Russia’s High-Stakes Game in Iraq: Expanding Their Role in the Middle East


2014-01-19 By Stephen Blank

Ten years after the American invasion Iraq is in danger of disintegration.  Its stability cannot be taken for granted or even assumed.

Evidently Iraq is not far from being a failed state and Syria is already deep in the throes of protracted civil war.

Both states may be racked for years by internal conflict, violence, instability, and the “mushrooming” of terrorist groups, given the anarchy prevailing there.[i]

At the end of 2013 the U.S. had to rush sizable amounts of weapons to Iraq to stave off a major Sunni offensive in the form of Iraqi Al-Qaeda attacks, an insurgency that threatens to destabilize Iraq.[ii]

Meanwhile the Iraqi Kurdish authorities (Kurdistan Regional Government-KRG) are moving openly and steadily towards independence, mainly connected with exporting energy located in Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey and, though less well known, Russia.[iii]  This situation exposes both Iraq’s fragility and the overall collapse of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

According to the National Counterterrorism Center, there are more terrorists today in Iraq than at the height of 2006, the previous peak.[iv]  Surveying this chaos, David Rothkopf writes that, not only are terrorist groups multiplying in Iraq, Syria, the Arabian Peninsula,  Africa, Afghanistan,  Pakistan,  and Central Asia, (one might ad the North Caucasus too)  taken together their number adds up to more self-proclaimed Islamic radical groups than ever before in world history.[v]

Furthermore the inconstancy, vacillation, tone deafness, and weakness of American policy throughout the Middle East, has engendered a situation where America’s three wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and more generally against Islamic terrorism are likely to be seen by regional powers to have ended in defeat.[vi]

This Middle Eastern situation opens up possibilities for opportunistic anti-American powers like Russia to make gains, and the Iraqi case conforms to that general pattern.

Energy and access to its revenues play a major role in determining the capabilities of various Iraqi protagonists:  the Shiite- dominated government, the Sunni, and Kurdish communities, and foreign governments who have a vital interest in Iraqi energy, namely Russia and Turkey to achieve their respective objectives in and around Iraq.

The Russian Agenda

There is no doubting the seriousness of Russia’s intent to expand their role in the region.
In October 2013 President Putin called Iraq an important partner in the Middle East and announced Russia’s support for the government’s efforts to stabilize Iraq, its readiness to help strengthen Iraq’s security agencies, and readiness to develop both cooperation in energy and  “military-technical cooperation,” i.e. arms sales.[vii]

Thus Russia seeks to gain not only money but also leverage over Iraqi security agencies and through energy and arms sales influence the Iraqi government’s a future course.

Indeed, it has already begun to sell Iraq weapons, specifically anti-aircraft weapons and helicopters.[viii]  Meanwhile Russia is playing its energy card for all its worth in Iraq and across the Middle East as its recent energy deals with Lebanon and Syria indicates.  In October 2013 Lebanon agreed with Russia on conditions for tenders for exploring five blocks within its territorial waters and admitted Russian firms Novatek, Rosneft, Gazprom, and Lukoil to that list of companies able to participate in those tenders [ix]

Iraq signed a $4.3 billion deal with Moscow to buy Russian weapons and military equipment, including around 40 Mi-35 and Mi-28NE attack helicopters. Credit Photo: Novosti
Iraq signed a $4.3 billion deal with Moscow to buy Russian weapons and military equipment, including around 40 Mi-35 and Mi-28NE attack helicopters. Credit Photo: Novosti

At the end of 2013 Russia also signed a 25-year energy deal with Syria, to explore an 845 square mile zone from Tartus to Barniss extending 45 miles into the Mediterranean.[x]  This deal not only generates a major cash infusion to the Assad government, it also ensures Russia’s long-term leverage with Syria and presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, itself, an area of intense energy competition, and in the broader Middle East energy game.

These deals essentially permit Russia to intrude into the complex energy rivalries around Cyprus, Israel, and Syria,  and Lebanon. 

And since Moscow has already intervened on behalf of Cyprus in its quarrels with Turkey over gas finds in the Eastern Mediterranean by sending its navy to demonstrate support for Cyprus, and I clearly angling for an  air base at  Paphos in Cyprus, those moves plus its  gunboat  diplomacy in Syria and  strong support for Assad  show  just how inextricably linked Russia’s  energy policy, diplomacy, and  displays of force are in this region.[xi]

Russia’s actions in Iraq cannot be abstracted from its objectives in the overall Middle Eastern region as a whole. 

Certainly these deals plus those with Iraq, and efforts to get into Iran, Israel, Cyprus, and Turkey confirm that for Russia, if not for other major actors, “Geopolitical power is less about the projection of military prowess and more about access and control of resources and infrastructure.” [xii]

Russia’s energy deals in the Middle East, if not elsewhere also demonstrate the fundamentally strategic and political motives behind its overall energy policy.

