Russia in Review: July 7 – July 20, 2021
By Mason Clark and Rachel Kenny
. The Kremlin aims to contain instability created by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Taliban advances within Afghanistan itself. Potential refugee flows, Taliban advances beyond Afghanistan, or the creation of safe havens for jihadist groups to strike across Central Asia could all threaten the Kremlin’s campaign to maintain dominant influence over Central Asia.
The Taliban rapidly gained control of most districts within Badakhshan and Takhar provinces, bordering Tajikistan, in early July. Russian troops at the 201 Military Base in Dushanabe, Tajikistan—Russia’s only formal international military base—have held regular military exercises since July 6. The Kremlin announced that Russia began constructing and providing funding for modernized border posts on the Tajik-Afghan border on July 14. The 201 Military Base will hold joint exercises with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at the Tajik-Afghan border from August 5 to 10. Kremlin-backed media outlet Izvestiya reported on July 15 that the Russian military will hold several joint exercises in August and September with Central Asian militaries through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to practice repelling jihadist groups from Afghanistan.
The Russian Foreign Ministry stated that Russia’s existing forces in Tajikistan can stabilize the border without external support on July 6, but caveated that Russia will undertake “additional efforts” if needed. The Tajik government submitted an official request for CSTO military assistance on July 7, citing an inability to handle the situation independently. The head of the CSTO Joint Staff said July 8 that the CSTO will provide technical assistance but does not need to deploy joint military forces. The Kremlin retains the option of deploying the CSTO Rapid Reaction Force—which it has prioritized integrating into Russian command structures since mid-2020—if it assesses existing Russian troops are no longer sufficient. The CSTO and SCO exercises scheduled for August and September are likely intended to prepare for this contingency, or could themselves support the deployment of international troops under the cover of exercises.
The Kremlin maintains that it does not intend to conduct operations inside Afghanistan and called on the Taliban to “prevent the spread of tensions” beyond Afghanistan’s borders during a meeting with Taliban officials in Moscow on July 8. The Russian military has publicly discussed the risks to Russia of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan for several years. Russian military exercises since 2018 have increasingly prepared to combat jihadist groups that could exploit instability to strike targets in the former Soviet Union. Russian military exercises and potential new deployments are in large part responses to this legitimate threat.
The Kremlin will likely seek to expand its military base in Tajikistan and establish basing in neighboring Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan in the next 6 months. Additional Russian bases in Central Asia and further military cooperation will support Russia’s campaign to integrate the militaries of the former Soviet Union under Russian structures. The Kremlin is additionally likely maneuvering against Ankara’s efforts to establish Turkey as a significant player in Central and South Asia, as well as pushing back on Chinese influence in the former Soviet Union. Finally, the Kremlin does not share NATO’s objectives in Central Asia and will not be a reliable counterterrorism partner in the region.
- The Belarusian KGB announced the start of a “large-scale operation to cleanse radicals” on July 8. Belarusian security forces began raiding dozens of Belarusian journalists and human rights activists across Belarus on July 8; those raids were ongoing as of July 20. Belarusian forces additionally raided the Minsk bureau of the US Government-sponsored Radio Free Europe media outlet. Belarusian authorities notably released most detainees within a day of their arrest, in contrast to typical prolonged detention. Belarusian authorities have not conducted targeted raids at this scale since fall 2020, at the peak of popular protests. Many of the targeted groups do not have direct ties to the protest organizers or opposition media outlets that the Belarusian regime has previously targeted. Self-declared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is likely targeting all independent media or non-government organizations, regardless of their past activities, to degrade the opposition’s will and deter further support for the opposition. Lukashenko’s crackdown will further isolate Belarus, deepening his reliance on support from Russia. Lukashenko met Russian President Vladimir Putin for an unannounced July 13 meeting in Russia to discuss further Russian economic support to Belarus, and likely further Belarusian concessions to Russia, in response to tightening Western sanctions.
