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Russia in Iraq

January 16, 2018

Russia in Iraq

Visiting Khmeimim Air Base near the Syrian city of Latakia, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in early December 2017 that Moscow had accomplished its objectives in Syria and would withdraw the bulk of its forces from the country. However, Putin also stated that Russia would retain the Khmeimim Air Base, as well as the naval installation at Tartus. Moreover, Russian private military contractors will remain in Syria, primarily to secure energy infrastructure. As of late November, one company, Wagner Group, had 2,000 to 3,000 troops in Syria.

Following Russia’s declaration on Syria, Moscow has publicly attached focus to that country’s eastern neighbor, Iraq. Russian First Deputy Defense Minister Valery Gerasimov stated that Moscow was prepared to engage the United States on avenues to counter the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq. The offer to coordinate on armed intervention comes as the Iraqi military launches an offensive against IS forces in the western desert regions of the country.

The Russian statement on military involvement in Iraq follows a series of agreements Moscow and Baghdad, as well as arrangements with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

In mid-November, Rosneft, a Russian state-owned oil firm, forwarded a payment valued at $1.3 billion USD to the KRG pursuant to an oil production-sharing deal. The agreement encompasses Rosneft’s operations on five oil production blocks in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, based on a deal between the Russian energy company and Erbil from late October. In mid-December, President Putin asserted that Rosneft’s operations in KRG territory would be good for the autonomous region, the rest of Iraq, and for Russia.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak visited Iraq in mid-December 2017. After meeting with Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, Novak said that the Iraqi central government had no issues with Russian energy operations in the KRG. Despite he Russian claims, officials in Baghdad nonetheless see energy as a point of contention between the Iraqi government and the restive autonomous Kurdish region. The Iraqi authorities countered Novak’s comments with their own statement, describing oil as a national resource for the whole of Iraq.

Also during Novak’s time in Iraq, Baghdad reportedly offered Russian construction firms the opportunity to support an oil pipeline between Kirkuk and Ceyhan, Turkey. Iraqi Oil Minister Jabar al Luaibi was opening contact with Rosneft regarding the Kirkuk-Ceyhan project. The new pipeline was initially developed by the KRG after IS militants destroyed oil infrastructure the federal government had previously built along that route.

Evan Gottesman for iStrategic International

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