Turkey Plays the Tatar Card?

Russo-Turkish rivalry, a force which has shaped the formation of the Balkans, the Middle East, and Eurasia for centuries, appears to have returned from a long dormant period. 


The shooting down of a Russian jet on the Syrian-Turkish border dramatically changed the international scene throughout Eurasia. Sanctions, diplomatic fallout, and even the banning of a pan-Turkic song contest have altered Russo-Turkish relations for the foreseeable future. While direct military confrontation between the two antagonists is unlikely, both sides are actively seeking leverage in the new regional struggle.

News headlines since the shoot down have featured Russia’s signing of a new air-defense agreement with Armenia and the former’s stationing of attack and transport helicopters in the country. Russia’s potential influence over Turkish Kurdistan has also not gone unnoticed. The reinforcing of the Russian-Armenian alliance, combined with the potential for subterfuge within Turkish territory puts very real strains on Ankara’s defense services. Combine this with active Russian involvement in Syria, naval agreements with Cyprus, and joint exercises with Serbia, and Turkey seems to be in a very difficult position.

In response, Turkey has accelerated gas projects with Azerbaijan and is now attempting to reinforce relations with Central Asian states. Such efforts pale however in comparison to a story which has recently come to light in Ukraine, something which may give Turkey a significant bartering chip with Moscow.

The Tatar Card

Lenur Islyamov, representative of the organization “Majlis of Crimean Tatars,” announced to Ukrainian media the formation of a Tatar Battalion to assist in the blockade of the Peninsula. While the pro-Ukrainian involvement of many Tatars is not new, Islyamov’s claim of assistance from the Turkish Defense Ministry could drastically alter the dynamic of the Ukrainian conflict.

A self-proclaimed leader of the Crimean Tatar cause and one of the primary coordinators of Ukraine’s blockade, Islyamov has become a key player in the south of the country. In a statement to the Ukrainian press, he claims to already have over 100 volunteers prepared to serve in the battalion. These men, all believed to be natives of Crimea, would have an intimate knowledge of the territory’s terrain and could pose serious espionage and sabotage challenges to Russian rule over the peninsula.

Militant Turkish and pan-Turkic attention toward Crimea has been suspected for several months. The involvement of the far-right Turkish Grey Wolves movement with the blockade was speculated by the Russian media in early December, but with little concrete evidence made public until now.  The Grey Wolves have been implicated in militant activity spanning from China and Thailand all the way to Syria, potentially even being involved with the killing of a Russian pilot in the country. Their presence in both the Ukrainian and Syrian battlefields, if corroborated, further links the two conflict zones. It also significantly raises the stakes of a new Russo-Turkish “Great Game” throughout Eurasia.

Both Russia and Turkey be described as autocratic states in which security interests are valued above most everything else. The imperial legacies of both countries continue to shape both the Middle East and post-Soviet space, and have left them with allies within each other’s respective “near-abroads.” As Russia’s traditional allies in Syria, Armenia, and the Balkans are each in geographic position to limit the influence of a resurgent Turkey, Ankara will seek any leverage it can find.

Turkey maintains that its shooting of a Russian jet was a reaction to the latter’s targeting of Turkomen rebels in northern Syria, a people with whom Turkey has great influence. The Turkomen may indeed by Turkey’s closest ally in the Syrian conflict. They are often described as ethnic compatriots, in a similar manner to how Russia describes separatists in the Donbas region. This use of language may indicate the proliferation of the “hybrid-warfare” model throughout Eurasia, in which civilian populations are mobilized along with military operations.  

Looking Forward

The Russo-Turkish rivalry shows no signs of slowing down, and may in fact become one of the driving forces in Eurasian politics for the foreseeable future. As the second-largest military in NATO and a rising economic and technological power, Turkey is a far stronger player than many in the West seem to realize. Its influence spans from Muslim communities in the Balkans, through rebel groups in Syria, all the way into Central Asia. Combined strains of pan-Turkism, Islamism, and old-fashioned geopolitics each drive Turkey to take a more active role on the regional stage, and pit her directly against Russia.  

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons