Almost one decade after American troops overthrew Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Kremlin is seeking to regain some of the influence it enjoyed in the country during the near quarter century of Saddam Hussein’s rule.
Russia’s president and prime minister rolled out the red carpet last week for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who came to Moscow with his defense and trade ministers and a large group of business leaders. The first priority was negotiating a $4 billion weapons deal, and Russian President Vladimir Putin got straight to the point.
“Iraqi specialists are familiar with our weapons systems, which are highly recommended,” Mr. Putin told the visiting Iraqi leader. “And I'm confident that we'll find a mutual understanding in these important directions, which will unquestionably increase not only returns in economic trade, but will also increase trust between the two governments.”
Alexander Golts, a military analyst, said that under Saddam Hussein, 90 percent of Iraq’s arms came from Russia, or from its predecessor state, the Soviet Union. The new weapons package is to include air cargo planes and anti-aircraft guns.
“Russian weapons are simpler, not the most modern,” said Golts, who edits the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal. “They can be used by soldiers without a high degree of technological training.”
Business, or foreign policy?
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago, Moscow has tried to make more and more of its arms sales straight commercial transactions.
Although Iraq is rich in oil revenues, Alexei Malashenko, a regional expert for the Carnegie Moscow office, wondered if Moscow’s sales will end up being an expensive foreign policy move for Russia.
"I don't know if they will pay,” he said of the Iraqis. “In the Kremlin, some people hope that Iraq will pay for these arms."
Malashenko and other analysts in Moscow and in Washington say Baghdad is trying to diversify away from its heavy dependence on arms from the United States.
James Jeffrey, former ambassador to Iraq and to Turkey, spoke to VOA about Iraq's plans to buy $4 billion in arms from Russia.
“That would still be a very small portion of what Iraq has received from the United States, and the $12 billion of outstanding orders that it is now working through,” he said in an interview in Washington. “Plus, we have very close counter-terrorism cooperation; we have very close cooperation in the energy field."
Russian energy companies Gazprom and Lukoil are working in Iraq. President Putin urged Prime Minister Maliki to allow Russian companies to produce more oil and gas there.
In addition to trade, the high profile visit had a strong foreign policy element for Russia.
Over the last year, the Kremlin repeatedly took the losing sides in the Arab Spring - in Egypt, in Tunisia and in Libya. Now, Malashenko believes, the Kremlin hopes to rebuild influence in the Arab world, starting with Iraq.
"Maybe they hope in Moscow that, from Iraq, Russia will begin coming back to Middle East,” said Malashenko, an analyst of the Muslim world.
Bridging sectarian divide
In Moscow, Iraq’s prime minister repeatedly praised Russia’s policy of opposing Turkish and Sunni Arab intervention in Syria. In an interview with Russia’s Interfax news agency, he said about Syria, “Our position coincides with Russia’s position on this issue.”
This was well received in Moscow, which suffered the humiliation on Thursday of seeing Turkish fighter jets intercept a Syrian plane that was flying from Moscow to Damascus. Turkish authorities said they confiscated dual use communications equipment. Russia said it was carrying radar equipment.
But Carnegie’s Malashenko stressed that the Kremlin is careful to maintain good relations with Turkey, a historical antagonist in wars dating back to the 16th century.
"Despite special relations between Moscow and regime in Syria, despite this story with aircraft, Russia wants to keep normal relations with Turkey,” he said.
Some analysts speculated that Russia is tilting toward a “Shi'ite crescent” - a loose alliance that would stretch from the Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Syria, Iraq and Iran. Facing this group would be a "Sunni alliance," stretching from Turkey to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies.
Malashenko and others said the weak links to the formation of such a “crescent” are the embattled Assad government in Syria, and the mistrust between Shi'ite Arabs in the Middle East and Shi'ite Persians in Iran.
For now, Russia’s goal is to rebuild influence in Iraq, a key Arab nation. It is avoiding overly committing itself to one side in the region’s growing sectarian divide.