UA-69458566-1

Monday, April 22, 2019

Ukraine's New President: The Stakes for Ukraine and the West

By Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaways
  • Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won the second round of the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Elections on April 21. Zelensky may yet pleasantly surprise his critics and serve as an effective reform-oriented president. Until he does the U.S. should recognize the risks his presidency poses for Ukraine and the West.
  • The Kremlin likely sees Zelensky as an opportunity to gradually regain economic and political influence in Ukraine. The West and Ukraine could risk mistaking the Kremlin’s likely shift in approach for a shift in the underlying goals held by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
  • Other actors including oligarchs and allies of the former pro-Russian Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych also perceive an opportunity for a comeback under Zelensky. Their regressive agenda has the potential to disrupt critical reforms in Ukraine.
  • Ukraine has much to lose, including its course towards a free and open society and its integration with the West. The ability of Ukrainian reformists to consolidate ahead of the October 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections will be key to Ukraine’s ability to preserve its gains since the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution.
  • The West can also play a major role in helping preserve these gains. The West must nonetheless strike a nuanced balance between supporting reforms and not inadvertently enabling Russia's interests in Ukraine.
Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won the second round of the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Elections held on April 21. His presidency presents at least six key risks for Ukraine and the West.

RISKS

Risk #1: Zelensky is vulnerable to external influences.

Zelensky lacks well-defined policy positions. He has shared only a limited vision for Ukraine’s future rooted in populist promises such as direct democracy via referendums.[1] His team is the primary source on his political platform and it is not obvious how he came to adopt its contents.[2] He has largely avoided policy debates.[3] His few public policy statements have reflected poorly on his understanding of key issues, particularly regarding national security. For example, he has stated that Ukraine “should just stop shooting” as a first step to end its conflict with Russia in Eastern Ukraine.[4] This statement ignores the nature of the conflict, multiple prior failed ceasefires violated by Russia and its proxies, and the Kremlin’s overall goals in Ukraine.

Zelensky’s lack of political experience or informed policies creates a risk of dependency on external advisors and powerbrokers. His policy team includes some reformists but there is no guarantee that they will be the dominant or longest-lived voice in his inner circle.[5] Necessary reforms will likely be deeply unpopular with both the electorate and the domestic oligarchs weighing their support for Zelensky. Oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi in particular could outcompete the reformists through his own associates who are on the team advising Zelensky.[6] The Kremlin is also almost certain to attempt to influence the personnel and policy surrounding Zelensky.

Risk #2: Kolomoiskyi’s agenda will likely have a negative impact on Ukraine’s reform progress and will not be necessarily anti-Russian.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has assessed that Kolomoyskyi holds influence over Zelensky that he seeks to use to pursue policies favorable to his business interests in Ukraine.

Kolomoyskyi’s policy preferences will likely impede or reverse the reform process in Ukraine’s critical energy and banking sectors. He intends to regain a controlling stake in oil and natural gas producer Ukrnafta as well as PrivatBank – the largest commercial bank in Ukraine – after losing major equity in both organizations under incumbent Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.[7] Kolomoyskyi will also likely attempt to entrench his interest by facilitating the creation of a coalition for Zelensky in the Ukrainian Parliament.[8] Zelensky might thus end up aligned with populists such as Yulia Tymoshenko or politicians favorable to Russia if reformists do not coalesce around him.

Kolomoyskyi is also not necessarily an opponent of Russia. Kolomoyskyi did act to halt the advance of Russian-controlled separatists in the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in 2014 by directly funding militia units. He is unlikely to intentionally empower Russia in Ukraine. He has nonetheless acted – and will continue to act – primarily in line with his business interests, which might require concessions to Russia. The Kremlin may also choose not to work directly against Kolomoyskyi given that his self-interested pursuits will likely slow domestic reform efforts and thereby indirectly support Russia’s goals in Ukraine.

Risk #3: Former powerbrokers displaced by the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014 see an opportunity to resurge.

Allies of former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, whose pro-Russian regime was run out of office after the 2014 revolution, have expressed optimism regarding Zelensky, framing him as a “chance for change” in Ukraine.[9] These actors likely perceive an opportunity to regain political and economic influence in Ukraine. Their return would bring regressive policies likely to curb reform gains and civil liberties. They may also seek to take revenge against reformists and other political rivals who played a role in Euromaidan.

Risk #4: Zelensky’s presidency could polarize reformists in Ukraine.

Reformists are not unified over questions regarding Zelensky’s personal competence, integrity, and independence as well as the merits of serving in his administration. The presence of reformists in the Ukrainian Government and Ukrainian Parliament is one of the major gains of the Euromaidan Revolution. For years, public service had been unattractive to reform-oriented professionals for a number of reasons. Euromaidan provided an unprecedented window of opportunity for such individuals to enter government or effectively support it from the outside, albeit still in insufficient quantities with insufficient authority. Zelensky’s presidency threatens to fracture this already fragile group and thereby reduce its sustainability and influence.

Zelensky’s victory could on the other hand provide an impetus for reformers to unite and run as a consolidated bloc in the 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections on October 27.

Risk #5: Zelensky’s presidency could provide a vector for the Kremlin to regain its influence in Ukraine.

The Kremlin understands that it will not immediately be able to regain its dominant influence over Ukraine. It is instead focusing on improving its overall position in the political landscape of Ukraine throughout the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential and Parliamentary Elections. Its interim objective is to nudge Ukraine out of alignment with the West and closer to Russia’s orbit. Its strategic objectives remain the same: to politically reorient Ukraine towards Russia and ensure that Ukraine does not become a functional democracy that could challenge the authoritarianism of the Kremlin and Putin.

The Kremlin likely perceives an opportunity to start reorienting Ukraine towards Russia’s orbit in the long-term. It had already begun to soften its domestic propaganda narrative towards Ukraine and Zelensky in anticipation of his victory in the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Elections.

If Putin manages to gain this renewed foothold in Ukraine, he will likely focus on guaranteeing long-term influence over Kyiv. The Kremlin’s likely approach could encompass elements of the following dangerous scenarios.

Gradual Trade over Rapid War

The Kremlin will likely prioritize a gradual revival of its economic presence in Ukraine in its effort to regain influence. The Kremlin can potentially exploit favorable sentiment among those segments of business class in Ukraine, which stands to benefit from renewed trade with Russia. These actors include many oligarchs as well as Yanukovych’s allies.

Russia’s economic outreach could well provide a short-term boost to Ukraine’s weak economy. The Kremlin would likely reinforce its effort with an information campaign to create the perception Ukrainians are living better.

However, this veneer of progress would conceal Ukraine’s growing economic dependence on the Kremlin. Ukrainians would in reality be surrendering their economic sovereignty and ceding any prospect of structural economic reforms. The Kremlin would likely push to roll back reforms in the energy sector and thereby reassert Ukraine’s energy dependence on Russia. Russia would aim to limit Ukraine’s domestic gas production, regain control over its transit system, and subordinate it to the natural gas monopoly wielded by the Kremlin.

The Kremlin might also choose to reduce overt military tensions in Eastern Ukraine over time, although it might increase military pressure in the short run. The Kremlin could then leverage its global propaganda machine to broadcast this decision as a step towards peace in Ukraine. The West might nonetheless view this narrative positively as it plays into a common sentiment that ‘stopping the fighting’ is more important than defending Ukraine’s sovereignty. Putin could thereby undermine sanctions against his regime by shifting only his approach rather than his underlying goals.

Away from the West

The Kremlin will also likely attempt to exploit Zelensky’s calls for referenda on Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO and the EU.[10] These proposals are inherently regressive. The Ukrainian Parliament codified Ukraine’s aspiration to join NATO and the EU in the Ukrainian Constitution. Referenda are also vulnerable to manipulation. Russia is likely to use disinformation and electoral subversion to ensure decisive defeats for these referenda, the results of which would be difficult to reverse.

Trojan Horse Inside Ukraine

The Kremlin will likely attempt to exploit Zelensky’s lack of foreign policy experience to convert Russia’s military campaign into political gains in Ukraine. Zelensky has already made several conciliatory statements on the need to meet “halfway” with Putin and establish a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine.[11] These statements reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the conflict in the Donbas. Russia illegally invaded Ukraine and built a proxy separatist force in Donetsk and Luhansk. The Kremlin retains the ability to escalate and deescalate the level of violence at will in Eastern Ukraine.

Putin has long desired to legitimize the self-proclaimed separatist republics that he created in Eastern Ukraine. Legal autonomy for the Donbas would grant the Kremlin a permanent lever of influence over Ukraine. It would also set a number of dangerous international precedents by de facto legitimizing the invasion of a sovereign nation, the principle that states have a right to intervene militarily ostensibly on behalf of related minorities, and the notion of truncated sovereignty for states that were part of the former Soviet Union. It would set a model for others to follow, namely that an aggressor can legitimize an invasion if it subsequently manipulates the internal political dynamics of the victim to “accept” its aggression.

Risk #6: Ukraine’s progress toward a free society will face challenges.