For Russia, energy security means “weaponizing” energy. 

It is not a philosophy that aims at some future self-sufficient ‘clean energy’ paradise.  It is a doctrine for today, which takes the world as it is, vulnerable and addicted to ‘dirty energy’ such as natural gas, oil, and coal, and exploits that dependence to make Russia stronger.  With this cynical way of looking at the world, much akin to the way Colombian drug lords regard cocaine addicts, Russia pursues and energy security that is quite alien to what most Americans dreamily think it to be.[xiii]

In addition the linkage of energy and arms deal represents another important factor in Russian policy towards Iraq and throughout the Middle East, North, and Sub-Saharan Africa.  Increasingly it appears that the actual sequence of deals does not matter.  So it does not matter whether energy or arms sales come first.  But increasingly they are linked.  Whatever benefits they bring to the host state they have been correlated in Russian policy for some time.

It was already clear by 2009 that, arms sales and gas deals appear to be correlated in Algeria and Libya’s cases.  For example, Russia tried for a long time before the Libyan revolution in 2011 to consummate a major arms deal with Libya.

According to foreign intelligence reports, the Russians seek by all means to restore military cooperation ties with the North African country and secure their market share there but their move is likely to irritate the Americans, British and French who helped rebel forces to oust Gadhafi after four-decades of autocratic rule.[xiv]

Moscow also apparently regarded and may still regard Libya as a potential corridor to the broader African market given its continuing efforts to get back into its arms market.[xv]   At that time Russia also apparently tied arms sales to its quest for a naval base on Libya’s coast.[xvi]   Russia also tried to gain access with ENI to Libyan gas fields and assets.[xvii]

We may expect a similar process now that Egypt has shown its desire to buy Russian weapons as a sign of its displeasure with Washington.[xviii]

And more recently in Vietnam, Syria and Cyprus we have seen this linkage between arms sales, energy deals, and Russia’s quest for naval or air bases.[xix]   More recently Russian arms sales to Iraq appear to have been labeled as a vital priority for Russia.[xx]  One cannot therefore rule out the eventuality of Moscow seeking some sort of permanent lodgment in Iraq or Kurdistan.

Thus in this context we may also add that both energy deals and arms sales share common purposes, namely:

  • Russia sells arms and energy abroad for the following reasons;
  • It seeks to convince itself and external audiences in the form of governments that it is a great international military power that can produce the entire range of competitive military systems for domestic use and foreign exports.
  • It still needs to have money coming into to defense industrial firms in order to sustain them, since many depend on arms sales to survive
  • It seeks to gain influence upon its customers’ foreign and defense policies and on the policies of third parties with a vital interest in what those customers do, e.g.  Israel regarding arms sales to Syria and Iran
  • It also seeks to enter into cooperative relationships with both consumers like India and also with potential rivals in Europe and the USA and even sell weapons to NATO.
  • It seeks to use arms sales as one instrument of a policy intended to challenge US interests and policies in several key regions and prevent the consolidation of a US-led order in them, e.g. Latin America, the Middle East, or globally with regard to its relationship with China

Foreign observers have also confirmed this conclusion.

For example, Thomas Gomart has written,

The lack of interests in the operational dimension of events in Chechnya is often accompanied by a reading of Russian arms sales that is often incomplete. 

Russia has three main clients, which cannot but be of interest to the [NATO} Alliance:  India, China, and Iran, with which it officially maintains civilian nuclear cooperation. 

Furthermore, Russia also sells weapons systems to Syria, Venezuela, and Algeria.  With these sales Russia is looking for foreign earnings and to keep its defense industry afloat, while at the same time exercising a global influence. 

Russia is thus cultivating an intermediate international position between the Western powers and those countries that are overtly seeking to challenge the established order. 

Moscow considers that its diplomatic room for maneuver lies in a continuous alternation between inclusion and exclusion with respect to Western standards, while at the same time being fundamentally wary of any excessively rapid rise to power by countries like China, India, or Iran.   

The result is a paradoxical situation in which short-term interests (earnings from arms sales and immediate political influence) run up against long-term ones (military balance and demographical balance) with respect to rising future powers.  This raises the issue of whether Russians and Westerners intend to meet the rise of these nations by neutralizing each other or by working together. 

This in turn raises the question of whether their main security interests lie inside or outside the US/Europe/Russian triangle.[xxi]

Thus it is not possible to say that Russia’s arms sales policy is motivated almost entirely by commercial considerations.[xxii]  Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees defense industry, claimed that Russia’s arms sales establishment constitutes a second foreign policy organization.[xxiii]

Russia’s Presence in Iraq

It is a significant indicator of Iraq’s weakness that Russia, despite Iraqi protests, has successfully managed to secure large-scale investments in both the Iraqi and Kurdish energy sectors at little or no cost.   Russia has been extremely alert to the possibility that Western firms might dominate the recovering Iraqi energy industry and that Iraqi energy could be used to increase supplies to the projected “southern corridor” or now defunct Nabucco pipelines to Europe.

