Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Timeline: How We Got Here in Eastern Syria

Russia in Review: The Kremlin's Middle East Security Concept

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.

Authors: Nataliya Bugayova and Mason Clark

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is exploiting tensions in the Middle East and international platforms to promote a Russia-led Security Concept in the Persian Gulf. Senior Kremlin officials made a renewed pitch for the concept in early October 2019. The Kremlin is unlikely to realize this plan fully, but will use the process to expand Russia’s influence in the Gulf, as well as to frame Russia as an international mediator and a security guarantor.

The Kremlin is promoting the formation of a new Russia-led international security organization in the Gulf. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the concept on July 23.[1] The concept states that the ultimate objective is to create a “Security and Cooperation Organization in the Persian Gulf” that includes the Gulf countries, Russia, China, and other interested parties as members or observers. The Kremlin also invited the U.S. and E.U. to support its framing of Russia as a collaborative actor in contrast to the ‘obstructionist West.’ The Kremlin has outlined and is pursuing a step-by-step approach to the concept. The Kremlin seeks to (among other initiatives):
  • Form a regional counter-terrorism coalition under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The Kremlin will attempt to use an internationally legitimized counter-terrorism partnership to shape definitions of terrorism to support its own actions in the region, as it has previously done in Syria through the selective framing of anti-Bashar al Assad opposition groups as terrorists.
  • Coordinate information operations with Muslim-majority countries to counter terrorism – likely to support the Kremlin’s framing of the issue and to expand the Kremlin’s information influence in the Gulf. Public calls for coalition information operations might indicate an adaptation in the Kremlin’s information campaigns.
  • Establish consultation groups with regional and international stakeholders and develop an action group to drive the initiative. The Kremlin seeks to incorporate into its concept existing regional and international organizations, including the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League. The Kremlin likely assesses it will achieve greater buy-in by working with existing structures rather than in parallel.
  • Host an international conference on security cooperation in the Gulf. The Kremlin often uses the mechanism of international forums to advance its objectives. It is currently pursuing a similar model of a series of condition-setting meetings before holding a large-scale regional summit on Africa.[2]
  • Gradually develop arms control agreements, establish demilitarized zones, and reduce the international military presence in the region. These initiatives likely have a long-term intent to weaken the U.S. posture in the region and to establish zones to protect Russia’s regional partner Iran.
  • Ultimately establish a “Security and Cooperation Organization in the Persian Gulf.”
The Kremlin has conducted a deliberate campaign to build international support for its concept since late July 2019. China expressed public support for the initiative on July 26.[3] The Kremlin distributed the concept at the UNSC and UN General Assembly on July 29, and urged the UNSC to discuss the concept on August 21.[4] Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif welcomed the Russian concept on September 2.[5] The Kremlin held a roundtable on the Security Concept in Moscow on September 25, claiming around 30 experts from Russia, France, the UK, Gulf Arab-majority countries, India, and China participated.[6]

The Kremlin increased its push for the Security Concept in early October, exploiting regional tensions and the international platform of the Valdai Club, a key annual Russian foreign policy conference. Russian President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov emphasized the need to implement the Kremlin’s Gulf Security Concept during their speeches to the Valdai Club on October 3.[7] Lavrov referred to the initiative indirectly during his visit to Iraq amid protests on October 7 as a method to “defuse tensions” in the Persian Gulf.[8] Putin also mentioned the concept in an interview with Saudi media outlets on the eve of his second ever visit to Saudi Arabia on October 13.[9] The Kremlin will continue to promote the Security Concept and begin to set conditions for its desired first steps toward a regional counter-terrorism coalition and regional consultation groups.

The Kremlin likely views the process of promoting the concept as an end in itself. The Kremlin does not need to achieve the unlikely end state of a new security organization in the Gulf to strengthen its presence as a legitimized actor in the Middle East. The Kremlin’s stated goal of a new security organization in the Gulf is, at best, unrealistic in the short term. It may not even intend to achieve this goal in the near future. The Kremlin tries to cast itself as an internationally legitimized security guarantor.[10] Russia lacks American influence and presence in the broader Middle East. Russia’s close ties with Iran and the Assad regime in Syria hampers its outreach in the region. The Kremlin will leverage the process of promoting the concept – growing regional counter-terrorism cooperation, negotiating arms control agreements, expanding access to the region’s information space, and convening regional working groups – to expand its influence in the Gulf. The Kremlin is attempting to take the initiative in the region by establishing control of the narrative on regional security, rather than responding to Western initiatives such as the U.S.-led Anti-ISIS Coalition and the U.S.-led maritime security mission in the Gulf.[11]

The Kremlin’s outreach to the West and other international actors also sets Russia up for a ‘win-win’ outcome, even if it cannot secure broad support for its concept. The Kremlin is managing to secure preliminary interest from major international actors, including India and China. The Kremlin will achieve its objectives by successfully including these actors in what amounts to an anti-U.S. partnership even if Russia fails to establish itself in the Gulf to the extent it aspires to. Lavrov stated that Russia is against U.S. “privatization” of security in the Gulf. Russia is already framing U.S. efforts in the region as “anti-collaborative” and unnecessarily focused on Iran.[12] If the Kremlin manages to secure even minimal buy-in, it will frame itself as a viable international mediator and a cohering force. If the Kremlin is able to enlist some but not all Western states in its efforts, as it has with France in Syria, it will be able to sharpen divides between the U.S. and its allies.[13] If the West declines to join the Kremlin’s initiative – which is the most likely scenario – the Kremlin strengthens its narrative of an ‘obstructionist West.’

The Kremlin perceives an opportunity to expand its reach in the Gulf at a moment when the U.S. appears to be disengaging from the Middle East following its Syria withdrawal announcement. The Kremlin sees a similar opening to advance its objectives in Eastern Europe.[14] The Kremlin will continue to exploit the White House’s desire to pull back from the Middle East to grow its influence in the Gulf and support malign actors including the Assad regime and Iran.

[1] [“Russian Concept of Collective Security in the Persian Gulf,”] Russian MFA, July 23, 2019, http://www.mid((.))ru/ru/foreign_policy/international_safety/conflicts/-/asset_publisher/xIEMTQ3OvzcA/content/id/3733575.
[2] Darina Regio, “Russia in Review: Africa Campaign Update,” Institute for the Study of War, July 18, 2019,; Nataliya Bugayova and Darina Regio, “The Kremlin’s Campaign in Africa: Assessment Update,” Institute for the Study of War, August 2019,
[3] Abhishek Bhaya, “China Backs Russian Plan for 'Collective Security' in Persian Gulf,” CGTN, July 26, 2019, https://news.cgtn((.))com/news/2019-07-26/China-backs-Russian-plan-for-collective-security-in-Persian-Gulf-IDEJRWKHLy/index.html.
[4] “Russia Presents to UN its Concept of Collective Security in the Persian Gulf,” TASS, July 29, 2019, https://tass((.))com/world/1070933; “Russia Calls on UN Security Council to Discuss Gulf Security Concept,” RG, August 21, 2019, https://rg((.))ru/2019/08/21/rf-prizvala-sb-oon-obsudit-koncepciiu-bezopasnosti-v-persidskom-zalive.html.
[5] [“Zarif: Iran Welcomes the Russian Concept of Security in the Persian Gulf,”] TASS, September 2, 2019, https://tass((.))ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/6832380.
[6] [“Speech and Answers to the Questions of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov at the Session on Russian Politics in the Middle East of the Valdai International Discussion Club, Sochi, October 2, 2019,”] Russian MFA, October 2, 2019, http://www.mid((.))ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3826083.
[7] [“Speech and Answers to the Questions of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov at the Session on Russian Politics in the Middle East of the Valdai International Discussion Club, Sochi, October 2, 2019,”] Russian MFA, October 2, 2019, http://www.mid((.))ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3826083; [“Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club,”] Kremlin, October 3, 2019, http://kremlin((.))ru/events/president/news/61719.
[8] [“Statement to the Media by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation S.V. Lavrov Following Negotiations with the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Iraq M.Hakim, Baghdad, October 7, 2019,”] Russian MFA, October 7, 2019, http://www.mid((.))ru/ru/maps/iq/-/asset_publisher/WizNA2SGNvS5/content/id/3836701.
[9] [“Interview for Al Arabiya, Sky News Arabia and RT Arabic,”] Kremlin, October 13, 2019, http://www.kremlin((.))ru/events/president/news/61792.
[10] Frederick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019,
[11] [“Speech and Answers to the Questions of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov at the Session on Russian Politics in the Middle East of the Valdai International Discussion Club, Sochi, October 2, 2019,”] Russian MFA, October 2, 2019, http://www.mid((.))ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3826083.
[12] [“Speech and Answers to the Questions of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov at the Session on Russian Politics in the Middle East of the Valdai International Discussion Club, Sochi, October 2, 2019,”] Russian MFA, October 2, 2019, http://www.mid((.))ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3826083.
[13] “France and Russia Pound ISIS Targets in Syria,” Newsweek, November 17, 2015,
[14] Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Putin Advances in Ukraine and its Neighboring States,” Institute for the Study of War, October 15, 2019,

