Bears in Basra, Novichok in Najaf: The Russian eye on Iraq in an unstable age

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Archishman Ray Goswami is a second-year student studying International Relations, and the Editor-in-Chief of KCL GPRIS. In this piece, he discusses Russia’s growing interest in Iraq and the factors influencing this line of policy in the Kremlin.

 

On the 14th of May 2020, Iraq’s freshly-inducted Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhmi received the Russian envoy to his country, Maksim Maksimov[1]. One of the small cohort of diplomats entering his country’s foreign service in a battered post-Soviet Russia, Mr Maksimov handed the man now running Iraq a note of congratulations from President Putin. Putin’s note of congratulations also included an invitation to visit Moscow sometime after the coronavirus pandemic. In turn, Putin was relayed an invitation from Kadhimi himself to visit Baghdad in the not-so-distant future[2].

The reciprocal invitations to Baghdad and Moscow indicate that with the world in the situation that it is, Russia views an Iraq under the leadership of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as its new force multiplier in the Middle East and beyond. Strengthened Russo-Iraqi relations are beneficial for both Putin and Kadhimi, especially as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia continues to engage in a price war with US-allied Saudi Arabia.

The present circumstances have provided Moscow with a window of opportunity to capitalise on the growing anti-US sentiment brewing in Iraq since late 2019. This sentiment has been catalysed by the assassination of Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani and Deputy Chief of the Popular Mobilisation Committee Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in early January 2020. The assassination of General Soleimani and Commander al-Muhandis triggered a sequence of events that in hindsight have pushed Iraq away from the US and towards Russia. Furthermore, the passing of a resolution in the Iraqi parliament calling for the expulsion of all US troops in the immediately after the assassinations indicated that the dormant anti-US sentiment in the country that had manifested in the attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad at the fag end of 2019 had now found expression in political circles[3]. In these circumstances, it would make sense for Russia to seize the opportunity to step in and strengthen ties with Iraq, further alienating it from the West. Just days before Kadhimi was appointed as the new Prime Minister, the Chairman of the Iraqi parliament’s Security and Defence committee publicly mulled the purchase of either the S-300 or the S-400 surface-to-air missile system unless Washington responded with a better offer[4].

Given that the purchase of these Russian missile systems has caused the US to find itself at odds with the buyers such as Turkey and India in the past, the pondering over a future purchase of the missile systems in Iraqi political circles indicates that the post-Soleimani leadership in Baghdad is preparing for a shift in policy towards Russia away from Washington.

Similarly, strengthened ties with Russia are necessary for the politically beleaguered Kadhimi, who despite having become Prime Minister faces opposition from numerous political factions within Iraq. Indeed, Kadhimi’s invitation to Putin to visit Baghdad following the Coronavirus pandemic may also be read as an attempt to bring about a larger partnership between Iran and Russia. Such a partnership would help support him in the context of the opposition that his government faces from militias and political groups like the Kataib Hezbollah militia. The Kataib Hezbollah is of particular importance, since it had opposed Kadhimi’s appointment as Prime Minister for apparently facilitating Soleimani’s assassination[5]. The fact that Kadhimi has chosen to partner with the official Iran-backed factions of the Lebanese and Iraqi Hezbollah to set up a committee investigating the “criminal act” of Soleimani’s killing indicates that he is willing to make amends with parties which also act as Russia’s force multipliers in its other proxy wars- for example, Syria[6]. Yet given the simultaneous rise of anti-Iran sentiment on the streets of Baghdad, Kadhimi is unlikely to make any further gestures of friendship towards Tehran for time being, for the fear of losing political support[7]. However, he may mask his acknowledgement of Iranian support for his government by supporting Russia, Iran’s ally in the Middle East. And while Iraq may have earlier expressed her disapproval of Russian state-owned enterprise Rosneft’s oil drilling operations in Kurdistan[8], Kadhimi, in his politically vulnerable state, is likely to allow it, seeing Russian investments in the region as a potential bridge to negotiate with the Kurds and hopefully bring them tightly under Baghdad’s control.

The Kremlin’s overtures to the new government in Baghdad may equally be interpreted as a signal to Riyadh. Russia has quietly been engaged in an oil price war with Saudi Arabia over much of this year, refusing to reduce oil production while Riyadh responded in kind, each side hoping to acquire control over a larger percentage of the global oil market[9]. While the price war has now diminished, Russia’s actions suggest that she now views Iraq as her new ally to counter Saudi Arabia’s actions in the current price war. Maksim Maksimov’s comments that Russia would step up investment in Iraq’s Al-Mansouriya gas field may be read in this context[10]. The comment, which came almost a week after Kadhimi was appointed as Prime Minister, suggests that Putin is looking toward Iraqi gas as a means of exerting economic and hence political pressure on Saudi policymakers. Russia has set a precedent of using its natural gas supplies and pipelines as a means to acquire levers of control over policymaking in countries such as Germany and Turkey. The acquisition of control over Iraq’s natural gas would allow Russia to pipe that gas to Saudi Arabia. As global oil markets reel amid the Coronavirus pandemic and oil supplies become increasingly depleted, it would make sense for Moscow to control natural gas supplies from Iraq to Gulf states like Saudi Arabia as a means of exerting control over them and allied blocs like OPEC. Additionally, Putin and Kadhimi have already discussed collaborative efforts to control global oil prices[11] and with Iraq recently replacing Saudi Arabia as the top oil exporter to Russia’s ally India[12], Russia will continue to focus on Iraq as a bulwark against creeping Saudi influence in the region.