And although it deprecated these possibilities publicly, it clearly acted differently in private. Indeed, its concerns grew in 2011 when it looked like the Syrian government might fall as a result of the civil war there and leave Moscow bereft of any real Arab partners.[xxiv]

Already by then Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was complaining that Iraq and the KRG did not provide the necessary assistance to Russian businessmen to invest there.  This almost certainly included energy firms.[xxv]

But when opportunities presented themselves Moscow acted with alacrity. 

In 2012 Exxon-Mobil gave up its project in West Qurna because it could obtain better terms from  the KRG in Iraqi Kurdistan.  This decision triggered great anger in Baghdad who was and is determined to prevent Kurdistan from entering into foreign energy deals independently of its authority for obvious political reason.  And in order to replace Exxon-Mobil Baghdad looked to Russian and/or Chinese firms.[xxvi]

However, Moscow, true to its congenital determination to have a card to play with everyone, and its principled tactic (i.e. this tactic is one of Moscow’s basic principles of action) of complete flexibility regarding   issues of states’ territorial integrity and self-determination has been active in energy deals in Kurdistan as well with Lukoil playing a major role as an energy exporter in Kurdistan.[xxvii]

However, during 2012 Baghdad surprisingly held its tongue about Lukoil’s dealings there, presumably because it wanted an arms deal with Russia.  This should not be interpreted as Iraq’s acquiescence in Russian machinations because in August 2012 Iraq threatened to sanction Gazprom if it signed an oil deal with Kurdistan.[xxviii]

n late 2009 a consortium of Gazprom Neft, Kogas (Korea), Petronas (Malaysia) and TPAO (Turkey) was pronounced the winner of the Iraqi Government tender for the development of the Badra field located in the Wasit Province located in the eastern part of the country. Gazprom Neft, as the project operator, holds a 30 per cent stake in the project, Kogas – 22.5 per cent, Petronas – 15 per cent and TPAO – 7.5 per cent. The Iraqi government represented in the project by the Iraqi Oil Exploration Company holds a 25 per cent stake. In February 2012 Gazprom Neft received approval from the Iraqi Government to enter into the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) agreement to build a central oil gathering and processing facility at Badra. Credit: Gasprom
In late 2009 a consortium of Gazprom Neft, Kogas (Korea), Petronas (Malaysia) and TPAO (Turkey) was pronounced the winner of the Iraqi Government tender for the development of the Badra field located in the Wasit Province located in the eastern part of the country.
Gazprom Neft, as the project operator, holds a 30 per cent stake in the project, Kogas – 22.5 per cent, Petronas – 15 per cent and TPAO – 7.5 per cent. The Iraqi government represented in the project by the Iraqi Oil Exploration Company holds a 25 per cent stake.
In February 2012 Gazprom Neft received approval from the Iraqi Government to enter into the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) agreement to build a central oil gathering and processing facility at Badra. Credit: Gasprom

Instead this shows that Iraq temporarily maintained silence about Lukoil because of the priority it attached to reopening the West Qurna field and possibly also due to the necessity of acquiring Russian arms..

That arms deal was negotiated in October 2012 where Iraq was supposed to obtain $4.2 Billion worth of Russian Mi-28 helicopters and 42 Pantsir anti-air missiles.  This deal would have made Russia the second largest foreign supplier to Iraq after the United States and dramatically enhance Russia’s presence in Iraq.[xxix]  At the same time Lukoil announced that it was seeking foreign partners with experience at West Qurna-2, clearly indicating its interest in replacing Exxon-Mobil and Baghdad’s apparent willingness to encourage its entry into that field.[xxx]

However, within a month of these two linked announcements it became clear that the arms deal was off.  Iraq announced that it was not going through with the arms deal because of corruption, though it is unclear whose corruption, Russian or Iraqi, was meant here and, of course, both sides are equally plausible perpetrators of this corruption.

But beyond that it appears that Russia, despite the seeming invitation to Lukoil, was maintaining its contacts in Kurdistan and now the Iraqi government was now not willing to look the other way and remain silent.  Therefore it started making public noises about its displeasure with the Russian presence in Kurdistan and ultimately cancelled the arms sale as well.[xxxi]  Therefore it seems clear that at least for Iraq the October 2012 deal on weapons and probably West Qurna was contingent upon Russia winding up its gas flirtation with the Kurds.

Moscow, on the other hand was not willing to yield so potentially profitable an economic and political gain, and typically tried to have its cake and eat it too only to encounter a roadblock.  Indeed, Russian interest in Kurdish energy started once the EU expressed a similar interest in 2010.