Situation in Northeast Syria: October 15, 2019 Map

Russia in Review: Putin Advances in Ukraine and Its Neighboring States

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.

Author: Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaways: Few developments will embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin more than regaining influence in his priority theater and weakening Western sanctions. Putin is currently advancing these objectives. The Kremlin is regaining influence in Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova. It is likely using Belarus to rebuild its influence in Ukraine. This progress comes at little cost to Putin. The Kremlin has not curbed its aggression. It is instead focused on changing perceptions and fueling the self-imposed urgency in the West for a settlement of the war on Ukraine. Russia arguably needs the deal more in order to lift sanctions. A recent shift in Western rhetoric in Putin’s favor and tension in U.S.-Ukraine relations have weakened Ukraine’s negotiating position with the Kremlin. Putin’s progress is neither solidified, nor is it inevitable. The West can prevent the Kremlin from regaining and linking its influence in its neighboring states. The West should help stave off the more dangerous scenarios that are emerging in Ukraine.

The Kremlin is regaining influence in Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus to varying degrees. In Ukraine, the Kremlin is exploiting President Volodymyr Zelensky’s haste to establish peace in Eastern Ukraine and his perception of diminishing Western support to force him into an agreement on Russia’s terms. In Moldova, the Kremlin facilitated a parliamentary coalition under a veneer of cooperation with the West to legitimize its preferred political actor – Moldovan President Igor Dodon.[1] In Belarus, the Kremlin began to reap the benefits of a multi-year campaign targeting President Alexander Lukashenko with the aim to force deeper Belarus-Russia integration through the Union State mechanism. The Union State is a planned but not yet implemented federation-type entity that would ensure Belarus’ allegiance to Russia.

The Kremlin, if unimpeded, is on a trajectory to regain its influence in the former Soviet Union (FSU), legitimize its aggression in Ukraine, and weaken the Western sanctions regime. The Kremlin is making progress without making meaningful concessions or curbing its aggressive behavior. The West will face an emboldened Kremlin if it allows Putin to deepen his grip over the FSU at limited cost.



The Kremlin has been conducting a months-long campaign to exploit Zelensky’s election promises, which include a self-imposed deadline to reach a settlement of the conflict in the Donbas (Eastern Ukraine).[2] U.S. domestic political tensions that have ensnared Ukraine have also weakened Zelensky who is now more vulnerable to Putin’s pressure. The Kremlin moved closer to achieving its objectives of legitimizing its proxies without giving up control over them. ISW forecasted this risk in March 2019.[3] The Kremlin is likely simultaneously setting conditions to generate options for escalating in more dangerous ways.

Zelensky made several concessions to the Kremlin without getting much in return. He agreed to the so-called “Steinmeier Formula” on October 1 that risks holding elections in Donbas on Russian terms.[4] Thousands of Ukrainians have since been protesting in Kyiv against what they view is a capitulation to Russia.[5] The formula – at least in its current form – provides no mechanism for the verified withdrawal of Russian forces from Donbas during the elections.[6] The presence of Russian troops precludes a legitimate vote. The Kremlin claimed that it does not have control over the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR)” and “Luhansk People's Republic (LNR)” on October 7 in response to a question about the Kremlin’s willingness to guarantee the disengagement of its proxies. This feint indicates the Kremlin’s unwillingness to guarantee disengagement of its forces.[7] The Kremlin might create a veneer of compliance using its signature hybrid tactics. For example, it may order some of its proxies to temporarily stand down or leave the territory, but the majority of the Russia-controlled forces will likely stay. This plan also ignores Russia’s control of the information space in Donbas that would influence any vote.

Zelensky has made additional concessions to Russia. He withdrew some Ukrainian forces from the frontlines and promised additional redeployments.[8] He stated the intent to lift the economic blockade and renew railway transportation links to territories illegally occupied by Russia.[9] Zelensky released a witness in the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 by Russian-controlled forces in 2014 at Russia’s request during a recent prisoner exchange.[10] Numerous Russia-linked powerbrokers have returned to Ukraine’s political scene.[11] Ukraine also resumed importing electricity from the Russian power grid after a four-year pause on October 1.[12]

The Kremlin has continued to raise its pressure on Ukraine despite Zelensky’s concessions. Russian-controlled proxies continued to violate the ceasefire, including near the designated disengagement area.[13] The Kremlin has consolidated control over the railway systems of the DNR and the LNR.”[14] The Kremlin took steps to integrate the DNR and LNR’s banking systems with Russia’s banking system.[15] The Kremlin has applied pressure at critical moments, namely during the prisoner exchange when Russia stalled in a likely attempt to extract additional concession from Zelensky.[16] The Kremlin included the Steinmeier Formula as a precondition of further Normandy Four (Ukraine, France, Germany, and Russia) talks, which Zelensky is eager to hold.

Most Dangerous Scenarios

The Kremlin will continue to pressure Zelensky to legitimize Russia’s proxies in order to lift sanctions and create a permanent enclave of influence in Ukraine. Putin could be setting conditions for more dangerous scenarios, however. Russia might intend to launch a renewed push for Ukraine’s federalization if it succeeds in legitimizing the DNR and LNR. Russia initially intended to federalize at least six regions in Ukraine in 2014. The Kremlin will try to conceal its push for federalization under the guise of Ukraine’s ongoing decentralization efforts.

