Tatarstan’s role in Russian foreign policy in Iraq

by Silvia Boltuc

The Russian Federation is looking at Iraq as one of its key allies in the Middle East. The recent Tatneft-Iraq meeting and the Russian increasing involvement in the Iraqi national economic market have highlighted the role that Tatarstan might play in pursuing Moscow Middle Eastern strategy.

Iraq has always had a primary strategic role in the Middle East and in general in the Eurasian chessboard attracting the interests of international powers like the United States and Russia and key regional actors such as Turkey and Iran.

The country has undergone several changes since the international coalition forces led by the United States started the military operation in 2003. We cannot forget the prolonged fight against al-Qaeda and then the Islamic State which has characterized Iraq for more than a decade and also we cannot deny the mistakes that Washington and the international coalition forces have made in managing Iraq post-Saddam Hussein. In fact, since the Shia Government took control the country has experienced sectarian and religious violence and a vacuum of power in strategic zones filled by terrorist organizations.

Since the Soviet Union, the Kremlin has been interested in Iraq. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Moscow has consistently been involved in promoting the country peace process and the Government possibility to lead its political and economic process without external influences. In the last years, Moscow – Baghdad relations started actively developing as demonstrated by several official visits and the rise of commercial trade between the two countries which has reached the amount of around 2 billion dollars.

The fuel and energy sector is one of the most dynamic in Russia-Iraq cooperation. If in the recent past Lukoil, Gazpromneft, and Rosneft were the only Russian companies working in Iraq, recently a new actor is emerging from the Russian panorama: Tatneft.

On April 10th, 2021, the Iraqi Minister of Oil, Ihsan Abdul Jabbar Ismail, paid an official working visit to the Russian company Tatneft to discuss with the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Industry and Trade of the Republic of Tatarstan, Albert Karimov, promising areas of cooperation. The President of the Republic of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov, commented this meeting stressing its country’s desire of enhancing cooperation and partnership with Iraq in petrochemical and engineering products including ships, automobile tires, compressors, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, and agricultural products.

Why this matters? Because Tatarstan might become the primary point of contact between Moscow and Baghdad and Tatneft is an essential asset to achieve this goal since the company confirmed its readiness to continue working on studying the possibility of entering oil and gas projects in Iraq and to participate in official tenders. Actually, at the end of 2019, Tatneft started its accreditation at the Iraqi Ministry of Oil.

It is possible to note that the Russian Federation is promoting partnership with Iraq and the entire Middle East focusing the attention on economic projects and commercial trade. This is also clear because Tatarstan not only offers Iraq cooperation with Tatneft but also discussed a more comprehensive partnership on industrial and medical goods, agricultural products, mining and raw materials, and tourism. If we consider that the majority of the population in Tatarstan is Muslim there is a solid and consistent possibility that the cooperation between Baghdad and Kazan will rapidly improve on cultural issues.

If Russia will be more involved in the Iraqi economic projects, especially in the oil & gas production, and will create a socio-cultural connection with the Iraqi society thanks to the Muslim Tatars, Moscow will achieve the goal of counterbalancing the presence of U.S. and Western companies, military forces, and NGOs in the country.

Considering the Kremlin’s influential role in Syria since the Russian military support to Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian Civil War, if Moscow will fully penetrate the Iraqi society through diplomatic, commercial and cultural activities of those Russian republics and administrative entities where Islam is the most professed religion, the Russian Federation will become a key influential geopolitical actor in the Middle East ‘overthrowing’ the United States and changing also the balances and the strategies of other actors like Iran, Turkey and the Gulf countries.