Thus a key driver of Russian policy in Iraq in particular and the Middle East in general is its unceasing efforts not only to gain leverage on states through participation in energy projects, but equally, if not more importantly, to deny Europe access to gas and oil other than Russia’s.[xxxii] 

These geopolitical goals remain at the hart of Russia’s regional policy as a whole though obviously they are not the only vital issues confronting Russia there.

Had Russia failed to obtain the right to explore West Qurna that would have represented a sizable loss.  West Qurna-2 is the world’s second largest undeveloped field with recoverable oil reserves of almost 14 billion barrels. The twenty-year contract to develop it was signed in 2010 and Lukoil has a 56.25% equity in the project.  And Lukoil might have had to sell some of its stake to find a partner.

Even so its stake could reach 150,000/BPD by the end of 2013 while daily output might reach 400,000/BPD in 2014 when Lukoil starts receiving compensation for its costs.  And according to the contract it should support daily production there of 1.8 million barrels over a 13 year period.[xxxiii]   Moreover, Lukoil hopes to use the oil form West Qurna to supply large amounts of oil and other fuel to energy consumers in Asia.[xxxiv]

Yet none of this deterred Moscow from making deals with Kurdistan in 2012 .  In 2012 Gazpromneft inked two deals with Kurdish authorities becoming the fourth  major oil  company to enter into Iraqi Kurdistan  Gazpromneft acquired a 60% share in the 1780KM2 Garmian Block and 80 % of the 474KM2 Shakal Block.[xxxv]  This deal  came about  even as Russia was negotiating with Iraq over arms sales and West Qurna.

Meanwhile Iraq sought to force Gazprom to cancel its deals with Kurdistan in November 2012 or else lose access to the Badra oilfield near Iran that it had acquired in 2009 and that was supposed to begin production in August 2013.  Iraq’s government termed any contract with Kurdistan illegal as it was not approved by the Iraqi government.[xxxvi]  Apparently the triggering factor behind Iraqi anger was that Lukoil bought oil from Kurdistan without Baghdad’s awareness or consent.[xxxvii]

Nevertheless Moscow, at least for now, has decided to retain and even expand its dealings with Kurdistan even if that runs the risk of antagonizing Iraq.  Russia hosted  the president of the Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani,  in February 2013.  At these meetings both sides discussed key political questions and energy issues and possibilities for further Russian energy contracts with Kurdish authorities.[xxxviii].  At those talks, and despite Baghdad’s remonstrations with Moscow, Gazpromneft singed a deal to enter into a Kurdish oil project., the Halabja Block.[xxxix]  This deal duly marked the third Russian energy project in Kurdistan.  Yet there is no sign that anything happened to Lukoil projects in Iraq like West Qurna-2.

Indeed, as of November 2013 Lukoil was forecasting the opening of West Quran-2 the end of the first quarter of 2014.[xl]

Even more striking is the fact that at the very same time as Prime Minister Maliki warned Gazpromneft about cooperating with the Kurds and bypassing Baghdad, he also said that the Russian arms deal that had been suspended was now moving forward and that he does not rule out new deals.  In fact he also invited Russian energy firms to participate in new energy tenders.[xli]

Meanwhile the previous investigation into alleged corruption linked to the 2012-13 arms deal was closed due to tremendous pressure on the Iraqi judiciary.[xlii]

Baghdad’s efforts to impose conditions on Russian energy presence in Iraq and Kurdistan and link those conditions to the acquisition of Russian arms indicates the complexities once governments link together arms sales and energy for obviously smaller, less powerful states than Russia and China can play this game too.

Despite the February 2013 and subsequent deals with Kurdistan President Putin apparently kept the Iraqi government informed of what it is doing and may also be acting in this fashion to distance Kurdistan from a flirtation with Turkey because both Russia and Iraq oppose Turkey’s claims to being an energy hub and have a shared interest in keeping Turkey from getting access to Kurdish energy holdings as well.[xliii]

Indeed were Turkey to become a major energy hub it would then, as is the case with the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP) originating in Azerbaijan, export that gas or oil to other European countries and thus undercut Russia’s showpiece South Stream project, the main instrument of its foreign and energy policy to isolate Ukraine and enhance Russian influence throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

But there are larger dimensions to this triangle of Russia, Turkey, and Iraq beyond that fact. 

Were Turkey to emancipate itself further from dependence on Russian energy not only would this limit Russia’s influence and the utility of the South Stream project,  it would also enhance Azerbaijan’s smaller but  competitive project of selling the  Balkans and  Central Europe,  gas from the Tans-Anatolian  pipeline or TANAP that  will now connect  at the Turkish Bulgarian border to the Trans-Adriatic  Pipeline (TAP).