The Kremlin might also decide to destabilize Ukraine from within. Elements within Ukrainian civil society and the Ukrainian military view Zelensky’s policies as a surrender of Ukraine’s national interests. The Kremlin might fuel the resultant friction to ignite internal discontent and use it as a justification to introduce a “peacekeeping force” directly or through a proxy, like Belarus.[17] Zelensky said on October 10 that he is open to discussing a peacekeeping force in Donbas via the Normandy Four talks.[18] The Kremlin-controlled media is already pinning the pause in the peace process – caused by Russia and its proxies’ violations of the ceasefire in Donbas – on ‘Ukrainian radicals who want war’ and are planning ‘a coup.’[19]


The Kremlin’s campaign to integrate Belarus with Russia is advancing, despite resistance from Lukashenko.[20] Lukashenko stated that Belarus and Russia would finalize the implementation of a road map for the Union State by December 8.[21] The countries are discussing creating a joint tax code.[22] Russia continues to grow its control over the Belarusian Armed Forces. Russia led a major military exercise with Belarus in September 2019 and explicitly practiced defending the Union State.[23] The exercise marked the final stage of a two-year cycle of joint training between the Russian and Belarusian militaries.[24] The Kremlin initiated the process of updating the Union State military doctrine in 2018.[25]

The Kremlin might be leveraging Belarus to expand its influence in Ukraine. Lukashenko offered to send Belarusian peacekeepers to Ukraine on September 26.[26] The Kremlin has an interest in placing its peacekeepers in Ukraine as a legitimized military presence. Putin might intend to use Belarusian peacekeepers as a proxy force. The use of forces from FSU states as a Russian proxy is potentially an emerging adaptation of the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare. Ukraine signed over a dozen deals with Belarus on October 4 reportedly worth of $500 million.[27] Lukashenko invited Ukraine to develop a joint project on missile engineering and stated that Belarus is ready to develop a network of joint roads with Ukraine.[28] Belarusian officials expressed willingness to supply electricity to Ukraine during the “Russian Energy Week” in October.[29] Russia has an interest in building its energy leverage over Ukraine and expanding its access to Ukraine’s military industrial complex. ISW forecasted that Russia would attempt to revive its economic presence in Ukraine under Zelensky.[30] ISW will be watching for indicators of Russian efforts to leverage Belarus and other foreign partners to achieve this goal.


The Kremlin facilitated a Moldovan parliamentary coalition between pro-European and pro-Russian forces in June 2019 and signaled nominal alignment with the West. The Kremlin rapidly moved to regain influence to reverse major setbacks in recent years – a risk ISW forecasted in June 2019.[31] Russian officials stated on June 24 that relations between Russia and Moldova were officially ‘unfrozen’.[32] Dodon said that Moldova would “no longer take a systematic anti-Russian approach” and aims to restore strategic cooperation at all levels with Russia.[33]

The Kremlin used this rapprochement to initiate a series of engagements across the military, political, economic, and informational domains. The Kremlin launched an outreach campaign, including at least ten high-level visits with Moldovan officials in the past three months.[34] Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu suggested a three-year military cooperation plan between Russia and Moldova during an unofficial visit on August 24 – the first time a Russian senior military official visited Moldova in years. Moldova is considering a Russia-proposed military cooperation plan – a development that would have been unlikely several months ago.[35] Moldova lifted the ban on Moldovan politicians traveling to Russia on June 26.[36] The Russia-Moldova Inter-Parliamentary Commission also resumed its work after a three-year pause.[37] Moldovan Parliamentary Speaker Zinaida Greceanii chose Russia as the destination of her first foreign visit in June. Moldovan companies signed at least 11 agreements with Russian businesses on September 24.[38] The Kremlin agreed to lower gas prices for Moldova on September 9.[39] Dodon also discussed the need to abolish the existing ban on Russian broadcasting in Moldova.[40]

  • The Kremlin has undertaken deliberate, coordinated campaigns to regain suzerainty in Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova.[41] The Kremlin seized the initiative and moved rapidly to secure its gains when it saw an opportunity with Zelensky in Ukraine and with the new coalition in Moldova.
  • Russia arguably needs a settlement of the conflict it is stoking in Ukraine more than the West does. Putin seeks to gain relief from Western sanctions imposed due to Russia’s intervention in Donbas. Sanctions have had a limited effect in reversing the Kremlin’s calculations thus far, but have likely dampened additional aggression and raised the costs required for Putin to keep his inner circle and Russian citizens content.[42]
  • The Kremlin is spinning this situation through its information campaign so that Western leaders think they need to reach a peace deal and make concessions. The Kremlin has reinforced the West’s self-imposed urgency for a peace deal in Europe and Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron and Zelensky are both eager to be perceived as peacemakers. The Kremlin therefore prioritized outreach to both presidents. The Kremlin also invested in narratives about ‘Ukraine fatigue’, Europe’s ‘realpolitik’, and ‘ineffectiveness of sanctions.’[43]
  • The Kremlin is thus outlasting the West in the information space. The Kremlin exploited the West’s inability to sustain attention on the fact that Russia is engaging in unwarranted hostility in violation of its own commitments and international laws. Macron recently said that “pushing Russia from Europe is a profound strategic error,” and expressed willingness to consider Russia’s return to the G7 (the organization of advanced industrial economies). Russia managed to reinstate its voting rights at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in June. Russia gradually shifted the narrative without making any meaningful concessions. The Kremlin likely tapped into a sub-generation of politicians in the West and in Ukraine for whom an “anti-Russian policy” was something they have inherited. Russia continued its ‘war on truth’ and efforts to alter historical memory, including attempting to distract from its invasion of Ukraine by portraying the conflict as a civil war.
  • The Kremlin focused on neutralizing internal resistance mechanisms in the FSU. In Ukraine, Russia invested in a campaign to discredit former President Petro Poroshenko.[44] The Kremlin’s information operations focused on building a mental link between the war and Poroshenko. Zelensky is now capitalizing on anti-Poroshenko sentiment to promote the ‘peace’ efforts. The Kremlin is now trying to marginalize the recent civil society protests that took place in Kyiv against the Steinmeier Formula by framing them as radicals led by Poroshenko.[45] In Moldova, Russia successfully sidelined the main obstacle to its influence — namely, oligarch and former leader of the Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM) Vladimir Plahotniuc and his party.[46] Plahotniuc opposed efforts to pull Moldova fully into the Kremlin’s orbit, although likely out of his own pragmatic concerns rather than ideological opposition to Russia. In Belarus, the Kremlin’s pressure campaign has been going for years.[47]
While the narrative has started to drift in the Kremlin’s favor, the West has maintained sanctions and launched numerous initiatives to counter Russian subversion — an important check.[48]

  • New Security Environment: If the Kremlin is successful in fully regaining and linking its influence in the FSU, it will have additional levers with which to militarily pressure Europe and drive wedges within NATO. Russia is likely attempting to construct a multi-layer, informal security network.[49] The Moldova-Belarus-Ukraine layer is critical.
  • Putin’s Aggression on Steroids: The FSU, and Ukraine in particular, holds asymmetric value for Russia and its campaign against the West. The Kremlin perceives Ukraine as part of its cultural, economic, and military core. The Kremlin will be emboldened to free some of its resources to expand focus elsewhere if it regains its influence in the FSU. The sanctions imposed on Russia over the Donbas are a dampener on Putin’s ambitions. The ripple effect of any sanctions relief will be significant and will likely make it easier for Putin to overcome other coercive measures.
  • An International Precedent: Putin and other international actors will likely internalize the lesson that, with enough time and manipulation of the information space, they can outlast any resistance to the pursuit of their goals. Russia’s gradual restoration of influence in the FSU would also legitimize its aggressive actions in Ukraine and beyond. Other states are likely to emulate this behavior.
  • Loss of Sovereignty: Putin will work to ensure that the Kremlin never loses control again if he strengthens his grip over Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova. Russia would likely attempt to influence governance in those countries in order to build permanent levers of control over the FSU states through institutions, human networks, erasing historical memory, and further suppressing internal resistance mechanisms against the Kremlin’s influence. The Kremlin also will also attempt to disrupt any successful democratic model in the FSU that could threaten Putin’s regime.

The Kremlin’s progress is not inevitable. The Kremlin has not solidified its gains. For example, in Belarus Lukashenko continues to attempt to balance Russian pressure and while reaching out to the West.[50] Belarusian officials reinforced that they do not see a need for a Russian military airbase.[51] Lukashenko allowed a protest against the Union State to take place in Minsk on October 6.[52] Moldova continues to expand its partnership with the West and receive significant aid from the EU, while signaling the limits of cooperation with Russia.[53] In Ukraine, Zelensky made important but not irreversible concessions to Russia. Ukraine’s civil society continues to serve as a check on the Kremlin’s influence.

The FSU states are unlikely to be able to withstand or even recognize the full scope of Putin’s current campaign on their own, however. The West should:
  • Focus public and diplomatic attention on Russian aggression and prevent the Kremlin’s disinformation operations to mask the reality of these situations. For example, the West should not allow Russia to recast the nature of the war in Ukraine and portray Ukraine as a spoiler of the peace process or as ‘a problem’ weighing down the West.
  • The West should seize the initiative from Russia and remember that it does not have any urgency to make a deal with Russia; any deal under the current circumstances on the ground would likely amount to a surrender to Putin.
  • The West should cease enabling the Kremlin to peddle its false narrative. The EU should stop pushing Ukraine to concede to Russia’s terms. The U.S. should focus on a bipartisan commitment to supporting Ukraine’s long-term independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.
  • The West must not confuse the Kremlin’s temporary changes in approach for a change in its goals. In Moldova, for example, Russia continues to leverage its nominal alliance with the West.
  • The West can help the FSU countries avoid the most dangerous scenarios. The West should support genuine internal reform efforts and, perhaps most importantly, efforts to fight Russian disinformation campaigns that are becoming more sophisticated.
The West must maintain its sanctions regime until Russia meaningfully changes its behavior.

[1] Mitchell Orenstein, “Wait – why are the U.S., Russia and the E.U. suddenly cooperating in Moldova?” The Washington Post, June 27, 2019, https//
[2] Nataliya Bugayova, “The Balancing Challenge for Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, September 5, 2019,; Nataliya Bugayova, “Ukraine’s New President: The Stakes for Ukraine and the West,” Institute for the Study of War, April 22, 2019,; Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Exploiting Transition in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, July 12, 2019,; Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Recasting the War in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, August 13, 2019,
[3] Nataliya Bugayova, “Ukraine’s New President: The Stakes for Ukraine and the West,” Institute for the Study of War, April 22, 2019,
[4] Christopher Miller, “Explainer: What Is The Steinmeier Formula -- And Did Zelenskiy Just Capitulate To Moscow?” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 2, 2019,
[5] Tamara Kiptenko and Artur Korniienko, “Thousands of Ukrainians rally against Zelensky’s plan to end war with Russia,” Kyiv Post, October 6, 2019,; “Participants in ‘No Surrender’ march in Kyiv voice demands to Zelensky,” UNIAN, October 14, 2019,; ‘Thousands march to celebrate Defender of Ukraine Day,” Kyiv Post, October 14, 2019,
[6] Anastasia Stanko, “The Steinmeier Formula: What Could It Mean For Ukraine?” Hromadske International, October 3, 2019, https://en.hromadske(.)ua/posts/the-steinmeier-formula-what-could-it-mean-for-ukraine.
[7] Pavel Kalashnik, [“The Kremlin Refused to Guarantee Withdrawal of its Militant Forces in the Donbas,”] Hromadske, October 7, 2019, https://hromadske(.)ua/ru/posts/kreml-otkazalsya-garantirovat-otvod-sil-so-storony-boevikov-na-donbasse.
[8] [“Khomchak: With the Withdrawal of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, the Ukrainian Army will Return to its Position in 2016,”] Ukrainskya Pravda, October 8, 2019, https://www.pravda(.); “Ukraine conflict: Zelensky plans frontline troop withdrawal,” BBC News, October 4, 2019,; “Zelensky announces disengagement in Petrivske, Zolote in Donbas,” UNIAN, October 1, 2019, https://www.unian(.)info/war/10705452-zelensky-announces-disengagement-in-petrivske-zolote-in-donbas.html; [“Zelensky: An Agreement was Reached on Troop Withdrawal in Petrovsky and Zolotoy,”] Focus, October 1, 2019, https://focus(.)ua/politics/441360-v_minske_soglasovano_razvedenie_voisk_v_petrovskom_i_zolotom__zelenskii.
[9] [“The Minister of Foreign Affairs Wants to Restore Railway Service to the DNR and LNR,”] Korrespondent, October 5, 2019, https://korrespondent(.)net/ukraine/4146804-myd-khochet-vosstanovyt-zhd-soobschenye-s-ldnr; [“Pristayko Said Amnesty and Lifting of the Blockade is Under Consideration,”’] RBC, August 28, 2019, https://www.rbc(.)ua/rus/news/pristayko-dopustil-amnistiyu-snyatie-blokady-1567097692.html; [“Zelensky Named the Conditions for Lifting the Blockade of the Donbas Region,”] Obozrevatel, July 8, 2019, https://www.obozrevatel(.)com/ukr/economics/zelenskij-nazvav-umovu-znyattya-blokadi-donbasu.htm.
[10] “MH17 crash: 'Key witness' released in Ukraine,” BBC News, September 5, 2019,
[11] Nataliya Bugayova, “The Balancing Challenge for Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, September 5, 2019,; “Yanukovych’s security chief returns to Ukraine, meets Zelensky,” Kyiv Post, October 12, 2019,; Oleg Sukhov, “Yanukovych’s Old Guard is Staging a Comeback,” Kyiv Post, August 30, 2019,
[12] “Ukraine resumes commercial import of electricity from Russia,” Kyiv Post, October 2, 2019, https(:/)//www.kyivpost(.)com/ukraine-politics/ukraine-resumes-commercial-import-of-electricity-from-russia.html.
[13] [“Summary of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine regarding the situation in the area of ​​the operation of the Joint Forces (updated),”] Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, October 3, 2019,; “OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) Daily Report 234/2019 issued on 3 October 2019,” OSCE, October 3, 2019,; “OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) Daily Report 236/2019 issued on 5 October 2019,” OSCE, October 5, 2019,; [“’We Will Wait for 7 days.’ Pristayko Accused Militants of Breaking down the Withdrawal,”] Liga news, October 7, 2019, https://news.liga(.)net/politics/news/pristayko-o-razvedenii-voysk-v-donbasse-ne-rekomenduem-igratsya.
[14] “Fighters from 'DNR' and 'LNR' Created a New Cross Border Concern,”] Lenta, August 8, 2019, https://lenta((.))ua/boeviki-iz-dnr-i-lnr-sozdali-novyy-transgranichnyy-kontsern-20873/; [“”’DNR’ and ‘LNR’ Combined the Railways in the Concern ‘Railways of Donbass,’”] Antikor, August 19, 2019, https://antikor(.)
[15] [“The Russian Federation is Preparing Occupied Donbas’ Banking System for Integration – InformNapalm,”] Gordon, August 21, 2019, https://gordonua(.)com/news/war/rf-gotovit-bankovskuyu-sistemu-okkupirovannogo-donbassa-k-integracii-informnapalm-1210939.html.
[16] Nataliya Bugayova, “The Balancing Challenge for Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, September 5, 2019,
[17] Nikita Pidgora, [“What Does the Attack on the Bridge Mean?,”] Vesti, September 19, 2019, https://vesti((.))ua/strana/351085-chto-oznachaet-terakt-na-mostu; [“In Lviv, the Participants of the “Coal Blockade” Were Dispersed, Among the Detainees – the Ex-Deputy of the Verkhovna Rada,”] Fraza, September 21, 2019, https://fraza((.))ua/video/282809-na_lvovschine_razognali_uchastnikov_ugolnoy_blokady_sredi_zaderzhannyh__eksdeputat_verhovnoy_rady; “Thousands in Kyiv Protest President's Plan for Local Elections in Eastern Ukraine,” VOA News, October 6, 2019, https://www((.))
[18] [“Zelensky: The Question of Peacekeepers in Donbas Will be Discussed at the Normandy Four Meeting,”] Ria Novosti, October 10, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20191010/1559618434.html.
[19] Elena Erofeeva, [“The Nazis Want War. Ukrainian Radicals Flock to Donbass,”] Vesti, October 8, 2019, https((:))//
[20] Mason Clark and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: May 9 – 13, 2019,” Institute for the Study of War, May 14, 2019,
[21] [“The End of Sovereignty? Lukashenko and Putin to Sign Integration Program on December 8,”] UDF, September 9, 2019, https://udf((.))by/news/main_news/198590-konec-suvereniteta-lukashenko-i-putin-podpishut-programmu-integracii-8-dekabrja.html.
[22] [“Russia and Belarus Will Develop a Single Tax Code, But Will Not Introduce a Single Currency,”] Vesti Finance, October 1, 2019, https(:)//; [“Russia and Belarus Will Begin to Develop a Unified Tax Code,”] RBC, October 1, 2019, https://www((.))
[23] Yuri Sizov, [“The Active Phase of the Exercise “Union Shield-2019” has Completed,”] RG, September 18, 2019, https((:))//; “Over 4,000 Belarusian Military to Participate in Union Shield 2019 Exercise,” Belta, August 14, 2019, https://eng((.))
[24] “Over 4,000 Belarusian Military to Participate in Union Shield 2019 Exercise,” Belta, August 14, 2019, https://eng((.))
[25] [“Union State Military Doctrine Approved by the Russian Side,”] Ministry of Defense of Belarus, December 20, 2018, http://www((.))
[26] “Lukashenko Says Belarus Ready to Deploy Peacekeepers in Donbas,” Unian, September 26, 2019, https://www((.))
[27] [“Road Construction, Investment, and Transit of Goods. Key Topics of the II Forum of the Regions of Belarus and Ukraine,”] ONT, October 3, 2019, https://ont((.))by/news/ii-forum-regionov-belarusi-i-ukrainy; Natalia Datskevych, “Zelensky Meets Belarusian President Lukashenko in Zhytomyr, Key Economic Questions Discussed,” Kyiv Post, October 4, 2019,; “Ukraine, Belarus at Regional Forum Sign 17 Agreements – Babak,” Ukrinform, October 4, 2019, https://www((.))
[28] “Lukashenko Invites Ukraine to Collaborate in Missile Engineering,” Belta, October 4, 2019, https://eng((.)); [“Lukashenko: Belarus is Ready Together with Ukraine to Develop a Network of Roads,”] Belta, September 26, 2019, https://www((.))
[29][“Karankevich Does Not Exclude the Possibility of Supplying Electricity from BelAES to Ukraine,”] Belta, October 2, 2019, https((:))//
[30] Nataliya Bugayova, “Ukraine’s New President: The Stakes for Ukraine and the West,” Institute for the Study of War, April 22, 2019,
[31] Darina Regio and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Opportunity in Moldova,” Institute for the Study of War, June 24, 2019,
[32] [“Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation: From Today, Bilateral Relations are Unfrozen,”] Sputnik Moldova, June 24, 2019, https((:))//
[33] [“Igor Dodon: Moldova and Russia Resume Strategic Cooperation,”] Sputnik Moldova, September 20, 2019, https://ru((.)); [“Dodon: Moldova Seeks to Restore Strategic Relations with Russia,”] Sputnik Moldova, June 24, 2019, https((:))//; [““For Vladimir Putin to arrive, we need a clear and some breakthrough agenda”,”] Kommersant, September 23, 2019, https((:))//
[34] [“Dodon Spoke About a Possible Official Visit of Shoigu to Moldova,”] Sputnik Moldova, August 24, 2019, https://ru((.)); [“Shoigu Will Clear Transnistria from Soviet Shells,”] Vzglyad, September 12, 2019, https://vz((.))ru/politics/2019/9/12/491477.html; [“Dodon: Russian Ministry of Defense is Preparing a Plan of Cooperation with the Defense Department of Moldova,”] Publika, August 27, 2019, https://ru((.))
[35] Zinaida Greceanîi [“Zinaida Grechnaya Adressed Deputies of the Russian State Duma.”] Sputnik Молдова, June 27, 2019. https(:)//; [“Moldovan Parliamentarians Establish Cooperation with the State Duma of the Russian Federation,”]Sputnik Молдова, June 27, 2019, https(:)//; [“Moldova lifts ban on Russia trips for deputies and officials,”] Radio Sputnik, Sputnik Moldova, July 29, 2019. https(:)//
[36] [“Zinaida Greceanîi:We Will Restore the Close Partnership Between Moldova and Russia,”] Duma, Russian Government , June 27, 2019, http(:)//
[37] Мikhai Kosov l, [“Moldova-Russia: Reloading Relations,”] Komsomolskaya Pravda, September 24, 2019. https(:)//; [“MREF-2019: the First Agreements between the Regions of Russia and Moldova Are Signed.”] Sputnik Moldova, Sputnik, September 20, 2019 https(:)//; [“Partnership without Borders: Results of the Second Moldovan-Russian Economic Forum,”], September 21, 2019, https(:)//
[38] Ria Novosti, [“Dodon Announces Discount on Russian Gas up of to Seventy Dollars for Moldova,”] Ria novosti, ://, September 9, 2019,; “Gas Prices for Moldova Will Be Lowered by 10-15 Dollars on October 1,” Bloknot Moldova, http(:)//
[39] “Moldova Plans to Life Ban on Broadcasting News and Analytical Programs from the Russian Federation,” Duma TV, Russian State Duma , July 29, 2019, https(:)//; “Moldova Announced Plans to Lift a Ban on Russian Broadcasting Programs,” Ria Novosti, July 29, 2019, https(:)//
[40] [“Dodon Will Seek to Restore the Broadcasting of Russian Television Channels,”] Ren, July 31, 2019, http://ren(.)tv/novosti/2019-07-31/dodon-budet-dobivatsya-vosstanovleniya-veshchaniya-rossiyskih-telekanalov.
[41] Frederick Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019, CTP Report - Confronting the Russian Challenge - June 2019.pdf.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Sergei Lavrov, “New Sanctions against Russia Will Not Work: Lavrov,” Xinhua, Accessed October 9, 2019, http(:)//; “New Sanctions against Russia Reflect US Domestic Policy Crisis, Says Moscow,” TASS, September 30, 2019, https(:)//
[44] Nataliya Bugayova, and Darina Regio, “Russia's Long View on Ukraine's Elections,” ISW Blog, April 3, 2019,
[45] Dmitry Kiselev, “Ukrainian Nationalists Threaten a New Coup,” Vesti.Ru, October 6, 2019, https(:)//; Tseybulko, Polina, “Zelensky Is Ready for Peace in Donbas but Kiev's Streets Are Ready for War,” RIA FAN, October 3, 2019, https(:)//; Artur Korniienko , “Thousands Rally in Kyiv against Zelensky’s Plan to End War with Russia,” Kyiv Post, October 6, 2019,
[46] Nataliya Bugayova, and Darina Regio, “Russia in Review: Opportunity in Moldova,” Institute for the Study of War , June 24, 2019,
[47] Nataliya Bugayova, and Mason Clark, “Russia in Review: Military Exercises as Geopolitical Tools,” Institute for the Study of War, September 4, 2019,; Catherine Harris, and Jack Ulses, “Russia in Review: August 14 - 20, 2018,” Institute for the Study of War, August 21, 2019,; Catherine Harris, Darina Regio, and Andrea Snyder, “Russia in Review: December 12, 2018 - January 16, 2019,” Institute for the Study of War, January 17, 2019.; Glen E. Howard, “The Growing Importance of Belarus on NATO's Flank,” The Jamestown Foundation, September 2019,
[48] Nataliya Bugayova, “The Balancing Challenge for Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, September 5, 2019,; Terri Moon Cronk, “Esper: Russia, China Want to Disrupt International Order,” U.S. Department of Defense, September 6, 2019,
[49] Nataliya Bugayova, and Mason Clark, “Russia in Review: Military Exercises as Geopolitical Tools,” Institute for the Study of War, September 4, 2019,
[50] [“Lukashenko Threatens Russia with the Loss of an Ally,”] Ria Novosti, January 10, 2019, https(:)//
[“Minsk Refused to Host the Russian Base,”] Gazeta, October 1, 2019, https://www.gazeta(.)ru/army/2019/10/01/12698539.shtml.
[52] Vitaliy Kropman, [“Independence Rally Held in Minsk,”] Deutsche Well, October 6, 2019,в-минске-прошел-митинг-за-независимость/a-50716580
[53] “Moldova Insists on Withdrawal of Russian Troops from Transnistria,” UAWire, September 12, 2019,