- Pro-Western Moldovan President Maia Sandu’s Action and Solidarity party won an absolute majority over the pro-Russia Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM) party in snap parliamentary elections on July 12.Sandu called for snap elections in April 2021 after PSRM blocked two prime minister appointees following her election in November 2020. Action and Solidarity’s majority will enable Sandu to increase cooperation with the EU to combat corruption in Moldova and grow trade ties, two of Sandu’s key campaign promises. The Kremlin stated that it respects the election results and will work with the new government, despite its pre-election claims of “ongoing EU interference.” The Kremlin has steadily withdrawn support for PSRM following a string of setbacks since November 2019. The Kremlin will likely adapt to the loss of its preferred political proxy and increase its engagement with Sandu’s pro-Western—but not necessarily anti-Kremlin—government to maintain its interests in Moldova, including energy contracts and the presence of Russian troops in the breakaway region of Transnistria.
- The exercise will occur in several regions of southwest Russia from July 12 to July 30. Zaslon-2021 is Rosgvardia’s first operational-strategic exercise since its establishment in 2016 and is explicitly intended to prepare Rosgvardia for participation in the Russian military’s annual capstone exercise Zapad-2021, scheduled to begin in September. Rosgvardia reports directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin and is intended to counter internal threats such as protests, terrorists, and what the Kremlin frames as Western-backed support for “color revolutions” within Russia. The Kremlin will likely continue to prioritize integrating Rosgvardia into major military exercises to counter perceived threats from terrorist groups or claimed NATO subversion.
- The Kremlin voted on July 9 to extend international aid deliveries through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in opposition-controlled Idlib Province on the Turkish-Syrian border, the final UN aid crossing into Syria not controlled by the Assad regime. The resolution maintains the crossing for six months with an option for a six-month extension. The Kremlin threatened to veto the resolution prior to the vote, asserting that an international crossing point violates Syrian sovereignty. The Kremlin may have withdrawn its veto in an effort to secure concessions from the United States. The Kremlin praised “coordinated efforts” between the United States and Russia on Syria following a call between President Putin and President Biden on July 9. Russia’s UN ambassador stated the vote was “in the spirit” of the Geneva summit between Putin and Biden. The Kremlin’s short-term concession does not remove the Kremlin’s leverage in Idlib. Continuing Russian and pro-Assad strikes on civilian infrastructure and limited aid deliveries will amplify the humanitarian crisis in Idlib. The Kremlin retains the ability to increase offensive operations against Idlib to pressure Turkey’s proxies in Syria and create the threat of a refugee influx.
- The Kremlin published the essay directly on July 12. The essay argues that Russians and Ukrainians are one people and claimed that Ukraine can only be sovereign in partnership with Russia. Putin claims Ukraine’s separate national identity has been “fabricated” by Europe to divide Ukraine from Russia. He further claimed the West and Ukrainian elites have created the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia—in which Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula and controls proxy forces in occupied eastern Ukraine—and seek to exploit Ukraine economically. Kremlin-run media has subsequently claimed that the essay positively argues for close cooperation between Russia and Ukraine, despite Putin’s overt rejection of Ukraine’s existence as a national polity. The Russian government has taken several steps to elevate the article, including Defense Minister Shoigu issuing an order for Russian military personnel to study the essay. The essay is likely intended to outline the Kremlin’s preferred framing of Ukraine for a domestic Russian audience and the Russian government, rather than directly change Ukraine’s relationship with Russia.
- The replaced minister, Arsen Avakov, resigned on July 15 after serving in the position for over 7 years. Avakov developed a significant independent power base through his control of the interior ministry and was the only Ukrainian minister to serve under both President Zelensky and former President Petro Poroshenko. Avakov is deeply unpopular in Ukraine due to numerous high-profile scandals and corruption allegations, including a longstanding failure to address police brutality. Avakov was the greatest counterweight to Ukrainian President Zelensky’s Servant of the People (SoP) party within the Ukrainian government, and insiders familiar with the event suggest that the two agreed on private terms surrounding Avakov’s resignation. Zelensky replaced Avakov with Servant of the People MP Denys Monastyrsky. SoP stated Monsastyrsky will pursue institutional reform and split up the centralized Ukrainian law enforcement agencies that Avakov refused to implement. Zelensky likely replaced Avakov to eliminate his entrenched institutional power and further consolidate control over the Ukrainian government in addition to the legitimate goal of instituting these reforms.
