Russia / Mideast

Putin eyes visit to Baghdad amid growing Russian-Iraqi contacts

Article Summary
Contacts between Moscow and Baghdad have increased lately and President Putin may visit Iraq early next year.

Lately, official Russian-Iraqi contacts have been intensifying noticeably.

On Nov. 23, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Iraqi President Barham Salih met behind closed doors within the agenda of the Mediterranean Dialogue in Rome. On Nov. 20-21, Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian deputy foreign minister and special presidential envoy for the Middle East and North Africa, met all of Iraq's key decision-makers when he was in Baghdad. The sides agreed to further develop relations and make efforts to hold a meeting on the highest level.

Russian officials' increased contacts with their Iraqi counterparts have become a virtual necessity as a result of the changes in Iraq's domestic politics brought about by the latest electoral cycle. The number, level, and scale of the meetings are indeed exceptional, and all the more so considering the constant foreign trips Iraqi politicians themselves make.

For instance, Bogdanov met the new Iraqi president shortly after Salih’s visits to Iran and Saudi Arabia and just before his departure to Italy; moreover, the Russian diplomat managed to meet Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, Finance Minister Fuad Hussein, Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali al-Hakim and parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi. Bogdanov’s visit may have been aimed solely at the verification of agreements and outlining the future directions of the partnership; however, it has become clear that the agenda turned out to be rather substantial.

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Every meeting included both sides highlighting their dedication to the partnership development. Summing up his discussion with Bogdanov, Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister as well as former vice president of Iraq, said the sides had emphasized the “importance of strengthening bilateral relations where Iraq can draw lessons from Russia, and where there can be bilateral economic cooperation. Russia can play an important role in serving stability in the Middle East.” 

Halbousi has mentioned learning from Russia’s experience in infrastructure construction and in the energy industry, the fields of economy he is especially interested in. Many think Russia may help Iraq become self-sufficient in natural gas — currently, the country is an importer. In this respect, one of the Russian energy giants working in Iraq, Gazprom Neft, seems to be more beneficial as a partner than its counterparts. On Dec. 6, 2017, Gazprom Neft placed a gas plant at the Badra field in operation, a project unique for Iraq.

Developing the work in this direction is likely to benefit both parties. Following the meeting between Lavrov and Salih at the Mediterranean Dialogue forum in Italy, the Russian Foreign Ministry said “key aspects of bilateral cooperation between Russia and Iraq, [and] the ways to develop it” were discussed. “The sides emphasized the importance of active implementation of the resources provided by the Intergovernmental Commission for Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation, supposed to gather for the next, 8th session in early 2019 in Baghdad,” the statement said.

During the talks, Bogdanov conveyed invitations to visit Russia to the new Iraqi president and prime minister on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin; the Iraqi politicians reciprocated by inviting him to visit Baghdad. Russia and Iraq are indeed drawing up the agenda for Putin’s visit.

The sides confirmed their willingness to maintain the four-sided format of the coordination and information center in Baghdad between Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. In this aspect, Iraq is significant for Russia as a factor in the Syrian conflict, security and counterterrorism issues. According to the public statements, Bogdanov’s negotiations with Hussein about the economy turned out to be even more fruitful. The Middle Eastern politician emphasized the “profound history of the relations” between the nations and highlighted the importance of bank sector support — mostly within the context of the purchase of Russian-produced equipment.

The Russian side focused on the efforts made to organize the 8th session of the Intergovernmental Commission for Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation, planned to be held in Baghdad in early 2019. According to some sources, the event is supposed to take place in March.

Bogdanov and Hussein also likely touched upon such subjects as the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, the sanctions imposed on Iran and the consequent launch and development of oil production in the Kirkuk area of Iraq, in which Americans, among others, had taken a significant part. It should be noted that the oil from Kirkuk is supplied to the Turkish port of Ceyhan and enters the world market from there, being transferred through the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan using a pipeline controlled Russia's Rosneft corporation.

Moscow continues to be a convenient and beneficial partner for Baghdad. Russia is an additional alternative Iraq has to relationships with the United States and Iran. Iraq is not just aiming to return to regional politics; it is trying to attract actors interested in taking mutually beneficial actions. Moscow, without a doubt, is one such pragmatic and influential party. Strengthening the contacts between Russian and Iraqi politicians not only allows the exchange of opinions but also clears the ground for a more profound progress in relations, which have always been multifaceted.

The invitation exchange between the national leaders indicates that common topics indeed exis and that relations are free from toxicity and can be developed further. However, the particular timing of Putin’s visit to Baghdad is still unknown; moreover, it is unclear whether the visit itself is set in stone. The trip is supposed to take place no earlier than the spring of 2019; if the plans are realized and Putin does actually visit Baghdad next year, that will be proof that Iraq is now playing a significant role in Moscow’s geopolitical agenda.

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Ruslan Mamedov is the MENA program coordinator at the Russian International Affairs Council. He is also a researcher with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University).  On Twitter: @Ruslan_CL

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