No Time To Dispute: Russia’s A2/AD in the South Kurils

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No Time To Dispute: Russia’s A2/AD in the South Kurils

Remote and derelict, riddled with active volcanoes and disputed between Russia and Japan, the South Kurils make the perfect secret lair for any self-respecting evil genius. It’s no wonder the…

Remote and derelict, riddled with active volcanoes and disputed between Russia and Japan, the South Kurils make the perfect secret lair for any self-respecting evil genius. It’s no wonder the writers behind No Time to Die, the latest Bond film, chose the South Kurils as the setting for the film’s final act. While not directly named, the South Kurils are clearly referenced by Q’s description of Safin’s island – “part of a chain disputed between Russia and Japan.”

A closer inspection of the Russian military presence in the archipelago suggests [spoilers] that Q’s “donut” flight over the island could have ended poorly. Likewise, the Royal Navy’s HMS Dragoon would have probably faced immediate retaliation for its missile strike on Safin’s bioweapons facility. As for Bond, he didn’t just break our hearts, he also broke into Russia’s A2/AD bubble.


KEY JUDGEMENTS

I. Together with the rest of the archipelago, the southern Kurils form a natural barrier, protecting the Russian Pacific Fleet’s naval bastion in the Sea of Okhotsk from threats in the Pacific

II. Russia has significantly enhanced its posture in the South Kurils by deploying advanced air defense systems including the S-300VM4, several Su-35 air superiority aircraft, and coastal missile systems in the past decade. By establishing an anti-access/area denial (A2AD) zone in the South Kurils, Moscow signals to Japan that it will never forfeit its easternmost territory. 

III. Russia’s militarization of the South Kurils will continue in the coming years and focus on the archipelago’s largest islands. Plans for further investment suggest that the South Kurils will no longer be a semi-dormant military outpost but could “go active” for Russian operations in the West Pacific. 

FLASHPOINT: NORTHERN TERRITORIES OR SOUTH KURILS?

1. Disputed between Russia and Japan, the southern Kurils are the southernmost islands in the chain that separates the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean. More specifically, the southern Kurils consist of Iturup (Etorofu in Japanese), Kunashir (Kunashiri), Shibotan (Shikotan), and the Habomai islets. 

copyright Australian National University

2. Russia exercises de facto control over the islands, but Japan has a historical claim to them. The ongoing Russo-Japanese dispute prevents the two countries from signing a formal peace accord to end World War 2 and foster closer economic ties. The rest of the Kuril island chain is internationally recognized as Russian territory. 

  • RUSSIA: Russia calls the archipelago the “South Kurils” and administers it as a district (Yuzhno-Kurilsky) in the Sakhalin oblast. Over 7,000 km from Moscow and only 20 km from Japan, the South Kurils district is Russia’s easternmost territory. Russian control of the southern Kurils can be traced back to 1945 when the Soviet Union seized the archipelago from Imperial Japan. The Soviets planned to use the islands as a springboard to invade mainland Japan in competition with the US. 
  • JAPAN: Japan refers to the southern Kurils as “Northern Territories” and considers them part of Hokkaido prefecture. The Japanese settled and administered the southern Kurils centuries ago and have a series of bilateral treaties with Russia that recognizes Japan’s sovereignty over the islands. 

3. It is virtually certain that Russia will never concede the southern Kurils to Japan, despite the recent detente in bilateral relations. Moscow fears that conceding even a part of the Kurils could create a dangerous precedent for its territorial disputes in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. While not at the top of the agenda, Tokyo is unlikely to shelve the southern Kurils dispute without significant concessions, such as free movement of Japanese fishers and/or demilitarization. However, there is a possibility, albeit low, that Russia might concede the Habomai islets and/or Shikotan islands to Japan as promised in an unratified 1956 Soviet-Japanese peace proposal.

SOUTHERN KURILS: BARRIER, GATEWAY, AND MINERAL DEPOSIT

4. BASTION BARRIER: While not strategic by themselves, the southern Kurils are critical components of the greater island chain, which serves as a natural barrier for Russia’s naval “bastion” in the Sea of Okhotsk. As a whole, the Kuril reef holds great military value from both defensive and offensive standpoints. 

  • DEFENSE: The Kurils can be flooded with air defense and coastal defense batteries combined with long-range artillery to keep adversaries at range. Invaders must adopt a costly leapfrogging strategy, contesting each island, if they wish to move surface vessels in the Russian Pacific Fleet’s Okhotsk bastion. 
  • OFFENSE: The USSR seized the South Kurils exclusively for offensive purposes in 1945. While military action against Japan is unlikely today (except retaliatory), the southern Kurils, particularly the Habomai islets, are valuable to monitor the US presence in Japan. 

5. GATEWAY TO PACIFIC: Russian naval movements indicate that the straits towards the southern Kurils are the Pacific Fleet’s most used passageways into the West Pacific. Even naval units based in Vladivostok and the Sea of Japan prefer to sail through the Kuril straits, via the Soya strait, over alternate routes (Tshushima and Tsugaru straits). The main reason is that the Kurils offer a more direct route to Alaska and the US mainland. Freedom of movement through the myriad of Kuril  straits is also important to diversify’s the fleet’s routes to and from the Pacific. Although some of the straits between South Kuril islands are difficult to navigate during winter due to ice formation.

6. RHENIUM: While underdeveloped, the south Kurils have always had some economic value. During the Cold War, it was fishing. Nowadays, rethium is the islands’ treasure – a rare earth element crucial for rocketry, aircraft production and the high-tech industry. Rhenium is widespread in the Kuril Islands, especially in the Kudryavyi volcano on Iturup. Given decades of underinvestment and poor infrastructure, Russia has barely tapped the islands’ mineral potential. 

GEOINT: RUSSIA’S A2/AD BUBBLE  IN THE SOUTH KURILS

South Kurils A2/AD (T-Intelligence)

7. Russia established an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) in the southern Kurils throughout the past decade. The purpose of A2/AD is to deny adversaries freedom of action in a given theater and keep them at range. A combination of multi-layered air defenses and long-range strike platforms is the most common form of A2/AD composition, and the Kurils make no exception. 

  • AIR DEFENSE: By parrying a long-range S300VM4 with two short range systems (deployed in 2020), the Buk-M1 (d. 2012) and Tor M2 (d.?)Russia achieves a multi-layered air defense network that can monitor and threaten enemy aircraft. A variety of general surveillance and coastal radars are also likely based in the South Kurils. 
  • STRIKE PLATFORMS: Russia amassed the Bal and Bastion surface-to-surface missile systems (SSMs) to the Kurils in 2016. The Bal system (in Kunashir), and Bastion-P, (in Iturup), are capable of engaging both land and seaborn targets, and can be upgraded to accommodate newer missiles as they become available. 

ITURUP/ETORUFU

Overview: Locations of interest on Iturup/Etorufu Island (T-Intelligence)

Measuring 1,210 square miles (sq. m.), Iturup is by far the largest and most militarized island in the southern Kurils. Iturup absorbed the bulk of Russia’s military investment in the South Kurils with regard to hardware and infrastructure. Two airfields, a major infantry base, and several training grounds exist on Iturup. In the past decade, they have been modernized and expanded. Harbours and naval facilities have also improved over the years, but there is still no major naval base on Iturup. 

Russian forces have been sluggish in exploiting Iturup’s (dramatic) high ground for radar surveillance. There is also no visible progress on overhauling the islands’ WW2-era littoral defenses. Iturup’s fixed beach fortifications are overwhelmingly derelict. 

  • Burevestnik air base

Burevestnik Air Base on Iturup (T-Intelligence)

Built during WW2, then named “Tennet airfield,” Burevestnik is one of the largest airfields in the whole Kuril chain. The airfield hosted over 100 aircraft at the height of the Cold War. In 1965, the airstrip was extended to a length of 2,4 km, according to a declassified CIA assessment.  

In recent history, Burevestnik AB saw a significant all-around modernization. Nowadays, the airfield mainly hosts rotary-wing aircraft. The most notable improvement is the construction of an air defense site [44°55’7.77 “N 147°38’31.61 “E] dedicated to the S-300V4 systems (NATO reporting name: SA-23 Gladiator) that the Russia Eastern Military District deployed to Iturup in December 2020. Geolocation of the S-300’s first readiness exercise in Iturup to this location suggests that the air defense site was designed to host advanced hardware like the S-300. 

Geolocation of S-300 exercise in December 2020 to Burevestnik Air Base (T-Intelligence)

The air defense site and subsequent warehouse were built sometime between September 2012 and November 2015. Due to lack of open-source satellite imagery coverage before 2012, we could not pinpoint the exact timeframe. 

  • 18th Machine Gun Artillery Division [45° 2’3.68 “N 147°45’19.18 “E]

Temporal analysis of the 18th Machine Gun Artillery Division camp in Iturup shows significant infrastructure enhancement between 2005 and 2019 (T-Intelligence)

In the past, the base was a typical case of Soviet-era ghost military base. Still, imagery from August 2019 shows an explosive expansion and modernization of the military camp, especially compared to the previously available imagery from Google Earth from September 2005. The old and decayed buildings in the base’s midsection have been demolished and replaced with new, modern facilities. The base expanded eastwards, where a warehouse of interest, among other structures, emerged. A review of Planet’s RapidEye satellite imagery suggests that the warehouse was built in the second half of 2016. 

A GEOINT assessment conducted by Israeli company ImageSatIntl in July 2019 named the warehouse as a deployment site for coastal missile defense systems and identified two Rubezh systems (SSC-3) parked on the cement pad nearby. The newly deployed Bal (SSC-6) or Bastion (SSC-5) systems have likely replaced and retired the ageing Rubezh systems.  

  • Iturup Airport [45°15’28.50″N 147°57’16.53″E]:

Su-35 presence at Iturup airfield (T-Intelligence)

Built in 2014, Iturup airport (also known as Yasny) is a rare case of an entirely new facility constructed in the South Kurils. Iturup airport is also the first airfield to be built from scratch in post-Soviet Russia. With a 2,4 km airstrip and modern facilities, Iturup Airport is a dual-use airfield serving both civilian and military flights. In August 2018, Russia deployed three Su-35 air superiority (Flanker-E) aircraft to Iturup airfield. 