Ukraine’s current trajectory towards an open and free society should not be taken as a given. Ukraine, which faces major challenges, maintains a media landscape and civil society both capable and willing to criticize the Ukrainian Government. These liberties remain fragile despite their expansion since the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution.

Ukraine’s social progress under Zelensky will likely face converging pressures from the oligarchs, former powerbrokers, populists, and the Kremlin under Zelensky. Russia in particular has an incentive to disrupt a successful democratic model in Ukraine that could threaten Putin’s regime.

STAKES FOR THE U.S. IF THE KREMLIN REGAINS INFLUENCE IN UKRAINE

The Kremlin’s Ambitions 

Ukraine holds inherently asymmetric value to Russia. The Kremlin perceives Ukraine as not only a buffer state but also part of its cultural, economic, and military core. The Kremlin devotes a significant amount of its foreign policy bandwidth to its campaign to regain political control over Ukraine given the value Putin assigns to this goal. If the Kremlin regains its influence in Ukraine, it will likely be further emboldened and free some of its resources to focus elsewhere.

Cascading Effects in Europe 

The Kremlin intends to achieve a multi-layer zone in Europe with states that are Russia-neutral or Russia-friendly. It is working establish a core group of countries within the immediate orbit of Russia including Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova. It is also attempting to create a second outer circle of Russia-neutral states by prying Hungary, the Baltics, and other countries away from the U.S. and NATO. The Kremlin in this vein has fueled internal instability and supported populist political parties and polarizing ideologies across Europe. Russia will have additional levers to politically and militarily pressure Europe and drive further wedges within NATO if it regains dominant influence in Ukraine.

Effects on the Rules-Based International Order

Russia’s gradual restoration of influence in Ukraine would legitimize its aggressive actions, including its illegal occupation of Crimea, its invasion of Eastern Ukraine, and its continued subversion campaigns across Ukraine. Other states such as China are likely to emulate this behavior.

Loss of Insight on Russia’s Operations 

Russia’s increased influence over Ukraine will likely result in a corresponding loss of influence and access for the U.S. and Europe. The U.S. and NATO could limit their economic, defense, and government reform cooperation with Ukraine in response to its deepening ties with Russia.

All pragmatic arguments aside, it is also in the national interest of the U.S. to support the genuine aspirations of nations to achieve democratic societies rooted in the rule of law and not stand aside when an authoritarian state erodes and destroys an emerging democracy.

CONCLUSION

Zelensky’s victory thus poses risks for Ukraine’s reform progress and integration with the West. It may open an opportunity for regressive forces ranging from oligarchs and former corrupt powerbrokers to the Kremlin to regain influence in Ukraine. The ability of reformists to mature their political platform and consolidate their influence will be critical to preserve and build upon the progress made by Ukraine since the Euromaidan Revolution. The 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections will play a deciding role in this effort. The U.S. should take steps to ensure that Ukraine’s reforms do not unravel. The U.S should specifically support reformists and civil society to ensure sustained momentum in favor of political and economic reforms.

The U.S. should also work to ensure that Europe maintains its support for Ukraine and its sanctions on Russia until the Kremlin withdraws its forces and halts its aggression against Ukraine. The U.S. should help keep an international spotlight on the conflict and ensure that Ukraine – not Russia – controls the narrative about the situation in Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine will become more vulnerable to Russia the moment it disappears from Western governments’ statements. The U.S. must be alert to quiet attempts by the Kremlin to expand its influence in Ukraine and not confuse shifts in Putin’s approach with shifts in his underlying strategic goals.

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[1] [“Election Program of Volodymyr Olekcandrovich Zelensky,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, February 27, 2019, http://www.cvk.gov(.)ua/pls/vp2019/WP009?PT021F01=233&PT001F01=719.
[2] Yuriy Smirnov, [“Zelensky’s Plan. The First Ten Decisions in Case of Victory,”] Liga, April 10, 2019, https://www.liga(.)net/politics/articles/plan-zelenskogo-pervye-desyat-resheniy-v-sluchae-pobedy.
[3] [“Media Movement Calls on Zelensky to Go to the Press Before April 19,”] Radio Svoboda, April 16, 2019, https://www.radiosvoboda(.)org/a/news-mediaruh-zaklykaye-zelenskogo-vyity-do-presy/29883668.html.
[4] Roman Kravets, [“Volodymyr Zelensky: April 1 - An Honorable Day to Win the Clown,”] Ukrayinska Pravda, January 21, 2019, https://www.pravda.com(.)ua/articles/2019/01/21/7204341/.
[5] Bermet Talant, “Who Are Key People on Zelensky’s Campaign?” Kyiv Post, April 12, 2019, https://www.kyivpost.com/ukraine-politics/who-are-key-people-on-zelenskiys-campaign.html; Bermet Talant and Matthew Kupfer, “Presidential Front-Runner Zelensky Presents His Team Two Days Before Election,” April 18, 2019, https://www.kyivpost.com/ukraine-politics/presidential-front-runner-zelenskiy-presents-his-team-2-days-before-election.html.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Artem Ilyin, “Ukrainian Oligarch Kolomoyskyi’s Diminishing Influence in the Oil Market,” Hromadske, June 6, 2018, https://en.hromadske(.)ua/posts/ukrainian-oligarch-kolomoiskys-diminishing-influence-in-the-oil-market; Bermet Talant, “Kolomoyskyi Rails Against Ukraine and Poroshenko,” Kyiv Post, November 23, 2018, https://www.kyivpost.com/ukraine-politics/kolomoisky-rails-against-ukraine-and-poroshenko.html; Oleksiy Sorokin, “Update: Kolomoisky Wants the Government to Return His Former PrivatBank Shares, Court Case to Be Held on April 18,” Kyiv Post, April 8, 2019, https://www.kyivpost.com/business/oligach-kolomoisky-says-he-wants-2-billion-in-compensation-for-privatbanks-nationalization.html; Nikola Mikovic, “The Role of Oligarchs in Ukraine’s 2019 Presidential Elections,” Global Security Review, March 27, 2019, https://globalsecurityreview.com/oligarchs-2019-ukraine-presidential-elections/.
[8] [“Negotiations on a Coalition Under Zelensky Began in the Rada, - Sources,”] RBK-Ukraine, April 11, 2019, https://www.rbc(.)ua/rus/news/rade-nachalis-peregovory-koalitsii-zelenskogo-1554965733.html.
[9] Olena Lukash, Facebook, April 7, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/ElenaLukash.ua/posts/2079554865677212.
[10] [“Election Program of Volodymyr Olekcandrovich Zelensky,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, February 27, 2019, http://www.cvk.gov(.)ua/pls/vp2019/WP009?PT021F01=233&PT001F01=719.
[11] Sevodnya, [“An Exclusive Interview with Volodymyr Zelensky,”] YouTube, April 7, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqDbdqQzY7Q; [“Zelensky Is Ready to Negotiate with Putin,”] Korrespondent, April 7, 2019, https://korrespondent(.)net/ukraine/vibory2019/4083836-zelenskyi-hotov-k-perehovoram-s-putynym.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Syria Situation Report: March 30 - April 16, 2019

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

The following 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 March 30 - April 16, 2019.

Click image to enlarge.



ISIS Resurgence Update - April 2019

By Brandon Wallace

Key Takeaway: ISIS lost its last zone of territorial control in Syria on March 23, 2019, but its resurgent campaign continues to gain momentum across Iraq and Syria. ISIS is expanding its support zones and scaling up its attack campaign in key cities including Ar-Raqqa City, Mosul, and Fallujah as well as rear areas in Northern Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan.

CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE MAP


Major Changes to ISIS’s Operating Areas

Timeframe: December 19, 2018 - April 16, 2019

In Syria:
  • The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seized the last terrain controlled by ISIS in Syria on March 23, 2019. The area included a network of caves and tunnels housing tens of thousands of suspected fighters, their family members, and other civilians, posing an unexpected humanitarian challenge for the SDF. U.S. President Donald Trump issued a formal statement on the same day announcing the full liberation of “all ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq - 100% of the ‘caliphate’.”
  • The SDF transferred more than 55,000 women and children captured in the operation to the Al-Hawl Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp in Northern Syria near the Syrian-Iraqi Border. Many of the detainees are ISIS family members who publicly remain committed to the ideology. Some of them claimed that ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ordered them to surrender to the SDF in February 2019. ISIS likely intended to exploit this displacement to infiltrate, destabilize, and recruit from the camps in order to create opportunities for its resurgence. Hardcore female followers have attacked guards and other displaced persons and burned the tents of less committed families since entering the Al-Hawl IDP Camp. ISW has thus mapped the camp as both an attack and support zone.
  • ISIS has intensified and expanded its resurgent attack campaign targeting the rear areas of the SDF in Northern Syria. ISIS is concentrating its attacks along two primary sections of the ground line of communication between Deir ez-Zour Province and Hasaka Province in Eastern Syria. ISIS has conducted repeated ambushes near Suwar along Khabur River Valley including two failed assassination attempts targeting SDF Spokesperson Laila al-Abdullah on February 14 and SDF Deir ez-Zour Military Council Head Abu Khawla on February 15.[1] ISIS is also attacking convoys in transit northwest of Shaddadi (the location of a major logistics hub for the SDF and U.S.-Led Coalition) in Southern Hasaka Province. ISIS detonated SVBIEDs targeting convoys of the U.S.-Led Coalition and SDF near Shaddadi on January 21 and April 9.[2]
In Iraq:
  • ISIS is reestablishing a support zone in the southwest quadrant of the Baghdad Belts in order to link its operations in Anbar Province to Baghdad and Southern Iraq. ISIS is working to rebuild its networks in Northern Babil Province. ISIS will likely use this zone to project force into Baghdad and south towards soft targets in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. The Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) 46th Brigade - a branch of Kata'ib Hezbollah - thwarted an ISIS SVBIED in Jurf al-Sakhar in Northern Babil in January 2019.[3] The target of this attack remains unclear but it marked the first such incident since the PMF cleared ISIS from Jurf al-Sakhar in October 2014. ISIS likely staged the SVBIED from its support zone south of Fallujah in Anbar Province. Babil Police arrested an ISIS fighter at a checkpoint in Iskandariya between Baghdad and Karbala on February 19.[4] The PMF 47th Brigade - also a branch of Kata'ib Hezbollah – later clashed with ISIS during an attempted clearing operation in Jurf al-Sakhar on April 9.[5] ISIS temporarily withdrew from the area but Kata'ib Hezbollah did not properly clear the terrain. ISIS will likely leverage its presence in the region to stage increasingly sophisticated attacks as it develops its attack capabilities and cells in the Southwest Baghdad Belts. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) historically operated from this area to stage VBIEDs into Baghdad.
  • ISIS is expanding its networks in Iraqi Kurdistan and may be connecting them to its resurgent footprint in Kirkuk and Diyala Provinces. Iraqi Kurdish Asayish Internal Security Forces claimed to detain three separate cells of Arab ISIS members in Sulaymaniyah Province since January 2019 including cells in Sulaymaniyah City, Chamchamal between Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk City, and Kalar northwest of the Diyala River Valley.[6] ISIS likely is attempting to transit north and east from its support zones in Kirkuk Province to Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdish Asayish also arrested an ISIS militant in Southern Sulaymaniyah Province on April 11 allegedly responsible for transiting fighters between Kirkuk City, Hawija, and Dibis in Kirkuk Province.[7] AQI historically conducted regular attacks along Highway 2 stretching from Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan through Kirkuk Province to Tuz Khurmatu in Eastern Salah ad-Din Province.
  • The Iraqi Special Forces (ISOF) First and Second Brigades began a major clearing operation against ISIS in the Hamrin Mountains of Northern Diyala Province on 11 April.[8] The operation is the largest to date against the support zone held by ISIS in the Hamrin Mountains to date and if successful could disrupt its reconstitution throughout Northern Iraq. The operation will likely fail to eliminate the support zone, however. The Hamrin Mountains are favorable terrain for insurgents and even the U.S. did not attempt to clear them completely during the Surge. ISW will publish updates on the operation as necessary.
Updates to ISW’s December 2018 Assessment

ISW routinely updates and refines its assessment of the operating areas held by ISIS in Iraq and Syria based on openly available sources. ISIS’s activity since December 2018 strengthens our prior assessment of its support zones and demonstrates its further consolidation in these areas.

ISIS’s recent consolidation has included its leveraging of existing support networks across Syria and Iraq to shift fighters and material out of its final zone of territorial control in Syria:
  • ISIS increased its transit across the Jazeera Desert between Eastern Syria and Western Iraq to exfiltrate fighters and materials to Iraq. Anonymous U.S. and Iraqi officials stated in February 2019 that more than 1,000 ISIS fighters had crossed the Iraqi-Syrian Border through the Jazeera Desert since September 2018. ISIS is likely moving these fighters into its established sanctuaries in Iraq including the Badush Mountains west of Mosul. ISW has represented this cross-border movement with its support zone in the Jazeera Desert.
  • ISIS also transferred resources and fighters from its final pocket of control in the Middle Euphrates River Valley to support zones across Syria. Local media activists accused the SDF’s Zaza Regiment (affiliated with the Manbij Military Council) of smuggling ISIS fighters and families from Eastern Syria to Manbij in Aleppo Province on March 18.[9] ISIS likely also relocated militants to other support zones in Syria including Idlib Province.

ISIS’s resurgent campaign is accelerating in the urban centers of Ar-Raqqa City, Mosul, and Fallujah. ISW previously depicted support and attack zones in these cities. It is now expanding these attack zones to account for increased activity by ISIS since December 2018.
  • The SDF are failing to contain an attack campaign by ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City. Local security forces lack the training to properly counter an insurgency and frequently conduct large-scale arrests of suspected militants based on limited evidence.[10] These arrests undermine the population’s confidence in the SDF but have little effect on ISIS. ISIS is directly targeting this seam between the local population and the SDF. ISIS assassinated prominent Raqqa Civil Council Member Sheikh Bashir al-Huwaydi in Ar-Raqqa City on November 1. Huwaydi was an important voice of support for the SDF among Arabs in Northern Syria.[11] ISIS later detonated an SVEST targeting an SDF Civil-Military Relations Headquarters in the Karama District east of Ar-Raqqa City on March 2. ISIS has also conducted a series of low-level attacks involving small arms and IEDs targeting internal security forces, patrols, and checkpoints in Central Ar-Raqqa City. ISIS most recently detonated an IED and VBIED targeting a patrol in Ar-Raqqa City on April 9.[12]
  • Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have also failed to defeat an attack campaign by ISIS in Mosul. ISIS has detonated two VBIEDs in Mosul since December 2018, both targeting cafes and restaurants near Mosul University in Eastern Mosul. It is likely staging VBIEDs from the industrial Gogjali District in Eastern Mosul adjacent to Highway 2. Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) previously identified Gogjali as the main cluster of manufacturing workshops for VBIEDs during the Battle of Mosul. ISIS also operates a dense support network of safe houses across Eastern Mosul. Ninewa Police seized $170,000 in a safe house used by ISIS in the Zahra District of Eastern Mosul on April 1.[13]
  • ISIS also retains a robust network in Fallujah despite its lack of major visible operations in Eastern Anbar Province. ISIS is conducting sporadic low-level attacks to eliminate local resistance, including the assassination at least three village mukhtars (local leaders) south of Fallujah between January and February 2019.[14] Repeated clearing operations in the area have also uncovered an extensive support network in and around Fallujah. The ISF and PMF discovered and destroyed a sophisticated tunnel network in the southern outskirts of Fallujah in January 2019.[15] ISIS likely operates other such tunnels near Fallujah. ISIS also maintains a networked presence inside the city that provides a range of support functions. The ISF disrupted a counterfeiting operation in Fallujah’s Risala District on February 11.[16]

Comparing ISW’s Map to the Unclassified DIA Assessment

U.S. President Donald Trump shared a map generated by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) of the “residual” presence of ISIS on March 20. The map is similar to ISW’s assessment of ISIS’s support zones in Iraq and Syria with several major differences. 


Image: Defense Intelligence Agency Map with ISW markings associated with the nine zones discussed below.

