Iran Update, May 23, 2023

May 23, 2023 - Press ISW

1. Iran and Iranian-backed militias facilitated the travel of Iranian religious pilgrims into Syria, possibly to expand Iranian influence in Syria.
2. Anti-regime protests organized by Iranian university students have increased in recent weeks, demonstrating the regime’s failure to suppress a key demographic of the Mahsa Amini movement.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 23, 2023

May 23, 2023 - Press ISW

Russian authorities ended the “counterterrorism” operation in Belgorod Oblast and claimed to have defeated the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and the Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) in the region on May 23. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Western Military District (WMD) Border Guards units defeated the raid and expelled all “saboteurs” from Belgorod Oblast. Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov announced that the “counterterrorism” operation had ended but called on civilians who evacuated to wait before returning to the border settlements. Russian authorities later announced on May 23 that authorities evacuated 100 civilians from nine border settlements in Belgorod Oblast on May 22 after Gladkov originally denied conducting formal evacuations. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not hold an emergency meeting of the Russian Security Council to discuss the Belgorod raid but will instead discuss the situation during the Security Council’s planned May 26 meeting, likely in an effort to project confidence about Russian handling of the situation.

Visualizing Information Operations: A Key Strategy for Managing the 21st Century Military

May 23, 2023 - Press ISW

The IBM Center for The Business of Government and the Institute for the Study of War recently launched a new report, Managing the New Era of Deterrence and Warfare: Visualizing the Information Domain. The report launch, seen here, featured a presentation of key findings from two of the authors, Brian Babcock-Lumish and Frederick Kagan, and an engaging expert panel discussion with Steve Hunnewell, Director of the Information Office for the US Indo-Pacific Command; Michael Rouland, Senior Strategic Advisor for the Russia Strategic Initiative with US European Command; and Emelia Probasco, Senior Fellow with the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University.

Iran Update, May 22, 2023

May 22, 2023 - Press ISW

Syrian state media released the final communique of the Arab League Summit in Jeddah on May 19, which highlighted Arab state unity and uncharacteristically rejected external support for non-state militias. Iranian Foreign Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Nasser Kanani expressed dissatisfaction with the resolution. Bashar al Assad met with Saudi and Emirati leaders in Jeddah to strengthen economic and bilateral ties, demonstrating Assad’s increased opportunities for economic engagement with neighboring countries. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have not indicated willingness or capacity to collaborate militarily with Syria, leaving Iran as one of Assad’s key security partners. Saudi Arabia normalized relations with Iran on March 10 and the United Arab Emirates is funding key infrastructure projects in Iran, demonstrating Arab League states’ mixed policy toward Iran.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 22, 2023

May 22, 2023 - Press ISW

Elements of the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) conducted a raid into Belgorod Oblast on May 22. Russian sources began reporting on the morning of May 22 that a detachment of the RDK and LSR consisting of two tanks, an armored personnel carrier, and nine other armored vehicles crossed the international border and captured Kozinka, a settlement in the Grayvoron region of Belgorod Oblast within 600 meters of the border with Sumy Oblast. Several Russian sources claimed that the grouping then captured the settlements of Glotovo and Gora Podol (3km and 5km from the border, respectively), although some milbloggers disputed claims that the attack completely captured Glotovo or Gora Podol, instead reporting that RDK forces only got to the Glotovo House of Culture. ISW has not yet observed geolocated confirmation that the RDK or LSR reached Glotovo or Gora Podol. Geolocated footage posted on May 22 does confirm that the RDK struck a border post near Kozinka before crossing the border with at least one tank. The RDK also posted footage reportedly showing the body of a Russian border guard in a border station, likely from the border crossing near Kozinka. Russian milbloggers later claimed that Russian troops retook control of all three settlements. Some Russian sources additionally reported that Russian forces repelled pro-Ukrainian sabotage groups near Dronovka, about 22km northwest of Kozinka. The RDK additionally posted footage reportedly outside two settlements near the border area in Bryansk Oblast, but the nature of this incursion is unclear and ISW has not observed additional evidence or discourse surrounding actions in Bryansk Oblast on May 22.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 21, 2023