Situation in Northeast Syria: October 14, 2019 Map

Sunday, October 13, 2019

ISIS's Campaign to Escape Detention and Camps

Key Takeaway: ISIS has begun to escape detention in northern Syria, exploiting security gaps caused by Turkey's invasion. Nearly 800 ISIS "family members" escaped a previously-secure annex inside a displacement camp in Ayn Issa, north of Raqqa City on October 13, 2019 after Kurdish security forces withdrew from the facility.  Some reports indicate the escape occurred in coordination with ISIS cells outside the camp. ISIS, then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, previously  conducted a series of prison breaks across Iraq in 2012-2013 that enabled its reconstitution by freeing 600 fighters. Now, ISIS has an even larger opportunity to free more than 10,000 fighters detained in Northern Syria in addition to thousands more in Iraq. This time, ISIS also seeks to liberate tens of thousands of family members from the guarded annexes of displacement camps. 

Forecast: The Consequences of the U.S. Withdrawal from Syria

The United States made a deliberate choice to depart from Syria. America will pay a heavy price for this unforced error.

The United States has lost its defeat mechanism against the Islamic State. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were not the original counter-terrorism partner of choice. It took years for the U.S. to realize that the SDF were the only capable partners. They will not partner with us again. This betrayal has burned that bridge to ashes. It also serves as a warning for any future counterterrorism partner to contemplate – the U.S. will not have your back in the end.

The United States will face a pan-Kurdish uprising that will further fragment an already unstable region. The Kurdish component of the SDF is part of a regional network that stretches from Syria into Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. We must expect this network to mobilize. Kurds across the region have started to protest against the atrocities taking place. Few Kurdish groups will stand by and watch genocide occur. Once the Kurds mobilize as a people, the region will never be the same. The Kurds may not have a nation, but they can stand up an armed force to be reckoned with.

The United States’ decision to withdraw from Syria has emboldened jihadists worldwide. The return of the Islamic State is now a given. The sole remaining superpower has demonstrated its lack of will to ensure their continued defeat. There is no obstacle remaining in the jihadists’ path. There will be a spike in jihadist activity, from lone wolf attacks to previously unknown groups emerging from the darkness. The global war of terror has just begun.

The United States has ceded the moral high ground. Turkish planes are bombing hospitals, refugee camps, and villages using airspace the U.S. controlled just days ago. Turkish-backed forces are executing politicians and civil activists that the U.S. encouraged. Civilians are not just caught up in the Turkish offensive, they are the targets. The U.S. is not confronting the challenges posed by those who seek to destabilize the world; the U.S. has chosen to sit on the sidelines.

The U.S. decision to leave Syria has allowed a neo-Ottoman armed force to march on the Arab world. Turkish President Erdogan is cleansing Kurdish areas to resettle millions of Syrian Arab refugees. They will oppose him for bringing neo-Ottoman invaders into Arab-ruled lands. Many Arabs blame Ottoman rule for the backwardness of their countries. Few will welcome its return.

The United States has decided not to be an indispensable world leader. The U.S. had maintained a security buffer between our NATO ally and our counterterrorism partner, and we walked away from it. These actions facilitate the re-emergence of ISIS, as we claim to lead the counter-ISIS coalition. The U.S. has pursued a maximum pressure campaign against Iran, but this decision just opened the door for them in Eastern Syria. Despite what our National Security Strategy claims, with this decision, America is no longer leading on the world stage.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Syria Situation Report: September 25 - October 10, 2019

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

The following Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map summarizes significant developments in the war in Syria during the period September 25 - October 10, 2019. Key SITREP events include a new Turkish military intervention into Northern Syria, the deployment of additional pro-Bashar al Assad regime forces in Eastern Syria along the Euphrates River, and an attack by ISIS supporters at a major Internally Displaced Persons Camp (IDP) camp.

Click the image to enlarge the map.

Friday, October 4, 2019

ISIS's Campaign to Escape Detention in Iraq and Syria

Key Takeaway: ISIS has mounted low-level efforts to replenish its ranks from members held in detention facilities and displacement camps across Syria and Iraq since late 2018. Some ISIS members have paid bribes to guards in order to buy their freedom. Others have rioted or mounted small-scale escapes attempts from at least four detention facilities in Syria and Iraq since September 2018. ISIS is likely preparing more coordinated and sophisticated operations to free its detained members in Iraq and Syria. The largest risk likely faces the network of makeshift and undermanned detention facilities spread across Northern Syria. 

ISIS has mounted low-level efforts to replenish its ranks from members held in detention facilities and displacement camps across Syria and Iraq since at least September 2018. ISIS is reportedly bribing guards to release small numbers of its fighters in Iraq and Syria. Anonymous Iraqi officials confirmed in December 2018 that wealthy members of the group could buy their way out of detention facilities.[1] ISIS has also dedicated funds to release imprisoned fighters held in Iraqi Kurdistan and Southern Iraq, according to alleged internal documents released by a local analyst in late 2018.[2] In Syria, local civilians levelled similar accusations of bribery against guards employed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in June 2019.[3] SDF General Commander Mazloum Kobane acknowledged in April 2019 that the SDF had cut the salaries of its fighters due in part to the burden of maintaining detention facilities and displacement camps in Syria.[4] This strain creates a situation vulnerable to bribes and smuggling networks operated by ISIS. 

ISIS also began a fundraising campaign in June 2019 to raise money for the stated purpose of smuggling women out of displacement camps (such as the Al-Hawl IDP Camp) in Northern Syria.[5] Activists have reported at least two instances of smugglers successfully extracting foreign (i.e. non-Syrian or Iraqi) ISIS female members from a secure annex of the Al-Hawl IDP Camp. The SDF arrested four smugglers and two foreign ISIS female members who had successfully escaped to a village near Al-Hawl IDP Camp on September 26, 2019.[6] Separately, smugglers disguised as camp guards allegedly smuggled “dozens” of ISIS female members from Al-Hawl IDP Camp as of October 1.[7]

Detained ISIS fighters have also organized riots or small-scale escape attempts from four detention facilities in Syria and Iraq since September 2018. The incidents thus far likely reflect the personal initiative of detainees within these facilities rather than a coordinated external campaign by ISIS.

