Friday, June 14, 2019

Syria Situation Report: May 27 - June 11, 2019

By ISW's Syria Team

The following Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map summarizes significant developments in the war in Syria during the period May 27 - June 11, 2019. The SITREP highlights include the reported use of anti-aircraft missiles by al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Iran's further consolidation of power in a key town along the Syria-Iraq border, and a new recruitment opportunity for ISIS in Northeast Syria.

Click image to enlarge.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Russia in Review: May 14 - June 11, 2019 (Part 2)

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: May 14 - June 11, 2019 (read the previous Russia in Review here)

Part 2 of 2 (read the first part here)

Authors: Andrea Snyder with Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is exploiting escalated tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. Russia seeks to block the further expansion of Western structures in the Balkans region after failing to prevent the NATO ascension of Montenegro and North Macedonia, which is in the final stages of becoming a NATO member.

The tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have re-escalated. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic ordered the full combat readiness of Serbian army units on May 28 in response to an internal Kosovar anti-organized crime operation. Kosovo targeted local police officers reportedly involved in smuggling in northern Kosovo’s ethnic Serb-majority municipalities. Kosovo denied Serbia’s claims that the operation was intended to intimidate ethnic Serbs.[1] Similar police operations have previously occurred as organized crime is prominent in northern Kosovo along the Serbian border.[2] The operation did result in violent clashes. Vucic warned that Serbia will “protect our people” in Kosovo if their lives are threatened.[3] Serbian military personnel with a column of at least 12 Serbian military vehicles reportedly left their base moving towards Kosovo and a Serbian pilot flying a MiG-29 fighter made a low-altitude flight near the Kosovo border on May 28.[4] Serbian military movement in coordination with rhetoric of military action is a step change. Serbia previously threatened military intervention in December 2018 after the Kosovar Parliament voted to transform the Kosovo Security Force into the Kosovo Armed Forces, but tensions defused. Vuvic has refrained from taking further action since his May 28 threat but tensions will likely rise again.

The Kremlin is likely to support Serbia if Vucic decides to act on his military threat. The Kremlin publicly supports Serbia’s claims that the Kosovo police operation was a provocation.[5] The Kosovo police also arrested two UN Mission in Kosovo staff members on May 28, including Russian citizen Mikhail Krasnoshchekov, for hampering the police operation. The Kremlin used Krasnoshchekov’s arrest to escalate its rhetoric against Kosovo, the EU, and the U.S.[6] The chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Federation Duma (parliament), Konstantin Kosachev, also said the West lost control over Kosovo and that Serbia might need to clean up “the consequences of Western mistakes” potentially with Russia’s help if Serbia requests its assistance.[7] The Kremlin has been providing military support to regular and allegedly irregular forces in Serbia.[8] The Russian and Serbian Foreign Ministers stated on June 7 that they are closely coordinating on Serbia’s response to the situation with Kosovo.[9]

The Kremlin continues to exploit Kosovo-Serbia tensions to block the expansion of Western structures in the Balkans. Several Russian officials, including Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, held a series of meetings with Serbian leadership to discuss the Kosovo police operation and Krasnoshchekov’s arrest.[10] The Kremlin is likely attempting to shape conditions ahead of the next round of EU-led talks in July. The talks intend to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci expressed hope on June 7 of reaching a deal with Serbia this year despite increased tensions. Vucic also still attempts to balance between the EU and Russia.

The Kremlin might be attempting to shift Serbia’s equilibrium, however. Blocking Balkan states’ integration into the EU and NATO remains a strategic goal for the Kremlin. Russia failed to prevent Montenegro’s accession to NATO and North Macedonia’s impending entry into the NATO alliance.[11] The Kremlin maintains a stake in preventing diplomatic normalization between Serbia and Kosovo, which the U.S. has encouraged, that could enable either of them to join the EU. The Kremlin has already increased its outreach to Serbia earlier this year in an effort to orient Serbia away from Europe. The Kremlin may be succeeding in its effort as Serbia worked closely with Russia following the Kosovo police operation but continued its highly critical rhetoric against Europe. The Kremlin might decide to push Serbia to escalate militarily against Kosovo—a move that would likely end the normalization talks, fully pull Serbia into Russia’s orbit, and limit Kosovo’s integration prospects with the West.