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi in Moscow on July 12. The meeting focused on cooperation between Russia and Sudan in the UN and on ongoing conflicts in Libya and Syria. Lavrov and Al-Mahdi confirmed that their governments will start the ratification process of an agreement, previously announced in November 2020, allowing Russia to construct a naval base in Sudan. Sudan previously announced in June 2021 it would review the agreement to ensure that it benefited Sudan. It is unclear from available sources why Sudan dropped its objections to the basing agreement or if Sudan secured concessions from Russia. A Russian naval base in Sudan will enable further Russian power projection in Africa and support the Russian Navy’s efforts to reestablish a global footprint.
Contributors to this Report:
Bill Roggio, “Mapping Taliban Contested and Controlled Districts in Afghanistan,” https://www.longwarjournal.org/mapping-taliban-control-in-afghanistan.July 17, 2021,
Russia maintains three Motor Rifle regiments and several combat support elements at the 201st Military Base in Dushanabe, Tajikistan. Fredrick W. Kagan, Catherine Harris, “Russia’s Military Posture: Ground Forces Order of Battle,” http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Russian%20Ground%20F... [“In Tajikistan, Russian Military Pilots Launched a Missile Attack on a Mock Enemy Grouping,”] July 6, 2021, https://function.mil dot ru/newspage/country/more.htm?id12370320egNews; [“The Russian Military Began Exercises in Tajikistan Against the Backdrop of Exacerbation in Afghanistan,”] , July 14, 2021, https://www.interfax dot ru/world/777832.March 2018,
Olesya Stepakova, [“The Foreign Ministry Told about Russia’s Participation in the Construction of a Border Post in Tajikistan,”] https://tvzvezda dot ru/news/2021714645-1qY2L.html., July 14, 2021,
[“In August, as the Harb-Maidon training Ground, a Joint Exercise of the Military Personnel of Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan will Take Place,”] https://function.mil dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12372819@egNews., July 19, 2021,
The Russian Ministry of Defense and other participating organizations have not formally announced these exercises. Izvestia is closely linked with the Kremlin, however, and its report on upcoming exercises is likely accurate. Roman Krezul and Anna Cherepanova, [“threat Revealed: Russia to Conduct Series of Exercises on Afghan Border,”] https://iz dot ru/1193112/roman-kretcul-anna-cherepanova/vskrytaia-ugroza-rossiia-provedet-seriiu-uchenii-na-afganskoi-granitce., July 16, 2021,
[“The Russian Foreign Ministry Said that the 201 Military Base is Equipped to Provide Assistance Near the Border with Afghanistan,”] https://tass dot ru/politika/11833209., July 6, 2021,
[“Tajikistan Requested Assistance from the CSTO due to the Situation in Afghanistan,”] https://ria dot ru/20210707/afganistan-1740325094.html; [“CSTO Task Force Arrived in Tajikistan to Monitor the Border with Afghanistan,”] July 6, 2021, https://iz dot ru/1189414/2021-07-06/opergruppa-odkb-pribyla-v-tadzhikistan-dlia-monitoringa-granitcy-s-afganistanom.July 7, 2021,
[“The CSTO Sees No Need to Deploy the Collective Forces of the Organization to Tajikistan,”] https://tass dot ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/11859585., July 8, 2021,
Goerge Barros, “Russia in Review: Putin’s ‘Peacekeepers Will Support Russian Wars,” http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russia-review-putins-%E2%80....November 16, 2020,
[“Consultations with a Taliban Delegation,”] https://www.mid dot ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4810299.July 8, 2021,
Alexander Lapin, [“Afghanistan Again?”] , May 28, 2018, vpknews dot ru/articles/42857.