Russia’s growing interest in Iraq is also linked to its silent attempts to act as a power broker in the ongoing conflict in Yemen and therefore achieve its long-term strategic goals in the Arabian Peninsula. Given that Iraq is yet another scenario where Iran and Saudi Arabia are vying for geopolitical influence, and also considering Russia’s aforementioned differences with Saudi Arabia and its close ties with Iran in the context of the Syrian conflict, getting Kadhimi’s government to affiliate itself with Moscow would be a remarkable foreign policy achievement by Putin at a time when his domestic approval rate is said to be dipping as a result of the Coronavirus. The Kremlin has already been attempting to position itself as a stakeholder in Yemen via its recent actions in Iraq. The fact that the President Saudi and Emirati-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Yemen, a secessionist organisation, engaged in a telephone call with Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister in late April 2020 regarding regional developments in the region holds particular significance[13]. Russia’s engagement with the STC is significant on two levels. One, the engagement with such an influential Saudi/Emirati- backed stakeholder in the Yemeni Civil War acts as the Kremlin’s signal of its growing influence over the STC- which also indicates to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh that if they are to maintain whatever control they have over the Yemeni government and the STC, they must acquiesce to the idea of greater Russian influence in Iraq.

Finally, growing Russian influence in Iraq would also be crucial to its long-term grand strategy of exerting pressure on neighbouring Turkey and Iran in case relations go sour with the two in the future. Coming back to the context of Yemen and its relevance to Iraq, one may ascertain that in the post-COVID age as economies struggle to rebuild after the predicted global recession, supply chains will grow increasingly important. Assuming that the ongoing civil war results in a Yemen split into North and South, it is important that Russia maintain good ties with the Yemeni government and the STC which opposes it in order to gain a foothold in the choke-point of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, which is a region that is forecast to grow in importance from a geoeconomic standpoint once global economic systems resume movement after the Coronavirus. This will, however, have to happen despite Iran’s objection. If Iran uses Russia’s assumed cosiness with these groups in the future as a rationale to grow hostile towards it, Putin can always use a Russian-influenced Iraq as a window into western Iran’s restive Arab-majority of Khuzestan to fuel an insurgency there, which would act as Moscow’s bargaining chip vis-à-vis Tehran in such a scenario. A Russian presence in the Bab-el-Mandeb region would also act as an important signal to Russia’s global rivals- France, the US and Japan- the last of which has re-ignited tensions with Russia regarding the Kuril Islands recently. All of these countries have military bases in the region. Hence Iraq will act as Russia’s lynchpin in the post-COVID age to exert pressure on Russia’s rivals- potential or otherwise- in the Greater Middle East. The situation is similar with Turkey. Given Russia and Turkey’s recent differences over Idlib in Syria (where Putin had the eventual upper hand) and the proxy war that they are currently fighting against one another in Libya, Russia would want a presence in Iraq- specifically Iraqi Kurdistan- as a base to further fuel the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. This possibility is not as far-fetched as it may seem at first glance, given the Russian-backed Assad regime’s aversion to any semblance of Kurdish nationalism in neighbouring Syria. Kurdish groups have historical ties with the erstwhile Soviet Union, and with the US withdrawing from northern Syria in late 2019, the possibility remains that they will be more willing to come into a closer relationship with the Kremlin. Russia’s growing influence in the region has already been highlighted in this article, as depicted by Rosneft’s abovementioned investments in Iraqi Kurdistan.

All in all, Kadhimi’s appointment as the new Prime Minister of a Coronavirus-hit Iraq promises to lead to some interesting times for geopolitical risk analysts studying the region. Russia and her broader strategic considerations will arguably play a significant role in guiding the direction that Iraqi foreign policy takes in the future, as well as the way in which regional diplomatic ties play out. As Russia deepens her influence in Iraq, she will invite competitors- both within and beyond the Middle East. The impact that such a phenomenon will have on regional geopolitics however, is one that will define the political dynamics of the Middle East in the 2020s and beyond.

[1] https://tass.com/world/1156631

[2] Ibid

[3] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/01/iraqi-parliament-calls-expulsion-foreign-troops-200105150709628.html

[4] https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200506-mp-iraq-mulls-purchasing-russia-air-defence-system/

[5] https://thearabweekly.com/kataib-hezbollahs-influence-iraq-may-be-quietly-eroding

[6] https://www.shafaaq.com/en/iraq-news/al-kadhimi-and-hezbollah-form-a-committee-on-the-killing-of-soleimani-and-al-muhandis/

[7] https://en.radiofarda.com/a/overshadowed-by-u-s–iran-escalation-iraq-protesters-keep-movement-alive-/30363179.html

[8] https://www.ft.com/content/ace52dd2-4f0c-11e8-ac41-759eee1efb74

[9] https://time.com/5824263/coronavirus-negative-oil-prices-consolidation/

[10] https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200512-russia-to-offer-investment-in-iraq-gas-field-official-says/

[11] https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-global-oil-russia-iraq/russias-putin-iraqs-al-kadhimi-back-continued-oil-market-cooperation-kremlin-idUSKBN23119W

[12] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/markets/commodities/news/saudi-arabia-pips-iraq-as-top-oil-supplier-to-india-in-april/articleshow/75850784.cms

[13] https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/stc-discusses-yemen-developments-with-russian-minister/1822728

 

Image Source: http://www.basnews.com/en/babat/469396

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