[1] “KFOR Spokesman Says No Intern-Ethnic Clashes in Kosovo on Tuesday,” N1, May 30, 2019, http://rs.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a487770/KFOR-spokesman-says-no-inter-ethnic-clashes-in-Kosovo-on-Tuesday.html.
[2]Daniel McLaughlin, “Murder and Mafia Power Shake Serbs in Divided Kosovo,” Irish Times, February 10, 2018,; Benno Zogg, “How Organized Crime Inhibits Development in Kosovo,” Foraus,, accessed: June 11, 2019; [“Haziri Says: The Police Action in the North, Thaci and Vucic’s Plan!,”] Kosova Sot Online, May 30, 2019, [https://www.kosova-sot(.)info/lajme/383188/e-thote-haziri-aksioni-i-policise-ne-veri-plan-i-thacit-dhe-vuciqit/]https://www.kosova-sot(.)info/lajme/383188/e-thote-haziri-aksioni-i-policise-ne-veri-plan-i-thacit-dhe-vuciqit/.
[3] TRT World Now, “Serbian President Slams Kosovo’s Latest Action,” Youtube, May 28, 2019,; “Vucic: Army to Protect Our People if They Are Attacked,” Tanjug, May 28, 2019, [http://www.tanjug(.)rs/full-view_en.aspx?izb=483804]http://www.tanjug(.)rs/full-view_en.aspx?izb=483804.
[4] [“Kosovo Special Forces Spat on North KiM – 21 Arrested, Army of Serbia in Full Combat Readiness,”] PTC, May 28, 2019, [http://www.rts(.)rs/page/stories/ci/story/1/politika/3537038/sirene-u-mitrovici-rosu-upale-na-sever-kim-.html]http://www.rts(.)rs/page/stories/ci/story/1/politika/3537038/sirene-u-mitrovici-rosu-upale-na-sever-kim-.html; Ruptly, “Serbian Army Vehicles Spotted Driving Towards Northern Kosovo,” Twitter, May 28, 2019,; [“One MIG 29 Fired Over Novi Pazar,”] Tanjug, May 28, 2019, [http://www.tanjug(.)rs/full-view.aspx?izb=483810]http://www.tanjug(.)rs/full-view.aspx?izb=483810.
[5] “Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Remarks and Answers to Media Questions at a joint News Conference Following Talks with Slovenian Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs Miro Cerar, Ljubljana, May 29, 2019,” Russian MFA, May 29, 2019, [http://www.mid(.)ru/web/guest/meropriyatiya_s_uchastiem_ministra/-/asset_publisher/xK1BhB2bUjd3/content/id/3662476?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_xK1BhB2bUjd3&_101_INSTANCE_xK1BhB2bUjd3_languageId=en_GB]http://www.mid(.)ru/web/guest/meropriyatiya_s_uchastiem_ministra/-/asset_publisher/xK1BhB2bUjd3/content/id/3662476?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_xK1BhB2bUjd3&_101_INSTANCE_xK1BhB2bUjd3_languageId=en_GB; [“Commentary of Russian MFA Official Representative M.V. Zakharova in Connection with Escalation of the Situation in Kosovo,”] Russian MFA, May 28, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3661577l; “Serbian President Thanks Russian for Denouncing Incident in Kosovo,” Tass, June 3, 2019, [http://tass(.)com/world/1061499]http://tass(.)com/world/1061499.
[6] Slovenia: Lavrov Comments on Anti-Smuggling Operation in Kosovo,” Ruptly, May 29, 2019, https(:)//
[7] Galina Mislivskaya, [“Kosachev: Russia is Ready to Help Serbia Ensure Security in the Region,”] Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 29, 2019, https(:)//; Robin-Ivan Capar, “Serbia Pivots Towards Russia Yet Again — But at What Price?” Moscow Times, June 3, 2019, https://www(.)
[8] “Serbian President Lauds Military-Technical Cooperation with Russia,” TASS, January 17, 2019, http(:)//
[9] [“On the Conversation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Sergei Lavrov, with the First Deputy Prime Minster, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia, Ivica Dacic,”] Russia Foreign Ministry, June 06, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3676424;; [“Dacic: I informed Russia in Detail about What We Will Do Next,” Zeri, June 7, 2019, https://zeri(.)info/aktuale/265643/daciq-e-njoftova-ne-detaje-rusine-se-cka-do-te-bejme-tutje/.
[10] [“Vucic and Chepurin on the Events in Kosovo,”] Tanjug, May 30, 2019, http(:)//; [“Vyacheslav Volodin Met with the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic,”] State Duma, June 3, 2019,; “Serbian President Thanks Russia for Denouncing Incident in Kosovo,” TASS, June 3, 2019, http(:)//; [“On the Meeting of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Alexander Grushko with the Serbian Ambassador Slavenko Terzich,”] Russia Foreign Ministry, June 3, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/web/guest/maps/rs/-/asset_publisher/GLz7aPgDnSfP/content/id/3667292.
[11] “Montenegro joins NATO as 29th Ally,” NATO, June 9, 2017,

Russia in Review: May 14 - June 11, 2019 (Part 1)

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: May 14 - June 11, 2019 (read the previous Russia in Review here)

Part 1 of 2 (read the second part here)

Authors: Mason Clark and Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaway: Russia and China signed numerous agreements to boost economic cooperation and attempt to limit dependence on the West during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s June 5-7 state visit to Russia. The Kremlin risks ceding strategic ground to China in the long term as it seeks additional sources of cash and international partnership in the short term.

Russia and China promoted their strategic partnership during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s June 5-7 state visit to Russia. Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed nearly 30 agreements during Xi’s visit to Russia, including a joint statement on Sino-Russian strategic cooperation.[1] Putin and Xi claimed relations between Russia and China have reached an unprecedented level.[2] Xi highlighted his personal ties with Putin and described Putin as his "best friend," while Putin framed the Russo-Chinese relationship as a strategic alignment.[3] Xi’s visit focused on economic cooperation with limited comments on international affairs.[4] Putin accused the U.S. of attempting to “extend its jurisdiction to the whole world” as Putin and Xi continued to frame themselves as champions of a multipolar international order in opposition to U.S. hegemony.[5] Putin and Xi discussed linking the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).[6] This idea supports Putin’s vision to create a Great Eurasian Partnership that would include the EAEU and BRI among others.[7]

Russia and China boosted cooperation in the energy, technology, and agricultural sectors. Putin and Xi designated 2020 and 2021 as years of Russian-Chinese scientific, technical, and innovation cooperation.[8] The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) and the state-owned China Investment Corporation agreed to invest $1 billion in the newly created Russia-China Science and Technology Innovation Fund.[9] The RDIF and Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group will invest $100 million each in a joint venture involving Russian phone operator Megafon and internet company to expand e-commerce in Russia.[10] Chinese telecommunications manufacturer Huawei signed a deal with Russian telecom company MTS on June 5 to develop a fifth-generation wireless technology network (5G) in Russia. Huawei also purchased the rights to use facial recognition software developed by Russian company Vocord on June 3.[11] The U.S. has recognized Huawei as a security threat and is attempting to disincentivize U.S. partners from using Huawei.[12] China is likely the driver of the 5G deal with Russia as Huawei is facing resistance in its international business development and seeks Russia as a potential market.

Putin and Xi also signed a number of energy deals. Putin and Xi agreed that Russian state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom would build several more nuclear power units in China, including a “demonstration fast neutron reactor.”[13] The Kremlin is continuing its campaign to capture global nuclear energy markets with projects underway in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Putin and Xi also announced that the Power of Siberia gas pipeline, intended to deliver 38 billion cubic meters of gas annually to China, will become operational in December 2019. China Petrochemical Corp Sinopec has secured a 40 percent stake in Russia’s Amur Gas processing plant project.[14] Sinopoc will also help Russian gas company Novatek market Russian LNG produced in the Arctic to end-users in China. Novatek announced the sale of a 20 percent stake in its gas liquefaction project in the Arctic to Chinese CNODC, a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation, in April.[15] ISW assessed that increased Russian cooperation with China in the Arctic can limit U.S. freedom of movement in the region.

China seeks to reduce its dependence on American technology – the key premise of its Made in China 2025 strategy. China likely has the manpower and industrial strength to take advantage of Russian technical knowledge. The Kremlin seeks additional forms of cash, as Western sanctions dried up foreign direct investment into Russia. The Kremlin might be using its technological cooperation as a means to secure Chinese investment in other areas, such as energy and Arctic development projects. The U.S. must consider the long-term implications of technology transfers between Russia and China, in particular from the standpoint of military capabilities and governance. China is using technology to aid its authoritarian population control policies; the Kremlin might also be heading in this direction as Putin’s value proposition to his population declines. China has already been spreading its censorship-enabling technologies. China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation (CEIEC), which develops surveillance systems for the Chinese government, exported its technology to numerous authoritarian governments in countries such as Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Angola. CEIEC lists Moscow as its only European office.[16]

