Iraqi Kurdistan — Russia Relations Do Not Come at the Expense of Baghdad

In the past years, Russia has been paying a lot of attention to stabilization in Iraq through promoting dialog with all the parties involved. Professor Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, President of the Middle East Research Institute, shares his thoughts on Russia–Iraq relations, Russia’s ties with Iraqi Kurdistan and the importance of joint economic projects.

How will Russia-Iraq relations evolve once the new government is formed?

The new government in Baghdad was formed a few weeks ago, but is not yet complete and has not had the chance to focus on the country’s priorities, largely due to the political rivalries among the key players. The Prime Minister has had great difficulty in filling key ministerial posts, including those of interior and defence.

However, irrespective of the current government’s internal problems, Iraq’s relations with Russia remain strong, and once the dust settles, if it does, the relations may evolve even faster over the coming years. Russia has a long tradition of having mutually rewarding relations with Iraq, which were severely affected by the regime change in 2003 but returned to active engagement soon after. This is particularly evident from the arm sales and Russian energy companies’ presence in Iraq.

Russia has recently shown an increasing interest in Iraq and the wider the Middle East. Iraqis, in return, have welcomed Russia’s constructive engagement in Iraq’s post-war reconstruction and future economic recovery. Clearly, Russia’s good relations with Iran, which has the biggest influence over Iraq, has also helped facilitate the progress.

What role do the Russian energy companies play in restoring Iraq? What are the areas where Russia-Iraq cooperation can be improved?

Iraq’s energy potential is immense, while its energy infrastructure is ageing. Iraq has a long way to go before making the best use of its natural resources. Its wealth and needs have so far attracted the attention of many of the giant energy companies which have heavily invested in the country’s drilling and transportation of both oil and gas. Iraq needs to do a great deal more to modernise its technology and improve efficiency.

Russian energy companies, particularly Lukoil and Gazprom, are already very active in the south of Iraq. As part of larger PJSC consortium, Lukoil was awarded a contract for the development of West Qurna-2 field, one of the world’s largest fields. Gazprom Neft and its consortium partners were awarded a major contract by the Iraqi government for the development of the Badra field in Wasit Province. They were subsequently awarded additional contracts by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Garmian, Halabja, and Shakal. More recently, Rosneft was awarded contracts by the KRG to develop the KRI’s oil and natural gas export pipelines via Turkey.

These developments have been very welcome, particularly by the Kurds, not only for the generated income but also for drawing Russia into the security dynamics which was believed to have helped prevent a total energy blockade on the KRI in the aftermath of the KRG referendum for independence.

What is the attitude of the major forces in Iraqi Kurdistan to Russia’s policy in the region? How can the parties develop their relations while still taking into consideration the interests of Baghdad?

In Kurdistan Region, there are two main ruling parties (the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK) and a number of well-established opposition parties. They all are sufficiently pragmatic and sophisticated to appreciate the value of having Russia actively engaged with the KRG. They see the future survival and well-being of the KRI in being globally connected, with a degree of inter-dependence with as many of the global powers.

Importantly, the KRG-Russia bilateral relations are not considered in contradiction to or at the expense of Baghdad. The KRG is a constitutionally recognised federal entity within Iraq and has long had its semi-independent international policy. Of course, Baghdad was not always comfortable with KRG’s international relations, but this was more to do with internal divisions and disputes.

Baghdad–Erbil relations reached an all-time low back in 2017 when the KRG held the referendum for independence, followed by violence and political stalemate. Fortunately, leaders from both sides made serious efforts to prevent an all-out war and paved the way for normalisation of relations. Indeed, with the turn of the year and the start of campaigns for the May 2018 general elections, the atmosphere was transformed, as though last year’s tensions became water under the bridge.
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The Kurdish parties have now gone back to Baghdad, became actively engaged in the political process and regained their traditional place in the central government. Of course, there are numerous unresolved issues, including the fate of the disputed territories and disputes over the hydrocarbon law, but these will take time. This is where international partners, including Russia, can play their constructive roles in promoting peace and stability inside Iraq.

How would you assess the role of the coordination and information centre in Baghdad between Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria during the post-conflict period? Can it be transformed into other formats of cooperation between Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon?

Iraq is strategically placed to play a major political role in the entire Middle East. However, Iraq’s current fragility is not helping. After the regime change in 2003, Iraq has suffered a series of never-ending crises and wars, and came close to failure. It has lost a great deal of its sovereignty, which is not easy to regain as long as the local leaders are ill focused and the regional powers are using Iraq as their battle ground.

The Iraqi leaders need to give top priority to state-building, institutionalisation, good governance and rule of law, all of which are currently at their weakest. Iraq has to be fully functional again before it can play its strategic role and benefit from the current opportunities. Should it fail, the return of IS and further fragmentation of the country is inevitable. This is why constructive and mutually beneficial engagement with Russia, US, Europe, and other global and regional powers are very much required.

Interviewed by Maria Smekalova, RIAC Website Editor.

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About MERI:  The Middle East Research Institute is Iraq’s leading policy-research institute and think tank. It is an independent, entirely grant-funded not-for-profit organisation, based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.  Its mission is to contribute to the process of nation-building, state-building and democratisation via engagement, research, analysis and policy debates.

MERI’s main objectives include promoting and developing human rights, good governance, the rule of law and social and economic prosperity. MERI conduct high impact, high quality research (including purpose-based field work) and has published extensively in areas of: human rights, government reform, international politics, national security, ISIS, refugees, IDPs, minority rights (Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabaks, Sabi mandeans), Baghdad-Erbil relations, Hashd Al-Shabi, Peshmarga, violence against women, civil society. MERI engages policy- and decision-makers, the civil society and general public via publication, focused group discussions and conferences (MERI Forum).

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