Mason Clark, “the Russian Military’s Lessons Learned in Syria,” http://www.understandingwar.org/report/russian-military%E2%80%99s-lesson....January 2021,
[“On July 8, At Least 14 Journalists and Civic Activists Were Detained and Held in a Detention Center,”] https://www.svaboda.org/a/31349848.html; [“Operation to Cleanse Radicals in Belarus – KGB,”] July 8, 2021, https://www.belta dot by/society/view/v-belarusi-prohodit-operatsija-po-zachistke-ot-radikalno-nastroennyh-lits-kgb-449686-2021/.July 9, 2021,
[“Searches Came to Viasna's Human Rights Defenders: Attack on NGOs in Belarus Continues,”] https://www.svaboda dot org/a/31361235.html; [“List of Political Prisoners,”] , accessed July 20, 2021, https://prisoners.spring96 dot org/ru/table; [“Detentions and Searches in Belarus on July 20,”] , July 20, 2021, http://spring96 dot org/ru/news/104375; [“Detentions and Searches in Belarus Continue on July 15,”] , July 15, 2021, http://spring96 dot org/ru/news/104305; [“July 16. Searches Against Journalists Continue. Security Officials in the Office of Radio Svaboda,”] July 16, 2021, https://dev dot by/news/16-iulya-obyski; Yuras Karmanau, “Belarus Targets Rights Activists, Journalists with Raids.” July 14, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/belarus-targets-rights-activists-jo... [“In Just a Day, at Least 30 Searches Were Carried Out, More Than 10 People Were Detained,”] July 15, 2021, https://naviny dot online/new/20210715/1626322988-tolko-za-den-bylo-provedeno-ne-menee-30-obyskov-zaderzhano-bolee-10-chelovek; “Belarus Continues Media Crackdown, Detains Three More Journalists,” July 19, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/31367176.html., July 14, 2021, https://spring96 dot org/ru/news/104286; [“Journalists Connected with Radio Svaboda and Belsat TV Channel Were Searched. There Are Detainees,”] July 16, 2021,
“RFE/RL, Other Media Raided as Belarusian Police Search Offices, Homes of Journalists,” https://www.rferl.org/a/belarus-raids-rferl-journalists/31361517.html.July 16, 2021,
[“Meeting with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko,”] http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/66185; [“Working Visit to the Russian Federation. Talks with Vladimir Putin”] July 13, 2021, https://president.gov dot by/ru/events/rabochiy-vizit-v-rossiyskuyu-federaciyu-1626156820.July 13, 2021,
[“Moldova: Sandu’s Party Wins Early Parliamentary Elections,”] https://www.radiosvoboda.org/a/news-sandu-moldova-peremoga/31354099.html.July 12, 2021,
Savannah Modesitt and Paisley Turner, “New Moldovan President Presents Opportunity to Limit Kremlin Suzerainty in Moldova,” http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/new-moldovan-president-pres....December 10, 2020,
Maia Sandu, interview by Steve Rosenberg, Chisinau, Moldova, November 16, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54942847.
[“Briefing of the Official Representative of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs M.V. Zakharova, Moscow, July 9, 2021,”] https://www.mid dot ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4811091.July 9, 2021,
Savannah Modesitt and Paisley Turner, “New Moldovan President Presents Opportunity to Limit Kremlin Suzerainty in Moldova,” http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/new-moldovan-president-pres....December 10, 2020,
Rosgvardia announced the exercises will occur in Russia’s Central, Volga, and Southern federal districts. Rosgvardia did not specify the number of troops or specific units participating in the exercises. [“The Active Phase of the Large-Scale Operational and Strategic Exercise ‘Zaslon-2021’ Under the Leadershp of Director general of the Army Viktor Zolotov has Begun in Rosgvardia,”] https://rosguard.gov dot ru/ru/news/article/v-rosgvardii-nachalas-aktivnaya-faza-krupnomasshtabnogo-operativnostrategicheskogo-ucheniya-zaslon2021-pod-rukovodstvom-direktora-generala-armii-viktora-zolotova.July 12, 2021,
“Operational-strategic exercise” is a Russian term for a large military exercise occurring in multiple locations, combining staff exercises with field deployments. The term has previously been used to identify the Russian military’s major annual exercises. Zaslon-2021 is Rosgvardia’s first use of the term.
