Follow the Money (in the Near East)

All too often when tracing a government’s foreign policy one gets snowed in under a blizzard of meaningless verbiage deliberately issued to obfuscate what is really going on. Mr Lavrov at the Russian Foreign Ministry is a past master at this practice. He decorates the shop window with Christmas displays of peace and goodwill while the state carries on using brute force and covert action to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries where convenient to its own interests. Nothing therefore beats watching what Russia does rather than listening too literally to what it says. “Follow the money”, in the Hollywood catchphrase.

Ethnic separatism endlessly complicated the reformation of Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The rebellion and suppression in Chechnya were a blood-stained blot on the democratisation of Russia under Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. The root causes remain. These thorny issues trouble Russia still today. Thus in foreign policy until very recently Russia like China has seemed firmly opposed to the break up of existing states which the West appeared ready to contemplate with disinterested or, under Russian eyes, not so disinterested complacency. In international public law, treaties have to be observed, regardless of their origination. Except of course where separatism could be used to Russian advantage: i.e., in Ukraine. There the alternative doctrine holds: the terms of treaties remain in effect only in so far as the original underlying conditions prevail.

Particularly in the Near East, however, the entire argument about sustaining Assad was that existing states should feel secure even if their borders were drawn in 1919 by irresponsible colonial Powers interested only in dividing up the spoils. Igor Sechin, one of the “siloviki” around President Putin, runs Rosneft, the all-powerful oil company effectively owned (75%), certainly run by the Russian state. In Egypt as in China the company acts as an arm of the Russian state; if a profit is also made, so much the better.

Yet Rosneft under Sechin has been consistent in going along with Kurdish separatism by sustaining the Kurdish oil company through financial credits and has now agreed to participate in a gas pipeline through to Turkey. When asked whether this might not complicate matters for the central government in Iraq, Sechin retorted: “this is none of our business”.  Iraqi central government  forces have taken the oil main producing area of Kurdistan. The Russians will thus find that it is their business just as neighbouring Iran and Turkey are convinced that independent Kurdistan, as voted for by Kurds in late September, is a fatal threat to their own territorial integrity.

The omens are not good. If armed resistance by the Kurds results, then Rosneft assets will go up in flames and along with it an important piece of Russia’s foreign policy jigsaw.