Image shows the three Su-35s on the Iturup airport’s apron in May 2020. Photo credits: Vera Bykova

  • Naval areas 

While the island does not host a military naval base, there are several noteworthy ports or small wharves that small vessels of the Russian Border Security Force (BSF) – Coast Guard or Russian Navy can use. Iturup’s coastline contrasts from flat beaches to sharp cliffs. Therefore artificial docking facilities, like wharves, are needed to accommodate vessels. 

  • Kurilsk Harbor [45°15’24.7 “N 147°52’55.9 “E]- Iturup’s largest port has seen significant modernization in the past years, which undoubtedly expanded Kurilisk’s military potential. 
  • LLC Fish processing plant and wharf [45°06’12.2 “N 147°41’53.0 “E]
  • “Autumn” fishing village [45°00’34.4″N 147°31’11.2″E]

KUNASHIR/KUNASHIRI

Overview of Kunashir island (T-Intelligence)

Kunashir is the second-largest island in the South Kurils (580 square miles). The island hosts a major airport (civilian) and a massive infantry base. Kunashir used to host a large naval Soviet presence in the Cold War, and was the assembly point for the Japanese Imperial surface group that attacked Pearl Harbor, according to a declassified CIA assessment. 

  • Yuzhno-Kurilsk Mendeleyevo Airport [43°57’42.17 “N 145°41’13.23 “E]

Mendeleyevo Airport in July 2021 via Google Earth (imagery: Maxar Technologies and CNES/Airbus)

With a 2,2 km airstrip and modest facilities, Mendelyevo has remained relatively unchanged in the past decade. The airport has seen limited modernization of auxiliary facilities but not expansion. Mendelyvo does not have a declared military role; however, if needed, it could support a limited number of fighter aircraft and helicopters for a short amount of time. Aeroflot subsidiary Aurora Airlines is the only commercial airline that flies to Mendelyevo. Aurora’s only route to Yuzhno-Kurilsk Mendeleyevo Airport is from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and is mainly serviced by the company’s De Havilland Canada Dash 8-400 aircraft.

  • Seaport Yuzhno-Kurilsk 44°01’19.6 “N 145°51’15.7” E

Yuzhno-Kurilsk Seaport in April 2020 via Google Earth (image: Maxar Technologies and TerraMetrics)

Although mainly for civilian-commercial use, the Yuzhno-Kurilsk seaport has military significance. The wharf and docking facilities have likely once formed a “major Soviet naval base” as referenced in a declassified CIA report from 1955. While the coordinates provided in the CIA report are “broken,” pointing to an offshore location (happens to the best of us), Yuzhno-Kurilsk seaport is the island’s only naval facility and it is “near” the local airfield. A direct road links the two sites.

The seaport also hosts a fish processing plant and an offsite fuel storage facility, which are vital to the island’s economy and inhabitants. 

  • 46th Machine Gun-Artillery Regiment 44°03’19.3″N 145°47’06.2″E 

46th Machine Gun Artillery Regiment camp (T-Intelligence)

This Soviet-era installation bloomed starting in 2010 and nearly doubled after May 2017. New housing facilities, warehouses, and a host of small and medium-sized structures appeared during this timeframe. The constructors have also prepared approximately 120 square meters of parking areas, indicating an increase in troop and supply transportation vehicles.

A large, white hangar also emerged southeast of the parking lot for hosting advanced weapons capabilities (AWC), as the geolocation of the Bal systems in storage photo suggests. The image in question was obtained by a Japanese newspaper, Sankei, from a source on the ground. 

Leveraging the local high ground, two air defense sites exist north of the base. The first site, within the base’s limits, was built between 2015 and mid-2018. The layout is identical with the air defense site prepared at Burevestnik air base on Iturup, where the S-300VM4 resides. Google Earth’s latest imagery, dated April 2020, shows a probable surface to surface missile (SSM) system – either Bal or Bastion – positioned in the revetments, suggesting that the site is not exclusively for air defense. The second presumed air defense site (“high ground SAM site”) predates the recent modernization and has not hosted SAM activity in the past years, based on our review of available satellite imagery. 

A warehouse is also visible to the southeast, with vehicle marks suggesting pre-established routes to the nearby woodland – a possible shoot-and-scoot path. The warehouse and auxiliary areas were built between May 2017 and June 2018. As ImageSat International was the first to assess, the warehouse facility is identical with the one constructed at the 18th Machine Gun Artillery Division. This suggests a similar use, namely hosting advanced weapons capabilities (AWC). 


SHIBOTAN/SHIKOTAN

Overview Shikotan island (T-Intelligence)

Two noteworthy naval facilities exist on the archipelago’s third-largest island. While under civilian authority, Shibotan’s ports regularly – or permanently host – Russian Coast Guard vessels. No airfield exists on Shibotan. However, at least one helipad is visible at Malokurilskaya Bay [43°51’59 “N 146°49’39” E], and the island offers a host of adequate landing zones for helicopters. Infantry troops and likely an artillery unit are also based on the island. Declassified CIA reports from the 1950s claim that Shibotan hosted a Soviet frontier naval division, suggesting that this island played a crucial role in Moscow’s posture vis-a-vis Japan. 

  • Malokurilskaya Bay [43°52’29.5″N 146°49’23.5″E]

Geolocation of Russian Coast Guard vessels docked in Kunashir (T-Intelligence)

Geolocation of images posted on Russian forums underscores the Russian Coast Guard’s presence at Malokurilskaya Bay. The images suggest that the local Coast Guard unit (likely unit 2264 based on unverified crowdsourced information) is using the bay’s northern wharf as “home port” [43°52’25 “N 146°49’19” E].  

  • Trench line (derelict) [43°51’23″N 146°49’25″E]

Covering the hilly southern approach to Malokurilskaya Bay is a WW2-era trench fortification system accompanied by a slate of abandoned T-34, IS-2, and IS-3 tanks. If needed, the trench line could be revived as a stop-gap defensive measure, if overhauled, and reinforced with modern armored units. 

  • Krabovaya Bay [43°49’35″N 146°44’55″E]

This smaller port exclusively serves fishing activities, but its new, large wharfs make it adequate for small patrol craft to a certain extent. Large tonnage vessels are unable to reach due to shallow waters. Krabovaya Bay boomed after a private company built a new fish processing and storage plant and expanded the port docking facilities in 2019. 


HABOMAI ISLETS

Overview of the Habomai islets (T-Intelligence)

The closest to Japan’s Hokkaido province and the smallest landforms in the southern Kuril chain (39 square miles – combined), the Habomai are of little significance to Russia’s military posture. The islets’ rich waters are sought after by Japanese fishers, and Tokyo still hopes that it can recover the Habomai or establish a joint fishing zone in Habomai’s waters. The return of the Habomai (and Shikotan) to Japan was promised in the 1956 Soviet-Japan Joint Declaration, but the two parties failed to ratify the peace agreement. 

Except for two border outposts* and several defunct barracks and derelict fortifications, there are no noteworthy Russian installations or forces on the Habomai islets. Small boats and fast patrol craft of the Coast Guard regularly patrol the Habomai’s waters and arrest Japanese fishers. 

*Border post – Zelenoe Yuzhnokurilskiy [43 ° 30’9 “N 146 ° 5’23” E] 

*Border post – Muravyovka [43 ° 25’5 “N 145 ° 54’2” E]


OUTLOOK

8. Russia will further its force build-up by expanding the military infrastructure on Iturup and Kunashir, Russian Prime Minister Mishushtin announced in August 2021. Moscow said that it will build “51 more pieces of military infrastructure” in the Kurils, without detailing what kind of infrastructure this will be. We assess that most investments will likely upscale the logistics facilities and amenities of local units. Modern radars, point air defenses, and new naval facilities would greatly improve Russia’s local posture and are therefore strong candidates for the Kremlin’s upcoming investment plan. 

9. The growing A2/AD bubble in the South Kurils solidifies Russia’s grip on the disputed territories. It also dramatically reduces the likelihood of the islands, or parts of them, returning to Japan. Plans for further investment suggest that the South Kurils will no longer be a dormant military outpost but could “go active” and increase the pace of Russian operations in the West Pacific.


by HARM

Afterword: this strategic analysis (SA) does not encompass all *possibly* military-related sites and objects on the South Kurils as it prioritzed high value locations and advanced hardware. The SA’s purpose is to provide a succinct overview of the archipelago’s most noteworthy locations and highlight objects of interest. 

This assessment was made using Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) techniques and resources. Visit Knowmad OSINT to learn more about our online OSINT training. 

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Putin’s Mercenaries on Tour: Mapping the Wagner Group’s Global Activities

Key Judgements Since its inception in 2014-2015, the Wagner group has expanded from a frontline contractor in Eastern Ukraine, to spearheading Russia’s foreign policy and private business objectives in Syria,…

Key Judgements

  1. Since its inception in 2014-2015, the Wagner group has expanded from a frontline contractor in Eastern Ukraine, to spearheading Russia’s foreign policy and private business objectives in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, and many other states. As Wagner’s reach is constantly expanding, our mapping project aims to filter through speculation and leverage open-source intelligence (OSINT) to track Wagner’s presence and activity worldwide.
  2. The Wagner group, such as it is, does not exist as a traditional PMC but as an interconnected network of mercenary groups, semi-state forces, and corporations with links to the Kremlin. As a result, Wagner’s activities are very difficult to track and categorize.
  3. If left unchecked, the Wagner group will very likely remain an effective and transient tool of the Russian security apparatus, combining aspects of state forces, private military companies, and paramilitaries. Wagner activities will likely continue to be equally focused on supporting Russian private business interests as foreign policy objectives.

DENIED AND DENIABLE: WAGNER GROUP

“Wagner Group” is an umbrella term that refers to the network of mercenary groups with ties to the Kremlin and controlled by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Wagner Group is used to advance Russia’s foreign policy objectives with a modicum of plausible deniability, as no such group formally exists and is denied by Russian officials. 

Utilized in everything from disinformation to site protection and offensive combat operations, the Wagner Group escapes conventional definitions of Private Military Companies (PMC) and has become increasingly active globally. 

Wagner PMC is known to operate under different names and structures, often related to mining, or military training, further obscuring the group’s activities. Existing literature focuses on the debates over Wagner’s functionality, goals, history, and even its very existence. However, limited attention has been directed towards the breadth of the network’s global activities. Herein we identify the locations of Wagner activity worldwide based on open-source reporting and assess the likelihood that Wagner is indeed active in each country.

