Author: Emanuel Pietrobon – 13/12/2020
Between 1853 and 1856 the European States System declared war on Russia over a dispute involving the rights of Christian peoples in the then Ottoman-ruled Holy Land. The main European powers – United Kingdom, France, Austria, Sardinia – backed their archenemy since the 15th century – the Ottoman empire – in the war against the Tsars, and the High Porte skillfully leveraged the anti-Russian sentiments in the South Caucasus hopefully to make Russia retreat from the region.
As we’ve explained here on Vision and Global Trends, that war might be read as the main and strongest evidence that the so-called “containment” is no recent phenomenon nor it is caused by elements destined to fade away in the next future; conversely it is a centuries-old rivalry whose origins date back the 18th century and whose end seems unlikely for an ensemble of reasons. Accordingly, political scientists should stop speaking about a Cold War 2.0 or a neo-containment, they should speak in terms of “forever containment”.
Returning to Crimea, nothing has changed from 1853 to 2020: this little peninsula keeps being a place of fate, that is a place of first-level confrontation between Russia and the West and because of which the negotiations for a reset are failing to produce results.
Everybody knows that “Crimea is lost, [because] Russia is not a country from which you can take something away” – quoting the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who allegedly said those words last February – but history teaches that the awareness of inevitability doesn’t imply willingness to adapt to new circumstances, at least not always. And that’s precisely the case of Crimea, a de facto Russian-ruled land since 2014 for whose control the fight is far from over.
The United Nations General Assembly recently passed a non-binding resolution condemning the annexation and the alleged human rights abuses in Crimea – but there were more abstainees than supporters – and the Trump administration added “Russia on a special watch list for governments that engage in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom” because of the FSB-driven zero tolerance policy against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hizb ut-Tahrir.
The latter is a Salafi and Jihadi organisation whose activities have been outlawed in large part of Asia, including Russia, India and the post-Soviet space, and whose members are treated as terrorists accordingly. In Russia, HT has been accused of planning terrorist plots, radicalizing youths in the Muslim-majority republics of the Northern Caucasus, Tatarstan in particular, enrolling jihadists to be sent in Chechnya and Daghestan during the 1990s and early 2000s, and having ties with the world’s most important Islamist terrorist organizations.
But the West has a very different opinion about HT, despite the evidence of terrorism-linked activities, and doesn’t prosecute it nor monitors it; HT is completely free and operates as a legal organisation in the Western countries.
One of the European countries where HT is free and legal is Ukraine, that’s why Russia inherited a HT issue in Crimea. Until 2014 HT operated freely in Crimea where it ruled mosques, cultural centers, Islamic schools, entertainment places, even if Mustafa Dzhemilev, the then-Mejlis leader, reported many times to Kyev authorities the dangerousness represented by the group, since it was allegedly funded by foreign powers to radicalize Tatar youths with Wahhabi and Sunni fundamentalist teachings.
For his anti-HT activism, Dzhemilev was victim of a terrorist plot in 2007 by three members of the group; he was saved by the intervention of Russian and Ukrainian police. According to FSB, HT has at least 10,000 members in the peninsula, mostly in Simferopol. In the last five years the group’s activities, now carried out underground, have been strictly monitored by Russian authorities. In the first part of 2019 more than 30 Tatars have been charged with possession of weapons and explosives, incitement to religious hatred, terrorist plots and sedition.
Why the West is so interested in the fate of HT is pretty clear: it can be used as an instrument to destabilize Crimea, it’s a fifth column which – if properly funded and trained – could lead to an increasingly sharp division between Slavs and Tatars and to a wave of low-level insurgency. Both Turkey and Ukraine are aware of the potential of HT, and now the US itself requires this organisation be treated well or the risk is to experience religion-related sanctions.
Apart from the recent moves coming from the UN and the US, Crimea is set to be targeted by a Ukraine-initiated diplomatic pressure campaign known as the “Crimean Platform”.
The Crimean platform is going to be the main expression of Ukraine’s recently unveiled strategy for the de-occupation of Crimea, that is the peninsula’s return under Ukrainian sovereignty, and is set to take the form of an international diplomatic working group.
Starting from September 23rd, the day Volodymyr Zelensky presented the initiative before the United Nations, the Ukranian government launched an international-level lobbying campaign to win the support of international organisations, the West and Western-alligned countries like Turkey.
The first meeting of the Crimean platform – pandemics willing – has been scheduled for next year in Kyiv, on May 21th. That day the member countries of this working group are to discuss how to make Russia give back Crimea and how to increase the pressures against the Russian government. The answer for both questions is one: more sanctions.
Tatars are set to play a key-role within the Crimean platform and probably there will be space enough to discuss the FSB-driven war on the terrorist organisation HT. Indeed, during an online briefing focused on the Crimean platform, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba “reminded of the recent verdicts of the members of the Krasnogvardeysky group Hizb ut-Tahrir […] and detention of two correspondents of the Crimean Solidarity and one activist”.
That the Tatar question was destined to play a key-role within the Crimean platform was suggested by something more relevant than Kuleba’s words: the gray eminence behing the initiative is Emine Dzheppar, the current-serving First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine
Dzheppar is an Ukrainian politican of Tatar origins, the one who is writing Zelensky’s Turn to the Turkic world, that is the foreign policy doctrine which led Kyiv to forge a pact of steel with Turkey and which is providing the justification for a nation-building project whose final destinations will be: a) de-Russification, b) Westernization, c) Turkification. Indeed, last August, Dzheppar unveiled the presidency’s ambitions to join Ankara-backed Turkic Council as part of this grand strategy.
Dzheppar’s agenda gained attention from the Kremlin also because of her very powerful influence exerted over the presidency. The International Affairs magazine dedicated an in-depth analysis on the Crimean platform and described the politician in these terms: “[she is] the de facto Mejlis representative, and possibly, a creation of the Turkish lobby”.
The de-occupation of Crimea is not realistically possible – even Pompeo shared this belief – and furthermore the new Russian Constitution resulted from the recent referendum bans territorial transfers. The Zelensky presidency itself is fully aware of the situation and is playing the Crimea card for two reasons: domestic consensus and international support.
The creation of a platform whose goal is to keep the Crimean issue alive will serve the very important purposes of worsening further the EU–Russia relations – that is to reduce the prospects of normalizaton in the short-term – and of improving the position of the Ukranian lobby in the Old Continent.
The author: Emanuel Pietrobon, University of Turin (Italy)