How Russia could influence the Kurdish diplomatic crisis

How Russia could influence the Kurdish diplomatic crisis

Analysis: Moscow can act as a power-broker, enriching itself while outmanoeuvring the United States, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
5 min read
05 October, 2017
Russia is likely to position itself as a power-broker following the Kurdish independence referendum [AFP]
Before the Iraqi Kurdish referendum, even the very suggestion of independence enflamed tensions between the Kurdistan Regional Government and its neighbours.

Iraq's central government, Iran and Turkey all threatened collective action against Erbil. Now the Kurds have overwhelmingly voted to secede, these power centres look set to clamp down further on the autonomous Kurdish region. Another diplomatic crisis has been sparked.

The fear of isolation and even military action grows. Iranian tanks have advanced towards Iraq; Turkey has halted flights to Erbil, and threatened to shut off the gas pipeline from northern Iraq, to halt what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls a "grave mistake".

Baghdad, which has much to lose from Kurdish secession in terms of oil revenues, has also threatened to embargo Erbil and use military action if needed.

Despite all this chaos, the United States has shown no sign of moving to resolve the tension - a change from its usual stance as the world's police officer in such affairs. It has done little to repair relations between the KRG and its neighbours. If anything, it has done the Kurds few favours, by echoing the complaints of Baghdad, Iran and Turkey.

In the face of all this, Russia once again seems to be flexing its muscles in the region and putting itself forward as the mediator of this new crisis. Furthermore, Russia could be using this to further expand its influence in the Middle East.

Aside from its unequivocal support for Bashar al-Assad's regime against the Syrian opposition, Russia usually acts with careful pragmatism, such as with its mutual support for Israel and its enemies Iran and Hizballah. With limited success, it has aimed to appease and respect the boundaries of both sides.

Now Moscow is transferring such a stance towards the Kurds.
Russia once again seems to be flexing its muscles in the region

Russia has already indicated its pragmatism on the issue of the recent Kurdish referendum. According to a recent statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry:

"Moscow respects the national aspirations of the Kurds. We believe that all disputes that may exist between the Iraqi federal government and the government of the Kurdish autonomous region can and should be resolved through constructive and respectful dialogue with a view to devising a mutually acceptable formula of coexistence within a single Iraqi state."

Moscow's stance is clear. While it will aim to respect the wishes of the Kurds, it will aim to do so in a mutually beneficial way that meets the desires of its neighbours.

Some figures believe Russia will act. Sergey Balsamov, an analyst at the Moscow-based Institute of the Middle East, told The New Arab that Russia will aim to take an active role in mediating the ongoing crisis.

Construction of the oil pipeline in Dohuk, Kurdistan,
in 2013 [Anadolu]

"In this situation, Russia really has an interest in mediating this diplomatic crisis, as it has strong ties with all the parties involved," Balsamov said.

Balsamov also referred to a trade agreement Erbil struck with Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft, or "Putin's purse" as he called it.

The agreement will see Russia surpass the United States as the biggest oil trader in northern Iraq. While the deal is yet to come into effect, Balsamov claims Russia wants to facilitate peace in the region because of this, driven by its desire to preserve its economic ties.

Read more: How former Trump aide Paul Manafort is profiting from the Kurdish independence referendum with the help of the Russians

And Russia has acted on this drive. After the referendum, when tensions worsened, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Erdogan in Ankara to discuss the issue of Kurdish independence.

Eugene Kogan, a defence and security expert based in Tbilisi, Georgia, told Al-Monitor that it was likely Russia that talked Turkey into backing away from its threat of shutting off oil exports from northern Iraq.

The Kurdish issue presents itself as another golden opportunity for Russia to extend its role in the Middle East

"Erdogan has to listen very carefully to what Putin is telling him," Kogan said. Russia's purchase of Kurdish oil is "exactly what holds Erdogan back from closing the pipeline".

Joost Hiltermann, MENA programme director at the International Crisis Group, believes Russia could look to mediate the ongoing crisis, yet would stop short of supporting independence.

"Of course, Russia would aim to intervene as it would like to derive gain from its business with the Kurdish region," Hiltermann told The New Arab. "But it doesn't need Kurdish independence to achieve this."

It is evidently in Russia's interests to act as a power-broker, not only for its economic security but to expand its role in the region. As with Syria, the Kurdish issue presents itself as another golden opportunity for Moscow to extend its role in the Middle East, and to outmuscle America at the same time.

Yet it does not seem set to rally behind the Kurdish cause. As an ally of the KRG, it may act to promote a better deal for the Kurds through negotiations, which Erbil clearly desires. Yet due to the ongoing hostility towards Kurdish independence - especially from Turkey and Iran, with whom Russia also has strong economic ties - a Kurdish state is unlikely to emerge.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist who has contributed to outlets such as The New Arab, Counterpunch, Middle East Eye and Tribune Magazine. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey