The relations between Russia and Iraq have been growing in recent years, which could be analyzed from the bilateral, regional, and international viewpoints.
The following features make Iraq attractive to Russia:
- - Iraq is one of the Arab countries with age-old and friendly ties with Russia.
- - Iraq holds rich oil and gas resources, which are important to Russia both for investment and for competition in energy production and supply.
- - The presence of ISIS and other terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, and Russia’s serious security concerns about their activities near its borders;
- - The presence of American forces in Iraq and the US’ attempts to restrict the activities of Russia as a rival power;
Considering its historical and territorial features, its military power, permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council, and the underground resources, Russia is after a position in the international system that would match those capacities. Russia has tried over the past two decades to regain the position it held previously. Accordingly, one of the policies Russia has been considering is to promote regional and international cooperation beyond the near abroad, namely the Central Asia and the Caucasus. The West Asia region has a special place in Russia’s foreign policy given its geopolitical and economic significance, as the ties with Iraq are part of that policy.
This study conducts a concise review of Russia’s foreign policy approaches and purposes in relation to Iraq over the past three decades.
History of Russia-Iraq Relations
The serious formation of cooperation between the two countries dates back to 1959 when the kingdom of Iraq was overthrown and a republic state was established. Ever since, there has been a positive trend in the relations between Russia and Iraq despite the ups and downs, as Iraq was known as one of the Soviet Union’s major partners in the Arab world. A Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation that the Soviet Union and Iraq signed on April 9, 1972, had laid the solid legal foundation for the bilateral relations. Such situation did not change until the occupation of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in 1990 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Until then, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was assisting in the industrialization of Iraqand was its largest supplier of arms.
The Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in August 1990 and the Soviet Union’s support for the UN Security Council’s anti-Iraq Resolutions 660 and 665, which had finally authorized the use of military operation against that country, was a sign of the reality that the factor of ideology had been lost in the Soviet Union’s foreign policy when it comes to supports for the other countries and that the power equations at the international level involved new calculations. Russia, which replaced the Soviet Union in 1991, maintained such an approach in its foreign policy. Russia’s support for or silence on the US’ unilateral behavior reveals the policy of Moscow on the international system developments.
On the other hand, the early years of the 1990s are known as the period of stagnation in the bilateral relations, when Russia was grappling with the consequences of the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics while Iraq was hit with international sanctions after the Kuwait crisis. However, Russia began to revive relations with friendly countries, including Iraq, as of 1996, when the West-oriented foreign minister of Russia changed and the country became disappointed about being acknowledged as a top international power by the United States and its European allies. Since 1997, the governments of Iraq and Russia have strengthened relations, as Russia was put in charge of part of the international oil-for-food program under UN Security Council Resolution 986. Iraq also signed a contract with Russian company Lukoil for the development of Iraq’s West Qurna oilfield, worth $3.8 billion. The contract never came into operation at that time because of the UN sanctions.
Bilateral Relations in 2003-2012
One of the other issues that entangled Russia in the affairs of Iraq was the allegation made by the US and Britain in 2003 that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and their subsequent decision to attack Iraq. The government of Putin was confident that the US was determined to carry out the operation, but tried to refer the case to the United Nations Security Council in the first step. Considering that Germany and France were also opposed to military action against Iraq, this could provide an opportunity for cooperation against American unilateralism. Russia strongly opposed the US strike on Iraq and voiced protest against any action outside the framework of the UN Charter. The US military campaign and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein forced Russia to change tactics, try to adjust its previous stances in opposition to the US, and propose the idea of continued cooperation with that country in the war against international terrorism.
Russia hoped that a change in tactics would allow the Russian companies to take part in the oil projects in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. As a result, the Russian president agreed to cooperate with the new Iraqi government and the United States. In February 2018, Russia forgave Iraq some $8 to $12
billion in debt outstanding from the Soviet era. In 2009, Russian energy companies such as Lukoil and Gazprom signed major oil contracts with Iraq. The Russian companies signed other oil and gas contracts in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region in the next years. In 2012, the Kremlin signed $4 billion in arms deals with the Iraqi government. According to a report released by Russia’s state corporation for defense industries (Rostec) in 2012, the contracts made Iraq the second largest purchaser of Russian weapons after India, on a par with China.
Bilateral Relations in 2012-2020
The Russia-Iraq relations in this time, which started practically at the beginning of President Vladimir Putin’s second term, is affected by major variables in the geopolitical and economic rivalry. The crisis in Syria and Iraq and the emergence of ISIS are among the reasons leading to Russia’s more serious presence in the region. Direct involvement in the war against terrorism in Syria and supporting Iraq in the fight against ISIS are the characteristics of Russia’s foreign policy in the region. The remarkable point in Russia’s foreign policy on Iraq is that Moscow underlined the need for Iraq’s territorial integrity after the Kurdistan Region held an independence referendumdespite its close ties with the Kurdistan Region.
From an economic viewpoint, Russians were still trying in that period to maintain their place in Iraq in the oil and gas industries and the arms sales. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, oil companies such as Lukoil, Gazprom Neft, Rosneft, and Soyuzneftegaz have made an investment of more than $10 billion in Iraq’s oil and gas sector so far. In a ceremony held at Iraq’s embassy in Moscow in 2018, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov highlighted the military cooperation between the two countries, saying Iraq was the second largest importer of Russian military weapons after India. The two countries have so far held eight meetings of the Joint Economic Commission, the last of which in April 2019 in Baghdad saw 16 cooperation agreements signed between the two nations in various fields. From a political viewpoint, the two countries have held high-profile contacts, as the foreign ministers of the two countries have paid reciprocal visits to Baghdad and Moscow.
Purposes of Russian Foreign Policy in Iraq
As already mentioned in the introduction, Iraq is in the first place important for Russia economically, as Moscow is pushing to support the activities of Russian oil and gas companies in Iraq to reap direct economic benefits and to maintain and elevate its position in the production and distribution of global hydrocarbon resources. Russia has a weaker economy at present in comparison with the other world powers such as the US and China. In order for Russia to boost its economic power, it needs to seize the opportunities in the fields it has advantages. Investment in the energy sector and the sale of arms are currently suitable grounds for cooperation between Russia and Iraq.
Another Russian purpose in broadening ties with Iraq derives from the security concerns. The birth of new Russia came with a crisis in the Muslim Republic of Chechnya in the 1990s, which pursued goals beyond a single region’s secession. The Russian sources confirm that what made Russians more concerned was the financial support that a number of the Persian Gulf Arab states provided for the Chechen fighters to promote the Salafi movement in Russia. The rise of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which had attracted volunteers in some Muslim regions of Russia, was among the main sources of Russia’s concern about the spread of extremism and terrorism near its boundaries. Therefore, the Russian military forces launched a military operation outside the Soviet borders for the first time in the past three decades and supported Iraq by providing arms in the battle with ISIS.
Another purpose that Russia is pursuing in its relations with the West Asian nations, including Iraq, is to strengthen the Russian regional role. Russia is well aware that the US’ imbalanced behavior and hostile policy on certain regional countries have provided the best opportunity for Moscow’s more active presence in the region. The regional countries have more or less welcomed such policy, allowing Russia to strengthen its place in the relations with them.
Another important issue is Russia’s geopolitical objectives at the international level. In the meantime, the monopolistic system favored by the US has been a source of crisis rather than contributing to peace. The new powers are shaping a multilateral system to compensate for the deficiency. Russia has also realized the importance of cooperation with various world regions in the creation of a multipolar system, has prioritized the promotion of ties with the West Asian states, and has adopted an active policy in the region in the past years.
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)