Russia needs to keep Turkey as dependent as possible on its gas in order to  retain  a means of pressure  and influence on Turkey, but also  to preserve its position in the Balkans and even to some degree in the Caucasus and Middle East.

And if it cannot prevent the Kurds form selling their gas to Turkey, its objective is to  then becomes to have a foot in both  the Iraqi and KRG camps and ensure that  Russia gets its cut or rents for the sale o Kurdish  and Iraqi gas to Turkey.

In other words Russian policy is completely opportunistic, obstructive to genuine stability in the Middle East, intended to maximize Russian flexibility and freedom of maneuver without committing itself irrevocably to any one side except insofar as they oppose the US and lastly a classic a manifestation of the protection racket familiar to us from the Mafia.

While Turkey’s deals with the KRG clearly reflect Iraq’s weakness and dependence on Russian energy firms and arms sellers; it also suggests that Baghdad’s greater fear is of Turkey’s growing amity with Iraqi Kurdistan as expressed in much larger energy deals than those Russia has forged.

The Turkish Dimension

Turkey, if anything has even bigger energy deals with Kurdistan and Iraq underway.

Turkey’s driving ambition is to become an energy hub for all of Eurasia while at the same time its strong economic growth over the past decade has led to ever higher demands for gas and oil if not other forms of energy.

A link to Iraqi Kurdistan not only adds to its energy supply, and creates another network of pipelines terminating in Turkey, and also gives Ankara enormous leverage in its efforts to resolve its own domestic Kurdish insurgency and prevent a Kurdish state from arising within Turkey as it tries to resolve its domestic Kurdish issue by negotiations and reforms at home.  Iraqi Kurdish aims appear to conform with these Turkish objectives because access to Turkey opens up access to European markets, enhances its chances for recognition as an independent state.

As a result during 2013 exports to Turkey have taken off. much to Baghdad’s discomfiture.  Indeed the Iraqi government views Kurdish-Turkey deals as a threat to Iraq’s sovereignty and has raised the possibility that Turkey is exporting Kurdish militants to Iraq to stir up anti-Iraqi activities there.[xliv]

The prominent Turkish energy analysts Mehmet Ogutcu argues that Turkey could become a game changer in northern Iraq and this can force Russia, for example to lower the price of its gas exports to Turkey upon which Turkey now depends.  Pipelines form Kurdistan thus reduce Turkey’s dependence on Russian gas and Moscow’s leverage on Turkey’s economy and policies abroad, undoubtedly another reason why Moscow may not be entirely happy about having to compete with Turkey in Iraqi Kurdistan and why it formally supports Iraq’s integrity even as it undermines it.[xlv]  Indeed Ogutcu argues as well that a veritable economic integration is occurring between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey.[xlvi]

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Strelna near St. Petersburg, November 22, 2013. REUTERS/Aleksey Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Kremlin (RUSSIA
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Strelna near St. Petersburg, November 22, 2013. REUTERS/Aleksey Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Kremlin (RUSSIA

As of late 2013 the Turkish-Kurdish issue intensified in importance as Iraq gives signs of being once again torn apart., In November Turkey  offered formation of a tripartite mechanism between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG),  the Iraqi government and  itself for the sale of northern Iraq’s oil and gas. Soon after singing five contracts with for exploration of northern Iraqi hydrocarbons.  In these 13 blocks it will cooperate with Exxon Mobil, indicating the latter firm’s continuing commitment to the KRG.  But the Iraqi government retaliated by banning Turkish private planes form fly into Kurdish airspace.[xlvii]

However, the movement for greater Kurdish autonomy in Iraq,  if not Syria  has continued to grow and could force even the US to become more fully engaged with this issue given its interests in  Iraq, Syria,  and Turkey.[xlviii]

As of the end of 2013 and early 2014 all signs point to intensifying tensions among the three parties that has certainly alarmed both Baghdad and Washington. 

Apart from the fighting between Sunni terrorists and the Iraqi army the Kurds’ apparently secretly negotiated deal to sell Turkey 300,000 BPD of oil a day and the starting of shipments on January 1, 2014.[xlix]  The KRG march to a state is clearly by now highly developed.

The Iraqi Kurds run their own autonomous and relatively prosperous region in northern Iraq, control their own p[orts of entry, field their own army and intelligence service and conduct their own foreign policy.  The Kurdish region also has separate visa rule, — [and] has served as a safe haven for  Sunni officials looking to escape the reach of the Shiite-led government,  including former Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi, accused in 2011 of terrorism.[l]

If exports of oil reach around 450,000 BPD then the KTG ‘s earnings will equal those handed by Baghdad to the KRG in 2013 ($12 Billion) and US oil companies like Exxon and Chevron have defied Washington by signing multiple exploration and production deals with the KRG in Erbil.  The KRG is also moving to control the distribution of energy earnings to remove that from Baghdad’s control.  The agreements singed with Turkey in November 2013 to build a new pipeline carrying a million BPD of Kurdish oil to Turkey and Europe and another pipeline to export gas to Turkey up to 10BCM annually and eventually double that amount has become the trigger of this crisis.

