Russian and Belarusian forces began final preparations in late July for Zapad-2021, Russia’s capstone annual military exercise and an important indicator of Russian military capabilities. The Russian military holds an annual capstone military exercise every September, rotating between Russia’s four military districts – East, Center, South, and West. Russia’s 2021 capstone exercise, “Zapad,” will occur in the Western Military District and Belarus from September 10-16. Russia and Belarus are framing Zapad-2021 as a joint exercise. Russia’s annual capstone exercises routinely involve foreign military forces but have not been framed as joint exercises prior to 2021. The units Russia and Belarus deploy in Zapad-2021 and the types of actions they practice will provide essential insight on evolving Russian and Belarusian military capabilities. ISW will monitor and provide updates on Russian and Belarusian movements before, during, and after the official period of Zapad-2021 from September 10-16.
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.
There are increasing reports of Turkey’s plans to recruit Syrian fighters for deployment to Afghanistan as Ankara finalizes a deal to secure the Kabul International Airport. Turkish officials may be in talks with at least six Turkish-backed Syrian factions to prepare an initial round of 2,000 Syrians as private contractors for deployment to Afghanistan. Reporting is still limited as of July 20. Ankara’s deployment of Syrian proxies to expand the Turkish footprint and offset casualty risks for the Turkish Armed Forces in Afghanistan would be consistent with recent Turkish military behavior in Libya and Azerbaijan. A long-term Turkish presence in Afghanistan with the risk of Taliban attacks may not serve Ankara’s strategic interests at home or abroad in the long term, however.
Competition between Russia and Turkey Drives Conflict across the Middle East, Africa, and Central AsiaJuly 12, 2021 - Ezgi Yazici
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.
Iran’s Iraqi proxies have likely become more willing to kill Americans and may soon do so to catalyze the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and Syria. These proxies are advancing an Iran-directed campaign that has increased in frequency, accuracy, and lethality since January 2021. This campaign is expanding to include not just Iraq but also Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria. Proxies have also begun using more lethal munitions and drones that can bypass US defenses. Attacks will continue until US forces withdraw from Iraq and Syria or reestablish deterrence with both Iran and its proxy network.
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.
Belarus Warning Update: Russia Expands Unit Integration with Belarusian and Serbian Militaries in June Slavic Brotherhood ExercisesJune 25, 2021 - George Barros
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.
The United States cannot stabilize—or safely deprioritize—the Middle East without first stabilizing Iraq. Regional powers treat Iraq as a battleground to carry out proxy conﬂicts that harm US interests and exacerbate instability through the region. Stability begets stability; strengthening the Iraqi state such that foreign proxy wars cannot easily take place within its borders would reduce tensions in the region. A more resilient Iraqi state will be better protected from future foreign interference like internationally sponsored militia activities, political inﬂuence, and jihadism. A stable and sovereign Iraq could provide a physical and political buﬀer between its heavyweight neighbors: Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and between Iran and its projects in Syria and Lebanon. That buﬀer could help enable a desired pivot in US policy and security focus away from the Middle East and toward pressing concerns elsewhere in the world.
ISIS escalated attacks during Ramadan 2021 despite sustained counterterrorism pressure. ISIS maintains its ability to recruit, conduct attacks, exploit gaps, and in some areas replace weakened governance systems. Local and international security forces are unlikely to fully defeat ISIS in its “core terrain” in Iraq and Syria in the short term due to competing priorities among counter-ISIS actors and decreasing international interest.
Key Takeaway: Iranian-backed militias are increasingly supplanting other Iraqi security forces and asserting control over Baghdad and surrounding areas, creating opportunities for ISIS to infiltrate Baghdad. Iranian-backed militias are also exerting control over populations and transit routes around Baghdad in hopes to eject US forces and set conditions to maintain a long-term demographic majority. Militia activity causes other Iraqi security forces to divide their attention between countering militias and countering ISIS, reducing the effectiveness of both efforts. ISIS is exploiting this gap to build durable support zones through the Baghdad Belts from which it can stage spectacular attacks. The Iraqi Security Forces must develop better local security strategies to more effectively counter both militia and ISIS campaigns in Baghdad and the Baghdad Belts.