooperate with Madagascar in mineral exploration,”] TASS, May 24, 2018, https://tass(.)ru/pmef-2018/articles/5229718; “Rosgeo steps up cooperation with Algeria,” Rosgeology, July 11, 2018, www.rosgeo(.)com/en/content/ rosgeo-steps-cooperation-algeria.
[30] [“Gabon offers "Zarubezhneft" new fields,”] Tekno Blog, October 16, 2018, https://teknoblog(.)ru/2018/07/15/91030; [“Putin declared that Russia and Gabon can work together on a settlement in the CAR,”] TASS, July 14, 2018, https://tass(.)ru/politika/5374075.
[31] “Mozambique plans to sign gas agreement with Rosneft, ExxonMobil by yearend – Minister Pacheco in Russia,” Club of Mozambique, May 29, 2018, https://clubofmozambique(.)com/news/mozambique-plans-to-sign-gas-agreement-with-rosneft-exxonmobil-by-yearend-minister-pacheco-in-russia/.
[32] Aidan Lewis, “Russia's Rosneft, Libya's NOC sign oil offtake deal,” Reuters, February 21, 2017,
[33] MacDonald Dzirutwe, “Russia seeks military cooperation, diamond, platinum projects in Zimbabwe,” Reuters, March 8, 2018,
[34] “Russia's Alrosa secures stake in Angola's largest diamond deposit,” Reuters, May 23, 2017,
[35] “Nordgold plans to rapidly advance exploration at Burkina Faso mine,” Mining Weekly, May 20, 2018, www.miningweekly(.)com/article/nordgold-plans-to-rapidly-advance-exploration-at-burkina-faso-mine-2018-07-20.
[36] “Russia and Argentina may invest $250 mln in development of uranium deposits,” TASS, January 23, 2018, http://tass(.)com/economy/986523.
[37] “Meeting with President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir,” President of Russia, July 14, 2018, http://en. kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/57998; [“Putin and Bashir underlined success in military-technical cooperation,”] Facebook, July 16, 2018, www.facebook(.)com/Rusembsudan/posts/2077291532513195
[38] [“Putin and Bashir underlined success in military-technical cooperation,”]; “Meeting with President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir,” President of Russia, July 14, 2018, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/ news/57998.
[39] “Russian sings military deal with the Central African Republic: agencies,” Reuters, August 21, 2018,
[40] Neil Hauer, “Russia’s Favorite Mercenaries,” The Atlantic, August 27, 2018,
[41] “Russian presence in Central African Republic,” Conflict Intelligence Team, April 23, 2018, https(://)
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[46] Agnieszka de Sousa and Anatoly Medetsky, “Europe Has Most to Lose from Russia's Expanding Wheat Empire,” Bloomberg, October 2, 2018,
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[48] James Marson, “Struggling U.S. Farmers Worry About a Resurgent Russia,” Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2018,
[49] Lynsey Chutel, “How two South African women stopped Zuma and Putin’s $76 billion Russian nuclear deal,” Quartz Africa, April 25, 2018, https://qz(.)com/africa/1260877/how-two-south-african-women-stopped-zuma-and-putins-76-billion-nuclear-deal/.
[50] Alexander Winning, “Russia's Putin raises nuclear deal at Ramaphosa meeting during BRICS,” Reuters, July 30, 2018,
[51] “China to help Uganda build nuclear power plants,” Reuters, May 17, 2018,
[52] Emily Estelle, “America Ignores Africa to Its Peril,” The National Interest, July 23, 2018,
[53] Emily Estelle, “A Strategy for Success in Libya,” Critical Threats Project, November 2017,