Mikhail Falaleev, [“Rosgvardia will conduct an Operational-Strategic Exercise ‘Zaslon-2021,’”] https://rg dot ru/2021/07/02/rosgvardiia-provedet-operativno-strategicheskoe-uchenie-zaslon-2021.html; [”Colonel-General Viktor Strigunov Highly Appreciated the Actions of the Rosgvardia Units During the Training to Destroy a Conditional Terrorist Group as Part of the Exercise ’Zaslon-2021,‘“] July 20, 2021, https://rosguard.gov dot ru/ru/news/article/generalpolkovnik-viktor-strigunov-vysoko-ocenil-dejstviya-podrazdelenij-rosgvardii-v-xode-trenirovki-po-unichtozheniyu-uslovnoj-terroristicheskoj-gruppy-v-ramkax-ucheniya-zaslon2021; [“The Russian guardsmen in the Murmansk Region Worked to Neutralize Terrorist During the Tactical Episode of the Exercise ‘Zaslon-2021,’”] July 17, 2021, https://rosguard.gov dot ru/ru/news/article/nejtralizaciyu-terroristov-otrabotali-rosgvardejcy-v-murmanskoj-oblasti-v-xode-takticheskogo-epizoda-ucheniya-zaslon-2021.July 2, 2021,
“Security Council Extends Use of Border Crossing for Humanitarian Aid into Syria, Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2585 (2021),” https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/sc14577.doc.htm.July 9, 2021,
[“Russia Insists on Non-Extension of the Cross-Border Assistance in syria,”] https://ria dot ru/20210707/siriya-1740196392.html.July 7, 2021,
[“Telephone Conversation with US President Joseph Biden,”] http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/66172; “Security Council Extends Use of Border Crossing for Humanitarian Aid into Syria, Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2585 (2021),” July 9, 2021, https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/sc14577.doc.htm.July 9, 2021,
[“Article by Vladimir Putin ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,’”] http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/66181.July 12, 2021,
[“Real Good Neighborliness,”] https://www.kommersant dot ru/doc/4899556; [“Putin Noted the Rich and Indivisible Cultural Heritage of Russia and Ukraine,”] July 12, 2021, https://tass dot ru/politika/11886623; [“Rada Deputy Called Putin’s Article Strong,”] July 13, 2021, https://tass dot ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/11890065.July 14, 2021,
[“Peskov Considers it Understandable and Natural for the Russian Military to Study Putin’s Article on Ukraine,”] https://tass dot ru/obschestvo/11918627.July 16, 2021,
[“Statement by the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Arsen avakov,”] https://mvs.gov dot ua/uk/press-center/news/zayava-ministra-vnutrisnix-sprav-ukrayini-arsena-avakova.July 13, 2021,
[“Why Avakov Resigned and What Will be his Future,”] https://www.bbc.com/ukrainian/features-57833404.July 14, 2021,
“Ukraine’s Powerful Interior Minister Tenders Resignation,” https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-avakov-minister-resigns/31356810.html.July 13, 2021,
“Ukraine’s Interior Minister Submits Resignation,” https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ukraines-interior-minister-resigns-....July 13, 2021,
“Ukrainian Parliament Approves Denys Monastyrskiy as New Interior Minister,” https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-interior-minister-monastyrskiy/31362321.....July 16, 2021,
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry is heavily centralized, controlling Ukraine’s police, National Guard, border patrol, and territorial defense units. [“Reform Awaits the Ministry of Internal Affairs: Arahamiya Named the Main Task of Minister Monastyrsky,”] https://www.unian dot ua/politics/na-mvs-chekaye-reforma-arahamiya-nazvav-golovne-zavdannya-ministra-monastirskogo-novini-ukrajina-11486563.html.July 19, 2021,
[“Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s Talks with Sudanese Foreign Minister Mikhail Al-Mahdi,”] https://www.mid dot ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4812421; [“Lavrov: Sudan is Preparing to ratify the Agreement on the Support Point of the Russian Navy,”] July 12, 2021, https://tass dot ru/politika/11882579.July 13, 2021,
[“Sudan Decided to Revise the Agreement with Russia on the Creation of a Naval Base,”] https://ria dot ru/20210601/baza-1735174544.html.June 1, 2021,