A few things to understand before discussing the so-called Wagner group’s activities worldwide:

  • Due to the vague nature of the Wagner network and often imprecise and conflicting online reporting, much of the group’s activity cannot be identified with 100% certainty. Here we have opted to categorize Wagner activity as: Confirmed, Likely, Possible, and Unlikely.
  • It is important to note that beyond PMC Wagner, several other Russian PMCs remain active. It is possible to misidentify these PMCs as Wagner, especially with vague and unverified reports.

ACTIVITY LOG: TRACKING WAGNER’S GLOBAL REACH

Russia/At Home:

Like any PMC or military entity, Wagner trains its contractors before departing on missions. Supported by Russian military and intelligence personnel, Wagner conducts training at two locations attached to the 10th Special Mission Brigade of GRU Spetsnaz in Mol’kino, Krasnodar region, Russia. These facilities feature airborne training and obstacle courses, weapons and munitions storage buildings, and barracks, among others. 

Area view of military facilities near Mol’kino as first identified by CSIS (base imagery: Maxar Technologies)

Presumed Wagner training facility as first identified by CSIS (base image: Maxar Technologies)


Ukraine:

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provided the impetus for the creation of the Wagner group. Wagner mercenaries were instrumental in numerous battles throughout the conflict, notably in Crimea and later the Donbas region. Donbas war veterans formed the foundation of Wagner’s ranks, and the group continues to recruit from Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine.  

Estimates put the number of Wagner operators in Ukraine anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 at their peak, operating in support, intelligence, and direct combat roles. Wagner mercenaries were pivotal in the battles for Luhansk airport and in the seizure of the strategic town of Debaltseve in Donetsk oblast.

Activity Status: Confirmed – Limited continued presence


Syria:

Wagner has been active in the Syrian civil war in support of President Al-Assad’s government since October 2015. Taking part in numerous battles in key roles, Wagner has been able to win a stake in the country’s energy industry for companies linked to Prigozhin and the Kremlin. 

Estimates place the number of Wagner operatives as high as 2000 at different points in the Syrian civil war. Wagner also involved in the training of various Syrian millitias groups loyal to Bashar al-Assad, and Palestinian militias. By 2017, Wagner had already played a key role in recapturing parts of Deir ez-Zor province. In February 2018, Wagner contractors alongside Iranian-backed militias and Syria army units, attempted to capture an oil field from the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Swift U.S. airstrikes obliterated the Wagner attack, resulting in massive casualties for the Russian mercenaries (some estimate over 100 Wagner KIA). 

Wagner maintains a presence at the strategically important Tiyas airfield (T-4) and in central and eastern Syria. In addition to supporting Russian foreign policy goals, Syria served as an important proving ground for the use of Wagner, leading to the PMC’s global deployment. 

Activity Status: Confirmed – Limited continued presence.


Libya:

Numbering in the thousands, Wagner mercenaries have been omnipresent in the Libyan conflict since 2015. Wagner operatives served in critical frontline roles supporting General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) against the UN-recognized Government of National Accord. 

Wagner contractors trained LNA forces, engaged in combat operations, including the assault on Tripoli, and secured the LNA’s critical infrastructure (oil refineries and the ports of Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, and Sirte). Wagner is also notorious for executing prisoners and placing mines and booby-traps in civilian areas

Presumed Wagner contractors in Libya

Wagner affiliated personnel also pilot Russian fighter aircraft (e.g. Su-24 “Fencer”) and operate advanced air defense systems (Patnsir S-1/SA-22) on behalf of the LNA. Wagner infantry in Libya are equipped with utility trucks mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles.The east Libyan al-Kahdim airfield is likely Wagner’s headquarters in the country.

US AFRICOM GEOINT shows Wagner aircraft and anti-air systems displayed at Al-Khadim airfield in eastern Libya

USAFRICOM GEOINT shows Wagner infantry near Sirte

The group continues to be engaged in the Libyan Civil War despite ceasefire agreements necessitating the removal of foreign fighters. 

Activity status: Confirmed – Limited continued presence.


Mozambique:

Two years into the bloody ISIS-linked insurgency in Mozambique’s northern region of Cabo Delgado, the government reached an agreement with Wagner to combat the insurgents in exchange for a stake in the country’s natural resource industries. Wagner commenced combat operations in Mozambique in October 2019. After initial success Wagner hit a wall and sustained notable casualties, leading to Wagner deciding to pull out of the agreement. Wagner was later replaced by Dyck Advisory Group (DAG).

Activity status: Confirmed – No longer present.


Central African Republic:

In early 2018 reports highlighted that Russia had sent Wagner trainers to the CAR to assist in the government’s fight against rebel elements. Despite the fact that the Wagner operatives were brought in for training, SOCMINT evidence suggests that the contractors have been involved in combat and human rights abuses. Wagner group affiliates/fronts “Lobaye Invest” and “Sewa Security” have secured a stake in the country’s diamond and gold mining industries in exchange for kinetic services. 

Satellite imagery shows increased use of the group’s reported base of operations, Berengo Palace. Located southwest of the capital of Bangui, satellite imagery highlights increased traffic and what appears to be the use of an airstrip. 

GEOINT: Vagner PMC barracks near Bangui (Analysis by T-Intelligence; imagery courtesy of Planet Inc.)

Operating under the “SEWA Security” banner or with no markings at all, Wagner has also provided VIP protection to CAR President Touadera.

A member of the close protection unit for Central African republic President Touadera, composed by Russian private security company operatives from Sewa Security, are seen in Berengo on August 4, 2018.(Photo by FLORENT VERGNES / AFP via Getty Images)

To learn more about Wagner activities in CAR, read our early report on Wagner’s growing presence, and our analysis of Russia’s troop surge ahead of 2021 CAR presidential elections. 

Activity status: Confirmed – Growing presence.


Sudan:

Reports from 2017 indicate that Wagner mercenaries had been redeployed from Ukraine and Syria to support President Omar al-Bashir’s military with training and aid in suppressing demonstrations. Wagner-affiliated companies “Meroe Gold” and “M Invest” search for gold in the country with permission from al-Bashir’s government. Wagner’s presence in Sudan also reinforces Russia’s geopolitical position with a significant presence along the coast of the Red Sea and provides a supply line to the group’s operations in CAR. The Kremlin confirmed in 2019 that “Russian companies” are training the Sudanese army. 

Activity status: Confirmed – Continued presence.


Madagascar:

Wagner provided security detail to the political strategists hired by Prigozhin to assist the Madagascarian presidential election in 2018. Prigozhin received a contract to run an existing chromite mine in Madagascar in exchange for electoral assistance and interference. In April of the same year, reports suggest that these same Wagner contractors are being used to protect Prigozhin’s exploitation projects. 

Activity status: Confirmed – Very limited continued presence.


Venezuela:

Wagner contractors were brought in to assist embattled President Maduro in the face of political and social opposition in 2019. Reports suggest that Wagner contractors assisted in providing security for Maduro and his administration, as well as local Russian business interests. In 2019 there were reportedly 400 Russian mercenaries in Venezuela. 

Wagner’s tasks beyond simple security roles included recruiting informants and helping to train Maduro-backed militias. Wagner’s presence is heavily tied to Russian geopolitical and economic interests in the country. In 2020, Rosneft, the largest Russian oil company in Venezuela, sold all its assets to an unnamed company owned by the Russian government, further solidifying Moscow’s interests.

Activity status: Confirmed – Limited continued presence.


Nigeria:

Pre-Wagner affiliate Moran Security Group was known to be active in security roles in the shipping industry. Moran contractors were arrested at the port of Lagos in October 2012 for trafficking weapons. However, after Moscow’s involvement, the men were released.  

Moran Security Group created the Slavonic Corps to branch away from its traditional security roles, which later morphed into the first iteration of the Wagner Group. 

Recently reports have emerged that Prigozhin has been spotted in Lagos meeting with the Nigerian government and military officials, including with Nigerian Army Chief of Staff Farouk Yaha, in 2021. Prigozhin’s alleged meeting in Lagos coincides with a Gulfstream G550 flight to Nigera, namely P4-BAR – an aircraft associated with Wagner. 

The meetings are likely connected with the fight against ISIS-affiliate Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. 

Activity status: Possible – Discussions about bringing in the Wagner group appear to be underway, although Nigeria has made noted use of more traditional PMCs.


Chad:

Wagner’s well-documented activity in CAR and Libya has led to speculation that Russian mercenaries have also penetrated neighboring Chad. Further reports suggest that Wagner has assisted in arming and training rebel groups in northern Chad in 2016. Rebel incursions lead to the death of Chadian President Idriss Deby Into.

Wagner-linked activities in Chad will likely intensify due to the group’s heavy presence in Libya and Russia’s growing interest in Africa. 

Activity status: Likely – Contemporary reports of Wagner indirect influence coupled with Russian interest in the region suggest likely further activity in Chad.


Cuba:

Amid the political upheaval in Cuba, OSINT enthusiasts have tracked flights and a freighter previously associated with the Wagner group to the country. Given Moscow’s traditional relationship with Cuba, the state of upheaval, and Wagner’s noted presence in Venezuela, we may see Wagner’s arrival in the coming weeks or months.

Activity status: Likely – Though not currently active, Wagner personnel will likely arrive in the country.


Mali:

While there are unverified reports of Wagner operatives arriving in Mali to fight the ISIS-linked insurgency, recent reports highlight ongoing negotiations for Wagner involvement in Mali. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov further corroborates these reports by stating that Mali’s government has asked for “Russian PMC” assistance – a clear nod to Wagner. 

Activity status: Likely – discussions are ongoing.


United Arab Emirates 

The US intelligence community received reports in the summer of 2020 that provided links between the UAE and Wagner mercenaries active in Libya. As the UAE makes noted use of foreign fighters it is unsurprising to see the UAE turning to foreign mercenaries for foreign policy objectives. This provides an interesting precedent for both the UAE and Wagner.

Activity Status: Likely – Indirectly, evidence suggests the UAE is involved financially with the Wagner network.


Equatorial Guinea:

Sightings of Prigozhin-associated flights and multiple news reports indicate a nascent Wagner presence in the country. Furthermore, a report suggests that some 200 Wagner operatives protect Russian intelligence officials at the Pico Basile Island spy base.

Latest information indicate that Equatorial Guinea had planned to involve Wagner in providing security in the country, but failed to reach a deal as it also wanted possible assistance in a coup against the incumbent President. 

Activity status: Possible – Numerous unverified reports naming Guinea as a state where Wagner has influence. However, the lack of evidence or corroborating reports makes it unclear. 


