So they say… kind of. According to state-run TASS, Sergei Lavrov met with new Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi during the UN General Assembly currently taking place in New York, and pledged to support them against ISIS:
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed Russia is ready to support Iraq in its efforts to fight the terrorist threat, first of all the one from the Islamic State (IS). Lavrov had a meeting with Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Friday. …
“During the meeting, Lavrov confirmed Russia’s support for Iraq’s independence, territory integrity and sovereignty,” the ministry said. “Moscow is ready to continue supporting Iraq in its efforts in fighting the terrorist threat, and, first of all, the one from the Islamic State.”
“Haider al-Abadi thanked for the principal solidarity position of the Russian Federation with Iraq and its people and stressed Bagdad was aimed at further development of cooperation with Russia in various spheres,” the diplomatic authority said.
“They also discussed the current situation in the Middle East, focusing on joint fighting terrorism on the agreed international legal base.
The missive isn’t exactly clear on what kind of support the Russians want to give Iraq. Not every member of the US-led coalition is offering military support, of course, but Russia might have a particular interest in stamping out ISIS before they regenerate enthusiasm for Islamist unrest in the Caucasus. However, they pointedly did not include the US in their efforts, and made no mention of Syria at all:
The U.S. has been trying to build a broad coalition to tackle ISIS. Russia’s foreign ministry did not mention this Washington-led group Friday, saying only that Russia would protect Iraq’s interests. At least one foreign ministry official has previously said Russia would not join. While Lavrov made the pledge to Iraq, Moscow has been far more cautious over its ally Syria, which has also been partially overrun by ISIS. President Vladimir Putin told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday that any airstrikes in the country should be carried out with Syria’s consent.
Denmark has now joined the coalition, adding seven F-16s to the mix, but only for airstrike in Iraq. Belgium joined yesterday under similar restrictions. This morning, David Cameron is urging the UK to join as well based on the request made by Abadi under the UN’s auspices:
British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that military action against Islamic State (IS) militants could last for “years” Friday as he urged lawmakers to back joining US-led air strikes in Iraq but not in Syria.
Kicking off a crunch debate in the House of Commons, Cameron said the “hallmarks” of the campaign would be “patience and persistence, not shock and awe”.
“This is going to be a mission that will take not just months but years but I believe we have to be prepared for that commitment,” he said, between a barrage of questions from lawmakers about the length and scope of the mission.
The debate has awakened memories in Britain of its role in the deeply unpopular US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 under then prime minister Tony Blair. But Cameron argued that the situation then was entirely different and the government has emphasised that lawmakers will not vote on sending combat troops.
“This is not 2003 but we must not use past mistakes as an excuse for indifference or inaction,” he added.
Again, though, this is only for Iraq, not Syria. The US will have to remain satisfied with its Arab coalition on Syria for the time being. Having more resources in Iraq would allow the US to concentrate more of our own efforts in Syria, a point which these other nations will understand but will politely refrain from acknowledging for as long as they can.
A Russian entry into Iraq might score some short-term political benefits, but it risks losing ground on some strategic issues, including American influence in the region. The Russians already have good relations with Iran and Syria, and pulling Iraq away from the US would give them a monopoly of sorts among Shi’ite nations in the area. The US would be left with just the Sunni Arab nations, and even they haven’t exactly been thrilled with the American disengagement in Iraq that double-crossed the Sunni tribes and led to the rise of ISIS.
Russia might also be playing for leverage in order to escape the consequences of their adventurism in Ukraine. Russian airstrikes on ISIS might be able to keep the fantasy going for a while longer that ground troops will be unnecessary in this fight, so that if they pull out of the kinda-sorta coalition against ISIS the fantasy will collapse. That would create a big impulse to offer Russia incentives to remain in the coalition long enough to kick that can far enough down the road that other world leaders won’t have to address that reality.
If Russia is getting involved against ISIS, that’s good news in the short run, but don’t think for a moment that it’s out of sheer good will.