6:15 EDT: The Kremlin significantly expanded its military presence in Belarus to facilitate a brigade-sized “tactical exercise” as part of the Slavic Brotherhood exercise’s “second stage” for September 21-25. Russian forces’ size was at the battalion level during Slavic Brotherhood’s first stage from September 14-21. The Kremlin deployed a battalion tactical group from the Tula-based 106th Guards Airborne Division to Brest, Belarus, for Slavic Brotherhood’s second stage on September 21. Forces from the 106th arrived in Belarus via railway on September 21. There are now elements of two different Russian airborne regiments from two different divisions in Brest. The Kremlin deployed a senior general with extensive combat experience in Syria to "participate in” operations in Belarus. The Kremlin deployed Commander Colonel General Andrei Serdyukov, commander of the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV), to Belarus for Slavic Brotherhood exercises on September 21. Serdyukov commanded the Russian military operation in Syria during the peak of the Assad regime’s Idlib offensive in April-September 2019. Serdyukov’s arrival indicates Russian President Vladimir Putin is actively prioritizing military operations in Belarus, since Russian Airborne Forces are also participating in the Kavkaz 2020 exercises, which should in principle have a higher profile as the premier annual multinational exercise.
4:30 pm EDT: The NEXTA Telegram channel is actively encouraging Belarusian security service defections. Large scale defections would likely precipitate an overt Russian intervention into Belarus. NEXTA published personal information for 1000 security service personnel it claims are complicit in protester detentions on September 19. NEXTA published security services personnel’s full names, birthdays, cities of operation, departmental affiliations, and commanding officers. NEXTA is expunging personnel from the list who confirm their resignation from security services, implying that those individuals have contacted it. NEXTA has expunged five such individuals as of this writing. ISW cannot independently verify NEXTA’s information, which it claims it obtained from a third-party hack.
Belarus Warning Update: Multiple Russian Military Exercises Occurring in the Western Military District, Belarus, and MoldovaSeptember 19, 2020 - Press ISW
7:00 pm EDT: The Kremlin is conducting multiple preplanned and apparently snap exercises concurrently in multiple theaters and Russian military districts. Russian military activity in the Western Military District (WMD) is unexpectedly high despite the Kavkaz-2020 exercises underway in the Southern Military District (SMD). The Russian Defense Ministry holds annual strategic exercises to test the readiness of Russia’s four main military districts. Each such annual exercise occurs in a different Russian military district in a rotating order and usually precipitates a decrease in military exercises in the other military districts not undertaking the strategic exercise. This year’s “Kavkaz-2020” exercises began on September 15 in the SMD.
Turkey may have agreed to cede control of territory in southern Idlib to pro-Assad forces in a meeting with Russia on September 16. If the reports of a deal are true, a pro-Assad offensive is likely imminent. Turkish-backed opposition forces and al Qaeda linked elements may fight back against advancing Russian-backed regime forces even without Turkish support. Turkey is most likely to cede the territory south of the M4 highway, a zone in which Turkey had already agreed to allow Russian patrols in March but retained forces, including artillery units, that precluded a full regime takeover. ISW warned on March 18 that this situation was likely untenable because al Qaeda-linked forces rejected Russian presence. Turkey could face backlash from al Qaeda-linked elements, local civilians, and even Turkish-backed opposition forces for negotiating away opposition-held territory.
ISIS is continuing to reconstitute in Syria amidst increased unrest and popular opposition to local security forces. Suspected ISIS gunmen demonstrated the group’s increased capabilities by carrying out a campaign of assassinations targeting pro-regime operatives in Daraa Province. ISIS will likely continue to rapidly reconstitute in southern Syria if fighting between pro-regime forces and armed local populations persists. Separately, ISIS is expanding its influence in eastern Syria following increased pressure on the Syrian Democratic Forces from local Arab tribes and pro-regime actors. ISIS will seek to foment additional unrest in order to further increase its freedom of action in southern and central Syria.
7:15 pm EDT: The Kremlin will likely deploy Russian conventional military forces into Belarus on a long-term basis under the pretext of expanding bilateral exercises. Multiple indicators ISW had identified as presaging the stationing of Russian troops in Belarus have now tripped, including the presence of Russian troops during extended exercises and specific changes in Belarusian rhetoric.
The West has had some success in countering the Kremlin since Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has found ways to offset external pressures on Russia without relinquishing his gains and goals. This paper is part of ISW's Military Learning & The Future of War series.
Belarus Warning Update: Lukashenko and the Kremlin Vie for Control over Future Russian Weapons in BelarusSeptember 16, 2020 - Press ISW
5:45 pm EDT: The Kremlin qualified Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s claim he requested Russian weapons from Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 16. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met with Lukashenko in Minsk on September 16, likely to implement military cooperation concessions Lukashenko made to Putin during their September 14 meeting in Sochi. Lukashenko said he asked Putin for weapons to "strengthen the Union State plan" on September 16. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov qualified Lukashenko’s statement in a response to a reporter, saying Lukashenko did not ask Putin for a “weapons delivery” “in the way you [the reporter] phrased.” The Kremlin rarely qualifies its denials of claims by other actors based on the language used by individual reporters. Peskov’s attention to avoiding a full denial but disputing the reporters’ question if Lukashenko requested a “weapons delivery” indicates the Kremlin is attempting to shift Lukashenko’s framing.
The Institute for the Study of War is launching a series of papers that explores the ways the United States, its competitors including Russia and China, and these and other potential adversaries are learning from ongoing geopolitical competition and military engagements. The series explores the ways these evolutions in the operating environment provide opportunities for experimentation and testing of new technologies, capabilities, and approaches to war. The papers explore organizational adaptations to incorporate new capabilities, doctrinal changes to harness them, and the ability to institutionalize these changes in ways that will shape the future of war.
5:00 pm EDT: Moscow has modified the prescheduled Slavic Brotherhood military exercises in Belarus to demonstrate its ability to deploy forces to Belarus on short notice. Elements of Russia’s 76th Guards Air Assault Division arrived in Belarus for the Slavic Brotherhood 2020 exercises on September 15. Russia has not deployed significant conventional forces to Belarus since the start of protests on August 9. The number of Russian troops in the exercises is unclear.