The DIA’s assessment lacks nine key support zones assessed with moderate confidence by ISW:
  1. Manbij: ISIS retains a networked presence in Manbij in Aleppo Province in Northern Syria that it is using to attack the SDF and U.S.-Led Coalition. ISIS detonated an SVEST killing nineteen individuals including four U.S. military and civilian personnel in Manbij on January 16. ISIS also detonated a SVBIED targeting a marketplace southwest of Manbij on March 8. ISIS attacked a checkpoint of the SDF west of Manbij on March 26. The DIA does not depict this operating area for ISIS.
  2. Northern Deir ez-Zour / Southern Hasaka: ISIS is mounting an attack campaign against the ground line of communication used by the SDF and U.S.-Led Coalition in Northern Deir ez-Zour and Southern Hasaka Provinces (as discussed above). The DIA does not depict this operating area for ISIS.
  3. Central Syria: ISIS operates in uninhabited desert areas west of the Euphrates River Valley. ISIS transits through support zones across the Homs Desert and frequently attacks pro-regime forces deployed to secure oil and natural gas infrastructure in areas ranging from Palmyra to the Syrian-Iraqi Border.[17] ISIS’s Amaq News Agency, for example, released a video filmed at an unidentified location in the Homs Desert showing militants with two dead Russians and one live Syrian on April 7. Other reporting corroborated claims that ISIS ambushed pro-regime forces between the T2 Station and Mayadin in Central Syria.[18] ISIS tends to attack convoys rather than fixed positions in this area, demonstrating that its goal is likely a limited disruption of pro-regime freedom of movement and the generation of propaganda highlighting its anti-regime operations. The DIA has underrepresented this operating area for ISIS.
  4. Southern Syria: ISIS retains a residual support zone east of Suwayda Province. Pro-regime forces frequently clash with ISIS in the Al-Safa Region in Eastern Suwayda Province, most recently on March 26.[19] Pro-regime forces claimed to clear ISIS from Al-Safa on November 19, 2018.[20] ISIS nonetheless remains active in the area, likely exploiting extensive natural tunnels. The DIA does not depict this operating area for ISIS.
  5. Arbil: ISIS retains a support zone in Arbil City. Three Kurdish high school students stormed the Arbil Province Governor’s Building in Arbil City on July 21, 2018 and temporarily held two hostages before security forces killed the assailants.[21] Kurdish security forces later arrested an Iraqi Kurdish cleric who radicalized the attackers on July 24, 2018. Kurdish security forces arrested eight members of a financing network linked to ISIS in Arbil City in October 2018 and later arrested eight other ISIS militants in Arbil City on January 16.[22] The DIA does not depict this operating area for ISIS.
  6. Southern Diyala Province: ISIS holds a durable support zone in Southern Diyala Province. ISIS began conducting hit-and-run attacks in the Buhriz Subdistrict south of t Baqubah in mid-2018.[23] ISIS increased its attack tempo against security forces, local tribal figures, and commercial sites in Buhriz in January 2019 and Buhriz Subdistrict was reportedly “almost under the control of ISIS” by February 2019.[24] ISIS also conducts attacks on civilians and security forces from safe havens near Muqdadiyah northeast of Baqubah. A municipal official claimed that ISIS controls several rural villages west of Muqdadiyah in January 2019.[25] The DIA does not depict these operating areas for ISIS.
  7. Northern Baghdad Belts: ISIS is present in the Northern Baghdad Belts despite clearing operations by the ISF and PMF. ISIS has repeatedly attacked security forces along the highways north of Baghdad. ISIS most recently ambushed the ISF in Tarmiyah north of Baghdad on March 19.[26] The DIA has underrepresented this operating area for ISIS.
  8. Southwest Baghdad Belts: ISIS is expanding its support zone in the southwestern quadrant of the Baghdad Belts (as discussed above). The DIA does not depict this operating area for ISIS.
  9. Khanaqin: ISIS retains both a support and attack zone along the Iraqi-Iranian Border stretching into Halabja Province in Iraqi Kurdistan. ISIS is likely using mountain routes in Northern Khanaqin District to cross between Iraq and Iran. Its activity in the area has prompted multiple deployments by the PMF. PMF Diyala Axis Command deployed forces to secure Khanaqin District in early February 2019.[27] The 20th PMF Brigade also deployed members to provide additional security Khanaqin District in early March 2019.[28] It remains unclear whether these deployments have affected ISIS. Similar PMF deployments elsewhere in Diyala and Kirkuk Provinces have consistently failed to disrupt ISIS and it is unlikely that the PMF will be more effective in Khanaqin.
There are multiple possible explanations for why the DIA does not depict these operating areas held by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The DIA may be unable to assess these operating areas through unclassified means. ISW may also have misattributed attacks conducted by other insurgents such as former Ba’athists operating outside the control of ISIS. ISW is actively looking for indicators to parse these groups as of April 2019. The DIA also mapped operating areas for ISIS near Aleppo City, Qamishli in Northern Syria, and Rutbah in Western Iraq not depicted by ISW. ISW does not possess sufficient evidence from the open-source to assess these zones as of April 2019. ISW routinely reevaluates its assessments and plans to publish a refined assessment as needed.


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[1] [“Deir ez-Zour Military Commander Survives Assassination Attempt in Rural Deir ez-Zour,”] Deir ez-Zour 24, February 15, 2019, https://deirezzor24(.)net/archives/9356; [“Spokesperson for Jazeera Storm Campaign Survives Assassination Attempt,”] Deir ez-Zour 24, February 15, 2019, https://en.deirezzor24(.)net/the-spokesperson-for-al-jazeera-storm-campaign-survives-an-assassination-attempt/.
[2] Wladirmir van Wilgenburg, “At Least Eight People, Including SDF Members, Killed in Explosions in Raqqa,” Kurdistan 24, April 9, 2019, http://www.kurdistan24(.)net/en/news/87b1a94e-3d45-4ea4-a7af-e9dee6480f04.
[3] [“Security Forces Set Controlled Detonation of Car Bomb North of Babil,”] Al-Sumaria, January 30, 2019, https://www.alsumaria(.)tv/news/259470/%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%86%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%AC%D8%B1-%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D9%85%D9%81%D8%AE%D8%AE%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D8%AD%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%B7%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%B4%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8A/ar.
[4] [“Terrorist Arrested at a Checkpoint at Entrance of North Babil,”] Al-Ghad Press, February 19, 2019, https://www.alghadpress(.)com/news/%D8%A3%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82/191768/%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%84-%D8%A5%D8%B1%D9%87%D8%A7%D8%A8%D9%8A-%D8%B9%D9%86%D8%AF-%D9%86%D9%82%D8%B7%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%AA%D9%8A%D8%B4-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D9%85%D8%AF%D8%AE%D9%84-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%A8%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B4%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8A.
[5] [“Outbreak of Armed Conflict Between Popular Mobilization Forces and ISIS North of Babil,”] Rudaw, April 10, 2019, http://www.rudaw(.)net/arabic/middleeast/iraq/10042019.
[6] [“Including Halbousi…Sulaymaniyah Topples the Largest Terror Cell,”] Shafaaq, April 2, 2019, http://www.shafaaq(.)com/ar/Ar_NewsReader/3203379e-fb7e-4fd0-b74a-90d5d073e4f7.
[7] [“Karamian Asayish Announce the Arrest of a Member of ISIS,”] Rudaw, April 11, 2019, http://www.rudaw(.)net/NewsDetails.aspx?pageid=439019.
[8] [“Counter-Terrorism Announces Start of an Operation to Hunt Down Elements of ISIS in the Hamrin Hills,”] Al-Sumaria, April 11, 2019, https://www(.)alsumaria.tv/news/266281/%D9%85%D9%83%D8%A7%D9%81%D8%AD%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D8%B1%D9%87%D8%A7%D8%A8-%D9%8A%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%86-%D8%A8%D8%AF%D8%A1-%D8%B9%D9%85%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%84%D9%85%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AD%D9%82%D8%A9-%D8%B9%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%B5%D8%B1-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%B4-%D9%81/ar.
[9] “After Smuggling 142 of ISIS Families to Turkey, New Families Preparing to Cross the Border with 22 Fighters of an SDF Battalion Are Arrested After Clashes,” SOHR, March, 18, 2019, http://www.syriahr(.)com/en/?p=121212.
[10] [“SDF and Security Forces Arrest 70 People Accused of Forming ISIS Cells and Campaign Targeting Four to Five Thousand Elements Hidden in the East of the Euphrates,”] SOHR, February 7, 2019, http://www.syriahr(.)com/?p=307205.
[11] “Prominent Raqqa Tribal Leader Assassinated in Attack Claimed by IS,” Kurdistan 24, November 2, 2018, http://www.kurdistan24(.)net/en/news/ac9d25db-9bab-44ee-9922-e6b0fa71509a.
[12] [“Three Explosions Hit the City of Raqqa, Expecting Dead and Wounded,”] Enab Baladi, April 9, 2019, https://www.enabbaladi(.)net/archives/293437.
[13] [“170 Thousand Dollars Inside an ISIS Den in East Mosul,”] Al-Ghad Press, April 1, 2019, https://www.alghadpress(.)com/news/%D8%A3%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82/196535/%D8%B6%D8%A8%D8%B7-170-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%81-%D8%AF%D9%88%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AE%D9%84-%D9%88%D9%83%D8%B1-%D9%84%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%B4-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%8A%D8%B3%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D9%88%D8%B5%D9%84.
[14] [“Source Reveals the Existence of Daesh Cells for the Targeting of Mukhtars and Civilians in Namiyah,”] Al-Sumaria, February 26, 2019, https://www.alsumaria(.)tv/news/261883/%D9%85%D8%B5%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D9%8A%D9%83%D8%B4%D9%81-%D8%B9%D9%86-%D9%88%D8%AC%D9%88%D8%AF-%D8%AE%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D9%84%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%B4-%D8%AA%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%87%D8%AF%D9%81-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AE%D8%A7%D8%AA%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85/ar.
[15] [“Terrorist Operation in Fallujah Thwarted,”] Al-Sumaria, January 23, 2019, https://www.alsumaria(.)tv/news/258687/%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D8%AD%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B7-%D8%B9%D9%85%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%87%D8%A7%D8%A8%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%84%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%B4-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%81%D9%84%D9%88%D8%AC%D8%A9/ar.
[16] [“The Arrest of a Forging Ring Turning Elements of Daesh Dead and Victims of Terrorism in Fallujah,”] Al-Ghad Press, February 12, 2019, https://www.alghadpress(.)com/news/%D8%A3%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82/190808/%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D8%A8%D8%B6-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%B9%D8%B5%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D8%B2%D9%88%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%AA%D8%AD%D9%88%D9%84-%D8%B9%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%B5%D8%B1-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%B4-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D9%82%D8%AA%D9%88%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%84%D9%85.
[17] “U.S. Commandos and Special Coalition Forces Sweep Baghuz Tunnels and Caves Searching for Abductees and ISIS Riches and Leaders,” SOHR, March 27, 2019, http://www.syriahr(.)com/en/?p=122398.
[18] [“Detecting the Identity of Two Dead Assad Militia in Deir ez-Zour After Ambush,”] Orient News, February 24, 2019, https://orient-news(.)net/ar/news_show/162982/0/%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%83%D8%B4%D9%81-%D8%B9%D9%86-%D9%87%D9%88%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%82%D8%AA%D9%8A%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%84%D9%85%D9%8A%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%B4%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A3%D8%B3%D8%AF-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%A8%D8%B9%D8%AF-%D9%83%D9%85%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%B4.
[19] [“Two People Killed and Wounded by ISIS in Combing Operations by Regime Forces East of Suwayda,”] SMART, March 23, 2019, https://smartnews-agency(.)com/ar/wires/372865/%D9%82%D8%AA%D9%8A%D9%84-%D9%88%D8%AC%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%AD%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%AA%D9%86%D8%B8%D9%8A%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%88%D9%84%D8%A9-%D8%A8%D8%B9%D9%85%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D9%85%D8%B4%D9%8A%D8%B7-%D9%84%D9%82%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%B8%D8%A7%D9%85-%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%82.
[20] Leith Aboufadel, “Daesh Suffers Devastating Defeat as Syrian Army Liberates Entire Al-Safa Region,” Al-Masdar News, November 19, 2018, https://www.almasdarnews(.)com/article/daesh-suffers-devastating-defeat-as-syrian-army-liberates-entire-al-safa-region.
[21] “Update: 3 Gunmen Who Attacked Erbil Governor’s Building Named,” Rudaw, July 23, 2018, http://www.rudaw(.)net/english/kurdistan/23072018.
[22] “Two Alleged ISIS Members, Six Suspects Arrested in Erbil,” Rudaw, January 17, 2019, http://www.rudaw(.)net/english/kurdistan/170120191.
[23] [“7 Civilians Shot Dead in Diyala,”] Rudaw, July 6, 2018, http://www.rudaw(.)net/arabic/middleeast/iraq/060720189.
[24] [“Source: Area Where Mortars Landed in Diyala Is Almost Under Control of Terrorist Groups,”] Al-Ghad Press, February 27, 2019, https://www.alghadpress(.)com/news/%D8%A3%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82/192595/%D9%85%D8%B5%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D9%86%D8%B7%D9%82%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%8A-%D8%B3%D9%82%D8%B7%D8%AA-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%87%D8%A7-%D9%87%D8%A7%D9%88%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%89-%D9%87%D9%8A-%D8%AA%D9%82.
[25] [“Director of Abu Saida: Most of the Villages of the South Under the Control of ISIS,”] Al-Sumaria, January 23, 2019, https://www.alsumaria(.)tv/news/258765/%D9%85%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%AD%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D8%A8%D9%8A-%D8%B5%D9%8A%D8%AF%D8%A7-%D9%85%D8%B9%D8%B8%D9%85-%D9%82%D8%B1%D9%89-%D8%AC%D9%86%D9%88%D8%A8-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%AD%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D8%AD%D8%AA-%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%B7%D8%B1/ar.
[26] “Ambush North of Baghdad Kills 3 Iraqi Soldiers, Wounds 5,” Daily Star, March 19, 2019, http://www.dailystar.com(.)lb/News/Middle-East/2019/Mar-19/479219-ambush-north-of-baghdad-kills-3-iraqi-soldiers-wounds-5.ashx.
[27] [“PMF Is Deploying its Fighters in the Vicinity of Khanaqin”] Sot al-Iraq, February 2, 2019, https://www.sotaliraq(.)com/2019/02/03/%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%ad%d8%b4%d8%af-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b4%d8%b9%d8%a8%d9%8a-%d9%8a%d9%86%d8%b4%d8%b1-%d9%85%d9%82%d8%a7%d8%aa%d9%84%d9%8a%d9%87-%d9%81%d9%8a-%d9%85%d8%ad%d9%8a%d8%b7-%d8%ae%d8%a7%d9%86%d9%82/.
[28] [“PMF Carries Out Sweep to Secure Khanaqin Area,”] Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, March 11, 2019, http://al-hashed(.)net/2019/03/11/%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%ad%d8%b4%d8%af-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b4%d8%b9%d8%a8%d9%8a-%d9%8a%d9%86%d9%81%d8%b0-%d8%b9%d9%85%d9%84%d9%8a%d8%a9-%d8%a7%d9%86%d8%aa%d8%b4%d8%a7%d8%b1-%d9%84%d8%aa%d8%a3%d9%85%d9%8a%d9%86/.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Russia in Review: Ukraine Elections Update