China is additionally turning to Russia as an agricultural source as China curbs its food imports from the U.S. and Canada.[17] Russian and Chinese officials discussed increased Russian food exports to China and Chinese investment in agricultural development in Russia’s Far East during Xi’s visit.[18]

Putin and Xi continued to attempt to limit Russia’s and China’s dependence on the Western financial system. Both leaders pledged to grow bilateral trade, which increased to $108 billion in 2018, exceeding the $100 billion goal.[19] Putin and Xi signed an agreement pledging to promote trade in the ruble and yuan instead of the dollar. The agreement also focuses on “ensuring uninterrupted banking services for transactions in conditions of instability in global markets.” Both countries seek to insulate themselves from shocks in the Western financial system. Putin accused the U.S. of using its financial system as a weapon on June 7. The Kremlin is heavily pushing for the de-dollarization of its economy to buffer itself from future U.S. sanctions. The Central Bank of Russia has grown the share of its yuan foreign currency reserves from 2.8% to 14.2% since 2018.[20] China is also looking for ways to mitigate the effects of the ongoing trade war with the U.S. and potential future shocks. The efforts have produced limited success thus far as companies in Russia still prefer transactions in dollars.[21] Russian and Chinese efforts to build an alternative to SWIFT interbank financial telecommunication system have also been progressing slowly, with Russia’s alternative service facing multiple limitations including limited operating hours, domestic-only transactions, and a lack of connectivity to banks in the Commonwealth of Intendent States (CIS).[22] Russia and China will, however, persist in their effort to build a coalition of countries to move away from the dollar.

The Kremlin will continue to boost its ties with China in search of additional resources and international coalitions while risking ceding ground to China in the long-term. Russia and China, continue to face several points of strategic divergence and imbalance in the relationship despite new agreements and rhetoric about strategic partnership. China has the upper hand with Russia in many respects given the size of the Chinese economy and population. The technology cooperation agreement that Xi and Putin signed likely benefits China more than Russia. Russia gains additional sources of cash through Chinese investment, but also provides China with critical resources such as energy and, potentially, food in the longer term. The Kremlin is likely not content with Chinese expansion in Russia’s backyard in Central Asia and in Russia’s Far East. Increased Chinese investment in Russia is also unpopular among the Russian population. The Kremlin has recently faced protests in Russia’s Chuvashia region against reported Chinese pressure on local farmers to sell land to Chinese companies. Over a million Russians signed a petition against a Chinese-backed water bottling plant near Lake Baikal earlier this year. The Kremlin needs Chinese investment to develop the Arctic, which is one of Putin’s stated strategic goals. The Kremlin is wary, however, of facilitating a longer-term Chinese military presence in the region. And while Putin and Xi agreed to link the Russia-led EAEU and China’s BRI, it is unclear how much leverage Putin has in shaping the terms of this cooperation.[23] The Kremlin is certainly aware of the risk of a closer relationship with China, but might think it can control the ties, which may simply not be true in the long run.

