Russia's growing influence in Iraq: A new challenge for the US

Russia's growing influence in Iraq: A new challenge for the US
Russia is making inroads into the Middle East at the expense of US power.
7 min read
23 September, 2020
Russia is promoting itself as an alternative to US hegemony. [Getty]
Ever since the start of its intervention in Syria in 2015, Russia has made a simultaneous outreach to different conflicted parties to act as peace-broker, promoting itself as an alternative to US hegemony. 

Over the last decade, Russia has patiently built up its presence in Iraq, significantly improving its geopolitical position.

Following the US invasion in 2003, US policy has largely contributed to the instability of an already volatile region, limiting Washington's ability to temper the region's conflicts and tensions. On the contrary, Russia has exploited this, and is making inroads into the Middle East at the expense of US power.

"Outside of Syria, Russian relationships in the Middle East are almost strictly transactional," Ben Connable, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and a retired US Marine Corps intelligence and Middle East Foreign Area officer, told The New Arab

"They pursue advantages without discrimination, ideological boundary, or humanitarian restraints. This gives them tremendous tactical advantage in global competition against the United States."

Russian inroads into Iraq's energy sector

Russian engagement in Iraq accelerated notably after the emergence of the Islamic State (IS), when Iraq desperately needed help but Western powers, notably the US, were initially irresponsive in providing military assistance to Baghdad. On the contrary, Russian assistance was an entry ticket for further deals, and Moscow made inroads into both Iraq and Iraqi-Kurdistan's energy sectors.

Over the last decade, Russia has patiently built up its presence in Iraq, significantly improving its geopolitical position

Energy remains a key sector for the Kremlin's influence in Iraq. After signing a loan deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) worth $3.5 billion, Russian energy giant Rosneft also bought a majority stake in the KRG oil pipeline to Turkey and agreed to construct a parallel gas pipeline. 

The deals were seen as an important leverage tool of the KRG towards central authorities in Baghdad and were often interpreted as quiet support for Kurdish independence claims. Nevertheless, Russia has been ever more active in other parts of the country as well.

While total Russian investment in Iraq's energy sector reached $10 billion last year, Russian officials had stated in May that a number of its companies were going to spend at least $20 billion on oil and gas projects in Iraq in the near term, including Zarubezhneft, Tatneft, and Rosneft-related oil and gas entities.

The Iraq Report: US military drawdown will embolden 
Iran's proxies

Moreover, Russia signed agreements to expand ties with Iraq in electricity generation, agriculture and transportation and, last year, even established a command centre in Baghdad under an intelligence-sharing agreement that includes Iran and Syria.

However, according to Sergey Sukhankin, a researcher at the Jamestown Foundation, investing in the local oil sector may in fact become a waste of money. Given the fact that the rates of supply clearly overarch the demand (and this may become a long-term trend), Russia`s investments in the local oil sector might turn out to be a strategic error.

Russia's links to Iraqi militias

Besides playing a significant role in the country's energy sector, Russia has also created links with various political and military as well as paramilitary factions in Iraq, further challenging the US position in the country.

Russian outreach to Iran-backed militias has been somewhat neglected by Western analysts, although this may further complicate the US foothold in Iraq, given the close ties between Moscow and Tehran. For example, members of the Hashd al-Shaabi militias even travelled to Moscow in September 2019, while Russian ambassador to Iraq Maxim Maximov reportedly met with a Hashd leader Falih al-Fayyadh this August.

While Russia and Iran may have very different views on the post-war structure of the Syrian state, both countries established long-standing partnerships in Syria. Nevertheless, Russia has been very uncomfortable with Iran's military build-up in southern Syria, through strengthening pro-Iranian militias (including Hezbollah) against Israel. However, this may not be the case in Iraq, as propping up anti-American forces in the country serves both Tehran and Moscow.   

An increased Russian presence in Iraq and the broader region is related to confusing and often destructive US policy, which has been either overaggressive or simply inactive

But Russia's direct influence over Iraqi state matters remains limited as Iran has shaped Iraq's military, security and political establishment to the great disappointment of Washington, which despite huge input could not prevent Iran's penetration. 