Nicaragua:

A Russian training center exists in Nicaragua since 2013, hundreds of Russian military personnel were sent to the country for “joint military exercises,” “humanitarian and military operations training,” and “anti-drug trafficking.” However, reports suggest that these “instructors” played a significant role in cracking down on anti-government protests. 

The Russian military personnel are not thought to be affiliated directly with the Wagner group at this time. However, as Russia continues to rely on relationships with Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua for a geopolitical foothold in the region, the Kremlin might insert Wagner in the country, if not already. 

Activity status: Unconfirmed but possible – No explicit link identified, but numerous linkages have been highlighted. Nicaragua’s operational environment is optimal for Wagner activity.


Iraq:

No direct involvement of Wagner or Wagner affiliates has been noted in Iraq at this time. The Wagner group has previously been highly active in eastern Syria near key Iraq border crossings but there is no indication that Wagner undertook operations across the frontier. 

Other Russian PMCs, including the Antiterror-Orel Group and the Moran group, linked to Wagner’s emergence, had previously operated in Iraq.  

Activity status: Unlikely – Wagner might emerge in Iraq if the operational environment becomes more permissive due to a US/NATO withdrawal. 


Nagorno-Karabakh Region (NKR):

Chatter emerged from forums and social media accounts associated with Wagner contractors insinuating that the group was operating in the conflict, these claims were eventually disproven by Bellingcat. 

Displeased with Armenian PM Pashynian, Russia has been unusually detached from the flare-up in NKR, and only stepped in after the formal conclusion of hostilities in December 2020. If secretly deployed, it is possible that Wagner mercenaries only entered NKR as part of Russia’s “peacekeeping force.” 

Activity status: Unknown


Belarus:

In July 2020, before the country’s presidential election, Belarussian authorities arrested 33 Wagner-linked contractors on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks to destabilize the elections. Reports later came to light that the men were members of a PMC lured to Belarus through a joint operation by Ukrainian and US intelligence services intended to arrest members of the Wagner group active in the war in eastern Ukraine – former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko seemingly confirms the information. 

Activity status: Unlikely – Wagner is extremely unlikely to be active in Belarus, more likely to be in transit to Libya, Sudan, CAR or elsewhere.


Tanzania:

Russia and Tanzania signed an agreement in 2016 for joint military training at Russian facilities. While Wagner often fills these roles for the Kremlin, no evidence suggests they are active in Tanzania at this time. Previous activity along Tanzania’s southern border with Mozambique is not thought to have spilled over into the country.

Activity Status: Unlikely – Russian military activity does not always translate to Wagner presence, especially when overt agreements are made between the state. 


South Africa:

There is no evidence to suggest a Wagner presence in South Africa; however Prigozhin-linked political strategists have assisted parties involved in the 2019 presidential election. 

Activity status: Unlikely –The presence of numerous South African-based PMCs means mercenary activity is unlikely. Though Prigozhin-linked political strategists are very likely to maintain a presence.


Inconclusive Reports of Wagner Activity:

The following highlights inconclusive reports of Wagner activity, due to lack of evidence or corroborating reports.

  • Eswatini: Unverified reports suggest Wagner maintains a presence in the country and has trained Ewatini’s troops on new weapons systems.
  • Rwanda: Rwandan troops fought against Rebels in  CAR as part of a bilateral agreement alongside Wagner elements.
  • Yemen: Rumors and social media reports indicate that a “Russian PMC” is active in the Yemeni Civil War. However, there is no credible report naming Wagner. Wagner-trained Sudanese militias have, however, deployed and fought in Yemen. 
  • Zimbabwe: Nondescript reports have claimed that Wagner maintains an office in the country. Additionally, there have been claims that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s 2018 election campaign was assisted by Russian political advisors associated with Wagner.

END NOTE: This tracker will be periodically updated as new open-source information emerge relating to Wagner activity. 

by Matt Sutherland 

This assessment was made using Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) techniques and resources. Visit Knowmad OSINT to learn more about our online OSINT training. 

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IS-K Never Left

Yesterday’s deadly suicide attacks at Kabul airport serve as a grim reminder that “Islamic State-Khorasan province” (IS-K) is still strong, despite the group losing its physical territory in eastern Afghanistan. …

Yesterday’s deadly suicide attacks at Kabul airport serve as a grim reminder that “Islamic State-Khorasan province” (IS-K) is still strong, despite the group losing its physical territory in eastern Afghanistan. 

TWIN BOMBINGS NEAR KABUL AIRPORT

Over 70 civilians and at least 12 U.S. service members died in the twin suicide bombing that rocked Abbey gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul (KBL) and the nearby Baron hotel on Thursday (26 August 2021). Taliban fighters were reportedly also wounded in the attack. 

Map showing Abbey gate and Baron hotel via Maxar Technologies (basemap) and NPR (annotations)

The first explosion took place at the “Abbey gate,” the airport’s southeast entrance, where thousands of Afghans gather daily to be processed for evacuations. Following the blast, a “number” of IS-K gunmen opened fire on civilian and military forces at Abbey gate, according to the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Videos that surfaced online show the grim aftermath of the attack, with dozens of wounded or killed civilians floating in the nearby drainage ditch. 

Very high resolution imagery shows crowds of civilians gathered at Abbey gate (source: Maxar Technologies)

The second attack took place near Baron hotel, which is just a few meters from Abbey gate. This attack was also conducted through a person-borne improvised explosive device (PBIEV), according to CENTCOM. Baron Hotel served as an evacuee processing center and was therefore frequented by foreign citizens, Afghans seeking extraction, and international military staff, mainly British. 

 

ISIS-K claimed the attack through the group’s media wing Amaq Agency and said that one of its fighters detonated a suicide vest only five meters away from U.S. Marines posted at Abbey gate. The group has not claimed responsibility for the second attack near Baron hotel, although there is no doubt that IS-K is behind it too.  

IS-K: THE EXPECTED (AND IMMINENT) THREAT

On the day of the attack, the United States Department of State warned Americans remaining in Afghanistan to avoid Kabul airport and Americans at the airport to leave the site immediately. The intelligence was solid and indicated an imminent threat. 

For days, the U.S. intelligence community warned that IS-K is likely to take advantage of the chaos in Kabul and launch mass-casualty attacks on the crowds of Afghans and U.S. soldiers at Hamid Karzai International Airport. The looming IS-K threat was a significant factor for President Biden to decide against extending the evacuations beyond August 31st.

The threat assessment did not come as a surprise for seasoned analysts, given the security vacuum resulting from the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul and the chaotic international military withdrawal. Mass-casualty attacks have been ISIS-K signature modus operandi in Afghanistan and Pakistan since the offshoot emerged in 2015-2016. The situation in Kabul presented an opportunity for the group to strike the U.S., rival the Taliban, and regain media attention. 

For IS-K, Thursday’s twin bombings are also a message to Afghanistan’s new overlords (and the group’s old rivals), the Taliban. As the U.S. leaves the country, Afghanistan is up for grabs for all militant jihadi groups that want to establish sanctuaries, attract followers, and expand. 

IS-K IN AFGHANISTAN’S THREAT LANDSCAPE

IS-K has been part of Afghanistan’s security landscape for at least six years and was responsible for some of the most gruesome attacks against civilians in South Asia, including a mass casualty attack at a maternity ward in Kabul that killed over 20 doctors, nurses, mothers, and newborn babies in 2020.

IS-K fighters in Kunar province sometime in 2017 (screenshot of Amaq Agency video via Long War Journal)

Established by disenfranchised Pakistani Taliban, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) militants, and foreign fighters, IS-K seeks to establish an Islamic State in Central Asia (including, but not limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan), which would act as a province of the broader global caliphate once envisioned by IS “central” in Syria and Iraq. 

IS-K built its territorial foothold in the Pakistani Taliban’s and IMU’s areas of influence. The group never succeeded in capturing urban centers but did secure sanctuaries in several key valleys in the N2KL area (Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kunar, and Laghman provinces) and a few Uzbek villages in Jowjzan province.

IS-K presence in N2KL area (source: Telegraph)

Joint US-Afghan operations and a separate Taliban offensive rooted IS-K out of its safe havens in 2019-2020 – read more about that here. The Taliban can be credited with defeating IS-K in southern Nangarhar province following a series of battles described by US CENTCOM commander as a “bloody mess.” However, the group retained sleeper cells across the country, including Kabul, Jalalabad, and Herat, periodically conducting terrorist attacks. 

In the past year, IS-K saw an unexpected influx of recruits from the Afghan Taliban. Many Taliban fighters, especially those affiliated with the hardline Haqqani network, condemned the Doha peace process, slamming it as a deviation from Jihad in favor of negotiating with the enemy. 

IS-K’s message still resonates with many diehard Taliban that are unhappy with the group’s decision to allow the safe evacuation of international forces, their citizens, and Afghan allies out of Kabul. IS-K has been inciting followers and sympathizers to attack the evacuation. 

OUTLOOK

IS-K will continue to be a favorable alternative for jihadists disgruntled with the Taliban’s “moderate extremism” showcased to convince the international community that they have changed. IS-K will also continue to attract hardcore militant Salafists with an appetite for violence against the country’s Shia and other non-Sunni communities and a wish for the caliphate to spread beyond Afghanistan’s border. 

With less than four days left before the evacuation’s “z-day,” there is no reason to believe that IS-K will cease to attack. IS-K will likely try to mount new attacks against international forces and civilians at the airport, and the Taliban. As a result, international governments will probably pull the plug prematurely on their evac missions, as many countries have already formally announced an end to all airlift operations out of Kabul. 

The already chaotic withdrawal is slowly ending in a bloody disaster. 

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Pride of Belarus: Baranovichi 61st Fighter Air Base [GEOINT]

The 61st Fighter Air Base in Baranovichi is Belarus’ most westwardly and strategic military airfield. Using open-source GEOINT we identified an array of fighter jets and air defense capabilities at…

The 61st Fighter Air Base in Baranovichi is Belarus’ most westwardly and strategic military airfield. Using open-source GEOINT we identified an array of fighter jets and air defense capabilities at Baranovichi air base (AB) that helped us understand the intentions and capabilities of the Belarusian Air Force and Air Defence Forces (BAFADF). Baranovichi AB is also central to Belarusian-Russian military cooperation and bears significance to Lukashenko’s grip on power, as the recent hijacking of flight FR4879 showed. 