[1] [“The Beginning of the Russian-Chinese Negotiations in a Narrow Composition,”] Kremlin, June 5, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/transcripts/60670; [“Xi Jinping Holds Talks with Russian President Putin,”] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, June 6, 2019, https://www.fmprc(.)
[2] [“The Beginning of the Russian-Chinese Negotiations in a Narrow Composition,”] Kremlin, June 5, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/transcripts/60670
[3] “Beijing, Moscow to Sign around 30 Deals during Xi’s Russia Tour, Says Chinese Diplomat,” TASS, May 30, 2019, http://tass(.)com/world/1060743; [“Press Statements Following Russian-Chinese Talks,”] Kremlin, June 5, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60672.
[4] [“Press Statements Following Russian-Chinese Talks,”] Kremlin, June 5, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60672.
[5] [“Press Statements Following Russian-Chinese Talks,”] Kremlin, June 5, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60672; [“Plenary Session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum,”] Kremlin, June 7, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60707.
[6] [“Plenary Session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum,”] Kremlin, June 7, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60707.
[7] “Plenary Session of St Petersburg International Economic Forum,” Kremlin, June 17, 2016, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/52178; “Meeting of Ambassadors and Permanent Representatives of Russia,” Kremlin, July 19, 2018, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/58037.
[8] [“Press Statements Following Russian-Chinese Talks,”] Kremlin, June 5, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60672.
[9] [“Russia and China will Create a $1 Billion Science and Technology Innovation Fund,”] TASS, June 5, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/ekonomika/6511955; “RDIF and CIC to Invest in Russia-China Science and Technology Innovation Fund,” Russian Direct Investment Fund, June 5, 2019, https://rdif(.)ru/Eng_fullNews/4095/.
[10] “RDIF, Alibaba Group, MegaFon and Group Announce Signing of Definitive Documents for Joint Venture in Russia and the CIS,” Russian Direct Investment Fund, June 5, 2019, https://rdif(.)ru/Eng_fullNews/4096/.
[11] [“Huawei Bought Face Recognition Technology from a Russian Company,”] Novaya Gazeta, June 3, 2019, https://www.novayagazeta(.)ru/news/2019/06/03/152209-huawei-kupila-u-rossiyskoy-kompanii-tehnologii-raspoznavaniya-lits.
[12] "Addition of Entity to the Entities List," Bureau of Industry and Security, May 21, 2019,
[13] [“Press Statements Following Russian-Chinese Talks,”] Kremlin, June 5, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60672; “Putin: Moscow, Beijing Agree on Building Several More Russia-Designed Nuclear Power Units,” TASS, June 7, 2019, http://tass(.)com/economy/1062602.
[14] “Sinopec Signs Agreement With Russian Oil Company,” O&G Links, June 10, 2019,; Sibur, Amur GCC Project, 2019, https://www.sibur(.)ru/en/about/investments/16906/; Zheng Xin, “Sinopec Signs Agreement with Russian Oil Company,” China Daily, June 9, 2019, http://www.chinadaily(.); Andrey Ostroukh, Katya Golubkova, “Russia’s Sibur eyes Moscow IPO no Earlier Than 2020: CEO,” Reuters, June 7, 2019,
[15] “NOVATEK and CNODC Sign Entrance Agreement to Arctic LNG 2,” Novatek, April 25, 2019, http://www.novatek(.)ru/en/press/releases/index.php?id_4=3173.
[16] CEIEC, Business Network, http://www.ceiec(.)com/content/business_networks.
[17] “Russia, China to Boost Energy, Agricultural Trade Due to US Trade War – Scholars,” Sputnik, June 1, 2019, https://sputniknews(.)com/analysis/201906011075519959-russia-china-us-trade/; Laura Zhou, “Russia Ready to Fill China’s Food Gap Left by US in Trade War Fallout,” South China Morning Post, June 7, 2019,
https://www.scmp(.)com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3013549/russia-ready-fill-chinas-food-gap-left-us-trade-war-fallout; Naomi Powell, “Canadian Soybean Exports to China Plunge 95% After Hitting Record High, as Diplomatic Dispute Continues,” Financial Post, May 17, 2019,
[18] [“Russia Will Expand the Supply of Agricultural Products to China,”] Ministry of Agriculture of the Russian Federation, June 5, 2019, http://mcx(.)ru/press-service/news/rossiya-rasshirit-postavki-selkhozproduktsii-v-kitay/; Ekaterina Burlakova, [“A Large Chinese Holding Will Invest Almost 10 Billion Rubles in Russian Agriculture,”] Vedemosti, June 6, 2019, https://www.vedomosti(.)ru/business/articles/2019/06/06/803577-holding-vlozhit.
[19] [“Press Statements Following Russian-Chinese Talks,”] Kremlin, June 5, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60672.
[20] Irina Malkova, [“The Central Bank Transferred its Assets from the United States to China and Halved its Share of Assets in Dollars,”] The Bell, May 8, 2019, https://thebell(.)io/tsb-perevel-svoi-aktivy-iz-ssha-v-kitaj-i-vdvoe-snizil-dolyu-aktivov-v-dollarah/.
[21] [“Russia and China Prefer Settlements in Dollars and Euros, Rather Than in National Currencies,”] Reporter, May 31, 2019, https//topcor(.)ru/8996-rossija-i-kitaj-predpochitajut-raschety-v-dollarah-i-evro-a-ne-v-nacvaljutah.html.
[22] [“Stretched String: Is it Possible to Disconnect Russia From SWIFT,”] Forbes Russia, March 15, 2018, https://www.forbes(.)ru/finansy-i-investicii/358573-natyanutaya-struna-vozmozhno-li-otklyuchenie-rossii-ot-swift.
[23] [“Plenary Session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum,”] Kremlin, June 7, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60707.