The Kremlin has been building influence in the Iraqi energy sector and propping up anti-US forces in the country as part of its objectives to counterbalance US hegemony in the region.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015 marked the major turning point, both in terms of the Syrian civil war and Russia’s return to the Middle East as a major regional power after a decades-long absence.
Russian airpower, in cooperation with Iranian boots on the ground, reversed the course of the war and saved Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime from imminent collapse.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has since leveraged that victory to renew old partnerships and strike up new ones, as Moscow positioned itself as a valuable interlocutor to all parties in the region’s conflicts after decades of undisputed US military superiority.
By far the most important Russian strategic interest in the Middle East is in the region’s oil and gas supplies. As one of the world’s top three producers of hydrocarbons, Russia has a vital stake in the future of the global oil and gas marketplace.
For Moscow, energy projects are viewed as commercial interests that can be leveraged in service of its foreign policy objectives.
It comes as no surprise then that Russian interests in Iraq, where oil and gas exports account for over 90 percent of revenues, have seen it invest a total of $10 billion in the country’s energy sector.
Earlier this year, Russian officials promised to pour in $20 billion in hydrocarbon extraction projects in the near future that would include Zarubezhneft, Tatneft, and Rosneft-related oil and gas entities.
Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the destabilising consequences it had on the region, Moscow has exploited Washington’s missteps to steadily gain a foothold in the country.
With increased sectarian conflict in 2009, many Western oil companies partially or totally vacated the region due to security concerns, a gap that Russian companies were eager to fill.
In 2009 Lukoil won one of the first oil contracts in postwar Iraq, for the West Qurna-2 development project in Basra. The project is slated to last 25 years with a production target of 800,000 barrels per day by the end of 2024. Today, it represents almost 10 percent of total Iraqi crude production and 12 percent of the country’s oil exports.
Other deals since then include $2.5 billion in investments by Gazprom and its partners in central Iraq and northern Iraq. The Russian state-owned energy giant has produced 3 million barrels from the Sarqala fields in Garmian, and it has launched several exploration projects in the Halabhja and Shakal fields.
Russia’s footprint has only accelerated in recent years, particularly in 2014 when Baghdad needed assistance in combating ISIS (Daesh) and Washington delayed much needed military aid that Moscow swiftly provided.
In 2017, Rosneft loaned $3.5 billion to the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG), providing the KRG with a degree of leverage over Baghdad, which wants control over KRG oil sales.
Earlier this May, Russian Ambassador to Iraq Maxim Maximov announced that the Al Mansouriya gas field in the Diyala governorate would be a target of substantial investment as well.
Pipelines are shot through with geopolitical implications and are a driving force behind Russian interest in controlling Iraqi energy resources. For example in 2018, Rosneft bought a majority stake in the KRG oil pipeline to Turkey and agreed to construct a parallel gas pipeline.
Moscow’s connections in Iraq go beyond just energy, too.
According to Maximov, a total of sixty visits between Russian and Iraqi officials took place in 2019 alone. Last year, Russia helped establish a command centre in Baghdad under an intelligence-sharing agreement that includes Syria and Iran.
What has gone under the radar are Russian links with Iranian-backed Shia militias, in a bid to challenge US-backed security dominance on the ground – especially troubling for Washington given Moscow’s regional partnership with Tehran.
Members of Hashd al Shaabi travelled to Moscow last September, and Maximov reportedly met with one of the militia group’s leaders, Falih al Fayyadh, last month.
Moscow is committed to push for influence despite the risks involved. When large-scale anti-government protests broke out in late 2019 and unsettled many Western officials, the Russian embassy remained open, while Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov toured Baghdad and Erbil.
Nor does the Kremlin miss an opportunity to insert itself whenever tensions between Baghdad and Washington emerge. In the aftermath of the US airstrikes that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, Russian and Iraqi officials discussed deepening military cooperation.
Paradoxically, any prolonged crisis between the US and Iran in Iraq could eventually thwart any hopes Russia has in making further inroads.
The likelihood is that any prolonged friction with Tehran will resettle Washington’s attention on Iraq, where a set of proactive policy measures could be in the offing. US lawmakers have already pushed back against the withdrawal of US forces and threatened sanctions on Baghdad if it were to procure Russian arms.
Wary of being overstretched, the Russians do not possess the economic and political resources required to counter the US on equal footing. Their strategic objective is to counterbalance, if not ultimately supplant Washington as the major international force in the region.
Iraq, now led by a pro-US president Barham Salih and prime minister Mustafa al Kazimi, will hold early parliamentary elections in 2021. If more pro-Iran forces win seats, it could allow Russia to entrench its influence.
As it stands, Moscow has certainly made gains in recent years and has been playing a long – and quiet – geopolitical game, one that may pay dividends if the US fails to refocus and limit the amount of room Russia has for maneuvering.