by Hugo Spaulding, Franklin Holcomb, and ISW Russia and Ukraine Team

Russia redirected criticism over its operations in Syria toward Turkey with the U.S.-backed cessation of hostilities agreement, which came into effect on February 27. Russia has temporarily reduced the intensity of its air campaign following February 27, after weeks of heavily targeting opposition groups in Syria’s northwestern province of Aleppo. ISW assesses that Russia continues to strike mainstream armed opposition groups, however, despite claiming it would only target terrorist groups after the cessation of hostilities. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry agreed on February 28 to limit their public debate over alleged breaches of the cessation of hostilities, a significant achievement for Moscow following widespread Western criticism over its air campaign in Aleppo Province.

Nevertheless, Russia presented Turkey as the primary obstacle to the cessation of hostilities, with a series of accusations that Turkey was shelling Kurdish forces and facilitating the flow of weapons and militants into Syria. Foreign Minister Lavrov called for the closure of Turkey’s border with Syria, a measure that would advance Russia’s objective of undermining the Aleppo-based opposition by isolating it from international support. Russian efforts to portray Turkey as a principle opponent to the cessation of hostilities resemble its presentation of the Ukrainian government as the main obstacle to the successful implementation February 2015 “Minsk II” ceasefire agreement. Russia has successfully lobbied the West to pressure Kyiv into fulfilling political concessions, including elections in occupied southeastern Ukraine, which Germany called for before the UN Security Council on February 29. As in Ukraine, Russia remains a forward-deployed belligerent in the Syrian Civil War and retains the capability to rapidly escalate offensive operations if the U.S. or its allies seek to shift the balance of power out of Russia’s favor. As U.S. European Command Commander General Philip Breedlove highlighted on March 1, Russia’s intervention in Syria has allowed it to set the groundwork for an anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) zone in the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia may be developing an additional A2/AD zone beyond the Baltic Sea, Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean with the deployment of supersonic anti-ship missiles to the Arctic on February 21. These zones enable Russia to deny the U.S. freedom of movement and increase the Kremlin’s ability to pressure the U.S. into accepting its expansionist military agenda.