One of the most notable political developments of the past several years has been the gradual reemergence of Russia as a rising regional military and diplomatic power in the Middle East, renewing connections that were adversely affected by the 1991 collapse the Soviet Union. Beyond Syria, Russia is re-engaging with Iraq. On March 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aide for military-technical cooperation, Vladimir Kozhin, stated that Russia would renew armaments shipments to Iraq, telling reporters, “Iraq is our traditional partner, and it is boosting its potential by ordering our equipment. Currently we are equipping an entire armored brigade there. Deliveries of our armored equipment are under way, which will significantly increase the country’s defense potential” (RIA Novosti, March 12).
During the reign of Saddam Hussein, first the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation was Iraq’s largest weapons supplier. The total value of the contracts for the supply of Soviet weapons in 1958–1990 was $30.5 billion at current prices, for which, before the invasion of Kuwait, Iraq managed to pay $22.4 billion (Voennoe Obozrenie, July 5, 2015). Unlike many of Moscow’s client states that received massive amounts of Soviet weaponry either for free or for loans that were never repaid, Iraq paid for its armaments both with hard currency and oil that was easily sold for cash.
After the United States–led military operation overthrew Hussein in 2003, the new government in Baghdad shifted its arms procurement to US weaponry. The Iraqi army currently deploys M1 Abrams main battle tanks, built by General Dynamics.
On February 20, 2018, the Iraqi chief of the General Staff, Osman Ganimi, said that Iraq’s Ministry of Defense had received the first batch of 36 contracted T-90S tanks, with another 37 tanks scheduled for delivery by late April. The aim of the deal with Russia, Ganimi declared, was “increasing the combat capacity of armored troops” (TASS, March 12).
In 2012, in the aftermath of several visits to Russia by an Iraqi delegation headed by the former minister of defense, Saadun Dulaimi, and a subsequent meeting of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev with his counterpart, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, several contracts were signed for the delivery of weapons and military equipment to Iraq worth roughly $4.2 billion. Iraq’s purchases included 48 Pantsir-C1 anti-aircraft missile systems and up to 40 Mi-28NE attack helicopters, with the first helicopters under the contract arriving in 2014 (Lenta, July 30, 2014).
Above and beyond Iraq’s purchase of 36 Russian T-90 tanks, discussions for further Iraqi purchases of Russian weaponry are underway. On February 27, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari said that Baghdad was also discussing acquiring the Russian S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft missile system to enhance his country’s defensive capabilities. He noted, “At the moment, this issue is being studied in the most careful way” (Kommersant, February 27). Al-Jafari added that Iraq had suffered losses in confronting Islamic State jihadists and, consequently, was determined to take decisive measures to rebuild and increase its defensive capabilities (Biznes Rossii, February 28).
Echoing al-Jafari, Iraqi deputy Hakim Al-Zamili, who heads the Iraqi parliament’s defense committee, remarked about the recent armaments contract, “Iraq has the right to own cutting-edge weapons to defend its territory and air space from air attacks. Terrorism heavily targets our country in places sacred to every Iraqi. There are signs and warnings that extremists might use aircraft for attacks on those shrines, which causes lots of worry and anxiety in the country, as happened after an attack on Samarra’s holy places.” The Iraqi lawmaker was referring to al-Qaeda’s February 2006 bombing of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest sites, which unleashed years of Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife. Al-Zamili concluded, “So Iraq intends to possess such a system as the S-400 to defend the land, shrines and air space. We are serious about it” (Rudaw Media Network, March 3).
Russia’s discussions with Iraq about increasing its armaments purchases up to and including S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems is yet further evidence that Middle Eastern countries are increasingly drawn toward acquiring Russian military capabilities, frequently at the expense of US and European armaments manufacturers. Turkey, Egypt, Iran and, more recently, Saudi Arabia have also expressed interest in acquiring Russia’s S-400 system, while Iran has taken delivery of an advanced variant of Russia’s S-300 air-defense system. (Biznes Rossii, February 28). Baghdad’s recent decision was undoubtedly influenced by the largely successful actions of Russian armored vehicles in Syria, with Moscow’s Syrian campaign providing demonstrations of Russian weaponry firepower. As Russian combat operations continue in Syria, it seems likely that regional interest in the weapons systems sustaining Bashar al-Assad’s regime in power can only increase, to the potential detriment of Western arms suppliers.