Iraqi Kurdistan's Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani (L back) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) meet on the sidelines of the 2017 St Petersburg International Economic Forum
It is generally believed that the referendum on the independence of the Kurdistan region is not just a local issue, and not only will it be the beginning for the breakdown of Iraq, but also it will create a similar threat to its neighbors. For this reason, the announcement of the date of the referendum has been accompanied by a widespread wave of reactions at various domestic and foreign levels, and these reactions still continue to surface. The Kurdish regional government has recently announced that a referendum on the independence will be held on September 25, 2017 in areas under its control. While the complicated situation of the post- ISIS Iraq not only can provide this historic opportunity for the Kurds, but also can face them with great obstacles. The United States and the European Union have declared their firm opposition to holding a referendum on the independence of the Kurdistan Region, but despite the fact that Russians are said to be against this action as well, they have shown no firm reaction yet. Meanwhile, the position of Moscow is important for Tehran, first, because of the existing regional cooperation between Russia and Iran, and second, due to the Russian international position and the weight given to the independence of the Kurdistan Region as the result of the Russian support for it. Accordingly, looking at the relationship between Russia and the Kurdistan Region, the present article assesses the possible approach of the Russians to the referendum on the independence of the Kurdistan Region.
Relations between Russia and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq
Moscow established its consulate in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2007, and since then Russia refused to have independent and wide relations with the Kurdistan Region to prevent any reaction from Baghdad, and that is the reason behind why in recent years Russia even did not participate in a number of profitable projects, however, apparently conditions have dramatically changed in recent months. Although the Russians have managed to conclude some agreements with the Kurdistan Region through Baghdad-Erbil agreement, Moscow-Erbil relations now seem to be more independent.
Securing three blocks to explore, Gazprom has received the permission for extracting hydrocarbons in the Kurdistan Region in the past few years, and Rosneft, another Russian oil company, signed cooperation agreements with the Kurdish regional authorities. Russia has also provided military weapons to Iraqi Kurds during the war years with the ISIS, but much of this was done through the central government of Iraq to show that Russia did not intend to harm the integrity of Iraq. But this policy seems to be changing. By the beginning of 2017, the Russians have entered a direct bilateral oil deal with Iraqi Kurdistan. Of course, the soft position of Baghdad on Western companies has made Russia take advantage of this opportunity. In this regard, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Nechirvan Barzani, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan regional government, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in St Petersburg, and announced that he would support the Kurdish regional agreements with Russian oil companies.
However, Russia has not formally responded to this issue since the date was announced for the referendum on the independence of the Kurdistan Region. Russia’s latest stance on the independence of Iraqi Kurds goes back to statements said by Russian Consulate General, Viktor Simakov, in Erbil two years ago. He said Moscow had supported the Iraqi territorial integrity under the international law. However, in another part of his statement, he also talked about Russian support for nations’ self-determination. Kurdistan24 news agency reported that the youth branch of the Russian ruling party, United Russia Party, advocating the independence of the Kurdistan Region, announced its readiness to participate in monitoring the referendum.
Assessing the Reasons behind the Russian Position
In fact, given the mentioned circumstances, it can be said that Russia’s position on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is very conservative. The reason for this stance is that the Russians are facing two very difficult choices. Some Russian analysts and diplomats believe that as the result of a historical process, the region will eventually face the formation of a Kurdish state, and given the current situation in Iraq, which is still engaged in war with the ISIS, and the key role played by the Kurds in the fight against the ISIS, now they have found the opportunity to make their claims for forming an independent state. In other words, this group believes that Moscow should be prepared for such a development. A member of the Russian Presidential Commission on Interethnic Relations also said in 2015 that “in some form or other, they Kurds will get their statehood - sooner or later”.
On the other hand, some Russian experts believe that given the political consequences of such a change for Russian regional allies - Iran and Syria, as well as Turkey and Iraq -, the Kremlin must continue to support powerful powers as countries who guarantee the regional stability.
But unlike all the assessments and analyzes on the consequences of the Kurdish independence and the breakdown of countries like Syria and Iraq, it should be noted that Russia does not have clear interests in supporting or opposing the Kurdish independence, and the reasons for this claim can be as follows:
1. The Kurdish issue is not a matter of competition between Russia and the United States, therefore, it cannot be considered as a trump card for either side.
2. At the same time, the Russians are not able to determine their common interests with any of the parties in the context of opposing or supporting the Kurdish independence.
3. The Kurds also have no favorable opinion of Russia, and have not sought to attract Moscow’s support.
4. Under the Western sanctions, however, Russia has been able to get a share in the energy field of the Kurdistan Region.
On this basis, though the EU and the US State Department said in separate statements that the referendum on the independence of the Kurdistan Region would weaken the fight against the ISIS, Russia has not taken a formal position in this regard.
As a result, it can be said that, given the existing signs, one should not, negatively or positively, exaggerate about Russia’s position on the independence of the Kurdistan Region. Of course, the position of the Russians suggests that for them, the Kurds will undoubtedly play a significant role in the future of the Middle East. In addition to the attractiveness of the Kurdish regional energy projects for the Russians to take part in them, it should be mentioned that the geopolitics of the Kurdistan Region, close to Turkey, Iran, and Syria, is as significant to Russia as it is attractive to other international powers. Despite its increased relations with Iran, the restored relations with Turkey and continued military presence in Syria, Russia is still looking to find more partners in the region to increase its opportunities in the Middle East and, as a result, to increase its weight in the region’s strategic equations. But it does not seem that the Kurds can be hopeful to give concessions to Russia to receive its possible support for the independence of the Kurdistan Region, contrary to the international trend, because not only unsolved problems and tensions between Russia and the United States have increased, but also any instability in the Middle East would threaten the Russian interests.
© Center for Strategic Research
Afifeh Abedi, fellow at Center for Strategic Research (CSR), is the contributor to IRAS.
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