1. Al-Bab, Syria: At least ten ISIS fighters escaped a detention facility guarded by opposition groups backed by Turkey in Al-Bab in Northern Syria on September 29, 2018.[8]

2. Fort Suse, Iraq: At least twenty-one ISIS fighters escaped the Fort Suse Prison in Iraqi Kurdistan on December 11, 2018.[9]

3. Malikiyah, Syria: An unknown number of ISIS fighters rioted in a detention facility operated by the SDF in Malikiyah in Northern Syria on April 5, 2019.[10] The facility houses roughly 400 ISIS foreign fighters. Kurdish Anti-Terror Units (YAT) successfully suppressed the riot. 

4. Al-Hawl IDP Camp, Syria: ISIS female members have led multiple violent incidents in the foreign annex of Al-Hawl IDP Camp. ISIS female members most recently used firearms to resist camp guards who attempted to raid the annex on September 30, 2019, killing at least one individual.[11] Camp guards detained fifty women during the raid, which was prompted by reports that ISIS female members had beaten two women for not attending religious classes.[12]

ISIS is likely preparing more coordinated and sophisticated operations to free its detained members in Iraq and Syria. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi instructed his followers to accelerate efforts to free detainees from the “camps of diaspora and prisons of humiliation” in a rare speech on September 16.[13] The largest risk likely faces the makeshift and undermanned detention facilities operated by the SDF in Syria. ISIS has expanded its support networks in Hasaka Province since September 2018, developing new rear areas that it could use to enable future attacks on detention facilities in Northern Syria. ISIS could nonetheless also attempt similar operations in Iraq, replicating the success of its 2012 - 2013 ‘Breaking the Walls’ Campaign. 

ISIS may also be able to exploit intercommunal tensions driven by the recent closing of numerous displacement camps by the Government of Iraq. The Iraqi Government closed at least six displacement camps in Ninewa Province in Northern Iraq in early September 2019.[14] The closures forced the relocation of more than 2,000 IDPs to locations as far flung as Anbar Province in Western Iraq.[15] The Iraqi Government also previously closed a limited number of camps in Northern Iraq, including the Hardaniyah Camp near Samarra in 2018 and the Nazrawa Camp in Kirkuk Province in February 2019.[16] These forcible expulsions increase the risk of persecution and violence by host communities against individuals and families with perceived ties to ISIS. ISIS could also exploit these relocations to disperse its own members alongside displaced civilians and inject new capabilities into its nascent insurgency in Iraq. 


[1] “Following the Defeat of ISIS, Iraq Pursues a Campaign of Revenge,” NPR, December 19, 2018,
[2] Hassan al-Saidi, [“Documents Reveal ISIS’s Relationship with Iraqi Security Officers,”] Al-Arabiya, October 30, 2018,وثائق-تكشف-علاقة-داعش-بضباط-أمن-عراقيين
[3] Shelly Kittleson, “Distrust of SDF, Unclear Future Divide Syrian Tribal Massacre Area,” Al-Monitor, June 10, 2019,
[4] Robin Wright, “The Dangerous Dregs of ISIS,” The New Yorker, April 16, 2019,
[5] John Dunford and Brandon Wallace, “ISIS Prepares for Breakout in Prisons and Camps,” Institute for the Study of War, September 23, 2019,
[6] [“Hawl Military Council Forces Thwart the Smuggling of Russian Women from ISIS Families in Hawl Camp South of Hasaka,”] SOHR, September 26, 2019,
[7] Nisan Ahmado and Mutlu Civiroglu, “IS Foreign Women Smuggled Out in Northeastern Syria Camp,” VOA, October 1, 2019,
[8] Jennifer Cafarella, Brandon Wallace, and Jason Zhou, “ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency,” Institute for the Study of War, July 23, 2019,
[9] Ibid. 
[10] Mutlu Civiroglu, Twitter, April 5, 2019,; [“Urgent: Preliminary Information on the Reason for the Flight of Military Aircraft Over the Skies of Derik and Some Areas of Rojava,”] Xeber24, April 5, 2019, https://xeber24(.)org/archives/170947; Amberin Zaman, “Inside the Prison Holding IS Detainees in Northeast Syria,” Al-Monitor, March 15, 2019,
[11] “One ISIS Woman Killed, 7 Injured, 50 Arrested in Hol Camp,” ANHA, September 30, 2019,; “Women Hisba of ISIS Fight ‘Asayish’ with Firearms in Al-Hol ‘Mini-State’,” SOHR, September 30, 2019,
[12] “One ISIS Woman Killed, 7 Injured, 50 Arrested in Hol Camp,” ANHA, September 30, 2019,
[13] “IS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Orders Fighters Redouble Efforts at All Levels, Promotes Religious Activism,” SITE, September 16, 2019,
[14] “Iraq: Camps Expel Over 2,000 People Seen as ISIS-Linked,” Human Rights Watch, September 4, 2019,
[15] Ibid.; Hiwa Shilani, “Iraq Begins Closure of Displacement Camps in Nineveh Governorate,” Kurdistan24, September 16, 2019,; “Iraqi Gov’t Closes 4 Camps for IDPs in Nineveh,” Baghdad Post, September 23, 2019,
[16] “CCCM Cluster Iraq,” UNHCR, January 18, 2018,; Sangar Ali, “Iraq Closes IDP Camp in Kirkuk, After Sending Hundreds Back to Hawija,” Kurdistan24, February 10, 2019,

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Russia in Review: Diversifying Foreign Policy Tools

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.

Authors: Darina Regio and Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is increasingly prioritizing legislative ties as a foreign policy tool. The Russian Parliament expanded its cooperation with the legislatures of several states in September 2019 including Egypt, Qatar, Uzbekistan, and Hungary. The Kremlin likely seeks to diversify its foreign policy outreach and build institution-to-institution ties that reduce its reliance on specific human networks and individuals to advance its goals. The Kremlin might also seek to increase the foreign policy role of the Russian Parliament and the ruling United Russia Party as Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to preserve his influence after his latest term ends in 2024.

Russia’s Parliament has continued to pursue new inter-parliamentary agreements with its foreign counterparts throughout September 2019. Russia and Qatar announced plans to sign a memorandum of cooperation between the Qatari Consultative Assembly and the Russian Duma on September 24.[1] Russia and Hungary similarly agreed to create a joint parliamentary commission focused on economic and humanitarian cooperation on September 23.[2] Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matvienko, and Russian Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin also held a meeting with Chinese National People’s Congress Standing Committee Chair Li Zhanshu on September 25.[3]

The Kremlin also continued to expand its legislative ties across Africa ahead of the upcoming Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi on October 24. Legislators from Russia and Egypt met and agreed to review the results of the Russia-Africa Summit on September 19. The two sides also agreed to support key strategic projects (such as the construction of a nuclear power plant in Egypt by Russia) and prepare for a ‘year of humanitarian cooperation’ between Egypt and Russia in 2020.[4] The Russian Duma previously hosted over three hundred parliamentarians from over thirty states at the Russia-Africa Inter-Parliamentary Forum on July 3.[5] ISW has assessed that the Kremlin is cultivating these links with state parliaments to ensure future support for its interests in Africa.[6]

Russia is increasingly emphasizing outreach to legislatures in priority theaters such as the former Soviet Union and Syria. Volodin facilitated an inter-parliamentary agreement between Russia and Uzbekistan during a visit to Tashkent on September 16.[7] The trip marked the first visit by a head of the Russian Duma to Uzbekistan since 2006. The Kremlin is also using legislative channels in its renewed push for influence in Moldova.[8] The Russia-Moldova Inter-Parliamentary Commission resumed its work after a three-year hiatus in June 2019.[9] Moldovan Parliamentary Speaker Zinaida Greceanii chose Russia as the destination of her first foreign policy visit in June 2019.[10] Russia has similarly expanded its formal outreach to the Syrian Ba’ath Party since 2018. Putin’s United Russia Party signed a two-year cooperation agreement with the Syrian Ba’ath Party in April 2018.[11] Russian lawmakers invited members of the Syrian Ba’ath Party to visit Moscow and Sevastopol on the (illegally occupied) Crimean Peninsula in August 2019.[12]

The Kremlin likely intends to use its legislative ties to diversify its political investments in key countries and build more sustainable networks of policymakers favorable to Russia. The Kremlin likely seeks to decrease its reliance on specific human networks and key individuals to achieve its foreign policy objectives. It also likely intends to solidify its interests through favorable legislation advanced by its foreign partners and clients. Volodin has emphasized the need to reinforce “legislatively” the agreements made between state leaders and Putin.[13] Volodin has also highlighted the need to “harmonize” legislation with foreign partners, citing the example of counter-terrorism legislation in Qatar.[14] Volodin similarly proposed harmonizing educational legislation with states in Africa in July 2019.[15]

The Kremlin’s outreach to state parliaments supports not only its specific country-by-country objectives but also its broader geopolitical agenda. The Kremlin is actively attempting to cast itself as an international mediator, humanitarian actor, and effective counter-terrorism partner. It uses inter-parliamentary forums to promote all of these narratives.[16] It has also attempted to use legislative ties (including parliamentary exchanges) to gain global acceptance for its illegal actions, including its illegal occupation of Crimea in 2014.[17]

The Kremlin might be also attempting to increase the stature of the Russian Parliament as Putin looks for options to preserve his rule beyond 2024. The Russian Constitution technically bars Putin from running for reelection when his latest terms as President of Russia ends in 2024. Volodin has previously advocated for expanding the authority of the Russian Duma over the appointment of the Russian Cabinet.[18] His proposal might allow the United Russia Party to preserve its influence after 2024 by allowing it to shape the next Government of Russia. The Kremlin might also be attempting to expand the overall foreign policy role of the Russian Parliament and United Russia.[19]

[1] [“Parliamentarians from Russia and Qatar Will Prepare Memorandum of Understanding and Cooperation,”] Russian Duma, September 24, 2019,
[2] [“Russia and Hungary Will Create Inter-Parliamentary Commission,”] Russian Duma, September 23, 2019,
[3] [“Federation Council Chairman Participated in Meeting with the President of Russia and the Chairman of the VSNP Permanent Commission of China in the Kremlin,”] Russian Federation Council, September 25, 2019,; [“Meeting with Chairman of the Standing Committee of the All-China People’s Congress Li Zhanshu,”] Kremlin, September 25, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/61642.
[4] [“Umahanov: Federation Council Is Interested in Developing Relations with Egyptian Parliamentarians,”] Parlamentskaya Gazeta, September 19, 2019, https://www.pnp(.)ru/politics/umakhanov-v-sovfede-zainteresovany-v-razvitii-otnosheniy-s-parlamentariyami-egipta.html; [“Meeting with Parliamentary Delegation of Egypt,”] Russian Duma Committee on International Affairs, September 9, 2019, http://interkomitet(.)ru/blog/2019/09/19/sostoyalas-vstrecha-s-parlamentskoj-delegatsiej-egipta/; [“Federation Council and Egypt’s Chamber Deputy Will Form Parliamentary Groups for Cooperation – I. Umahanov,”] Russian Federation Council, March 5, 2017,
[5] [“Materials of the International Forum ‘Development of Parliamentarism’,”] Russian Duma, Accessed September 26, 2019,
[6] Nataliya Bugayova and Darina Regio, “The Kremlin’s Campaign in Africa: Assessment Update,” Institute for the Study of War, August 23, 2019,
[7] [“Vyacheslav Volodin: Russian and Uzbek Parliaments Must Legislatively Support Presidents’ Decisions,”] Russian Duma, September 16, 2019,; [“Volodin and Uzbekistan Head Discussed Importance of Parliament Contacts,”] RIA, September 16, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20190916/1558745107.html.
[8] Nataliya Bugayova and Mason Clark, “Russia in Review: Military Exercises as Geopolitical Tools,” Institute for the Study of War, September 4, 2019,
[9] [“Dmitry Kozak in Chisinau: First Visit Results,”] Sputnik Moldova, June 24, 2019, https://ru.sputnik(.)md/politics/20190624/26561722/dmitriy-kozak-chisinau-pervye-itogi-vizita.html.
[10] [“Head of the State Duma and Moldovan Parliament Chairman Discussed Inter-Parliamentary Relations Development,”] Russian Duma, June 27, 2019,
[11] The Kremlin’s state media has also reported about a government committee created to fulfill the cooperation agreement with Syria. See: [“United Russia and Syrian Ba’ath Have Signed Cooperation Agreement,”] TASS, April 14, 2018, https://tass(.)ru/politika/5127036; [“Syrian Minister of Domestic Trade Met with United Russia Delegation,”] Riafan, August 1, 2019, https://riafan(.)ru/1199770-ministr-vnutrennei-torgovli-sirii-vstretilsya-s-delegaciei-edinoi-rossii; [“Turchak Met with Assad After U.S. Strikes on Damascus,”] RBC, April 14, 2018, https://www.rbc(.)ru/politics/14/04/2018/5ad1d9109a7947295c5fa03d?story=58c7ff469a7947398567fb3d.
[12] [“Deputy Sablin Invited Representatives of Syrian Ba’ath Party to Moscow and Sevastopol,”] TASS, August 20, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/politika/6780570.
[13] [“Vyacheslav Volodin: Parliaments of Russia and Uzbekistan Should Legislatively Ensure the Decisions of the Presidents of the Two Countries,”] Russian Duma, September 16, 2019,
[14] [“Parliamentarians from Russia and Qatar Will Prepare Memorandum of Understanding and Cooperation,”] Russian Duma, September 24, 2019,
[15] [“Volodin Offered to African Parliamentarians to Discuss the Topic of ‘Harmonization of Legislatures’ in Education,”] TASS, July 3, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/obschestvo/6624559.
[16] [“Humanitarian Ties Between Russia and Africa Are Entering a New Stage,”] Russian Duma, July 7, 2019,; [“Parliamentarians from Russia and Qatar Will Prepare Memorandum of Understanding and Cooperation,”] Russian Duma, September 24, 2019,
[17] [“Aksyonov: Delegations of the Crimean Parliament and Syria Will Exchange Visits,”] Ukraina Ru, October 16, 2018, https://ukraina(.)ru/news/20181016/1021429041.html.
[18] [“Constitution of the Russian Federation,”] Kremlin, December 12, 1993, http://constitution.kremlin(.)ru/.
[19] Nataliya Bugayova, Darina Regio, Mason Clark, and Michaela Walker with Alexandra McClintock, “Russia in Review: Domestic Discontent and Foreign Policy,” Institute for the Study of War, August 6, 2019,