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: Ukraine's Presidential Election (read the previous Russia in Review here)

Authors: Andrea Snyder and Darina Regio

Key Takeaway: Ukraine will hold the runoff round of its presidential election on Sunday, April 21, 2019. Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is the leading candidate in this election. His lack of known political positions will likely present an opportunity for both domestic oligarchs and the Kremlin to influence the domestic and foreign policies of Ukraine. Ukrainian reformers must compete for influence over both Zelensky and the Ukrainian Parliament in order to protect Ukraine’s reform gains and overall trajectory towards the West

Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is the leading candidate in the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election but still lacks a coherent policy agenda. Zelensky has yet to publish any detailed policy platform and his priorities remain largely unknown. His pre-election program and alleged ten first priorities once in office are superficial, lack concrete details, and address only broad issues such as populist promises for direct democracy through referendums and an end to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.[1] His advisors have been the main source of the sparse available information on his potential policy priorities while the candidate himself has remained relatively silent in the public sphere. He has avoided public discussions and failed to attend a debate with current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on April 14.[2] He remains vulnerable to exploitation by external and internal actors due to his lack of political experience in Kyiv.

Oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi holds significant leverage over Zelensky. He will likely exert this influence to advance his own business interests. Kolomoyskyi is a key rival of Poroshenko who has reportedly bankrolled Zelensky. Zelensky’s production studio operates under Kolomoyskyi’s 1+1 TV Channel and Zelensky has flown to Geneva and Tel Aviv – Kolomoyskyi’s places of residence during his de facto exile – at least thirteen times since 2017, according to an investigative report by Radio Svoboda.[3] Kolomoyskiyi’s lawyer Andriy Bohdan accompanied Zelensky on at least five of these trips.[4] Bohdan also allegedly met with the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) on behalf of Zelensky on April 3.

Ihor Kolomoyskyi lost major assets under Poroshenko including his controlling stakes in PrivatBank and Ukrnafta as well as his governorship of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.[5] Kolomoyskyi will likely attempt to leverage his influence over Zelensky to regain his role in the banking and energy sectors of Ukraine. Kolomoyskyi is already attempting to regain control of PrivatBank, which Poroshenko nationalized after revelations of large-scale fraud in 2016. Kyiv’s District Administrative Court ruled the nationalization illegal on April 18, three days before the second round of the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election. The decision is likely to be appealed. Kolomoyskyi may have facilitated the timing of the decision in order to transfer blame for the privatization to Poroshenko rather than Zelensky. Kolomoyskyi may also attempt to overturn a law that limited his control over Ukrnafta in 2015 using his sway over Zelensky and the Ukrainian Parliament. Kolomoyskyi has allegedly already begun influencing talks regarding a parliamentary coalition under Zelensky.[6] If successful, these policies would erode many of the reformist gains made by Ukraine since the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014.


Zelensky’s lack of foreign policy expertise also presents key opportunities to the Kremlin. His rhetoric on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine reflects a fundamental lack of understanding regarding Russia’s goals in Ukraine. Zelensky has stated that Ukraine should immediately implement a ceasefire and stressed that he will “meet halfway” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.[7] These statements ignore numerous failed ceasefire attempts violated by Russia and its proxies in Eastern Ukraine, directly supporting the narrative framing of the Kremlin. Zelensky has since recalibrated to focus on direct talks with Russia through the Normandy Format – including the potential addition of the United States and United Kingdom – to resolve the war in Eastern Ukraine.[8] His advisors likely pushed him to alter his rhetoric to avoid alienating voters in Ukraine.

Zelensky has also stated that he would maintain the course of Ukraine towards the EU and NATO.[9] However, he has also proposed to hold a nationwide referendum on the question of whether Ukraine should join NATO.[10] This referendum would be a regression from the Ukrainian Constitution as amended by the Ukrainian Parliament on February 7, which formally declares Ukraine’s intent to pursue membership in the EU and NATO. The Kremlin would most certainly target any referendum with disinformation and electoral manipulation to orient Ukraine away from NATO.