However, Sukhankin, from the Jamestown Foundation, does not believe that Russia would make a bet on forces like Hashd al-Shaabi militias since Moscow is trying to preserve some sort of equilibrium and it does not want to lose contact with Israel. Therefore, he thinks that Russia will most likely maintain tacit (and semi-official) contacts with all parties involved, since this is one of the distinctive features of Russia's foreign policy in the region.

Connable, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, observes that while the Russians may have a tactical advantage, they have a very hard time leveraging their tactical relationships to create a strategic advantage.

According to him, Russia can cause problems through the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) but probably not do much to undermine US relations with Iraq or displace the United States. "Inconsistent and half-hearted US policy is far more damaging to US interests in Iraq than Russian meddling."

Read more: Warm waters at last: Russia's expanding military footprint in the Middle East

Sukhankin also adds that while Russian ties with Iraqi militias may become a predicament for Washington, Russia – whose resources are very scarce – is risking overstretching its capabilities in the region. Russia may also learn from some of the blunders from the Soviet past, when the USSR, whose actual weight in the Middle East was incomparable with Russia`s current position, was mistakenly convinced that it would be able to exercise some control over the Iraqi leadership in 1990.

In this sense, Russia's deep ties with Iran and influence on some factions in Iraq could be merely an image, but the real or actual weight Moscow has in the region may in fact be much less than it appears, according to Sukhankin.

Could Russia counterbalance the US?

An increased Russian presence in the country and the broader region is related to confusing and often destructive US policy, which under the last three administrations has been either overaggressive or simply inactive on particular issues.

In Connable's opinion, Russia will move like water into the cracks and crevices left by the partial US withdrawal and by the lack of focused US policy. He is convinced that Russia will find ways to undermine US interests and expand their own influence, but their influence in the Middle East after the fall of the Soviet Union has been almost entirely ephemeral, barring Syria. According to him, a clearer and more robust US foreign policy in Iraq could displace Russian influence as quickly as it was amassed.

Russia's direct influence over Iraqi state matters remains limited as Iran has shaped the country's military, security and political establishment

Hence, it seems that there will be a little room left for Moscow in Iraq, as the current US administration made clear that it will not fulfil Iraq's request to withdraw American forces from the country and even threatened to impose sanctions on Baghdad in the case of purchasing Russian arms. Talks about new arms deals have been accelerated after the killing of general Major-General Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran's al-Quds Force, as the security situation deteriorated and anti-American sentiments in the country rapidly grew.

Although Iraq seeks to diversify military supply chains, it is unlikely that Washington will tolerate any major military deals and it may penalise Iraq by applying Countering America's Adversaries Through the Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

In Sukhankin's opinion, Moscow is not likely to invest too many resources in Iraq. Firstly, Russia does not have economic capabilities and secondly, it remembers the bitter lessons of the Soviet experience, when the USSR tried to beat the US on each and every 'battlefield'. This brought very limited results, yet requested huge resources, he noted.

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But the same goes for the US, he added, if in response to Russia`s very limited in scope actions Washington would try to answer by throwing huge resources and pursuing high-level engagement strategy.

However, with the new Iraqi elections approaching next year and a possible win for pro-Iranian factions, Russia's influence in the country may increase further. Some believe that such a possibility would then require some US response.

For Sukhankin it would be a mistake if the US massively invests in an attempt to thwart or confront Russia in this theatre. At the same time, he does not believe that Russia`s influence – which might increase – will have a solid long-term foundation.  

Moreover, Connable highlights that it would be unwise to describe Russia and Iran as allies in any traditional sense of the word as they are in direct and aggressive competition for influence in Syria right now. Iranian leaders are well aware of Russian fickleness and self-interest. 

Therefore, an Iranian win in Iraq does not signal any benefit for Russia. Moreover, an Iranian win in parliament does not necessarily signal a win for Iran either, as the Iraqi street is fed up with Iranian meddling, as was obvious during mass protests earlier this year. 

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence