Will the Kremlin support the Kurds and an independence referendum?

September 17, 2017

It is more than a little ironic that the military violence that has scarred Iraq since 2003 is diminishing and being replaced by increased do­mestic political turmoil. The lessening violence is obvious as Baghdad continues fighting rem­nants of the Islamic State (ISIS).
The source of domestic instabil­ity is the long-deferred independ­ence referendum scheduled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for September 25. It was planned for 2014 but became mired in disagreement between the KRG and Iraq’s federal government. The intervening three years, which have seen the KRG take a leading mili­tary role against ISIS, has intensi­fied the disagreements.
The Iraqi government has repeat­edly expressed strong opposition to the KRG vote but it is uncertain if Baghdad has the political and military clout to enforce its will should the Kurds vote for inde­pendence.
There is no international consen­sus on the issue, though the United States and European Union have expressed strong opposition to the referendum, as have neigh­bouring Turkey and Iran. Perhaps Russia, which is expanding its Middle Eastern influence, will play a significant role.
Russia has made it explicit that it views Iraq’s unsettled state as a by-product of bungled US policies. In July, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a Kurdish media source: “If we look at the history of Iraq, especially when in 2003 an illegal war started, when under American leadership foreign forces destroyed that country, what is there now and what is happening will not be easily mended. That certainly did have an impact on Erbil-Baghdad relations.”
This harsh interpretation of contemporary Iraq fits well with Russia’s policy towards the KRG referendum, which it insists must be carried out in conformity with international law and under the auspices of internationally accred­ited observers. Should such condi­tions be met, the Russian govern­ment has said it would support the results of the plebiscite.
That is a significant break with the rest of the foreign community. When asked if Russian support would affect other countries’ views, Hoshyar Zebari, a member of the Kurdistan High Referendum Coun­cil, said: “Very much so. It had a very extraordinary impact. We con­sider it a very progressive stance.”
Russia’s interest in the Kurds is long-standing and extends well beyond diplomacy. Russia has had a consulate in Erbil since 2007 and the KRG maintains representative offices in Moscow.
Russia has an economic interest in relations with the KRG. In July, KRG spokesman Safeen Dizayee said: “In more recent months the KRG signed contracts with several oil and energy companies in Russia and this is developing into a much more solid relationship with Russia and we are quite happy with this.”
These contracts include Gazprom and Rosneft, two of Russia’s largest energy companies. Rosneft and the KRG signed a series of agreements in June with a 20-year coopera­tion time frame on the exploration and production of hydrocarbons. Gazprom oil subsidiary Gazprom Neft is working on three oil projects in Iraqi Kurdistan. It owns a major­ity stake in two of them, Shakal and Halabja.
Assuming the referendum goes ahead, what effect will Russian sup­port for it have on Moscow’s rela­tions with Iran and Turkey? Russian relations with Turkey have been strained for several years because of Moscow’s Syria policy. Russia’s relations with Iran have been much warmer and include economic col­laboration and defence.
As the Kurds move towards the contentious referendum, KRG Pres­ident Masoud Barzani offered to de­lay it in return for the international community’s promise to accept the results of a future vote. Barzani was under international pressure to de­fer or cancel the plebiscite. He said on August 30 that the Kurds needed “guarantees” from the Iraqi govern­ment and parliament, as well as the United States, European Union and the United Nations, that a future vote would be accepted.
However, the international coalition he asked for guarantees responded with resounding silence. So did the Iraqi government. This indicates that if the KRG proceeds with the referendum, it will do so bereft of diplomatic support other than Russia’s. The consequences of Moscow’s assistance on its regional influence remain to be seen.