The Russian Perspective of an Independent Kurdistan: The Wider Middle Eastern Agenda

It is striking to see a comment by the Russian’s Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov prior to the publication of the 25/9 Kurdish referendum result recognizing Kurds’ special independent status when he stated: “Russia’s position is the one in favour of territorial integrity of the regional state”. Ironically, his comments can be interpreted as directed to both Iraq and the KRG. In his meetings with the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Putin reiterated the Russian position of respecting the territorial integrity of the countries in the region (Iran and Azerbaijan) and moreover in reference to the recent developments in Iraq, Putin supported the Iraqi government and its territorial integrity. The Russian position seems to be pragmatic in the sense that it strives – alongside Iran and Turkey – to maintain and promote trilateral regional interests (Russia-Turkey and Iran) as a necessary step for securing a relatively sustainable regional order.

From this perspective the three countries emphasized that Iraq, territorial unity has to be preserved with one proviso indicated by Fahim Tastekin in his article published in AL-Monitor: “The Russian factor could also force Turkey and Iran to reconsider hostile policies against the KRR.” The Russian position is directly related to their in-depth involvement in the game of “oil deal” with the KRG. Thus, the Russian energy Rosneft and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has recently concluded a deal for extending natural gas pipeline from the northern Iraqi region to the Turkish port Ceyhan in the Mediterranean region.  The investment would amount to more than one billion dollars of a pipeline’s capacity “30 billion cubic meter (bcm)” of gas from the Kurdish region. In the meantime, the Iraqi Premier Hayder Al-Abadi has characterized the Russian position as “weak”. However, the total Russian investment in the northern Iraqi region for the past few years in the energy field has reached to almost over 4 billion dollars overtaking thereby the US as the largest investor. This can be explained also by Putin’s outlook to achieve 2 objectives: (1) The Russian leader seeks to gain a windfall from this investment, (2) Thus, Putin expects to play the energy regional broker role serving primarily Russian interests at the expense of the U.S. In a recent energy forum on Wednesday 4th October in Moscow, Putin stated that his country is “exercising a policy of non-interference and using cautious rhetoric after the independence referendum in Iraq’s Kurdistan in order not to explode the situation in the region”. Underlying this statement is a clear Russian economic interest, as affirmed by Putin in concluding his previous statement: “it was in one’s interest to cut off oil supplies from Iraq’s Kurdistan”.

St. Petersburg, Russia, July 25, 2017. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin

The Russians keen interest in cementing relations with KRG has not come at the total expense of its close relationship with Baghdad. Thus, in the end of July 2017 Vice President Nuri Al-Maliki’s visit to Moscow indicated Iraqi eagerness to raise the bar of bilateral economic relations with Moscow in the fields of energy, electricity, trade and armament. Maliki has managed to conclude a contract which enables Iraq to purchase a large number of T-90 battle tanks. The Russian interest in the oil game goes beyond Iraq into the Middle Eastern regional level, one clear example comes in the form of Russia’s Rosneft participation in the “partial  privatization of the Saudi Aramco, which was announced to take place in 2018”.  Furthermore, the Saudi King Salman visit to Moscow has another urgent objective to pursue, due to being alongside the Russians as the two largest international oil exporters with an obligation to stop the decline of international fossil fuel prices. Furthermore, other investment deals will be concluded: “a natural gas project and petrochemical plants”. Moreover, there is also the prospect of signing “plans for a US $ 1 billion (Dh.3.67 bn) fund to invest in energy projects.”

The Saudi King’s salient trip intends to raise the steady bilateral decade-level trade beyond the I billion $ mark. Indeed, King’s Salman son, Prince Mohammed recurrent visits to Moscow earlier 2017, and in 2015 intended “to work on a $10 bn –investment- in Russia from a Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF)”. It is interesting to note that though the Saudi 2030 Vision intends partly to limit Saudi futuristic dependence on oil, the rising level of Saudi-Russia cooperation under this promising plan may provide the Russians with more profitable economic opportunities. Whether the Saudi – Russian high level contacts will yield further radical changes in policies to resolve intricate crises in Syria, Yemen and Iraq is a matter of much speculation. But what of concern to acknowledge is that the Russian prominent role in steering the Middle Eastern vulnerable regional activities can’t effectively be pursued without the cooperation and coordination of the prime regional actors (Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Saudi Arabia).

The longer the current Kurdistan regional crisis continues without a realistic transitory or long-term resolution by the two continuous main parties (the Kurds and the Iraqi federal –political system) the difficult to perceive salient external powers including the Russians to play an active role in containing the regional adverse security and economic ramifications. What is clear so far is that all the parties’ concerned – except Israel – agree that Iraqi territorial integrity and national unity should be preserved.

Admittedly, the most interested parties (Iraq, Turkey and Iran) are increasingly strengthening their relations to prevent the Kurdish Leadership from taking further unilateral unconstitutional actions in preparation for launching their new promised independent enclave. Military defence manoeuvres is a vivid example of such a stringer approach by the three regional states. One therefore can anticipate that with more effective powers exerting pressures on the leaders of Kurdistan more dissension will eventually emerge within the Kurdish ranks to freeze the results of the Kurdish referendum and thus substituted by a new futuristic federal nationally inclusive agreed upon arrangement within Iraqi body politics. Other BRICS states’ positions will be analysed at later articles.

Ahmad Shikara

Member of the faculty at the EmiratesCenter for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) in Abu Dhabi since 2000. There he works in the Training Department and in Human Resources. He recently published on the ramifications of Iraqi elections. In the past he conducted extensive research at the ECSSR and has conducted graduate and faculty seminars focusing on the effect of resource scarcity on the Arabian Gulf and the United States. Dr. Shikara, and before joining the ECSSR, served on the Political Science Department at the United Arab Emirates University (1980-1994), as an honorary professor at the Institute of Developing Economies in Japan (1994) and as a research fellow in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Auckland, New Zealand (1996-2000).

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