Russia has avoided taking a clear stance on Kurdistan's independence aspirations. Photo: Rudaw
By Timur Akhmetov
Although Moscow acknowledges Kurdish aspirations to independence, it nevertheless has been avoiding taking a clear stance on the issue of the referendum in the Kurdistan Region. Russian officials may have current dynamics within Iraq in view: Kurds have expanded their control over vast swaths of territories in the fight against ISIS, and their desire to legitimize status of these newly gained territories as a part of the Kurdish autonomy may be driving Erbil into holding a referendum.
But the absence of a clear stance on the issue of independence was a long-time policy of Russia. The ambiguity and argumentation of why Russia neither favors nor opposes Kurdistan’s independence bid tells a lot not only about Russian policy on the Kurds, but more importantly it may shed light on Russia’s vision for the whole Middle East.
First of all, when arguing against immediate measures of the Kurds to hold a referendum, Russia points at the possible political implications of such a step for the whole region, implying that any serious changes in Iraq may cause tectonic shifts in neighbouring Turkey, Iran, and Syria. On the other hand, Russia, since its involvement in the Syria civil war, has indicated on several occasions that it favors an idea of giving unspecified scope of autonomy to ethnic minorities, including, of course, Syrian Kurds. Moreover, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs at the peak of the diplomatic crisis between Moscow and Ankara brought up the problem of discrimination against the Kurdish minority in Turkey, thus further contributing to regionalization of the Kurdish issue.
Furthermore, when talking about the Kurds' right to self-determination, Russia tends to underline supremacy of the constitutional order and prefers dealing with the central government in Baghdad. On the other hand, Russia rejects any attempts to compare the case of Iraqi Kurdistan with Crimea, South Ossetia or Abkhazia, where people decided their political future by challenging central authorities. The logical conclusion from these examples holds that Russian decision-makers believe that political order in the region may be shaped by world powers, who ultimately decide to what extent local societies should enjoy independence or autonomy. When political processes are shaped by bigger powers (in the manner of a stable bipolarity during the Cold War), instability can be minimized because global powers usually control more things that local polities would otherwise do and as a result can better handle and carry out necessary changes.
Secondly, despite the fact that Russia perceives itself as a global power which along with other powers should channel political processes in the Middle East, it finds the region less and less susceptible to outer influence and far less conductive to any long-term policies due to high unpredictability of events. This is the reason why Russian officials put forward a thesis of tragic implications of the referendum for the whole region. Fragmentation of the regional political space may lead to deeper instability and due to perplexed geopolitical interests around Iraq and Kurdish-majority regions any attempt to reconfigure political settings may lead to deterioration of the security situation and, as a result, to the establishment of an environment where a democratic government can't thrive.
But still it is insecurity and absence of stable government that may contribute to rising influence of Russia in the Middle East. Rhetoric on the inherent instability and binary logic that puts human rights and democracy to the political instability opens opportunities for Russia to increase its influence by using what it can do best: offer diplomatic support to the central governments and provide help in strengthening security infrastructure by selling arms. Russia can't rely on soft-power tools: it doesn't have ideology and economic resources that could expand its influence in the region.
Among the reasons why Russia is reluctant to approve the Kurdish referendum one can also name realization of the limitedness of its own influence in the region and, as a result, its reliance on regional powers. By constantly reminding that any attempt to change the status of the Kurdish polity must proceed within dialogue with Baghdad, Russia signals that a central government has a bigger role in its vision of the Middle East. Today, good relations with Baghdad doesn't only contribute to stable development of strategic relations with Iran, through Baghdad Russia can potentially reach the Arab world, who, as we know it, opposes any attempts of the Kurds to redefine the status-quo in Syria and Iraq.
Lack of Russian support for the Kurds' unilateral initiatives to change Iraq's borders can also be explained by how Russia really acknowledges Turkey’s and Iran's influence in the region. It is not only about possible escalation of violence as a result of secession attempts, but more about Ankara’s and Tehran's ability to spoil the game global powers are trying to play in the region. If Russia goes against concerns of them both, it can lose the balance in its own competition with the USA. To succeed against the global influence of the latter, Russia must act in the regions that are very critical to the American interests. It means Russia has to have a good level of predictability of the processes in the region and by nurturing good relations with regional trendsetters Russia tries to channel regional dynamics in its own favor.
It is worth noting that Russian policy in the Middle East is not stable and coherent as one might expect. Russia is a relatively new player in the region, it has lost many positions in the Middle East, many political ties were gone forever as the region was changing over the last 20 years. But in light of Kurdish ambitions, modern Russia's foreign policy in the Middle East does still reveal similarity with the Soviet vision: Moscow prefers dealing with the established state actors. It furthermore sees the world and the region from a state-centric perspective and thus treats any regional non-state actors with great suspicion.
Timur Akhmetov is a Turkey-based Russian researcher and freelance journalist specializing in Turkish-Russian relations. He is a Turkey expert at the Russian International Affairs Council and has previously interned at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the International Strategic Research Organization in Ankara .