Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, shakes hands with his Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim al-Jaafari at the end of a joint press conference following their meeting in Moscow on October 23, 2017. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, shakes hands with his Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim al-Jaafari at the end of a joint press conference following their meeting in Moscow on October 23, 2017. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP

Excitement has grown among Iraqi politicians amid reports that Vladimir Putin is planning to pay a visit. The prospect came on the heels of a November 20 visit by Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov to Baghdad, where he met Iraq’s new prime minister, Adel Abdul Mehdi.

Three days later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met the new Iraqi President Barham Salih in Rome, where he extended an invitation to Moscow.

The Russian President is popular in Iraq, with a cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic fanbase. Shiites adore him for coming to the aid of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, seeing him as a natural ally in their war on the Islamic State (ISIS) after he started firing cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea into the Syrian battlefield back in September 2015.

Cult of the strongman

The Kremlin also enjoys excellent relations with Iraqi Kurds, especially the ruling Barzani family, whose elders either spent their exiles in Moscow or were recipients of Russian arms and funds.

Anti-Americanism remains high among many Iraqi Sunnis since the 2003 invasion of their country and the toppling and subsequent execution of Saddam Hussein.

Russian-Iraqi relations reached their zenith under Saddam, especially after the Second Gulf War. When the third started in March 2003, Putin was still new to the family of international strongmen, just entering his third year at the Kremlin. He has since grown into the powerful statesman he is today, developing a strategic interest in countries that were formerly colonies of the French, British, and Americans.

Although it has been nearly 16 years since the toppling of Saddam, the cult of the strongman has not dissipated in Iraqi society, be it Saddam or Putin. In recent years, photos of the Russian president have appeared on car windows, shops, and mobile phones, side-by-side with Syria’s Assad, Iran’s Hasan Rouhani and Shiite strongmen like Muqtada al-Sadr or Hasan Nasrallah of Lebanon. In Shiite strongholds of the Iraqi capital, he is popularly called “Abu Ali Putin” in reference to the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad who is especially revered by Shiite Muslims.

Russian troops have frequently provided air cover for Shiite militias on the Syrian battlefield, engaging ISIS since 2015, making Putin a hero to the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units and others. Adding to the honeymoon is Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi’s background as a former communist, who spent his college years poring over Marxist literature and impressed by the Soviet Union.

Putin vs mercurial Trump

The two-way relationship is vital both for Baghdad and Moscow. Seeing a very undecided ally in Donald Trump, Iraqis of all political stripes and backgrounds have been looking to Putin for insurance.

While Baghdad was a key partner in the US-led international coalition against the Islamic State group, counting on Western airpower, there is concern over a scenario where this support could dry up, especially in the context of unavoidable Iranian influence. Washington has thus far allowed Baghdad a sanctions waiver to import needed Iranian petroleum, but that permission expires next week. Iraqi politicians, in this context, are seeking to hedge their bets further east.

During the last few months of the Obama administration, Russia delivered 20 military choppers to the Iraqi Army (Mi-28NE) in April 2016, followed by 48 anti-armor attack helicopters (48 Mi-28N). Putin was making good use of election mania that was gripping America at the time, when Washington was too busy to challenge his overtures towards Iraq. Iraqi generals had taken note of these helicopters when they demolished ISIS defense lines in Palmyra that March.

Counter-terrorism soldiers in the Iraqi Army have been training on and using Orsis T-5000 high precision sniper rifles, all coming from Russia. Iraq has also hinted at a desire to obtain the S-400 missile system, recently sent to Syria. Last September, the Russian deputy chief of staff was in Baghdad for talks with his Syrian and Iranian counterparts.

The United States, which had spent billions of dollars on securing a foothold in Iraq, was not present or invited, although the talks focused on counter-terrorism.

Economic cooperation

More is yet to come, Mikhail Bogdanov told Adel Abdul Mehdi in November, promising a wide range of military, economic, and technical agreements. Trade now stands at US$1.4 billion, rising from $900 million in 2016.

A joint commission for trade, economic, scientific, and technical cooperation is expected to assemble in Baghdad next March.

Two prominent energy firms, Lukoil and Gazprom, are already operational in southern Iraq. Gazprom set up a gas plant at the Badra field back in December 2017, as Iraqi authorities hope to start extracting natural gas. Currently, Iraq must import its natural gas.

Iraqi oil from the city of Kirkuk is sent to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, where it enters the world market, using a pipeline owned by Russia’s Rosneft Cooperation.

Iraq is also relying on Russian assistance to combat its chronic electricity shortage problem, which triggered large anti-government demonstrations in the city of Basra last summer.

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