BARANOVICHI AIR BASE’S STRATEGIC POSITION AND ROLE: “Мы небо мирное храним (We keep the sky peaceful):”

Two kilometers south of Baranovichi, a city in the Brest region, lies Baranovichi air base (AB). Built by the Soviets in the 1940s, Baranovichi AB was expanded significantly throughout the Cold War to house large numbers of fighter jets and bombers. However, the airfield has remained relatively unchanged since the newly independent Republic of Belarus assumed control in 1991. Only minor renovations and hardware upgrades took place over the last ten years. 

The Belarusian Air Force and Air Defence Forces’ (BAFADF) designation for Baranovichi airfield is the 61st Fighter AB. While the BAFADF uses the base for predominantly deploying fighter jets, guarded by surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, Baranovichi AB offers significant aircraft repair capabilities through the 558th Aircraft Repair Plant. The air base is currently under the command of Belarusian Colonel Yuri Pyzhik, according to InformNapalm. 

GEOINT: Overview of Baranovichi AB based on Maxar Technologies imagery from 4 October 2020.

In recent years the Lukashenko regime has been more vocal in pushing the narrative of Western aggression against Belarus. The country’s most recent military policy statement, the Defence Plan for 2020-2024, even underscores the prevention of external military aggression against Belarus. With Lukashenko calling for Russia to deploy planes to Belarus, the 61st Fighter Air Base will be of growing interest to NATO. 

Nearly 140km from NATO member Poland (and 110 km from Lithuania), Baranovichi AB is on similar longitude lines as Kaliningrad exclave – Russia’s westernmost territory. The combination of Baranovichi and Kaliningrad provides a two-pronged forward front from where Belarus and its ally, Russia, could launch joint airstrikes deep into the Europan theater in case of conflict with NATO. 

Baranovichi AB and Russia’s Kaliningrad oblast relative to Europe

Baranovichi AB became famous due to the recent hijacking of Riyan Air flight FR4879 and the subsequent apprehension of a journalist in late May 2021. The Belarussian MiG-29 that shadowed the Riyan Air flight and forcefully diverted it to Minsk scrambled from Baranovichi AB. Besides external posturing, it is clear that the Lukashenko regime will not hesitate to use the BAFADF – aircraft and air bases – for domestic state control.

Given the importance of the 61st Fighter Air Base, an assessment of the base is vital in understanding Belorusian military capabilities. 

FIGHTER CAPABILITIES

Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) analysis of aircraft and other hardware in Baranovichi AB is based on Maxar Technologies imagery from 2020 accessed via Google Earth Pro. 

Sukhoi SU-30SMs

The BAFADF’s most advanced jet identified at the 61st fighter air base, and in its entire fighter fleet, is the Sukhoi SU-30SM (AFIC/NATO reporting name: Flanker-C). This significantly upgraded variant of the SU-30 offers enhanced radar, weapons capabilities, and communication systems. Fitted with modern N011M Bars radar equipment with a significant detection range of 400km and similarly offering in-air radar jamming capabilities, they are a formidable foe to NATO forces. They are a well-rounded jet suited to both air-to-air combat as well as air-to-surface strikes. Moreover, their range of 1,500km and 3.5hr refuel time poses a threat deep into NATO territory. 

Two pairs of Su-30SMs and MiG-29s in “parking area 3”

Two new navy and blue camouflage SU-30SMs are visible on the west side of the complex. Belarus has ordered a dozen of these advanced fighter jets from Russia.  Four Su-30SMs are currently in service with the BAFADF with eight to be delivered in the near future. 

MiG-29s

The MiG-29 (Fulcrum) comprises the backbone of the BAFADF’s fighter jet deployment. The MiG-29s maneuverability and predominantly air defensive capabilities emphasize 61st Fighter Air Base’s strategic defensive position in western Belarus. Unsurprisingly, the MiG-29 was Colonel Pyzhik’s and Lukashenko’s fighter jet of choice to scramble and intercept flight FR4978 in May 2021. 

Sukhoi SU-24Ms

Four decommissioned Sukhoi SU-24Ms (NATO reporting name: Fencer) sit in the western parking area. These provide air to surface attack capabilities firing a range of missiles which include the powerful Kh-29. 

“Parking Area 1” hosts an assortment of aircraft including Su-27s, Su-24s and MiG-29s

Belarus retired the SU-24Ms, but as Bellingcat reported in 2015, they are likely to be upgraded or sold. Due to their retirement, the Baranovichi Air Base lacks powerful air to surface missile capabilities and is primarily a fighter base.    

Sukhoi SU-27s

Multiple Sukhoi SU-27s (NATO reporting name: Flanker) can be identified in the 61st Fighter Air Base, despite their being retired in 2013 due to high operational costs. It can be estimated that these fighter jets will be upgraded and sold to other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) through the 558th Aircraft Repair Plant (558th ARP) situated just north of the 61st Fighter Air Base. 

Su-27s at “parking area 2”

558th Aircraft Repair Factory  

The 558th ARP sits north of the airstrip, connected to the broader airfield complex. The plant offers a wide spectrum of services from repairs to the complete overhauling and modernisation of a range of aircraft from Sukhoi’s SU-22s and SU-30s to attack helicopters and AN-2 aircraft.

photo credits: 558th Aircraft Repair Factory

The 558th ARP is critical for the maintenance and repair of Belarusian military aircraft. The plant is also of significant international importance in promoting relations with its CIS allies and has provided numerous overhauls to the air forces of Angola to Syria and Russia, highlighting the international scope of the airbase. Its status of providing quality-assured overhauls develops not just its military reputation but also its technical reputation abroad. 

AIR DEFENCE CAPABILITIES

GEOINT suggests that Baranovichi AB mainly hosts early warning radars and short-range SAM systems. Several S-300 systems deployed elsewhere in Belarus provide overlapping, long-range coverage of Baranovichi AB. 

Early Warning Radars 

Multiple radar installations are deployed across the base, including the mobile, 3-D, jamming-proof Protivnik-GE. This radar provides telemetry for fighter jets and can network with nearby SAM systems and other integrated air defense (IADS) assets.  

Protivnik-GE radar at Baranovichi AB

The Belarusian-made Vostok-D 2-D early warning radar system, present on the base, provides long-range detection capabilities. Operating in the very-high frequency (VHF) band, Vostok-D can theoretically detect low observable aircraft.

Vostok-D radar at Baranovichi AB, easily identifiable thanks to the crisp shadow

A Sopka-2 air route surveillance can also identified at Baranovichi AB.

Sopka-2 radar at Baranovichi AB (special thanks to Rochan Consulting for helping us identify the radar)

Multiple automated control systems augment and integrate the aforementioned radars, assuring coordination between the air defense assets. 

Surface to Air Missile (SAM) Capabilities

A SAM storage facility is visible north of the airfield. On the apron adjacent to the facility, there is a Belarusian Buk-M3B3K air defence system (SA-17 Grizzly). We can identify the Buk’s Transporter Erector Launcher and Radar (TELAR) by its protruding radar. The Buk-M3B3K offers a maximum range and altitude of fire of 70km and 25km, respectively.     

Buk-M3B3K SAM systems on display near Baranovichi AB

A Russian official has stated that Russia looks to strengthen Belarus’ SAM defence systems through upgrading the S-300 systems and supplying Belarus with one of the most advanced air defence systems in production, the S-400. Such a move will embolden defences against perceived NATO build-up and demonstrate increased defensive intentions.

If transferred successfully, the S-400 system is likely to be deployed near Baranovichi. 

BARANOVICHI AB IN BELARUSIAN-RUSSIAN RELATIONS

Belarus’ neutrality stated in its 1995 military doctrine has long but dissipated as its external security has become increasingly dependent on Russia and The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Belarus and Russia have integrated their air defence networks while the BAFADF trains in Russian Air Force training centers. 

As Lukashenko’s regime further isolates itself from the rest of Europe, it has increasingly come into Russia’s fold. Political and domestic instability has put the nation in a similar position as Ukraine in 2014, yet Lukashenko’s grip on power remains. The 61st Fighter Air Base will become a shared strategic asset between Belarus and Russia, particularly as military cooperation intensifies. 

Joint combat training between Belarus and Russia is of top priority to their bilateral security cooperation. In 2021, there has been a record number of joint military exercises. With this year’s Zapad exercise, a mainstay of the Russian-Belarussian defence partnership, already underway, Russian troops have begun arriving in Belarus

Given the scale of these exercises and the exacerbated political context of the last four years, Russia may keep troops and aircraft permanently on Belarussian soil in an effort to provide a new front in the war with Ukraine and increase pressure on Europe. 

Although analysts highlight these concerns frequently, the Kremlin realizes the precarious position Lukashenko finds himself in and may exploit Berlarus’ ongoing political instability to its advantage.


by Adam Campbell

This assessment was made using Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) techniques and resources. Visit Knowmad OSINT to learn more about our online OSINT training. 

Update 25 August 2021 – re-assessment of radar dome and correctly identification as Sopka-2; correction of number of Su-30SMs fighters in Belarus’ inventory and delivery plan (thanks to Rochan Consulting for identifying and and helping us to solve the issues). 

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NATO Special Operators Now Exfiltrate People Directly from Kabul

Recently emerged open-source information suggests that special operations forces (SOFs) of several NATO members are now evacuating people stranded in Taliban-controlled Kabul.  STUCK IN KABUL Thousands of NATO citizens and…

Recently emerged open-source information suggests that special operations forces (SOFs) of several NATO members are now evacuating people stranded in Taliban-controlled Kabul. 

STUCK IN KABUL

Thousands of NATO citizens and Afghan associate staff are stuck in Kabul after the Taliban have established checkpoints at Hamid Karzai International Airport (KBL), the epicenter of international evacuations. Airport security – mainly consisting of international military forces – is also slow and cautious to let people in after the August 17 mayhem when thousands of Afghans overran the airport, occupying the runways and disrupting flights for hours – read our situation report here.

According to local reports, the Taliban are already going door to door, searching for Afghans that have worked with the now-defunct Afghan government or foreign forces. The Taliban have executed, tortured, and imprisoned collaborators in other cities they control, and are likely doing the same in Kabul, especially as international media attention shifts away. Foreign citizens are also in danger, and there is no guarantee that the Taliban will continue “to play nice.” 

Overview of Kabul and Hamid Karzai International Airport

DARING RAIDS

The British Special Air Service (SAS) is conducting raids in Kabul to evacuate British citizens and Afghans at risk, according to the Mirror. SAS operators are joined by Afghan translators and American special mission units, according to the same source. The rescue mission retrieved around 200 people from and around Kabul. 

French SOFs are reportedly also conducting their own operations to locate and extract French citizens and associated staff from Kabul. French President Emmanual Macron announced on Twitter that around 200 French and allied Afghans were evacuated and thanked French service members and diplomatic staff for organizing these “sensitive operations.” Two French cargo planes – one A400M and one C-130 – service the air bridge between KBL and the French military base in the UAE. 

Spain is another NATO member that is sending forces into Kabul to exfiltrate vulnerable persons. The Spanish press has identified the Grupo Especial de Operaciones (GEO/ English: Special Operations Group) of the National Police as spearheading the search & rescue efforts. GEO extracted 53 Afghan collaborators on Wednesday alone, as per an El Pais report. 

Spanish GEO escort civilians at Kabul airport (source: El Pais)

Germany will soon start exfiltrating its citizens and vulnerable associated Afghans from Kabul city, the German ministry of defense announced on Twitter. Two H-145 helicopters will arrive today at KBL and will link up with approximately 40 German SOFs from the Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK). The KSK contingent inserted aboard the first German evacuation flight on August 17. 

The United States is missing from the list as there are no concrete reports or evidence suggesting otherwise. In fact, U.S. Secretary of Defense (ret.) Gen. Lloyd Austin said on 19 August that he “does not currently have the capability to go out and extend operations into Kabul.” Instead, Secretary Austin said that the U.S. is coordinating with the Taliban to let U.S. citizens through, although more de-confliction is needed. 

Secretary Austin’s statement is probably political, and not based on military facts. It is unlikely that special mission units like Delta Force or DEVGRU are not deployed at KBL, or that specialized U.S. Army or Marines formation are not up to the task. Alternatively, there is a slight chance that U.S. search & rescue operations in Kabul are actually taking place, but their activity is kept secret or outsourced to contractors for reasons of operations security and political deniability. 

Other countries, including non-NATO, are likely conducting similar raids, but information is sparse given the sensitive nature of these operations. Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, and others, have also sent SOFs to help coordinate the evacuation at KBL, but there is no indication that they are traveling into downtown Kabul to retrieve their citizens and allies. 

OVER 10K TROOPS GUARD KBL

Currently, there are around 10,000 international military forces at KBL. At least 7,000 of them are U.S. forces (mainly from the 82nd Airborne Division), nearly 1,000 British, and several hundred French. Many other countries have also deployed dozens of troops to provide site security. 

International evacuations continue at a steady pace since August 17. With thousands of people still stranded outside of KBL and unable to reach the airport, the evacuation will likely last at least another week with no guarantee that all vulnerable people will make it out. 


Cover photo: A U.S. Marine Corps MV-22B Osprey lands to extract Marines assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion while conducting night raid operations training on Camp Pendleton, Calif., Nov. 26, 2013. The live-fire training prepared the Marines for their upcoming assignment as the Maritime Raid Force for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alejandro Pena, 1st Marine Division Combat Camera/Released)

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Evacuations Amid Chaos at Kabul Airport (Situation Report)

After capturing the majority of provincial capitals, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital Kabul on Sunday (15 August 2021).  Despite the speed of their advance over the past weeks, most…

After capturing the majority of provincial capitals, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital Kabul on Sunday (15 August 2021).  Despite the speed of their advance over the past weeks, most observers did not expect the Taliban to reach Kabul this quickly. 

The Taliban seized the Afghan Presidential Palace on Sunday afternoon without firing a shot, throwing Kabul into chaos. International diplomatic missions and Afghan nationals have since scrambled to reach Hamid Karzai International Airport (KBL) – the sole gateway for people trying to flee the country. KBL has since become the epicenter of international evacuations.

CHAOS ENGULFS KABUL AIRPORT

Initially, commercial and military flights evacuated embassy staff and Afghan citizens at a steady pace. NATO military forces, especially 7,000 US troops that President Biden ordered back into Afghanistan, are guarding the evacuation. Nearly 100 aircraft have facilitated the evacuation so far, including American C-17s and C-130s, according to Twitter user @DefenceGeek’s flight tracking. 

Aerial tankers such as KC-135s have been operating non-stop over the Gulf of Oman and Afghanistan to refuel various planes airlifting people out of Kabul, as flight tracking data shows. 

US and British flights on route to Kabul on 15 August (screenshot from FlightRadar24)

Over the last 24 hours, the situation at the airport has dramatically deteriorated. Social media content shows people climbing over walls to reach the aprons and flocking the runway in a desperate attempt to board departing flights. 

At least three persons fell to their death after they clung to the landing gear of an aircraft that took off from KBL. Several other civilians were injured in the stampede that ensued on the runway. 

[Disclaimer: some viewers might find the footage troubling] 


Very high resolution satellite imagery released by Maxar Technologies shows in clear detail the chaos that has engulfed KBL, with crowds of Afghans blocking runways and aprons, and Kabul. 

The desperation of Kabul residents shows that they would rather risk their lives fleeing Afghanistan than live under Taliban rule.

EVACUATIONS SUSPENDED – MONDAY

On Monday afternoon, the U.S. military took command of Air Traffic Control (ATC) at KBL and closed the airspace for civilian airlines to prioritize military flights. As a result, many commercial aircraft inbound for KBL had to be rerouted to alternate airports or return to their place of origin. 

On Monday evening, ATC grounded all flights at KBL after the U.S. military lost control of the airport. With thousands of Afghans occupying the runways, evacuations had effectively stopped for several hours on Monday. With flight operations interrupted, many late-comers – namely European states – struggled to exfiltrate their people and associated staff.

For example, German military aircraft only left for Afghanistan on Monday morning and completely missed the window to land at KBL. Following a brief layover in Baku, the two German A400 planes resumed their flight to Kabul. After circling for several hours, waiting for an opportunity to land, one A400 touched down on Monday night. The other plane had to divert to a “secure third country” (likely Uzbekistan) to refuel. Only seven people were evacuated by the German aircraft. 

In contrast, the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and others have already carried out successful rescue missions.

Example of a US Air Force (USAF) evacuation mission spotted on FlightRadar24 on August 16

One shocking report claims that one U.S. C-17 cargo aircraft, designed for 134 paratroopers, has evacuated around 640 people – mostly associated Afghan nations that applied for the Special Immigration Visa (SIV). In total, the U.S. has evacuated 2,000 SIV a applicants from Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense. 

Photo from the inside of Reach 871, the US Air Force C-17 that hauled over 600 people to Qatar

EVACUATIONS RESUME – TUESDAY

ATC has resumed flights at KBL on Tuesday morning after the runway was cleared. Evacuation of several diplomats and civilians already took place, but the situation remains volatile. It is unclear how long the US troops facilitating the evacuation will be able to control the airport, now that the Taliban is solidifying their control on Kabul. 

Considering the poor planning, slow reaction of many European governments and unpredictable security situation at KBL, it is likely that many Afghan nationals (associated staff, such as translators, security staff, drivers, etc.) that assisted international forces will be left behind.  The future of the associated staff is looking stark as they may face persecution from the Taliban. According to social media reports from journalists in Kabul, the Taliban are already searching for Afghans that have worked with Western governments or NGOs. Many of them report that they feel abandoned by the countries that they have supported for many years.

BACK TO THE “ISLAMIC EMIRATE OF AFGHANISTAN”

Kabul residents are afraid that the Taliban will re-impose Sharia law, as they did in the 1990s, with girls and women being forbidden to go to school or work. Despite assurances to the press that they have changed, the Taliban will undoubtedly reinstall their reign of terror and revoke fundamental human rights. 

The Taliban have not attacked or interfered with the evacuations at KBL, suggesting that there is at least an informal non aggression pact in place. However, the Taliban have formed a corridor around the airport and set up multiple checkpoints throughout Kabul including on the roads leading to KBL. 

We will continue to monitor KBL and compile updates as the situation develops.


by Emma Bicknese

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Hot Skies Over the Taiwan Strait: The New Normal of Chinese Incursions

On 15 June 2021, the Taiwan Ministry of National Defence (MND) reported that 28 aircraft from the People’s Liberation Army-Air Force (PLAAF) entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) –…

On 15 June 2021, the Taiwan Ministry of National Defence (MND) reported that 28 aircraft from the People’s Liberation Army-Air Force (PLAAF) entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) – the largest incursion ever recorded! The air raid came just days after the G7 summit, where leaders strongly condemned China’s policies vis-a-vis the Uyghur population, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. This latest incident was not a war rehearsal but a clear signal of a more assertive Beijing. As China continues to rise, it casts a darker shadow over the Taiwan Strait. 


LARGEST INCURSION YET

The June 15th aerial incursion marked the beginning of a new cycle of escalation and featured a record number of aircraft.

 

The PLAAF intruder formation consisted of fourteen J-16 and six J-11 fighter jets, four H-6 bombers, two KJ-500 early warning aircraft, and two Y-8 series aircraft (including one anti-submarine warfare variant). Most aircraft flew near the Pratas Islands in the southwest corner of Taiwan’s ADIZ. 

Flight paths of PLAAF aircraft, June 15, 2021 via Taiwan MoND

Ten aircraft, including the bombers, flew around the southern portion of the ADIZ near the coast of Taiwan. Taiwan issued radio warnings, scrambled aircraft, and deployed air defense missile systems in response, according to the MND.

NEW NORMAL FOR TAIWAN

While the PLAA has regularly conducted flights over the Taiwan Strait, their scope is gradually increasing. 

Ninety (90) percent of PLAA sorties into Taiwan’s ADIZ in the past two years (when MND started to publish data on them) involved less than four aircraft. Double-digit aircraft intrusions remain extremely rare. Only 3.5% of PLAA sorties involved 15+ aircraft. However, the latest incident signals that this might become the norm. 

The routine but expansive nature of the PLAA’s incursions into the Taiwanese ADIZ is worrisome. 

PLAA INCURSIONS APPEAR TO BE CHINA’S REACTION TO INTERNATIONAL CRITICISM 

When large-scale PLAA intrusions occur, they often coincide with external factors such as international criticism of China, a political overture to Taipei, or U.S. operations in the region. 

Days before the June 15th incursion, G7 leaders made strong statements concerning China and Taiwan, calling for a peaceful resolution between Beijing and Taipei. Taiwan welcomed the declarations from the G7 members, asserting their intention to further engage with the international community. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen has affirmed her commitment to separating Taipei from China’s grasp, further aggravating Beijing. These statements likely pushed Beijing to greenlight the June 15th operation. 

