The Kremlin deployed S-300 air defense systems to Belarus in late August 2021, advancing a longstanding Kremlin campaign to establish a permanent Russian military presence in Belarus postured against NATO’s eastern flank. This deployment increases Russian military capabilities to contest strategic airspace between the Baltic states and mainland Europe. The Kremlin seeks to degrade NATO's ability to defend the Baltics. Russian military personnel, as opposed to Belarusian personnel, will likely operate these S-300 systems. Elements of Russia’s 210th Air Defense Regiment arrived in Grodno, on the Belarusian border with Lithuania, on August 28. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated this deployment supports the permanent joint Russian-Belarusian air defense and air combat training center in Grodno that Moscow and Minsk agreed to create in March 2021. The Belarusian MoD did not connect this deployment to preparations for Russia’s annual strategic exercise Zapad-2021, which will occur in Belarus and western Russia from September 10 to 16. ISW first warned about the threat of Russian air defense deployments to Belarus in August 2020.
The Kremlin is increasing its military presence and diplomatic outreach in Central Asia to prevent Taliban-led violence from destabilizing former Soviet states. 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 Russo-Turkish relationship has become a defining driver of conflict in a vast region from North Africa to Central Asia. Turkey and Russia’s shared objective to make the current international system more multipolar leads them to cooperate in many areas, but differences in desired outcomes have led to more frequent confrontations in Syria and the Caucasus. Both states’ ability to compartmentalize their cooperative and competitive activities will likely determine the degree of instability caused by their assertive foreign policies. The United States and its allies must find the right avenues of cooperation with Turkey to counter Russian influence and limit the risk of rapid cross-theater escalation between the Kremlin and Ankara.
NATO is currently conducting its largest ever Black Sea naval exercises to strengthen maritime collective defense and resist Russian efforts to limit international access to the Black Sea. Sea Breeze 2021 is the largest iteration yet of NATO’s annual Sea Breeze exercises, held in the Black Sea since 1997 to strengthen interoperability between NATO and partner navies. The United States and Ukraine are cohosting the ongoing Sea Breeze 2021 exercise, which runs from June 28 to July 10, in the Black Sea. NATO explicitly intends Sea Breeze 2021 to “demonstrate presence and assure allies of [NATO’s] maritime commitment to collective defense.” The exercises involve 32 states, 5,000 personnel, 32 ships, and 40 aircraft. Participating warships and personnel will practice multiple types of operations, including amphibious warfare, maritime interdiction, air defense, and anti-submarine warfare.
Key Takeaway: The joint Russian-Belarusian-Serbian military exercise Slavic Brotherhood 2021 advanced Russian efforts to gain control over the Belarusian military and cultivate partner forces that the Kremlin can use in future Russian deployments. Russia and Belarus operated integrated combat units at the company level for the first time, building on previous exercises fielding combined battalions. The Kremlin practiced integrating non-Belarusian troops into Russian-controlled companies and platoons for the first time—a dangerous development that will expand Russian control over the militaries of sovereign states, enhance Russian force generation capabilities, and help the Kremlin obfuscate its military activity by framing Russian activities as multilateral. The Kremlin will develop these capabilities further in future exercises, including the upcoming annual capstone strategic readiness exercise, Zapad 2021, in September.
Key Takeaway: Joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises in March 2021 demonstrated several new Russian capabilities that could support a permanent Russian force presence in Belarus. Russia’s efforts to cement control of Belarusian forces and permanently deploy forces to Belarus increase Russia’s capacity to threaten NATO’s eastern flank. Russia and Belarus announced plans to open three permanent combined combat training centers in Russia and Belarus. The Kremlin is likely increasing Belarus’ military readiness and integration with Russian forces, augmenting the Kremlin’s capability to mobilize more units for longer durations and increasing Russia’s total force projection capability against NATO. Russian military pilots may begin operating out of Belarusian airbases in 2021. The Kremlin additionally used March 2021 exercises to prepare for Russia’s upcoming annual capstone strategic readiness exercise, Zapad 2021, in September, during which Russian units will likely deploy to Belarus on a significantly larger scale than ever before.
Ongoing reports of increased Russian troop movements on Ukraine’s borders and violations of the July 2020 ceasefire have drawn widespread attention and alarm but do not likely presage imminent Russian military action against Ukraine.
5:00 EDT: The Kremlin is increasing its projection capabilities against both NATO and Belarus. The Kremlin announced in December 2020 its decision to field a new motorized rifle division in Kaliningrad. Baltic Fleet commander Admiral Aleksandr Nosatov announced on December 7, 2020, that the Kremlin decided to reinforce the Baltic Fleet’s 11th Army Corps with a motorized rifle division in response to an alleged NATO military buildup near Kaliningrad. Nosatov said this new division includes one motorized rifle regiment, one artillery regiment, and one separate tank regiment.
A Belarusian veterans group claims the Belarusian Armed Forces (BAF) are preparing to deploy two battalions of so-called “peacekeepers” to Syria in September 2021. BYPOL, an association of former Belarusian security service personnel and military veterans who sympathize with the protest movement against self-declared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, claimed on January 30 that the BAF ordered Belarus’s two operational commands—roughly equivalent to Russian military districts—to construct units for peacekeeping and patrolling operations in Syria. BYPOL claims the first Belarusian deployment to Syria will consist of two approximately battalion-sized (300 personnel) units totaling around 600 personnel. The Kremlin likely instigated this order and will facilitate the deployment of Belarusian troops, which would support Russia’s military forces in Syria.
Russian Western Military District (WMD) and Belarusian forces began simultaneous, large combat-readiness exercises in Kaliningrad, Belarus, and mainland western Russia on January 25, 2021. The Russian and Belarusian exercises are nominally separate and do not mention any joint activity; however, the exercises’ similarities in timing, geographic proximity, scale, and type of activity in resemblance to previous joint exercises indicate they are likely connected and complimentary.