Author: Emanuel Pietrobon – 19/08/2020
Ukraine is seeking to obtain observer status in the Ankara-backed Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States, also known as the Turkic Council. This news, actually, is no news at all for those who have been following the Ukrainian affairs since the after-Euromaidan.
By winning the battle for Ukraine, the West got to make Russia closer to lose its European dimension forever and to convert it into what Zbigniew Brzezinski called an “Asian empire”. To make this scenario happen, now the West has only one thing more to do: to conquest Belarus, Moldova and Serbia. In short, the entire Stalin-built buffer-zones system set up between the 1920s and 1930s to protect Russia from external invasions is about to collapse. The country is being encircled everywhere – not only in Europe, let’s think of what is occurring in South Caucasus and Central Asia. A new survival-aiming strategy is needed. But let’s return to Europe.
Belarus is being shaken up by a series of mass unrests since the night of 9th August, Moldova is an ever-vulnerable player due to its constant need of foreign investments and due to the presence of a Turkish minority in Gagauzia which Ankara is being skillfully weaponised, and Serbia is more and more encircled by NATO countries although its position in the Russian orbit doesn’t seem flickering.
Returning to Ukraine, the entry into the Turkic Council has only one interpretation possible: the country is quickly transitioning from the Russian world to the Turkish world. Actually, this situation isn’t characterising Kyiv only but a lot of many other countries, like the former Soviet –stans, and regions, from Moldova’s Gagauzia to Russia’s Turkish-inhabited republics.
The news about Ukraine’s latest will has been given by Emine Dzheppar, the country’s First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, during an interview in early August for the Turkish news agency Demirören.
Why does the Zelensky presidency want to join the Turkic Council? According to Dzheppar: “We are neighboring countries. Ukraine is the heir of Turkish culture. Crimean Tatars are a bridge between Ukraine and Turkey”.
Although it’s true that the Tatars represent an useful linking point between Ukraine and Turkey, it’s very questionable the passage regarding Ukraine’s alleged Turkish identity. Indeed, it is not questionable but it is laughable: it’s an anti-historic claim, it’s an attempt to rewriting both the history and the identity of Ukraine itself, which was, is and always be the birthplace of the Russian civilization.
Tatars are a very tiny minority – about 70,000 people according to the 2001 census – but their weaponisation is the keystone for Ukraine with which to promote its image among its new Western partners.
Actually, the decision to join the Turkic Council has been preceded by many other important initiatives and the eventual entry into the organisation would merely be the natural consequence of a path started in the early August of 2019 with Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Ankara.
Since then, the two countries built a strong strategic partnership in a very short time, which is now extended from trade and industry to defense, regional security, foreign policy and Crimea. The latter is of particular interest for both of them since it is a way to undermine Russia’s grand strategy for the Black Sea.
Crimea is externally exposed to the risk of sabotages carried out by the Ukrainian special forces and and is internally vulnerable due to the presence of a large Tatar community which is widely alligned on anti-Russian positions and whose members are more and more religiously radicalised. Tatars are fighting in the Donbass in battalions made up by Islamist fighters from the North Caucasus, and tens of them fled to Syria to join the Islamic State.
The situation is very risky and a Chechnya-like scenario is not so unlikely, that’s why Ukraine and Turkey are doing as much as they can to keep the Tatar issue alive and to increase their presence within Crimea through the help of fifth columns, like Hizb ut-Tahrir.
But why Ukraine is on the path to be part of the Turkish world? It’s not the Turkic Council only, many more events occurred throughout the last year and a half.
In July the Turkish ambassasor to Kyiv, Yagmur Ahmet Gulder, declared that negotiations were underway for the building of a Turkish-funded huge mosque in the Ukrainian capital city.
The land issue had already been solved, the place of worship is likely to be built in the city centre, and they were then talking about bureaucracy. After that step, Ankara can ask for the works to begin.
The mosque has been planned to be Ukraine’s largest and it is set to have a maximum occupancy of at least 5,000. For its construction, the Turkish government has already pledged $5 million.
The idea of building a new mosque in Kyiv wasn’t Turkey’s but Mustafa Dzhemileve’s, the influential leader of the Mejlis, the Tatars’ official representative body – which has been outlawed in Crimea on extremist charges – according to whom the country needs a new place of worship in light of the arrival of tens of thousands of Tatars from the Crimean peninsula since 2014.
Against the background of the negotiations for the huge mosque, Turkey is being worked on the building of residential apartments for hundreds of Tatar families in the cities of Kharkiv, Lviv, Odessa, Kherson and Dnipro. The initiative has been warmly welcomed by the Turkic minority and it is expected to improve further Recep Tayyp Erdogan’s image as the protector of the Turkish peoples and of the Muslims as a whole.
Before the announcement of the forthcoming building of the mosque, something historic occurred on May 18th. Zelensky listed two very important Muslim feasts in the national calendar of public holidays: the Feast of the Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha), and the Festival of Breaking the Fast (Eid al-Fitr).
The date of the announcement was meticolously selected to increase the symbolic relevance of the act: indeed, every year on May 18th the Tatars observe the so-called Day of Remembrance of Victims of Crimean Tatars Genocide. Since 2014, that historic event entered officially in the list of the World War II-related memory wars which the West and Russia are fighting.
Today that date is as important for the Ukrainians as it is for the Tatars and the Turkish. According to Zelensky, the recognition of the two Muslims feasts was a fundamental step towards the building of a “new Ukraine [in which] anyone may feel citizen”.
The same day, Zelensky announced the formation of a Tatar-focused working group within the Presidency Office with the aim of studying how to improve the minority’s living standards in the country.
It was the Tatars to drive the approachment of the two countries which occurred in the last year: in August 2019, Zelensky inaugurated the opening of a representative office of Crimean Tatars in Ankara, then in February, Erdogan announced the plan to help the Crimean Tatars escaped from the peninsula by building houses for them and reiterated that his government will never recognize the Russian annexation of the region since it is the “historic homeland of Tatars”.
The Tatar card is useful both to Kyiv, which can improve its image in the West, and to Ankara, which can increase its prestige in the Muslim and Turkic world and simultaenously raise its room for maneuver in Ukraine by trying to fill the power vacuum left by Moscow. In the end, playing the Tatar card is the only way to keep open the possibility to destabilize the peninsula through an ethnic-driven mass unrest – if the West would ever greenlight such project.
Russia has to brace itself for the worst-case scenario: the much-feared encirclement which tormented Stalin’s dreams is now a reality, and after the buffer zones the next target might be its state-controlled Turkish– and Muslim–inhabited regions. A 360 degree strategic rethink is needed, the very existence of Russia is at stake.
Emanuel Pietrobon, University of Turin (Italy) – Higher School of Economics in Saint Petersburg (Russia)