Other PLAA raids served to deter U.S. operations in the region, often coinciding with U.S. Navy’s sails through the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. A majority of PLAA sorties that cross the median line between Taiwan and China involve at least one KQ-200 maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, indicating that many of the PLAA’s aerial formations monitor foreign warship and submarine activity in the area. 

KQ-200 aircraft at Chinese air-naval station in South China Sea via ©ImageSatIntl

INVASION UNLIKELY, POSTURING – YES

Given China’s increasingly aggressive behavior, some observers view a war in Taiwan as inevitable. However, the high frequency and intensity of Chinese forays into the Taiwanese ADIZ is not necessarily a precursor to outright invasion. Rather, the new quality of incursions marks an intensification of Beijing’s squeeze over the island and geopolitical posturing vis-a-vis Washington. 

Beijing is unlikely to seize Taiwan by force but will continue its political and economic pressure campaign. Washington, too, will continue its grey-area policy of accepting a “one China” officially but continuing to engage with Taiwan. Neither side wishes to risk outright war over Taiwan.

TAIWAN MUST BE READY FOR ANYTHING

As Beijing and Washington continue to compare military stature across the strait, Taiwan remains the hottest flashpoint of the Sino-American rivalry, something Taipei is acutely aware of as it develops military capabilities. 

Regardless of the low likelihood of war, Taiwan must take Chinese threats seriously. Taiwan recently declared initial combat capability of newly upgraded F-16V fighter jets, ready to intercept potential threats, combined with a freshly signed contract totaling $1.75 Billion for Lockheed Martin M142 HIMARS, and Boeing Harpoon Coastal Defence Systems.


by Matt Sutherland 

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Operation Ditroite: The HMS Defender Incident Explained

Last week, the Black Sea became the latest theatre upon which tensions flared between the United Kingdom and Russia. On June 23, the British Royal Navy’s Type-45 HMS Defender entered…

Last week, the Black Sea became the latest theatre upon which tensions flared between the United Kingdom and Russia. On June 23, the British Royal Navy’s Type-45 HMS Defender entered contested waters off the Crimean Peninsula while sailing from Odessa (Ukraine) to Batumi (Georgia). As expected, Russia reacted aggressively, sending fighter jets and warships to taunt the Defender

Unpicking these events proved difficult at first, given inconsistent reports from both the Russian and British militaries. However, nearly one week on, the fog of uncertainty has somewhat lifted, and the discovery of classified Ministry of Defence (MoD) documents at a bus stop in Kent (England) on June 27 has established a broader picture. The incident is part of a geopolitical contest in the region that has simmered for weeks.  


Russia opened with a bang. On June 23, Russian media reported that the HMS Defender had entered Russian-controlled waters, and Russian forces had subsequently fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the destroyer’s pathway. Initially, many media outlets speculated that Russia was making baseless accusations and blowing events out of proportion.   

The MoD downplayed the severity of the events. According to the MoD, the HMS Defender was “conducting innocent passage” and was not the target of Russia’s warning shots. The MoD’s rather bland coverage of events was at odds with reports from BBC Defence correspondent Johnathan Beale, who was on the Defender during the incident. According to Beale, the crew of the Defender took battle stations as Russian warships shadowed the British vessel and issued threats. BBC audio provides evidence that jets could clearly be heard overhead. Beale also mentions artillery shots from afar.

The HMS Defender entered Russian-claimed waters by two nautical miles and was prepared for some degree of confrontation. However, the Royal Navy transited the area using an internationally recognized shipping lane. The international community does not recognize Russia’s claim over Crimea or the adjacent waters. De jure, Crimean waters still belong to Ukraine. 

The incident was a tester for how Russia would react to a NATO sail through. The MoD’s classified documents left behind a bus stop in Kent (England) corroborate this assessment. The papers highlight route options for the HMS Defender and estimate Russian reactions to the proposed routes. The timing of the (literal) unearthing of these documents in the face of Russian rhetoric points to a likely composed leak to set out the motivations behind the Defender’s movements. Without officially setting the record straight, the MoD has proven a point.

Classified map of shows HMS Defender’s route options from Odessa to Batumi (source: BBC News)

The HMS Defender’s controversial voyage aimed to strengthen the British-Ukrainian alliance. In plotting a course through what it, and most of the world, deems internationally recognized Ukrainian waters, London rejects Russia’s claims over Crimea. Incidentally, on the day of the skirmish, the UK issued a press release stating that the UK and Ukraine have signed an accord to boost Ukrainian naval capabilities. Part of the agreement is the commitment to building a naval base in the Black Sea, which will serve as the primary base for Ukraine’s fleet.

Moscow was probably aware of the Defender’s plans to sail through Russian-claimed waters and responded with a disinformation campaign. Before the incident, on June 18, Russia falsified the tracking data of the Defender and another NATO warship. The ‘spoofed’ automatic identification system (AIS) data put the ships within two nautical miles of Sevastopol. However, port camera footage confirmed that both warships were still docked in Odessa. 

 

Russia pulled an identical move on another ship, the USS Ross, on June 29. Spoofed AIS data falsely showed that the USS Ross was nearing Crimea, when in fact, the American vessel was also still ported in Odessa. 

The incident was a preamble to the Sea Breeze 21 multinational exercise this week.  Led by the US and Ukraine and encompassing 30 other states, this year’s edition is the largest in the history of Sea Breeze. Not long after Sea Breeze 21 kicked off, the Netherlands’ MoD reported that Russian jets had harassed the Dutch HNLMS Evertsen frigate in international waters. Russia will very likely continue to rattle the sabers in protest of the multinational drill. 

Further escalations between the UK and Russia in the Black Sea have to be expected. British-Russian relations are at a low due to the Novichok poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury in 2018. As the UK is redefining its role in the post-Brexit world, London is eager to project itself as a solid military force supporting Ukraine. Furthermore, the recent events underscore that the UK is willing to dabble in the evolving ‘grey zone’ of information warfareBy downplaying the events of June 23 and then setting the record straight through the “loss” of classified documents, London plays fast and loose with the truth akin to, but not as versed as the dis/information warriors in Moscow. 


by Adam Campbell 

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Foxhounds Know How to Killjoy: Russian MiG-31s Armed with Kinzhal Missiles Arrive in Syria

Six years after the large-scale operational debut in Syria, Russia continues to pour advanced capabilities and expand its military infrastructure in the war-torn country. Last week, Russia deployed MiG-31K interceptors,…

Six years after the large-scale operational debut in Syria, Russia continues to pour advanced capabilities and expand its military infrastructure in the war-torn country. Last week, Russia deployed MiG-31K interceptors, Tu-22M3 bombers, and other aircraft for a combined exercise with the Russian Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean. While Russia’s naval-air exercise coincides with British carrier operations in the region, the main question is whether the MiG-31s and Tu-22M3 bombers will make Syria their second home.


FOXHOUNDS KNOW HOW TO KILLJOY

On 25 June 2021, the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) deployed two MiG-31 supersonic interceptors (AFIC/NATO Reporting name: Foxhound) to Khmeimim air base, Syria. As announced by Russian media, the two MiG-31 are of the “K” variant. 

 

MiG-31Ks are modified to carry the gargantuan Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM). One video released by the Russian Defense Ministry shows a MiG-31K taking off from Khmeimim AB armed with a Kinzhal on its centerline pylon, confirming the missile’s presence in Syria. 

Screengrab from Zvezda TV video showing Russian MiG-31K taking off from khmeimim AB armed with Kinzhal missile (Killjoy)

The Kinzhal ALBM missile (Killjoy*) is one of the six “invincible” strategic weapons Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled in 2018. Russian officials allege that the Kinzhal can sustain speeds over Mach 10 and strike targets 1,200 km away. 

For both the MiG-31s and Kinzhal missiles, the trip to Syria marks their first foreign deployment. 

BACKFIRES ARE BACK

Three Tu-22M3 (Backfire-C) long-range bombers, a Tu-142MK (Bear-F), and an Il-38 (May) maritime patrol and submarine-hunting aircraft have joined the pair of MiG-31s in Syria. 

The Tu-22M3 bombers first appeared a month ago and are now on their second visit to Latakia. Videos released by Zvezda TV show the Backfire bombers taxiing on the runway armed with Kh-22 anti-ship cruise missiles (AS-4 Kitchen). The anti-ship ordnance is in line with the supposed purpose of this deployment, the upcoming Russian air-naval drills in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

AIR-NAVAL EXERCISES UNDERWAY

Two frigates (Admiral Essen and Admiral Makarov), two submarines (Stary Oskol and Rostov-on-Don), and the Moskva missile cruiser will also partake in the joint air-naval exercise off the Syrian coast. Russian officials describe the drills as “combat training tasks to ensure the security of the Khmeimim airbase and the logistics center of the Russian Navy Tartus.” 

 

Russian NOTAMs relative to HMS Queen Elizabeth in the East Med (T-Intelligence map using data from ICAO)

Russia’s exercise occurs amid the entrance of the Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group in the Eastern Mediterranean. HMS Queen Elizabeth is in the region to support the United Kingdom’s counter-ISIS mission, namely Operation Shader.

Even though Moscow has likely planned the exercise in advance, Russia suggests that the maneuvers respond to the HMS Queen Elizabeth. The Russian military may have expanded the scope of the training after learning about the British carrier group’s visit (e.g., redeployment of bombers back to Khmeimim AB, as the War Zone first suggested). 

At the time of the writing, HMS Queen Elizabeth is operating off the Cypriot coast. With the Russian exercises underway, some interaction has already taken place between the two adversaries. RuAF aircraft used the British carrier as mock target practice, while a RAF F-35B armed with anti-ship missiles buzzed the Russian frigate Admiral Makarov. 

SECOND HOME?

While Russia’s naval-air exercise coincides and is potentially linked with the British carrier operations in the region, the main question is whether the MiG-31s and Tu-2MM3 bombers will make Syria their second home. 

In late 2020, the War Zone broke the news that Russia is expanding the runway at Khmeimim air base, “which could help accommodate heavy airlifters carrying more cargo or other large aircraft, including possibly bombers.” The War Zone’s assessment proved to be true. Backfire bombers have visited Khmeimim AB twice in one month. The runway extensions also allow for Foxhounds to operate from the air base. 