May 21, 2023 - Press ISW

Wagner Group mercenaries likely secured the western administrative borders of Bakhmut City while Ukrainian forces are continuing to prioritize counterattacks on Bakhmut’s outskirts. Ukrainian military officials reported that Ukrainian forces control an “insignificant” part of southwestern Bakhmut City around the T0504 highway — a tacit acknowledgement that Russian forces have secured the rest of western and northwestern Bakhmut, if not all of it. These officials’ statements indicate that Ukrainian forces withdrew from the remaining areas in Bakhmut except those adjacent to the two highways into the city. Geolocated footage published on May 21 showed Wagner forces raising Russian and Wagner flags over a residential building in westernmost Bakhmut. The Wagner Group’s likely capture of the last remaining small area of western Bakhmut does not impact ongoing Ukrainian counterattacks north or south of Bakhmut, nor does it impact Ukrainian control over the ground lines of communications (GLOCs) around Bakhmut that exhausted Wagner forces would need to reach in order to conduct further offensive operations. Russian forces will likely need additional reinforcements to hold Bakhmut City and its flanks at the expense of operations in other directions. ISW has observed artillery units of the 132nd Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade (which was previously observed in the Avdiivka area) operating in the Bakhmut direction.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 20, 2023

May 20, 2023 - Press ISW

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin declared victory in Bakhmut City on May 20 and announced his intent to withdraw from the city on May 25. Prigozhin claimed that Wagner Group forces completely captured Bakhmut City on May 20, seizing the last multi-story apartment building in southwestern Bakhmut near the MiG-17 monument. Prigozhin announced that Wagner forces will establish defensive positions before transferring responsibility for the city to Russian conventional forces on May 25. Prigozhin effectively stated that Wagner forces will conduct an operational pause by resting and restoring combat power at field training camps in unspecified areas, presumably far from the frontline. ISW has not observed geolocated footage confirming Prigozhin’s claims as of this publication. Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces are still fighting in a small section of southwest Bakhmut as of May 20. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated that Ukrainian forces continue to hold positions near the MiG-17 monument as of May 20. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has not commented on Prigozhin’s claims as of this publication.

Iran Update, May 19, 2023

May 19, 2023 - Press ISW

The Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) are consolidating their footprint in northern Iraq, which will likely increase the risk of sectarian conflict there. A PMF footprint could help Iran secure a new arms shipment route into Syria.

The IRGC Navy conducted unprofessional and unsafe maneuvers near a US naval ship in the Persian Gulf, which risks accidental collisions and miscalculations.

Anti-regime protests have flared up in Iran in response to increased state executions, demonstrating that many protesters remain undeterred from further protest despite the brutal regime crackdown during the Mahsa Amini movement.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 19, 2023

May 19, 2023 - Press ISW

A Ukrainian official stated that Russian forces have concentrated most of their available reserves to the Bakhmut area and slowed Ukrainian counterattacks in the past 24 hours. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on May 19 that Russian forces concentrated most of their reserves in the Bakhmut direction, which has slowed the rate of Ukrainian advances. Malyar also stated that Ukrainian forces continue to counterattack on the northern and southern outskirts of Bakhmut and advanced 500 meters on one flank and 1,000 meters on the other. Some Russian milbloggers celebrated the slowed Ukrainian rate of advance and claimed that the Ukrainian forces are unable to sustain prolonged localized counterattacks around Bakhmut. Russian forces on Bakhmut’s flanks likely remain weak, however; Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continued to criticize the Russian 4th Motorized Rifle Brigade (2nd Luhansk People’s Republic Army Corps) on May 19 for retreating from defensive lines southwest of Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut). Ukrainian counterattacks near Bakhmut have notably likely eliminated the threat of a Russian encirclement of Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut and forced Russian troops to allocate scarce military resources to defend against a limited and localized offensive effort, as Ukrainian command likely intended.

Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, May 17, 2023

May 19, 2023 - Press ISW

ISIS is taking advantage of the seam between Syrian territory held by the regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to evade counterinsurgent pressure and rebuild its insurgency. ISIS will use the seam and lack of coordination between counterterrorism forces to set conditions that will enable a rapid resurgence after a US withdrawal. US and SDF raids are successfully targeting ISIS planners, but these high-value targets will evade effective counterterrorism pressure by exfiltrating to central Syria, where US and SDF forces decline to conduct raids targeting ISIS due to regime presence. These planners will use safe havens elsewhere in Syria to plan new attacks.