Turkey hopes that economic interdependence with Iraqi Kurdistan will forestall the Kurdish drive for independence or autonomy in Turkey and among Syrian Kurds.[li]

While the US publicly criticized Turkey’s policy in early 2013 it has done little since then either to moderate Turkish policy or induce US companies to submit their deals with the KRG to Baghdad’s control.[lii]  Thus its effort to rush weapons to Iraq may stave off Al-Qaeda in Iraq but it will do little to answer the urgent question of how to rebuild a functioning Iraqi state.


Clearly chaos in the region offers Russia opportunities to expand its leverage with both  Baghdad and Erbil.

Though Russia has previously expressed its support for a unified Iraq, its behavior shows it to be more interested in securing a lasting place in the Middle East where it can exploit its regional connections to force the US to take it seriously.

Its great power game is more focused on obstructing Washington then it is on stabilizing the Middle East as it clearly intends to be entirely independent and support either or both sides as its perceived interests at any given moment incline it to do. 

It will hunt with the Iraqi dogs and run with the Kurdish hare at the same time while also trying try to prevent Turkey from reducing its excessive dependence on Russian energy.  Russia’s main interests are status, influence, profits, and prevention of a truly stable conflict-free regional situation where it cannot then insert itself as a supposed equal to Washington.  Moscow may be trying to organize a counter-hegemonic bloc composed of Iran, Iraq, and Syria s it did in 1978-79 to thwart US policy but ultimately it is committed to its own interests and perceptions of them to such a degree that it can only be what this writer  previously called a spirit of eternal negation, like Goethe’s Mephistopheles.[liii]

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad walk with their weapons in the Aleppo town of Naqaren, after claiming to have regained control of the town, January 13, 2014. REUTERS/George Ourfalian. Russia has provided crucial arms lifeline to Assad.
Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad walk with their weapons in the Aleppo town of Naqaren, after claiming to have regained control of the town, January 13, 2014.
REUTERS/George Ourfalian. Russia has provided crucial arms lifeline to Assad.

These wheels within wheels also highlight the never-ending complexity of energy and arms policies in the Middle East because they clearly intersect with the local rivalries among peoples and states that provide opportunities and pretexts for great power intervention and subsequent great power manipulation of these fissures within the Middle Eastern state system.

It also is clear that every conceivable player is taking part in these convoluted energy and arms sales deals.  And those deals do not represent the hidden or submerged running of guns for Eastern Europe and potentially other venues to the Middle East.[liv]

Russia, for its part, is a more than willing participant in these endless games.  As Fedor Lukyanov, the Editor of Russia in Global Affairs, observes, the Arab Spring showed that Russia was not a key player in the Middle East.  But it also shows that Russia is aiming for a situation where if it does not participate in or support the resolution of a major issue, e.g. Syria’s civil war, or the Kurdish issue in Iraq, it will not be possible for anyone  seriously to influence the course of events there.

Thus Moscow, as it aspired to be since Yevgeny Primakov’s tenure as Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, still seeks to play the role of a great equalizer against the US and any other potential rivals in the Middle East.[lv] 

And in Syria’s case it has clearly succeeded.

These rivals include Turkey, at least insofar as Turkish pretensions to being an energy hub are concerned because both Moscow and Baghdad do not want Turkey to gain unfettered access to Kurdish energy sources, especially if that portends the disintegration of the Iraqi state and there were signs in 2012 that Turkey was beginning to get such access.[lvi]

Moreover, it is likely that Russian interest in Iraq, its energy assets, and the possibilities of selling it weapons will grow since Syria appears to be deep into the maelstrom of a protracted civil war that will make it impossible to conduct any kind of coherent long-term policy with or towards that country.

Indeed, it is clear that Russia sees the Middle East as an area in which it must contend   but not only with the US and its European allies, but also against threats to its great power ambitions and energy policies, a factor that increasingly could undermine its hitherto close ties with Turkey.[lvii]

In this context, the recent reports (denied in Moscow) of an impending energy deal with Iran by which Russia would essentially break the embargo on Iranian energy in advance of a final agreement on  nuclear issues with it demonstrates its unilateralism, desire to  recreate a  kind of “Shiite” bloc or reincarnation of he Rejectionist Front of 1978-79 against US influence in the Middle East and thwart, albeit more subtly  Turkish ambitions as well.

In this strategic environment, energy policy, as in the CIS and Europe serves Moscow as an analogue to a Swiss Army knife. 

