Russia Aims to Use Soft Power over Kurds in Iraq, Syria

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

Anna Borshchevskaya’s new analysis contends that Moscow may have advantages over Washington in leveraging Kurdish groups to pursue its interests in the Middle East.

The United States has long forged partnerships with Kurdish groups, such as helping to protect an autonomous enclave in the Iraqi north, as well as supporting the campaign of Turkish forces in liberating parts of Iraq and Syria from the Islamic State. So why has the Kurdistan Regional Government not criticized the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and why have Kurdish fighters considered working  with Bashar al-Assad to try to protect their gains in Syria?

Despite Russia’s autocratic tendencies and often blunt tactics, “Moscow does project soft power to build leverage over some actors,” Anna Borshchevskaya asserts in an article in the summer issue of Middle East Policy. “This authoritarian soft-power projection is especially visible in Russia’s longstanding relationship with the Kurds. In its own way, Moscow is engaged in a battle for Kurdish hearts and minds.”

Borshchevskaya’s analysis traces the long history of relations between Russia and the Kurds, from the tsarist state’s brush with nomadic tribes in the 18th century through President Vladimir Putin’s moves toward rebuilding power in the Middle East. Linguistic and cultural affinities, as well as Russia’s support of Kurdish revolts in the early 20th century, have built up Moscow’s soft power—at least in its authoritarian version.

“Soft power” is a term used to describe means of coercion that do not involve military might or economic domination. Instead, the theory goes, countries build up influence through the “attraction” of their ideas and culture. A common example is the pull that the United States was able to exert during the Cold War on societies behind the Iron Curtain through the circulation of movies and music.

Recently, this soft power has been most evident in the silence by some Kurds after Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, shows in her article that the president of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq did not take sides but expressed concern that the conflict end peacefully. Indeed, earlier this year, a Russian official lauded the KRG for not participating “in the campaign against the Russian state which was started by Western media.”

In addition, Borshchevskaya notes, a top official of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party—labeled a terrorist group by the United States and other Western countries—“in essence sided with Russia when he said that Ukrainians ‘only brought trouble upon themselves.’”

In Syria, where Kurds control an autonomous zone in the northeast, Russia’s has had less success wielding its influence. Moscow did increase some soft power by pursuing relations with Kurdish groups as potential levers against Turkish or American moves against Assad. As part of this, it backed some autonomy for the Kurds in Syria. However, as Russia has prodded Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan toward normalization of relations with Assad—which would mean eventually withdrawing support for the forces dividing Syria into three—it has clearly worked against Kurdish interests.

On Tuesday, officials from the Syrian Democratic Forces—the US-backed fighters who defeated ISIS and control swathes of northeastern Syria—argued that they need Russian assistance to protect them against strikes from Turkey. There is also some evidence that Russia has pushed Kurdish forces to attack the Turkish military in northern Syria.

However, Russia is also pushing for a rapprochement between Erdogan and Assad, and Kurds are criticizing Moscow for backing down from supporting their aspirations for self-rule.

Borshchevskaya notes that the Russia-Kurd relationship has been based on “soft power as an authoritarian state defines it”—more about leverage than attraction. However, she argues, Moscow may have greater sway than does Washington: “While the United States may be less motivated by cynical realpolitik than the Kremlin, the advantage of working with Moscow is that it does not pressure the Kurds on corruption and human-rights reform. Ironically, this makes Russia a more consistent partner.”


Among the major takeaways readers can find in Borshchevskaya’s Middle East Policy article, “Russia and the Kurds: A Soft-Power Tool for the Kremlin?”:

  • The Russian state uses soft power as an authoritarian state defines it: a tool of pragmatic leverage.
  • The Russian state has opportunities to undermine American interests in places such as Syria and Iraq through its connections with Kurdish groups.
    • While the Kurds are not a monolith, they are anxious about the trajectory of US politics and feel they cannot rely on anyone.
  • Russia’s relationship with the Kurds dates back to 18th century. Cultural and linguistic affinities soon developed.
    • The Kurds increasingly saw Russia as the champion of their cause and a patron that would help usher in an era of modernity, including through education.
  • While Russia’s Kurdish peoples were not exempt from Stalin’s Great Terror, Kurds from Russia to the Middle East established parties, coalitions, and movements with strong support from the Kremlin.
  • The Soviets facilitated the establishment of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated a terrorist organization by Turkey and most of the West. The group continues to provide leverage over Turkey.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin charted a return to influence in the Middle East, which included building on ties to the Kurds.
  • The Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq has an office in Russia and relations with the country’s Kurdish diaspora.
  • When Putin rushed to save the Syrian regime, he and President Bashar al-Assad strengthened ties with the PKK and other groups.
    • The Russian side pushed to include Kurds in peace talks in a bid to dilute the Syrian opposition with members who could live with Assad.
    • Putin successfully used the Kurdish threat to Turkey as a lever to force President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to back down from his opposition to Assad.
  • The United States used Kurdish fighters to decimate the Islamic State. However, it has at times left those forces to fend for themselves and never supported full autonomy for the Kurds.
  • This has left the Russians with more soft power over the Kurds. Some Kurds have voiced support for the invasion of Ukraine. Others have hedged, with some criticizing both Moscow and the United States.

You can read Anna Borshchevskaya’s article, “Russia and the Kurds: A Soft-Power Tool for the Kremlin?” in Middle East Policy, available through Wiley.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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