The Kremlin is using the COVID-19 pandemic to test an expanded societal control toolkit. The Kremlin has empowered Russian security services, deployed Russia’s national guard nationally, empowered the Ministry of Defense as a domestic actor for the first time, implemented mass digital surveillance, and further tightened control over Russia’s information space. The Kremlin seeks to expand its ability to control the Russian population in the long-term, as Russian President Vladimir Putin increasingly relies on authoritarian measures to preserve his regime, and suppress potential unrest in the aftermath of the national voting on Russia’s constitutional amendments on July 1. Digital surveillance technology, such as facial recognition, geolocation on smart devices, and comprehensive digital databases for all Russian citizens, will help the Kremlin circumvent the cost requirements associated with constructing and staffing a massive control infrastructure. These technologies will further erode privacy in Russia and grant the Kremlin new capabilities to discretely identify and neutralize its opponents with minimal public confrontation. Putin will increasingly rely on societal control tools and digitally targeted repression to stifle critics and preserve his regime.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi began a coordinated campaign to retake segments of the Iraqi state from entrenched interests, build toward a state monopoly on use of force, and increase his negotiating position with the United States in the ongoing US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue. Kadhimi ordered Iraq’s elite, US-trained Counterterrorism Service (CTS) to retake Iraq’s border crossings from poorly regulated militias and to conduct a raid on key Iranian proxy militia and US-designated terrorist organization Kata’ib Hezbollah to prevent additional rocket attacks on US facilities in Iraq. These moves are intended to demonstrate to the United States that Kadhimi is a reliable security partner ahead of his planned visit to Washington in July, when Kadhimi will renegotiate the US-Iraqi relationship in the next stage of the Strategic Dialogue. Meanwhile, pro-Kadhimi parliamentarians announced the establishment of a new political bloc. This bloc could provide Kadhimi the political base he needs to weather the ongoing backlash against his bold moves, particularly from Iranian allies and proxies who have thoroughly penetrated the Iraqi state.
Converging challenges to the Iraqi state threaten to deny Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi the political support he needs to improve Iraq’s security and economy. Kadhimi must improve domestic stability in areas like service provision, fiscal policy, and security in order to secure leverage for the second round of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue scheduled for July 2020. Kadhimi is facing increasing anti-US attacks by Iran’s Iraqi proxies, a surge of COVID-19 cases, and increasing opposition to the financial reforms necessary to keep the Iraqi economy afloat. Iranian officials are pressuring Kadhimi in high level meetings to accept key Iranian demands that support Iran’s objectives in Iraq, such as purchasing essential goods inside Iraq with foreign currency to circumvent the US-imposed maximum pressure sanctions.
Internal fighting between al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Greater Idlib Province may escalate as the newly formed “Stand Firm Operations Room” challenges fellow al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) for control in Idlib. The “Stand Firm Operations Room” was created by five al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, some of which are led by HTS defectors. HTS and the “Stand Firm Operations Room” clashed after the latter established several checkpoints in HTS-dominated northern Idlib Province. Al Qaeda-affiliated groups may continue to fight for control of Idlib and may risk their previous unity in the fight against the Assad regime.
Recent Iranian proxy attacks represent a major test for Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s commitments to preserving Iraqi sovereignty and protecting US anti-ISIS forces. The attacks occurred at the start of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, which aims to determine the future of US forces in Iraq. Iran’s Iraqi proxies intensified both their kinetic and political lines of effort to advance Iran’s key objective in the Dialogue: the rapid and complete expulsion of US forces from Iraq. Separately, Turkey also tested Kadhimi’s commitment to Iraqi sovereignty by launching a new, large-scale air campaign with 81 airstrikes on sites purportedly associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, drawing harsh condemnations from Baghdad. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) likely took advantage of the Turkish air campaign to also target Iranian Kurdish dissidents based in Iraq in what may have been a coordinated Turkish-Iranian operation.
Iraq’s most important external partners, Iran and the United States, as well as Iraq’s domestic politicians, are competing to consolidate their leverage ahead of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue set to begin on June 11. Iran dispatched its IRGC-Quds Force Commander and energy minister to solidify a key energy deal that the United States had hoped to deter by encouraging partnerships with Gulf States. Iran’s proxies in Iraq responded by opposing the US-encouraged outreach to Saudi Arabia and attempting to form a parliamentary mechanism to demand the expulsion of US forces from the country. Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has strengthened his domestic position by filling key vacant security roles, passing a full cabinet, and forming an alliance in Parliament to support his actions in order to navigate the competing demands on his country in the Strategic Dialogue. The pursuit of leverage by all actors indicates each expects their stance in the Strategic Dialogue negotiations to be met with resistance.
Pro-regime forces are preparing to restart their offensive in Greater Idlib Province. Russia resumed airstrikes in southern Idlib on June 2 for the first time since the March 5 ceasefire; the airstrikes are a key indicator that pro-regime forces are preparing to renew their offensive in Idlib. Turkey is responding to the recent pro-regime build-up in southern Idlib by expanding its own presence and increasing its air defense capabilities in southern Idlib in a likely attempt to deter the pro-regime campaign. Turkey previously deployed forces and air defense systems into Greater Idlib Province between February and March 2020.
Economic and diplomatic competition between the United States and Iran is ramping up as both sides attempt to control the conditions leading up to the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue in mid-June. Iran seeks to ensure that Iraq continues to import Iranian energy, a key economic driver for Iran's sanctions-battered economy. Iraq relies on those imports to bolster its under-funded, often-strained electrical grid. The United States is aiming to reduce Iraqi reliance on Iranian imports by encouraging investments by US and allied companies and leveraging its sanctions waivers. Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is capitalizing on what appears to be a grace period granted to him by the United States and Iran to work with both sides and secure Iraq’s energy and defense requirements.
The Kremlin increased military and international pressure on Ukraine in May 2020 after efforts to establish direct talks between Ukraine and Kremlin-controlled proxies stalled. Kremlin information operations are framing Ukraine as having two options: legitimize the Kremlin’s proxies through negotiations or admit Ukraine is impeding the peace process. Both options in this Kremlin-contrived dichotomy advance the Kremlin’s objectives and absolve the Kremlin of responsibility as a belligerent in the war in Donbas. The Kremlin is continuing to consolidate control over its proxies in occupied Donbas while posturing internationally as a neutral arbiter aiming for peace. The Kremlin will likely intensify its pressure on Ukraine to conduct local elections in occupied Donbas in October 2020.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is seeking to develop closer energy relationships with Iraq’s Gulf neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, to demonstrate to the United States that Iraq is making progress in divesting from Iranian energy reliance and renewing relations with all of its neighbors before the June US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue.