Turkey’s Tatar Agenda Explained
Turkey is one of the countries that benefited the most from Ukraine’s Euromaidan. Since 2014 it has been working hard on turning a geopolitically ambitious and groundbreaking goal into reality: to make Ukraine part of the Eurasia-extended Turkish world.
The accomplishment of this historical task has been made easier by Russia’s forced withdrawal from the country, both politically and culturally, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pursuing a dual-sided strategy to make it happen: the building of a strategic partnership with Ukraine and strong attention devoted to the Tatar question.
Turkey is Against the FSB-Run War on Islamists
Turkey has never recognized the Crimean peninsula’s new Russian status quo and it is very unlikely to have a change of mind in the next future because of an ensemble of reasons, among them the country’s geopolitical alignment, the fear of a Crimea-like scenario within its own borders caused by the Kurdish guerrilla, and lastly the pan-Turkic agenda.
The last point has been prompting Turkey to significantly increase its presence in Ukraine’s internal affairs with the goal of constructing an informal protectorate over the little-but-influential Tatar community, which is the keystone for the control over the country and for the possible turning of Crimea into a Chechnya-like insurrection-plagued zone.
Turkey’s Latest Move on Crimea
The Turkish government’s latest move is the public condemnation of the Fsb-run war on Islamists in the peninsula, that is the war on a terrorist group known as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on August 31, voicing concern “about the raids and detentions taking place in Crimea”, which are seen by Ankara as the “latest example of systematic oppression and intimidation policies [on the Crimean Tatar population]”.
The statement was referring to the temporary detention of four Tatars as part of a terrorism and extremism-related investigation. The suspects were taken into custody in the early hours of August 31 and were released by that night. It was a hours-long normal police procedure, as it happens in every country, but it was depicted by Ukraine and Turkey as illegal and as the example of the alleged persecution against the Tatars.
It can be read that “Turkey will continue to stand by its kinsmen, Crimean Tatars, who have been defending their rights and interests by peaceful means and trying to make their voices heard through democratic methods.”
These words prove one fact: Turkey is actively supporting the Tatar underground opposition and has ceased long time ago to limit its solidarity to the verbal sphere.
What is Going on in Crimea?
The very existence of HT threatens Crimea’s security and territorial integrity. It is a foreign-funded caliphate-seeking Sunni fundamentalist organisation whose activities are completely legal and free in many Western countries – but they have been outlawed in the post-Soviet space and in a large part of Asia. Due to its perfectly legal status, HT has been using Ukraine and Turkey as operational bases from which to coordinate the efforts against Crimea and it is infiltrating deep the Tatar expats community and those who are still living in the peninsula.
Despite the outlawing, HT keeps working underground in Russia as shown by the numerous police operations that have taken place over the years. More recently, HT has been accused of plotting terrorist attacks and recruiting foreign fighters to be sent in Syria. It is noteworthy that most of the operations are focused in the Turkic-majority republic of Tatarstan.
FSB Operations in Crimea
As regard to Crimea, several FSB-run operations have been carried out to target the group since the annexation. In 2019 more than 30 Crimean Tatars have been jailed, accused of being HT members and sentenced on terrorism charges. During the raids many weapons were found and seized. This year more than 10 Crimean Tatars have been arrested on the same charges, prompting the Kremlin to start talks at the parliamentary level aimed at strengthening the current national security’s and territorial integrity’s legislation.
Overall, these numbers show that there is the potential for a likely North Caucasus-like insurgency. Indeed, HT’s activism inside the Tatar community is contributing to foster the level of religious radicalization among the minority, whereas the connections with the Jihadist network are making the situation worse.
According to the US-based think tank American Center for Democracy about 100 Crimean Tatars have fought in Syria alongside jihadist-linked anti-Assad rebels, while only in the year 2013 at least 30 joined the Islamic State. It is precisely in Syria that Crimean fighters would have been approached to discuss the opening of a battlefront in the peninsula. The absence of reliable and updated data about this topic makes any estimation difficult, that’s why the FSB seems engaged in a race against time.
Last but not least, it must be emphasized that hundreds of Tatars fled Crimea and Ukraine in order to fight in the Donbass against the pro-Russian rebels and they are known for their closeness to other Muslim-only battalions made up by fighters coming from North Caucasus, many of whom are linked to the jihadist world.
Is Ukraine Headed to the Turkish Sphere?
Apart from the growing conflict in Crimea, Turkey is more and more assertive with and within Ukraine. Many events which took place in the last twelve months suggest that the birthplace of the Russian civilization is becoming part of the Turkic world. The latest news is that the Ukrainian government is interested in joining the Turkic Council, which is Ankara’s main soft-power instrument in the post-Soviet space.
According to Emine Dzheppar, Ukraine’s First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Volodymyr Zelensky Government wants to join the entity because “Ukraine is the heir of Turkish culture [and] Crimean Tatars are a bridge between Ukraine and Turkey”. Whereas it’s perfectly understandable the political reason behind the move, which is expected to increase dramatically the quality of Ukrainian-Turkish partnership, Dzheppar’s claim is purely anti-historical and must be read as an identity-washing attempt aiming at rewriting the country’s past, present and future.
The Tatar Revival in Ukraine
Ukraine’s path to the Turkish world is not represented by the mere decision to join the Turkic Council; the 2020 will be remembered as the year of the Tatar revival. In July the Turkish ambassador to Kyiv, Yagmur Ahmet Gulder, declared that Ankara is set to fund the opening of the country-largest mosque in the heart of the Ukrainian capital city. The building is expected to cost $5 million and to have capacity for 5,000 faithful.
In the end, another very important event took place on May 18. Every year on that day the Tatars commemorate the so-called Day of Remembrance of Victims of Crimean Tatars Genocide; for six years now they are no longer alone in the observance of this much-felt date: they are accompanied by Turkish and Ukrainian delegations.
It is no coincidence that Zelensky chose this very important day to announce the birth of a “new Ukraine [in which] anyone may feel citizen”, deciding to start this nation building process by listing in the calendar of public holidays two of the most iconic feasts of Islam: the Feast of the Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha), and the Festival of Breaking the Fast (Eid al-Fitr).
Everything seems to indicate that Turkey is willing to play a major role in the once-homeland of Russian civilization, and if the West would ever green light a destabilization plan aimed at disturbing Russia’s interests in the region, this plan is likely to target the infiltrated and ready-to-explode Crimea.
The FSB-driven war on Islamism must be read for what it truly is: a race against time to prevent a Chechnya-like scenario from taking place in Crimea.