As al-Qaeda-funded Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to advance steadily in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's weakened government turned to Russia for military assistance. The government's proffered reason? U.S. fighter jets are not arriving quickly enough. Russia, on the other hand, immediately came to the rescue — or so it seems.
"One day after the Russian deputy foreign minister said that Moscow would not stand by idly, the Kremlin delivered the first of 25 Sukhoi fighter jets to Iraq," said Theodore Karasik, director of research at Dubai's Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, as reported by Bloomberg.com. "The delivery is to illustrate the Kremlin's quick action to help the Iraqi government fight the opposition."
Importantly, Karasik added, according to the same report, "The move is also part of guaranteeing that any future government in Baghdad will be tied to Moscow for military equipment. It is smart business as usual."
I have written before about Russia's growing influence in the Middle East, including in Iraq, in the context of U.S. retreat from the region. That the Iraqi government is turning to Russia for help in the context of U.S. ambivalence is the latest example of this trend, which should worry U.S. policymakers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's involvement in Iraq is about two things: protecting his energy interests and securing regional influence at the expense of the West. Putin views this situation through a zero-sum competition prism, even if Western leaders do not.
On Putin's energy interests, Iraq is connected with Syria and Iran. In 2010, the governments of Iraq, Iran and Syria inked a $10 billion deal to construct a natural gas pipeline connecting Europe with Iran's South Pars field, set to open between 2016 and 2018, depending on press reports. For Russia's waning economy, which is built primarily on oil and gas revenues, connection to this pipeline is strategically important. The deal allows Russia to keep its influence over the pipelines and thereby retain influence over Europe. Traditionally a major consumer of Russia's gas, Europe has been working on reducing its energy dependence on Russia.
In the meantime, Qatar, which holds the world's second-largest gas fields, plans an alternate supply route to Europe — through Iraq and Turkey, bypassing Syria and Iran. Such a route, if it were to materialize, would successfully reduce European dependence on Russia's gas. Putin therefore has an added reason to get involved in Iraq to protect his energy interests against those of Qatar.
There is little reason to believe Russia's assistance will ultimately help curtail radical Islamist influence in Iraq and more broadly in the region. Although Putin is concerned about radical Islamism at home, he has no qualms engaging it abroad when it suits his interests, or at least turning a blind eye to it.
Prior to the Syrian civil war, for example, Moscow said nothing as the Syrian regime facilitated travel of suicide bombers into Iraq. Putin also continues to provide diplomatic cover to Hezbollah and Iran. Hamas leaders made repeated visits to Moscow in recent years. Reportedly, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal is visiting in July of this year at the Kremlin's invitation.
As the crisis in Iraq erupted earlier in June, the Russian Foreign Ministry came out with a snarky "I told you so."
"[I]t is necessary to draw proper conclusions about how dangerous and unacceptable it is to flirt with extremists of all stripes ... and intervene, including by force, in the internal affairs of sovereign states," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement. "What is happening in Iraq — is an illustration of a complete failure of the adventure, started primarily by the United States and Britain," said Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov.
These statements only highlight the cynicism and hypocrisy of the Russian government. In this context, Moscow's involvement in Iraq ultimately continues to erode American influence with traditional U.S. allies.