It is an instrument of policy hat cuts simultaneously in many directions, rewarding and dividing Iraq, restraining Turkey, and encouraging Iran to remain anti-American and anti-Western while being tied in some manner to Russian energy.

[i] Oded Eran and Galia Lindenstrauss, “Global Political Trends Center: The Frenemy Next Door: Turkey and Israel  in a Changing Middle East,  accessed, January 7, 2014,

[ii] Gordon Lubold, “U.S. Missiles and Drones Won’t Make Iraq Any Safer,”,  December 27, 2013; Yasir Ghazi and Tim Arango, “Qaeda-Aligned Militants Threaten Key Iraqi Cities,”  New York Times,  January 3, 2014,

[iii] David B.  Ottaway, “Iraq’s Kurdistan Takes a Giant Step Toward Independence,  Middle East Program, Viewpoints,  Woodrow Wilson Center,  No. 46, December, 2013

[iv] David Rothkopf, “The Year America’s Post-9/11 Foreign Policy Failed: And the Nine Other Top Foreign Policy Headlines of 2014, “, December 31, 2013

[v] ibid.

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Moscow, Rossiya TV ,  in Russian, October 23,  2013,  Open Source Center, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Central Eurasia, Henceforth FBIS SOV, October 22, 2013

[viii] Ekaterina Turyshcheva, “Russia Restarts Defence Supplies to Iraq,”  Russia and India Report,   October 22, 2013,

[ix] “Rossiya  I Livan Podpisali Ramochnoe Soglasheniye o Sotrudnichestvo b Oblasti Energetiki,” (Russia and Lebanon Signed a Framework Agreement on Cooperation in the Energy Field,), October 10, 2013

[x] Nabih Bulos, “Russia Firm Signs 25 Year Energy Deal  With Syria,”  Los Angeles Times, December 26, 2013,

[xi] Stephen Blank, ”Russia Seeks Naval and Air Bases in Cyprus,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, July 17, 2013; Jean Christou, ”Greece and Russia Rally Behind Cyprus,” Cyprus Mail, October 2, 2011,; “Turkey, Israel, Greece and Russia Mobilizing Over Cyprus,”, October 5, 2011; Moscow,  Interfax, in Russian, in English, May 7, 2012, FBIS SOV, May 7, 2012

[xii] Corey Johnson and B. Matthew Derrick, “ A Splintered Heartland: Russia, Europe and the Geopolitics of Networked Energy Infrastructure,” Geopolitics, XVII,  NO. 3, 2012, p. 495

[xiii] Cited in Keir Giles,  Russian Interests in Sub-Saharan Africa, Carlisle Barracks,  P: Strategic Studies Institute,  US Army War College, 2013, p. 26

[xiv] “Russia Seeks to Sale Weaponry to Libya,” The North Africa Post,.  March 11, 2013,

[xv] Dmitry Litovkin, “Russian Arms Are Going to Africa Once Again,” Moscow, Izvestiya, in Russian, October 8, 2009, FBIS SOV, October 8, 2009

[xvi] Janusz Bugajski, Dismantling the West: Russia’s Atlantic Agenda,, Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2007  p. 50

[xvii] “Russia has 5 arms deals with Libya – Rosoboroneksport,” RIA Novosti, October 7, 2009,; “DJ Libya To Buy Russian Fighter Jets In $1 Bln Arms Deal – Report,” AFP, October 19, 2009,; “Libyan Leader Seeks Energy Deals With Russia,” Reuters, November 1, 2008

[xviii] “Russia Offering Egypt Helicopters, Air Defense Systems,”, November 15,  2013

[xix] Stephen Blank, ”Russia Seeks Naval and Air Bases in Cyprus,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, July 17, 2013; Stephen Blank, ”Russia’s Growing Ties With Vietnam,” The Diplomat,, September 19, 2013

[xx] “For Russia, $4.3 Billion Arms Deal With Iraq Is Vital,”, July 16, 2013

[xxi] Thomas Gomart, “NATO-Russia Is the ‘Russian Question’ European,?” Politique Etrangere English Edition, No. 4, 2009, p. 132

[xxii] Bobo Lo, Russia’s Eastern Direction- – Distinguishing the Real From the Vertical, Russie.NEI. Reports No. 17, Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, 2014,, p. 21

[xxiii] “”Rogozin: The Forward Movement of Russian ‘Oboronki ‘Products – Is the Most Important of Supporting and Capitalizing Russia’s Relations with Other Countries.”], Moscow, Interfax-AVN Online, in English,  December 11, 2013,  FBIS SOV,  December 11, 2013

[xxiv] Aziz Barzani, “Russia and the Kurdistan Region: a Rapprochement,”, accessed on January 7, 2014; Eldar Kasayev, “Iraqi Kurdistan and the Future of the Russian Gas Business,”,  October 9, 2010

