Author: Analyst

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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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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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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