Kurdish Media: Russia’s Support for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Independence Vote Is Ambiguous

ERBIL, IRAQ - SEPTEMBER 22: Supporters wave flags and chant slogans inside the Erbil Stadium while waiting to hear Kurdish President Masoud Barzani speak during a rally for the upcoming referendum for independence of Kurdistan on September 22, 2017 in Erbil, Iraq. The Kurdish Regional government is preparing to hold …
Chris McGrath/Getty

Ambivalence swirls around Russia’s support for the September 25 independence referendum to be held by the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, argues an analysis published by the Kurdish news agency Rudaw.

Written by Russian Timur Akhmetov, a Kremlin-Turkish relations expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), the Rudaw report notes:

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 [Islamic State], and their desire to legitimize the 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.

Akhmetov describes Russia’s alleged ambivalence towards Kurdistan independence as a “power play.”

In July, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Rudaw that Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) “must be” allowed to hold the referendum because Iraqi Kurds have the “right” to express their aspirations to break away from Iran-allied Baghdad.

However, it is uncertain whether that remains the official position of Russia.

The Kremlin has been largely mum about the Kurdish independence issue since Lavrov spoke to Rudaw.

Along with Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria have come out against the KRG’s independence efforts out of concern that it will motivate the Kurdish populations within their borders to follow suit.

Russia is Iran’s ally in lending support to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

In late August, Israeli newspaper Haaretz argued that Russia also opposes the referendum, expected to pass on September 25.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin-controlled oil company Rosneft recently announced that it is investing nearly $1 billion in gas pipelines in Iraqi Kurdistan, a move that would expand Russia’s “commitment to the region ahead of its independence vote to help it become a major exporter of gas to Turkey and Europe,” noted Reuters.

Soon after meeting with Iraq’s Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, who reportedly stressed Baghdad’s opposition to Kurdish independence, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said Russia would support a “peaceful” implementation of the referendum.

“We see the referendum as the expression of the ambitions of the Kurdish people and as far as I know the majority of the population of the Kurdish autonomous region support this referendum,” said Lavrov, adding, “We are ready to help Baghdad and Erbil in a process that would respect both sides.”

“The desires and legal goals of the Kurds must be fulfilled like that of all other peoples, and according to the right that they have within the international law and that is tied to the decision which we understand has been made in Erbil to hold a referendum,” he added.

In his analysis, Akhmetov blasted Russia’s position on Kurdish independence as ambiguous.

“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,” argues the expert.

Opposition to the independence vote has made for some strange bedfellows, particularly U.S.-designated state-sponsor of terror Iran and the United States itself.

Various analysts have identified Iran’s enemy Israel has been as the only country that explicitly supports Iraqi Kurdistan’s desire to become an independent state.

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