[xxv] Ibidem.,

[xxvi] “Iraq Wants Russians to Replace Exxon at West Qurna: Report,” Reuters, Moscow, October 11, 2012

[xxvii] James Sherr, Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia’s Influence Abroad: London: Chatham House, 2013, pp. 61-62

[xxviii] “Irak Planiruet Primenit’ Sanktsii Protiv Gazprom na v Sudba Ego Sotrudnichestva s Kurdskoi Avtonomiei,’ (Iraq Plans to Impose Sanctions Against Gazprom Should Gazprom Cooperate with the Autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq), Neft Rossii  (Oil of Russia) August 3, 2012,

[xxix] FBIS SOV, November 12, 2012,; Fyodor Lukyanov, “Why Iraq Refused Russian Arms,” Russia Beyond the Headlines, November 15, 2012,

[xxx] “Lukoil Seeks West Qurna-2 Partners With Iraq Experience,” Interfax, October 11, 2012

[xxxi] FBIS SOV, November 12, 2012

[xxxii] Barzani; Kasayev

[xxxiii] “Lukoil Seeks West Qurna-2 Partners With Iraq Experience,”

[xxxiv] “CEO: Russia’s Lukoil to Boost Asia Footpr9int With West,” Prime Business News Agency,, October 14, 2013

[xxxv] Sinan Salaheddin, “Russia’s Gazprom Neft Inks Deals With Iraq Kurds,” Seattle Times and Associated Press, August 2, 2012,

[xxxvi] “Iraq Pressures Russia’s Gazprom to Quit Kurdistan,” BBC News, November 9, 2012

[xxxvii] “Russia’s Lukoil “Exported” Kurdish Oil””, November 28, 2012

[xxxviii] M.K. Bhadrakumar, “Russia Renews Kurdish Bonds,” Asia Times Online, February 25, 2013,

[xxxix] “Russian Gazprom Neft Takes 60% Stake in Iraqi Kurdistan Oil Project,”,  February 27, 2013; “Russia Gazprom Neft Signs  Kurdistan Oil Project Deal-Reports,”  Reuters,  February 26, 2013

[xl] “Russia’s Lukoil Says Will Start West Qurna-2 by End of 1Q,”, November 26, 2013

[xli] Shafaq Newsi, in English, July 3, 2013, FBIS SOV, July 3, 2013; Moscow Interfax,  in English, FBIS SOV, July 2, 2013;

[xlii] London, Al-Sharqiyah Newsi, in Arabic, May 13, 2013,  FBIS SOV,  May 13, 2013

[xliii] M.K. Bhadrakumar, “Russia Renews Kurdish Bonds,”, February 27, 2013

[xliv] Moscow, Interfax, in English, July 2, 20-13, FBIS SOV, July 2, 2013

[xlv] “Turkey Can B3 Game-Maker in Iraq’s North,  Eastern Med,” Istanbul,  Hurriyet Daily News Online, in English,  February 25, 2013,  FBIS SOV,  February 25, 2013

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] “Turkey Bids to Solve Oil Row With Baghdad, KRG,”  Hurriyet Daily New2s,  December 3, 2013,

[xlviii] Venda Ozer, “New Kurdish Equation, Turkey’s New Game Plan,” Istanbul,  Hurriyet Daily News,  in English,  November 12, 2013,  FBIS SOV,  November 12, 2013

[xlix] Tim Arango and Clifford Krauss, “Kurds’ Oil Deals With Turkey Raise Fears of Fissures in Iraq,” New York times, December 2, 2013.; “Showdown on Iraqi Kurds’ Oil, Gas Is Looming,” UPI, December 11, 2013,; “Iraq’s Kurds Begin Oil Exports to Turkey,”  Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty , January 2, 2014,

[l] Arango and Krauss

[li] Ottaway, pp. 1-3

[lii] Bhadrakumar

[liii] Stephen Blank,” The Spirit of Eternal Negation: Russia’s Hour in the Middle East,” Stephen J. Blank, Ed., Mediterranean Security Into the Coming Millennium, Carlisle Barracks, Pa.: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 1999, pp. 443-513

[liv] Robert Booth, “Wikileaks Cables: US Fights Flow of Arms  From Eastern Europe to  Its Enemies,” London, in English, December 7, 2010,  FBIS SOV, December 7, 2010

[lv] Lukyanov, Blank, pp. 443-513

[lvi] “Russia’s LUKOIL Joins Rush to Export Kurdish Oil,” Reuters, November 28, 2012

[lvii] Stephen Blank with Younkyoo Kim,, “Russo-Turkish Divergence (Part I): The Security Dimension,” MERIA, XVI, No. 1, March, 2012, April 27, 2012; “Russo-Turkish Divergence (Part II): The Energy Dimension,”  MERIA Middle East Review of International Affairs, XVI, NO . 3, September, 2012