Using Sentinel 2 imagery we can see that the first clear signs of runway works appeared in July 2020. The construction advanced slowly throughout the year with another major change being visible in late 2020. The runway extensions seem to have only been finalized in early summer 2021. 

As the screenshots bellow show, Russia extended the runway’s northern end by approximately 170 meters and southern end by 130 meters. 

Planet Explorer screengrabs show measurements of Russia’s runway extensions on 29 June 2021

ENHANCED AIR PATROL

The runway extensions indicate that Russia foresees a starring role for Foxhounds, Backfires, and other large aircraft for Moscow’s future regional designs. Capable of supersonic speed and designed to intercept hostile aircraft, the MiG-31 Foxhound will undoubtedly improve Russia’s air policing capabilities. One video already shows a MiG-31, alongside Su-35 (Flanker-E), on combat air patrol in western Syria.

Armed with the notorious Kinzhal missile, the MiG-31 can also be a potent ship-killer, including against carriers, and a prompt nuclear delivery platform covering NATO’s southeastern flank. 

REVIVING THE MIG-31 SALE TO SYRIA? 

One low-probability, high-impact scenario worth considering is that Russia could use the MiG-31 deployment to revive the Syrian regime’s interest in the aircraft.

In 2007, the Russian press announced that Moscow planned to sell five MiG-31Es to the Syrian Arab Air Force. Iran was reportedly financing the purchase as a back-door deal. However, in 2009 the deal fell throughreportedly due to a Russian-Israeli quid pro quo arrangement. Israel was to provide UAV technology in exchange for Moscow halting the MiG-31 sale to Syria. 

It is no secret that Moscow has instrumentalized its intervention in Syria to advertise its military equipment. While the Syrian regime’s economy is in disarray and the SyAAF can barely service the existing fleet, Moscow could provide financial assistance in the form of credit. If Moscow and Damascus are serious about rebuilding the Syrian military, a MiG-31 interceptor could be the way forward to deter Israeli air raids and allow the SyAAF to police its airspace. 

PACKING A BIGGER PUNCH

The reason for the Backfire deployment is more straightforward. Like MiG-31s, Backfires are nuclear-capable. In addition, Backfires can carry an assortment of ship-killing missiles. Their primary role will likely be air strikes against Syrian opposition groups. With a payload of 24,000 kg, Backfires can rain down dozens of bombs within one run, increasing Russia’s operational efficiency. In contrast, the RuAF has relied on Su-34 and Su-24 fighter-bombers (both have 8,000 kg payload), or even multirole aircraft, to deliver air-to-ground attacks. 

It is increasingly likely that Foxhounds and Backfires will make regular guest appearances in the Syrian theater and possibly make Khmeimim AB their second home. 


*Thanks to a 2020 Norwegian Intelligence report quoted by the Barents Observer, we know that the AFIC/NATO codename for Kinzhal is “Killjoy.”

by HARM

editing by Gecko

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“Do Not Enter:” Using OSINT to Monitor Russia’s Wargames in the Black Sea

Russia has concentrated warships from all fleets, except the Pacific fleet, in the Black Sea for joint drills. While not unprecedented, it is rare to see such a show of…

Russia has concentrated warships from all fleets, except the Pacific fleet, in the Black Sea for joint drills. While not unprecedented, it is rare to see such a show of force.

The cross-theater deployments and large-scale exercises bear the hallmarks of a maritime build-up intended to intimidate Ukraine and deter NATO activities in the Black Sea.

This report showcases the Russian assets and maneuvers and analyzes how these actions are shaping the Black Sea theater of operations.


OBJECTIVE FEAR

Russia’s maritime build-up in the Black Sea has two aims:

  • intimidate Ukraine;
  • deter and complicate NATO activity in the Black Sea.

CROSS-THEATER DEPLOYMENTS

Russian naval task forces from the Caspian, Baltic and Northern Fleets have joined the Black Sea Fleet for exercises near Crimea.  

Caspian Flotilla: Around 15 vessels of the Capsian Flotilla, namely gunboats and landing crafts, entered the Black Sea on 16 April. 

Assets identified: 

  • 6x Project 11770 landing crafts (no. 721, 722, 723, 724, 725, 726) – NATO/AFIC reporting name: Serna-class.
  • 3x Project 1204 artillery gunboats (no. 042, 044, 045) – NATO/AFIC reporting name: Shmel-class.
  • 1x Project 16611 small hydrographic survey vessel (no. 01817).

The deployment was announced on 8 April but in a smaller number. The ships set sail on 11 April, with social media photos documenting their passage through the Don-Volga channel. Footage dated 16 and 17 April shows some of the Caspian task force vessels transiting the Kerch Strait that links the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea. 

OSINT map shows sail path of the Caspian task force (T-Intelligence 2021)

Baltic and Northern Fleets: Both fleets deployed Project 775, or Ropucha-class, landing ships to the Black Sea. Capable of carrying over 450 tones of hardware, primarily tanks or other vehicles, the Ropucha was purpose-built for beach landings. As a versatile hauling platform, the Ropucha has been Russia’s maritime logistical workhorse to deploy and support forces in Syria. 

Shispotters documented their northbound pass through the Bosphorus strait on 17 April.

Baltic Sea assets:

  • 2x Project 775 landing craft ( Kaliningrad no.102 & Korolev no.130) 

Northern Fleet assets: 

  • 2x Project 775 landing craft ( Kondopoga 027 & Alexander Otrakovsky 031) – NATO reporting name: Ropucha-class

The maritime build-up augments Russia’s land maneuvers near Ukraine’s border that have been ongoing for the past month. 

In addition to land and naval movements, Russia has also redeployed over 50 aircraft to Crimea. Ukraine estimates that Russia is now garrisoning nearly 110,000 troops near the Ukrainian border. 

MANEUVERS: COASTAL DEFENSE, AMPHIBIOUS ASSAULT

Russian forces in Crimea will hold a myriad of land, air, and naval exercises until 1 May. Some are already underway, while others will commence this week. 

The Russian drills have so far simulated the defense of Crimea and amphibious assaults of the enemy littoral – undoubtedly a message to Ukraine. Exercises involving marine and amphibious assaults are expected to continue. For example, in the next stage of a multi-phase campaign, Russian marines “will deliver artillery fire against a notional enemy’s coastal targets that will precede a seaborne assault on the shore.”

The satellite imagery below likely shows a Russian naval formation conducting a military exercise off the Crimean coast and near the Kerch Strait. Dated 19 April, the imagery was captured by the Sentinel-1’s synthetic aperture radar, a sensor that allows us to see through cloud cover.  The exercise area is covered by a notice to mariners (NOMAR) that Russia issued a few days ago. 

Sentinel-1 SAR satellite shows large and organized naval formation in a known Russian training area (T-Intelligence 2021)

The timelapse below shows the build-up of military hardware and logistics at the Opuk firing range. High-resolution imagery obtained by Der Spiegel provides a closer look at the staging ground.

Update: Monitoring the waters off Opuk, we have observed another spike in maritime activity on 21 April. The SAR imagery shows new Russian naval manoeuvres that are consistent with a coastal assault. With the exception of one search and rescue vessel (MMSI: 273145123), none of the ships were broadcasting AIS. No activity has been noticed on the previous day (April 20). 

 

New Russian maritime drills spotted on satellite imagery on 21 April (T-Intelligence)

Using visual evidence published by Zvezda TV on 22 April, we were able to confirm that these vessels and movements are connected to Russia’s exercises.

RUSSIAN NO-FLY/NO-SAIL ZONE?

As it is standard procedure, Russia issued a series of notice to airmen (NOTAMs) and notice to mariners (NOMARs) ahead of its exercises, informing seafears and pilots of which areas they should avoid. 

Map of NOTAMs and NOTMARs issued by Russia in connection to its military exercises in the Black Sea (T-Intelligence 2021)

Most “danger areas” are in effect until the end of April. However, in the Kerch strait, Russia plans to suspend the right of passage of foreign warships and “other state ships” until 31 October (purple rectangle). Russia’s state agency later claimed that “the planned restrictions will not affect navigation in the Kerch Strait or its entry points.” 

Russia’s temporary air-naval restrictions will have severe ramifications for maritime traffic to and from the Ukrainian port cities in the Azov sea, such as the strategic city of Mariupol. Russia’s de facto blockade of the Kerch strait will also prevent the Ukrainian navy, primarily based in Odessa, from reaching Mariupol in the event of a crisis.

In addition, Russia aims to deter NATO countries from even considering a “freedom of navigation” operation through the strait or a port visit on Ukrainian coast in the sea of Azov. However, the alliance has never suggested that it is considering such missions. 

DENYING NATO ISR ADVANTAGE?

Another key effect of Russia’s excessively large NOTAMs and NOMARs is that it could deter or significantly limit NATO’s ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) missions on Russia’s exercises.

U.S. and British reconnaissance aircraft have been intensively monitoring eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia’s Black Sea for the past weeks. Drones and maritime patrol aircraft are surveilling Crimea’s coast daily up until 19 April, keeping a close watch on Russia’s build-up – read more about NATO’s ISR operations here.

Given the latest NOTAMs, NATO surveillance platforms could be targeted by Russian anti-air fire or electronic attacks. From a legal standpoint, Russia has no authority to restrict the regional airspace, as Crimea is still internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory and falls under the Kiyv flight information region (FIR). However, the Russian build-up displays a credible capability and threat. It remains to be seen if NATO ISR missions will continue, and if so, how. 

DETERRENCE TEST FOR NATO

The movement of extra-regional NATO vessels will also be indicative of whether Russia’s muscle-flexing and deterrence work. Two U.S. warships are currently on station in the Aegean Sea after President Biden abandoned plans to sail into the Black Sea, fearing that this move would provoke Russia. 

Despite Washington’s reluctance, London has instructed two Royal Navy warships, one Type 45 destroyer and one Type 23 anti-submarine frigate, to deploy to the Black Sea. It remains to be seen if London will go through with the plan in May and if the U.S. warships will continue to idle in Greek waters. 

One thing is certain, regional NATO countries and Ukraine would breathe easier knowing that advance British and American destroyers are in the Black Sea just in case Russia’s wargames turn out to be something else.  


by HARM

editing by Gecko

Update 23 April – added a new satellite image of Russian naval drills from 21 April and two explanatory paragraphs. 

Update 22 April – additional comments have been added on the paragraph about NOTAMs and NOMARs to clarify Russia’s perspective on its plans to limit navigation through the Kerch strait. 

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