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Maliki in Moscow: What Iraq's former premier wants from Russia

The former Iraqi prime minister was in Moscow seeking stronger ties to Putin with an eye firmly on taking back the premiership in 2018

Iraqi vice president Nouri al-Maliki's visit to Russia last week put the re-emerging relationship between Baghdad and Moscow in the spotlight. Bilateral relations remain somewhat of a mystery to observers, being overshadowed by Russia’s stronger relations with Syria and Iran.

On his first trip to Russia since 2012, when he came on an official visit as Iraq’s prime minister, Maliki received an unusually high-level reception from Russian officials indicative of the importance that both Moscow and Baghdad attach to their traditionally close ties.

Maliki received an unusually high-level reception from Russian officials indicative of the importance that both Moscow and Baghdad attach to their traditionally close ties

Maliki was hosted in Moscow for a flurry of meetings with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as well as the chairs of the upper and the lower chambers of the Russian parliament, both of which play an important role in formulating the country’s foreign policy agenda. Following a successful visit to Moscow Maliki took a plane to St Petersburg, Russia’s second capital, where he met Vladimir Putin.

Russia and Iraq have historically enjoyed a close relationship. Iraq initially turned to Russia following the overthrow of the Western-backed monarchy by General Qasim in 1958. The USSR was able to access the country’s arms market, becoming a monopolist supplier of weapons to Baghdad, thus cementing its influence over the government for years to come. Despite communism facing resistance in Iraq during the Cold War, Iraq and the Soviet Union managed to build a constructive relationship based on their opposition to the West.

Long-term ties

Despite Moscow’s international influence significantly decreasing during the final years of the Soviet Union and following its collapse, Russia maintained a relationship with Saddam Hussein during the occupation of Kuwait as well as during the US invasion of Iraq. Maliki became the first Iraqi leader to pursue closer ties with Moscow and visited Russia in 2009, the first official visit since 1981.

Meeting the Russian officials, Maliki went to great lengths to play up to his counterparts and emphasise the important role that Moscow plays in the Middle East. He specifically told the chair of the Russian Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko, that "we want bigger openness and closer friendship with Russia”.

But what was most surprising about Maliki’s visible attempts to seek approval and support from the Kremlin was his request for a bigger role for Moscow in Iraq.

“We would like to see Russia’s visible presence in our country, both in terms of politics and defence. It would create the balance that the region, its nations and countries need,” he said after one of the meetings.

While Moscow does play a significant role in Iraq already as evidenced by intensified arms supplies to the country, coordination on Syria as well as cooperation in oil production, Maliki’s statements addressed to Russia may put him at odds with the domestic public as well as other external powers.

Maliki’s eyes on premiership

On the surface it may seem that Maliki is only looking to brag about his “friendship” with Russia so that he could later use it as a trade-off in talks with other partners, a classic strategic move. However, if put in the context of the political situation in Iraq, Maliki’s Russia trip seems to be of great importance to his political ambitions.

Maliki is looking to challenge Haider al Abadi in next year’s elections for the prime minister post, the job the current vice president held from 2006 to 2014

Maliki is looking to challenge Haider al Abadi in next year’s elections for the prime minister post, the job the vice president held from 2006 to 2014, while securing Moscow’s support is something that could help him send necessary signals to domestic as well as external rivals.

As the 2018 general election nears, Maliki - who has been in hot water over the fall of Mosul and the spread of IS in Iraq in 2014 - is looking to position himself as a powerful actor who could return as the prime minister. Maliki’s ambition to challenge Abadi is backed by Iran, which has increasingly replaced the United States as the external power that enjoys the strongest regional influence in Iraq. This, however, may prove to be a problem for the vice president in 2018. The fear of Iran’s influence in Iraq is growing as does resistance to its ambitions, and this is something that Maliki needs to address if he is looking to get the support of Iraqi Sunnis next year.

In this context, Russia’s “political and defence” presence in Iraq would balance that of Iran at least in the public’s eye, offsetting some of the toxic influence that Iran may have in Iraq’s public domain. There is little doubt that it was Tehran that green-lighted al Maliki’s trip to Russia, especially considering reports in Arab media revealing that neither the president nor the prime minister approved the visit. The strong statements about the need for Moscow to balance foreign influence in Iraq could not have been pronounced without Iran’s knowledge of them.

Arms contracts

Russia’s presence in Iraq is in fact set to become more visible in the near future. Baghdad and Moscow signed a large arms deal to supply T-90 tanks to Iraq ahead of Maliki’s visit, a contract that could be worth $1bn, according to Russian military experts. In 2012, the two countries signed a $4.2bn defence package to supply attack helicopters and air defence systems.

These contracts also mean that large numbers of Iraqi military cadres will be trained by the Russians, which traditionally creates strong military-to-military ties.

Russian jets stationed at the air base, in western Syria (AFP)

The question is, however, to what extent Russia is prepared to play a role in Iraq’s politics and act as a unified front with Iran in that regard. There is presently no indication that Moscow is willing to invest in any political power in Iraq, especially if this puts Russia at odds with Tehran.

The military campaign in Syria has demonstrated that despite publicly sticking to each other in the conflict, disagreements abound between Moscow and Tehran, especially on the issue of Syria’s political future.

The Kremlin sees the Iranian campaign in the country as contributing to sectarianism and disrupting Russia-led attempts at political settlement of the conflict. In other words, deeper involvement of Moscow in Iraqi politics may backfire and drive a wedge between the two allies as well as make Russia associated with Maliki’s Iran-backed sectarian policies.

Kurdish-Russian ties

One other issue that brought Maliki to Moscow was that of the Kurdish independence referendum in September. Russia enjoys a very strong relationship with Iraqi Kurds and its leading Barzani clan. Late Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, father of the current president of the autonomous Kurdish Iraqi region, spent 10 years in exile in the Soviet Union and upon his return to Iraq in 1958 enjoyed Soviet support for Kurdistan. The history that the two countries share has created a bond between Moscow and the Barzanis, which is evidenced by regular contacts between the region and the Kremlin as well as by regular visits of the Kurdish leadership to Moscow.

Kurdish officials have continuously called on Russia to supply weapons to them but the Kremlin fears a diplomatic backlash from Baghdad
President Massoud Barzani met with Vladimir Putin for the first time in 2013, while his nephew and Kurdistan’s prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, visits Russia every year. Attending the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in June this year, the prime minister met with President Putin for the first time and signed an oil production agreement with Russia’s Rosneft.

Kurdish officials have continuously called on Russia to supply weapons to them but the Kremlin keeps mum on these prospects fearing a diplomatic backlash from Baghdad as well as from Turkey and Iran.

Erbil’s oil contracts with Moscow are seen as an invitation to support Kurdistan’s independence but the Kremlin has not yet expressed a clear position on the issue. In his recent interview with the Rudaw Kurdish news agency, Lavrov noted that Russia understands the importance of the referendum for the Kurds but maintained that the issue is far bigger than Iraq.

Russia's role after Syria war

There is no doubt that both Erbil and Baghdad make overtures to Moscow to try to win its support. Maliki’s active campaigning against the Kurdish referendum and his attempts to convince Vladimir Putin of the repercussions of the independence vote for regional stability could win him significant backing in Iraq and land him the prime minister job given Abadi’s softer stance on the issue.

Maliki’s visit to Russia gives a sense of a strong personal agenda and is undoubtedly part of his campaign ahead of general elections next year. This, however, raises the question of why Moscow would be willing to play along to his tune if previously it hedged its bets between Erbil and Baghdad. The answer to this question has largely to do with Russia’s perceived role in the Middle East in the post-Syria war era.

The Kremlin is looking for a sustainable presence in the region that would be backed by strong economic and political partnerships rather than the hard power it has in Syria. In this regard, the Russian government has embarked on a campaign to find new regional allies that can help it perpetuate its regional influence, and Iraq has arguably become one of them. 

- Yury Barmin is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council covering the Middle East and North Africa, Moscow’s policy towards the region as well as the conflict in Syria.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with then Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki during their meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on 10 October 2012. Putin hosted the Iraqi prime minister for talks, hoping to take ties to a new level amid agreement between Moscow and Baghdad over the conflict in Syria (AFP)

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