Kolomoyskyi is likely interested in preventing further expansion of Russia’s influence in Ukraine, but he is ultimately a pragmatic actor focused on his business interests. He may be willing to make concessions or even strike a deal with the Kremlin in order to secure his economic interests in Ukraine. Ukraine under Zelensky thus will likely face converging pressures from anti-reformist measures driven by Kolomoyskyi as well as intensified efforts by the Kremlin to pull it further away from integration with NATO and the EU.

---
[1] [“Election Program of Volodymyr Olekcandrovich Zelensky,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, Accessed February 27, 2019, http://www.cvk.gov(.)ua/pls/vp2019/WP009?PT021F01=233&PT001F01=719; Yuriy Smirnov, [“Zelensky’s Plan. The First Ten Decisions in Case of Victory,”] Liga, April 10, 2019, https://www.liga(.)net/politics/articles/plan-zelenskogo-pervye-desyat-resheniy-v-sluchae-pobedy.
[2] [“Media Movement Calls on Zelensky to Go to the Press Before April 19,”] Radio Svoboda, April 16, 2019, https://www.radiosvoboda(.)org/a/news-mediaruh-zaklykaye-zelenskogo-vyity-do-presy/29883668.html.
[3] [“For Two Years, Zelensky Thirteen Times Flew to Geneva and Tel Aviv Where Kolomoyskyi Lives - ‘Schemes’,”] Radio Svoboda, April 11, 2019, https://www.radiosvoboda(.)org/a/news-schemes-zelenskyy-perelyoty/29875430.html.
[4] Ibid.
[5] “Rule by Oligarchs: Kiev Appoints Billionaires to Govern East,” Russia Today, March 4, 2014, https://www.rt(.)com/news/ukraine-oligarch-rule-governors-512/; Artem Ilyin, “Ukrainian Oligarch Kolomoyskyi’s Diminishing Influence in the Oil Market,” Hromadske, June 6, 2018, https://en.hromadske(.)ua/posts/ukrainian-oligarch-kolomoiskys-diminishing-influence-in-the-oil-market; [“Kolomoyskyi’s Puppet: The Story of a Ukrainian Oligarch Who Supported Zelensky,”] The Bell, April 1, 2019, https://thebell(.)io/marionetka-kolomojskogo-istoriya-ukrainskogo-oligarha-kotoryj-podderzhal-zelenskogo.
[6] [“Negotiations on a Coalition under Zelensky Began in the Rada - Sources,”] RBK-Ukraine, April 11, 2019, https://www.rbc(.)ua/rus/news/rade-nachalis-peregovory-koalitsii-zelenskogo-1554965733.html.
[7] Roman Kravets, [“Volodymyr Zelensky: April 1 - An Honorable Day to Win the Clown,”] Ukrayinska Pravda, January 21, 2019, https://www.pravda.com(.)ua/articles/2019/01/21/7204341/; Sevodnya, [“An Exclusive Interview with Volodymyr Zelensky,”] YouTube, April 7, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqDbdqQzY7Q; [“Zelensky is Ready to Negotiate with Putin,”] Korrespondent, April 7, 2019, https://korrespondent(.)net/ukraine/vibory2019/4083836-zelenskyi-hotov-k-perehovoram-s-putynym.
[8] Yuriy Smirnov, [“Zelensky’s Plan. The First Ten Decisions in Case of Victory,”] Liga, April 10, 2019, https://www.liga(.)net/politics/articles/plan-zelenskogo-pervye-desyat-resheniy-v-sluchae-pobedy; [“Zelensky Voiced His Position on the Elections in the Donbass and the Movement Towards NATO,”] Ukrayinska Pravda, April 13, 2019, https://www.pravda.com(.)ua/news/2019/04/13/7212157/.
[9] “Zelensky Promises to Maintain Ukraine’s Course Toward NATO and EU and Protect Foreign Investments,” UA Wire, April 8, 2019, https://uawire(.)org/zelensky-promises-to-maintain-ukraine-s-course-toward-nato-and-eu-and-protect-foreign-investments.
[10] [“Election Program of Volodymyr Olekcandrovich Zelensky,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, Accessed February 27, 2019, http://www.cvk.gov(.)ua/pls/vp2019/WP009?PT021F01=233&PT001F01=719.



Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Turkey's Erdogan Files to Annul Istanbul Election

By Elizabeth Teoman

Key Takeaway: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took the next major step in a campaign to reverse significant opposition gains in the 2019 Turkish Local Elections. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) formally applied to annul and redo the municipal election in Istanbul - the economic heart of Turkey. Erdogan will maintain pressure on election authorities to issue a ruling in his favor within the coming days. The reversal if upheld threatens to further erode the fragile democratic institutions of Turkey and deal a painful blow to the opposition in Erdogan’s Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan formally applied to annul unfavorable election results in Istanbul. Ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Deputy Chair Ali Ihsan Yavuz announced the submission of a petition to annul and redo local elections in Istanbul to the Turkish Supreme Election Board on April 16. The AKP lost a tight race to the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in Istanbul in the 2019 Turkish Local Elections. Subsequent partial recounts have narrowed but not overturned the lead held by CHP Istanbul Mayor-Elect Ekrem Imamoglu. AKP Istanbul Mayoral Candidate Binali Yildirim - a former prime minister under Erdogan - has claimed that he would win the election if “all votes are recounted” in Istanbul.

The Turkish Supreme Election Board has thus far only approved partial recounts in Istanbul. The body ruled in favor of a limited recount of ballots in the opposition-leaning Maltepe District of Istanbul on April 15. This decision favored the opposition, which aimed to avoid a full recount of ballots in Maltepe District. It previously postponed a meeting on whether to annul the vote in the opposition-leaning Buyukcekmece District of Istanbul on April 12. The Turkish Supreme Election Board has already rejected a full recount but it could ultimately rule in favor of a partial annulment in Istanbul leading to new local elections as early as June 2019.

Erdogan’s bid if successful will represent a serious reversal for his political opponents and further solidify his authoritarian hold over Turkey. The annulment request marks one of his most brazen attempts yet to undermine the legitimate results of an election and threatens to further erode the fragile democratic institutions of Turkey. The Council of Europe urged the Turkish Supreme Election Board to “accept the will of the people” or risk damage to “basic democratic principles” in Turkey on April 16. Erdogan has already secured a stranglehold on political life through his long-standing campaign to jail, intimidate, and otherwise delegitimize the political opposition. A reversal in Istanbul would be a painful defeat for dissidents in Erdogan’s Turkey.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Erdogan Pressures Turkey's Key Electoral Body

By Elizabeth Teoman

Key Takeaway: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is intensifying his pressure on the Turkish Supreme Election Board after a humiliating setback for his party in Istanbul in the 2019 Turkish Local Election. The Turkish Supreme Election Board has thus far proved notably willing in this election to constrain Erdogan. It nonetheless remains susceptible to Erdogan’s influence and has previously issued questionable rulings that ultimately enabled his consolidation of power. Erdogan remains on a long-term trajectory to dominate the electoral apparatus of Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is intensifying his pressure on election authorities to overturn a humiliating loss in Istanbul in the 2019 Turkish Local Elections.
  • Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the key urban centers of Istanbul and Ankara to the rival Republican People’s Party (CHP) following the 2019 Turkish Local Elections held on March 31. Erdogan is pursuing a dangerous course of action to press the Turkish Supreme Election Board to hold new elections in Istanbul.
  • Pro-Erdogan media outlets have escalated this public pressure campaign by publishing the images and names of individuals currently serving on the Turkish Supreme Election Board.
  • The Turkish Supreme Election Board postponed its next meeting to consider a potential new election in select districts of Istanbul on April 11. It has not set a new public deadline. The delay may be an outcome of the ongoing pressure from Erdogan and the AKP.
The Turkish Supreme Election Board likely retains some limited but narrow freedom of action to impose constraints on Erdogan.
  • The Turkish Supreme Elections Board validated the opposition victory in Ankara on April 8. It also denied the AKP’s request for a full recount in Istanbul on April 9.
  • The Turkish Supreme Election Board is composed of eleven members - six selected by the Supreme Court of Appeals and five selected by the Turkish Council of State. Members serve up to six-year terms. A simple majority validates its decisions. This system protects the body in part from undue external influence and manipulation.
The Turkish Supreme Election Board is nonetheless vulnerable to Erdogan, who has systematically enacted legislation to expand his influence over the body since 2017.
  • The Turkish Parliament approved a law centralizing control over provincial election committees responsive to the Turkish Supreme Election Board in November 2017.[1] The law centralized the appointment of chairpersons responsible for ballot boxes and established a less transparent ‘secret ballot’ to elect new members of the Turkish Supreme Election Board from the Turkish Supreme Court of Appeals.
  • The Turkish Presidency issued a decree to remove political party representatives from the Turkish Supreme Election Board in March 2018. The decision effectively eliminated opposition oversight from the highest levels of the electoral process.
The Turkish Supreme Election Board has previously issued rulings of questionable legality in favor of Erdogan. It could be expected to do so again in Istanbul.
  • The Turkish Supreme Election Board validated the results of the 2018 Turkish Presidential and Parliamentary Elections despite widespread opposition allegations of fraud.[2] It rejected a petition to hold a pre-election rally by opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtas despite permitting similar events by Erdogan. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) released an interim report criticizing its unfair redistribution of fifty new parliament seats ahead of the election.
  • The Turkish Supreme Election Board also controversially issued a last-minute decision to accept ballots that lacked official stamps during the 2017 Turkish Constitutional Referendum. The referendum authorized enabled constitutional reforms that concentrated executive power under Erdogan. The OSCE condemned the ruling and stressed that the referendum “did not live up to … [the] standards” of a “genuine democratic process.”
Erdogan’s ongoing purge of the judiciary will further position him to increase his long-term control over the Turkish Supreme Election Board.
  • Erdogan has targeted and removed dissident judges throughout Turkey as part of his long-standing campaign against followers of Fethullah Gulen. These purges of civil servants intensified after the 2016 Turkish Coup Attempt, which Erdogan blamed on Gulen.
  • Erdogan’s AKP extended the terms of seven members of the Turkish Supreme Election Board through January 2020 in December 2018. Erdogan could still reverse these extensions to appoint new and more loyal members of the Turkish Judiciary.
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[1] [“YSK Law Passes Parliament,”] Hurriyet, November 30, 2017, http://www.hurriyet.com(.)tr/gundem/ysk-yasasi-meclisten-gecti-40663865.
[2] [“Latest: YSK Announces Results of 2018 Election,”] Hurriyet, July 4, 2018, http://www.hurriyet.com(.)tr/gundem/son-dakika-ysk-2018-kesin-secim-sonuclarini-acikladi-40886560.

Russia in Review: April 4 - 11, 2019

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: April 4 - 11, 2019 (read the previous Russia in Review here)

Authors: Andrea Snyder and Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaways
  • The Kremlin and its political allies in Ukraine intensified their rhetorical support for the leading candidate in the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Elections
  • The Kremlin is organizing diplomatic cross-recognition between its international clients to increase the overall legitimacy of its network of rogue regimes
  • The Kremlin risks growing long-term instability in the North Caucasus due to its appeasement of territorial expansion by Chechnya.
The Kremlin and its political allies in Ukraine intensified their rhetorical support for the leading candidate in the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Elections. The Kremlin likely intends to soften its domestic narrative towards Ukraine if comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelensky wins the Ukrainian Presidency. Russian Liberal Democratic Party Chairman Vladimir Zhirinovsky stated on April 3 that his party would recognize the election only if it resulted in a victory for Zelensky.[1] Journalist Dmytry Kiselyov - one of the Kremlin’s top domestic propagandists - praised his alleged policy priorities to “stop the war and reestablish dialogue with Russia” on April 8.[2] ISW previously assessed that Russia perceives a long-term opportunity to reorient Ukraine towards its orbit under Zelensky. Meanwhile, Yevchen Murayev - a pro-Russian former presidential candidate in Ukraine - appealed to his base to vote against incumbent Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on April 6, claiming that Zelensky would cause less harm to Ukraine.[3] Similarly, Olena Lukash - a former senior administration member under pro-Russian Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych - suggested that Zelensky offers a “chance for change” in Ukraine on April 8.[4] Pro-Russian political actors in Ukraine including allies of Yanukovych, who fled Kyiv after the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, are likely attempting to rally support for Zelensky in order to regain political influence and exact revenge against the post-Euromaidan Government of Ukraine.

The Kremlin is building interlocking ties among a number of rogue regimes to enhance their collective legitimacy and support its strategic interests. The Kremlin is organizing diplomatic cross-recognition between its various clients including the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Abkhazian Foreign Minister Daur Kove held talks focused on efforts to boost international recognition of Abkhazia on April 1.[5] Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept lists bolstering the diplomatic status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia among its key priorities.[6] Kove on the same day announced that Abkhazia intends to open an embassy in Syria and organize a visit by Assad to Abkhazia.[7] Syria recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries in May 2018, which the Russian Foreign Ministry emphasized as an accomplishment in its annual report.[8] The Kremlin’s recent diplomatic push on behalf of Abkhazia is likely a reaction to recent activity by NATO in Georgia. NATO and Georgia began military exercises on March 18 and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated during the drills that Georgia would eventually become a member of NATO.

The Kremlin has also helped facilitate municipal cooperation on infrastructure projects between Sevastopol on the occupied Crimean Peninsula and Tartus in Syria since January 2019.[9] This development fits within the Kremlin’s larger effort to restore Assad’s legitimacy as the sovereign leader of Syria, including its lobbying efforts for Syria to regain membership in the Arab League.

The Kremlin is leveraging this network of clients to support Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, where Russia holds a strategic interest. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza met with Assad in Damascus on April 6.[10] The Syrian Foreign Ministry previously announced its support for Maduro on January 24.[11] The Kremlin will continue to expand these diplomatic links among its allies to help its rogue clients pose as legitimate actors and normalize their behavior. The Kremlin is likely to intensify these efforts with regard to its proxies in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Eastern Ukraine if it perceives a renewed window of opportunity to use diplomatic pressure to win them broader political autonomy from Kyiv.

The Kremlin’s favoritism of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov threatens to destabilize the North Caucasus. The Chechen Republic gained disputed territory from the two neighboring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia, fueling critical public reactions in both regions. Ingushetia is experiencing a resurgence in protests that first erupted in October 2018 after Chechnya and Ingushetia signed a bill delineating the Ingush-Chechen Border.[12] Ingush condemned the deal as an illegal land grab, noting that Chechnya gained at least 25,000 hectares at the expense of Ingushetia.[13] The Constitutional Court of Ingushetia at the time ruled the agreement unconstitutional and suggested a popular referendum on the issue. About 10,000 Ingush protested on March 26 after language regarding the need to hold such ballots disappeared from a new version of a referenda law passed by the Ingush Parliament.[14] The protestors called for the resignation of Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and the cancellation of the border deal with Chechnya.[15] The Kremlin responded by jamming mobile internet access and deploying units of the Russian National Guard.[16] Ingushetia also mobilized a small column of military vehicles to deter the protests.[17] The rallies concluded under pressure on March 27. Ingush and Russian security services including the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) later launched a series of raids, searches, seizures, and arrests targeting prominent activists and protest leaders in Ingushetia.[18]

The Chechen Republic also unilaterally registered a region disputed with Dagestan as part of Chechnya on March 16.[19] The Chechen Parliament previously published a controversial map with significant differences along the Chechen-Dagestani Border in December 2018.[20] Dagestani activists have called for support from the Kremlin to ensure a transparent resolution of the border dispute and avoid an “Ingush scenario” in Dagestan.[21] The Kremlin has nonetheless historically favored Chechnya in its disputes in the North Caucasus. The Kremlin publically remained neutral in the border dispute between Chechnya and Ingushetia but the Russian Constitutional Court upheld the deal in December 2018. It will likely behave similarly in Dagestan.

The Kremlin will likely to continue to appease Kadyrov because Russian President Vladimir Putin views his rule as essential to maintaining political stability in the North Caucasus. Its continued tolerance of his ambitions could nonetheless fuel greater long-term instability in the region. Ingushetia will likely witness further demonstrations as the border deal progresses with Chechnya. Dagestan could also experience protests given existing animosity towards Chechnya. The current trajectory will drive resentment within Ingushetia and Dagestan against Moscow, Chechnya, and local leaders who are failing to serve the public interest in the eyes of Ingush and Dagestanis. Renewed grievances could increase regional extremist activity and provide an opportunity for international terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al Qaeda to expand their networks in Russia.

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[1] ["’Only One Zelensky, Young and Honest’ - Zhirinovsky Told What Is Necessary for the LDPR to Recognize the Elections,”] Censor, April 3, 2019, https://censor.net(.)ua/news/3120201/tolko_odin_zelenskiyi_molodoyi_i_chestnyyi_jirinovskiyi_rasskazal_chto_nujno_chtoby_ldpr_priznala_vybory.
[2] Erich Hartman, [“Team 3E. Dmitry Kiselyov for Zelensky, and You?”] YouTube, April 8, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZU5G2JCQ2Lg.
[3] Yevchen Murayev, Facebook, April 6, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/e.murayev/posts/337383947123479.
[4] Olena Lukash, Facebook, April 7, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/ElenaLukash.ua/posts/2079554865677212.
[5] [“Lavrov: Russia Will Help Strengthen the Position of Abkhazia in the International Arena,”] TASS, April 1, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/politika/6281998.
[6] [“Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, November 20, 2016,
http://www.mid(.)ru/en/foreign_policy/official_documents/-/asset_publisher/CptICkB6BZ29/content/id/2542248.
[7] “Damascus Normalizes Relations with Russian ‘Provinces’,” Asharq Al-Awsat, April 2, 2019, https://aawsat(.)com/english/home/article/1660971/damascus-normalizes-relations-russian-%E2%80%98provinces%E2%80%99; [“Abkhazia Opens Embassy to the Regime,”] Zaman al-Wasl, April 1, 2019, https://www.zamanalwsl(.)net/news/article/103188/; Zeeshan Aziz, “Abkhazian, Syrian Diplomats Working on Assad's Possible Visit to Sukhumi - Foreign Minister Daur Kove,” UrduPoint, https://www.urdupoint(.)com/en/world/abkhazian-syrian-diplomats-working-on-assad-582390.html.
[8] [“Foreign Policy and Diplomatic Activities of the Russian Federation in 2018: Russian MFA Review,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, March 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/documents/10180/3593774/ОБЗОР+2018.docx/184f4d40-69ce-4653-b0ee-5b24a0375f9e.
[9] [“Head of the Russian Administration of Sevastopol Met with the Syrian Transport Minister,”] RFE/RL, January 15, 2019, https://ru.krymr(.)com/a/news-ovsiannikov-v-sirii-vstrechya-s-ministrom-transporta/29711224.html; “Assad Regime Gives Russians More Economic Advantages in Syria,” Nedaa, January 19, 2019, http://nedaa-sy(.)com/en/news/11069.
[10] [“Chancellor Arreaza: In Syria We See How Unjust and Criminal Wars Are,”] VTV, April 6, 2019, http://www.vtv.gob(.)ve/arreaza-siria-injustas-guerras/.
[11] [“Assad Supports Maduro Against the Political Coup in Venezuela,”] Enab Baladi, January 24, 2019, https://www.enabbaladi(.)net/archives/278247.
[12] “Chechnya, Ingushetia Agree to Fix Regional Border,” TASS, September 26, 2018, http://tass(.)com/politics/1023194.
[13] Sofia Gavrilova, “Unequal Ingush-Chechen Land Exchange: Cartographers' Analysis,” Kavkaz Uzel, October 26 2018, https://www.eng.kavkaz-uzel(.)eu/articles/44880/.
[14] [“Thousands of People Gathered for a Protest in Magas,”] Kavkaz Uzel, March 26, 2019, https://www.kavkaz-uzel(.)eu/articles/333446/; [“Residents of Ingushetia Rally Against the Amendment of the Referendum Law,”] TV Rain, March 26, 2019, https://tvrain(.)ru/news/zhiteli_magasa_vyshli_na_miting_protiv_izmenenija_zakona_o_referendume-482716.
[15] [“Participants of the Rally in Magas Adopted a Resolution,”] Kavkaz Uzel, March 26, 2018, https://www.kavkaz-uzel(.)eu/articles/333472/.
[16] Alexander Litoy, [“Protests in Ingushetia: Prohibition of Rally and Criminal Cases,”] OVD-Info, April 02, 2019, https://ovdinfo(.)org/articles/2019/04/02/protesty-v-ingushetii-zapret-mitinga-i-ugolovnye-dela; “A Republic Unites: Meduza Reports from the Ground on Ingushetia's Remarkable Months-Long Protest Movement,” Meduza, April 10, 2019, https://meduza(.)io/en/feature/2019/04/10/a-republic-unites.
[17] [“Columns of Military Equipment Disturbed Residents of Ingushetia,”] Kavkaz Uzel, March 29, 2019, https://www.kavkaz-uzel(.)eu/articles/333616/; AlexKokcharov, Twitter, March 27, 2019, https://twitter.com/AlexKokcharov/status/1110798918705692672.
[18] [“In Ingushetia, Told About Raids for the Seizure of Weapons from the Population,”] Meduza, March 30, 2019, https://meduza(.)io/news/2019/03/30/v-ingushetii-rasskazali-o-reydah-po-iz-yatiyu-oruzhiya-u-naseleniya-rosgvardiya-zayavila-o-planovoy-proverke; [“Ingush Activist Announced Call for Questioning after the Rally,”] Kavkaz Uzel, April 01, 2019, https://www.kavkaz-uzel(.)eu/articles/333697/; [“Three Activists Detained in Ingushetia,”] Kavkaz Uzel, April 3, 2019, https://www.kavkaz-uzel(.)eu/articles/333802/; [“In Ingushetia, FSB Detained a Participant of Protests Against the Border Revision with Chechnya,”] OVD-Info, April 9, 2019, https://ovdinfo(.)org/express-news/2019/04/09/v-ingushetii-sotrudniki-fsb-zaderzhali-uchastnika-protestov-protiv.
[19] [“The Authorities of Chechnya Have Named the Reason for the Unilateral Establishment of the Border with Dagestan,”] Kavkaz Uzel, April 8, 2019, https://www.kavkaz-uzel(.)eu/articles/334016/.
[20] Irina Gordienko, [“The Ingush Situation Will Not Happen,”] Novaya Gazeta, February 19, 2019, https://www.novayagazeta(.)ru/articles/2019/02/20/79620-ingushskogo-stsenariya-ne-budet.
[21] “Chechen Land Grab: Dagestan Wary of Losing Territory to Kadyrov’s Territorial Ambitions,” Jam News, February 21, 2019, https://jam-news(.)net/chechen-land-grab-dagestan-weary-of-losing-territory-to-kadyrovs-territorial-ambitions/.


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Erdogan Prepares Underhanded Response to Turkey's Vote

By Elizabeth Teoman

Key Takeaway: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is preparing for an imminent challenge to the victory of his political opposition in Istanbul. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the key urban centers of Istanbul and Ankara in the 2019 Turkish Local Election held on March 31, 2019. Erdogan has rejected these results and plans to seek a total annulment of the vote in Istanbul. Regardless of the ultimate ruling by the Turkish Supreme Election Board, this approach will further disrupt the fragile electoral processes and institutions in Turkey. Erdogan could exploit a protracted legal dispute over the election to fraudulently reverse the results and partially reverse the gains of the opposition.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pursuing a dangerous course of action to annul unfavorable local election results in Istanbul.
  • The AKP is poised to lose the key urban centers of Istanbul and Ankara to the rival Republican People’s Party (CHP) following the 2019 Turkish Local Elections. The Turkish Supreme Election Board already validated the victory of the CHP in Ankara on April 8.[1]
  • Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) Deputy Chair Ali Ihsan Yavuz stated on April 9 that the AKP will petition the Turkish Supreme Election Board to invalidate the results in Istanbul.
  • Erdogan holds a strong personal connection to Istanbul. Erdogan began his career in politics with his election as the Mayor of Istanbul in 1994. He is unlikely to concede this core terrain without a fight and has already blamed the “irregular” results on “organized crime” networks in Istanbul.
  • Erdogan met with the AKP’s Supreme Executive Board in Ankara on April 10. The Board reportedly reviewed a comprehensive district-by-district analysis of the election results. It may also decide to meet again after a possible decision on a new round of voting in Istanbul.
Erdogan has likely secured support from his nationalist allies for a new election in Istanbul.
  • Erdogan met with allied Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Chairman Devlet Bahceli at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on April 10. This meeting may presage an imminent call to annul the vote and hold new elections in Istanbul from Erdogan.
  • Bahceli previously expressed support for proposed new elections in Istanbul on April 9. His support signals that the AKP and MHP will likely remain unified within their joint People's Alliance despite their unexpected losses in the 2019 Turkish Local Elections.
Erdogan has escalated his public intimidation of the Turkish Supreme Election Board.
  • Erdogan claimed that authorities have not yet eliminated the influence of the outlawed Gulen Movement from all institutions during an event in Ankara on April 10.
  • Erdogan’s statement is likely a threat directed at the Turkish Supreme Election Board, which ruled against several recount petitions by the AKP. It could alternatively aim to set conditions for future investigations against his opponents, including CHP Mayor-Elect of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu.
  • Erdogan’s behavior is consistent with his long-standing campaigns to discredit rival institutions that could curb his power and undermine popular trust in the political opposition.
It remains unclear whether the Turkish Supreme Election Board can withstand the pressure from Erdogan and whether Erdogan will settle for only a partial annulment of the results in Istanbul.
  • The AKP has not yet formally applied to annul the election results in Istanbul. It may still reevaluate its strategy during an upcoming meeting on April 12. The Turkish Supreme Election Board will likely rule on any challenge within twenty-four hours of receiving a formal request.
  • The Turkish Supreme Election Board may call for only a partial annulment of several contested districts rather than the entirety of Istanbul. It has in particularly focused its review on allegations of voter fraud raised in the opposition-leaning Buyukcekmece District of Istanbul.
  • Erdogan will likely be unable to reverse the results in Istanbul in the event of a partial annulment without an expensive and widespread campaign of fraud organized by the AKP. The CHP is likely to call for mass street protests to reject any partial or full annulment in Istanbul.
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[1] Fatih Hafiz Mehmet, “Turkey: Mansur Yavas Becomes New Ankara Mayor,” Anadolu Agency, April 8, 2019, https://www.aa.com(.)tr/en/politics/turkey-mansur-yavas-becomes-new-ankara-mayor/1445244.