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.
Through wargaming, the PLA aspires to achieve an edge in military competition, seeking to “design” the dynamics of and develop capabilities for future warfare.
The Taliban’s swift seizure of Kabul has altered key regional states’ calculus toward Afghanistan. Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey are weighing how to take advantage of the United States’ hurried withdrawal while mitigating the new terrorist threats and refugee waves from Afghanistan that will likely follow. All four states will likely recognize the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan in the coming months. The Taliban’s victory also presents an opportunity for al Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadi groups to expand their havens in Afghanistan and intensify ongoing efforts to inspire terror attacks in the West capitalizing on the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks.
Kremlin messaging on Afghanistan since August 15 has balanced praise for the Taliban’s supposedly “peaceful” takeover of Kabul with cautious rhetoric about officially recognizing the Taliban, which is still formally designated as a terrorist organization in Russia. Zamir Kabulov, the Kremlin’s special representative for Afghanistan, stated on August 16 that the Kremlin “prepared the ground ahead of time” to work with “the new government of Afghanistan.” Kabulov said that Russia has retained its embassy in Kabul with security cooperation from the Taliban and praised the Taliban for taking over security in the capital “absolutely peacefully.”
The Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) demonstrated new capabilities and readiness during its first-ever operational-strategic exercise from July 12 to 30. Rosgvardia conducted Zaslon-2021 as a nationwide exercise and readiness check of its full spectrum of capabilities, not a localized exercise as it originally claimed. Rosgvardia falsely announced in early July that Zaslon-2021, its first strategic exercise since its establishment in 2016, would occur only in the Central, Volga, and Southern federal districts and support preparations for the Russian military’s upcoming Zapad-2021 exercise. Zaslon-2021 instead occurred simultaneously in every Russian federal district except the North Caucasian. Rosgvardia conducted four large-scale exercises involving all Rosgvardia units in the announced Central, Volga, and Southern districts, supported by unannounced small-scale exercises across Russia. Twenty-three of Zaslon’s component exercises occurred in the announced districts, while 42 exercises occurred in other, unannounced districts across Russia.
Russia’s Southern Military District (SMD) announced on August 8 that it is conducting district-wide exercises practicing combined arms operations from August 9 to September 15. The commander of the SMD, General Alexander Dvornikov, said the exercises will contain tactical tasks between motorized rifle, tank, and artillery battalions of the SMD and attached specialized units. The attached specialized units include chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense (CBRN), engineering, electronic warfare, reconnaissance, logistics, medical, military police, army aviation, and transport aviation units. Warships from the Caspian Flotilla and the Black Sea Fleet, naval infantry, and at least 80 fixed and rotary wing aircraft are also participating. SMD Commander Dvornikov will directly oversee the exercises. The Ministry of Defense (MoD) did not state that these exercises were preplanned and did not discuss the exercises before August 8.
Iran likely ordered its Iraqi proxies to sustain low-level, harassing attacks on US forces in Iraq until after the October 2021 parliamentary elections and to return to more lethal attacks toward the end of 2021. Iran is recalibrating its campaign to expel US forces from Iraq following the results of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, during which the United States announced a mostly symbolic withdrawal of all its combat forces from Iraq. Proxies may continue larger-scale attacks on US forces in Syria before October and may also expand their attacks to target US aircraft, bases, and allies throughout the Middle East.
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.