Turkey's Russian Ambitions
Turkey's geostrategic location allows it to be both Asian and European. As the nexus of global social transitions and a melting pot of world cultures, Turkey has long been the most sought-after political, economic, and military partner. Today, Turkey is the only Asian veto-holding NATO member and its Incirlik base in the coastal province of Adana oversees NATO's military operations in the Middle East and the Caucasus.
Turkey has long wished to join the EU and EEA. However, a lack of rule of law and concerns about the country's human rights records have put the accession talks on hold indefinitely. The recent conflict between Russia and Ukraine has reignited the EU's interest in Turkey as a political fulcrum. Some analysts also attribute Pakistan's support for Ukraine to Turkey. Turkey hopes to gain European trust as well as significant sway and penetration in Russia as a result of this debacle. Both see a weakened and fractured Russia as advantageous, and Ankara expects the EU to help it dominate bilateral relations with Moscow. Further, being a member of a Western multilateral organization, such as NATO, gives Ankara an advantage over Moscow to shield its strategic interests and territorial unity.
Moscow and Ankara have actively supported opposing warring parties in regional conflicts such as in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey was able to compel cooperation from her western allies in all instances due to the existence of multilateral agreements. Given the circumstances, Ankara desires a long-term alliance with European partners because it is a better option for managing conflicts and securing settlements on its terms.
In the nineteenth century, Russia was instrumental in inspiring Slavic nationalist movements in the Balkans, which played a pivotal role in the erosion of Ottoman Empire's ideological and territorial hegemony. Disagreements among Slavic nations are now assisting Turkey in leveraging political alliances in the Balkans and influence the final outcome of the Serbo-Kosovo territorial impasse. Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo's independence, much to the chagrin of Russia and Serbia. Since then, Turkey has used its academies to train military personnel from Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania. Furthermore, Turkey actively participated in the integration of the largely pro-Russian Montenegro into NATO, which infuriated Russia.
Russia sees the Srpska Republic of the Bosnian Federation as its strongest ally in the Balkan area. To Moscow's liking, Srpska chastises Turkey for meddling in Bosnian affairs and using religion to divide ethnic Slavs. There are concerns that Moscow may launch a proxy war in the Balkans in order to divert NATO's attention away from the Ukraine conflict. This fear has increased the West's interest in Turkey holding talks with both Kosovo and Serbia.
As the Ukraine conflict shakes Russia's centralized power structure, Turkey is seeking opportunities to fortify cultural and religious ties with the Muslim and Turkic-speaking Russians. For long, Muslims in the Eurasian heartland have admired Turkey as the Ottoman Empire's successor. In exchange, Ankara regards the fraternal communities from Russia's Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Chuvashia, Khakassia, Tuva, Yakutia, Altai Republic, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, Udmurtia, Mari-El, Mordovia and the Kumyks as part of the Fatherland. This is unsettling for nationalist Russians since Turkey has historically fought Russia over Turkic-Crimea and continues to refuse to recognize Russian control. The Ukraine folly gives Turkish nationalists and Islamists hope that a domino effect will result in the independence of many Turkic nations, all the way to resource-rich Yakutia along the Arctic and Pacific oceans.
In February 2022, the pro-Erdogan Turkish newspaper Karar referred to the ten Russian regions, including Tatarstan, Chuvashia, and Bashkortostan, as Turkic republics. The Contiguous Turkestan Project, as it is known among Turkish intellectuals, envisions a Turkic Homeland stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Okhotsk in the Pacific Ocean. According to Ahval News, Erdogan's parliamentary ally Devlet Bahceli advocates a Turkic national map that includes the Slavic-speaking oblasts of Kuban and Rostov in addition to the Caucasus Republics, Siberia, and Crimea. Furthermore, the Caucasian Knot reports that the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (now known as the Organization of Turkic States) endorsed Devlet’s map in its 2040 Vision of the Turkic Worlddeclaration. Russian lawmakers chastised the state-owned Turkish TV channel TGRT for broadcasting this map.
Turkey considers the Turkic-speaking Tatarstan Republic to be its primary trading partner in Russia. Turkey has a much closer relationship with Tatarstan than it does with many sovereign Turkic republics. Tatarstan serves as Turkey's ideological linchpin for exerting influence in other parts of the Ural and Siberia. During the worst COVID outbreak in 2021, Tatarstan's president, Rustam Minnikhanov, met with President Erdogan to discuss Tatar entrepreneurs establishing businesses in Turkey. Ankara announced a US$2.5 billion investment in Tatarstan the same year, surpassing Russia's annual budget in the republic. Since then, Turkish firms have invested approximately $2 billion in special economic zones in Kazan, Tatarstan's capital, to develop petrochemical and manufacturing plants. Artur Nikolaev, deputy chairman of Tatarstan's Chamber of Commerce and Industry, believes that Turkey has a better chance of importing Russian goods during the current sanctions.
Russia has fought several wars to keep the Ottomans out of the Caucasus. Today, however, Turkey wields power in Russia's Muslim-dominated south, which contains elements of separatist and Islamist ambitions. Despite Russian discontent, Turkey has long had cultural and economic ties with the Dagestan Republic, a volatile Russian territory bordering Azerbaijan. In November 2020, Turkish officials met with Dagestan's trade minister, Batyr Emeev, in Makhachkala, and expressed a desire to establish direct long-term cultural cooperation and broaden the scope in manufactured goods, agricultural produce, oil production, and tourism.
With Moscow losing political clout in the global arena, dissent within Russia’s south is growing louder, and many have found allies inside Turkey. Moscow is alarmed that Erdogan allows Turkish political groups to meddle in its internal affairs and supports Chechen dissidents fighting for an independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria led by Akhmed Zakayev. Few years back, the Chechen diaspora in Turkey launched a protest and petition campaign to challenge Russia's sovereignty over Chechenia. In 2021, TASS reported that the Turkish government named a park in Kocaeli province after Dzhokhar Dudayev, the leader of Chechen separatists, prompting a rebuke from the Russian parliament. In response, pro-Russian Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov announced plans to erect a statue of Turkey's sworn Kurdish enemy, Abdullah Ocalan. Ankara accuses Kadyrov of spying on Turkish soil and assassinating Chechen dissidents inside Turkey.
In June 2022, hundreds of Caucasian Muslims marched in Istanbul accusing Russia of genocide in their homelands. The Federation of Caucasian Associations (KAFFED), representing 56 North Caucasian groups in Turkey organized this protest, which was attended and supported by Erdogan's AK Party representatives. KAFFED also calls for Turkey to annex the Georgian Muslim republics of Abkhazia and Adjara. Another Caucasian group, Kafkas Vakfi, joined the rally and condemned Russia for the genocide of Circassians and the annexation of Turkic-Crimea. The four-million-strong Circassian Diaspora has deep ties to Turkey's ruling cabal and remains critical of the Kremlin's ethnic and religious assimilation policies.
Likewise, the leaders of the Congress for Independent Ingushetia met in Istanbul in January 2023 and adopted a resolution calling for Russian withdrawal from the occupied Caucasus. The Kremlin has condemned Ankara for giving refuge to Russian exiled leaders, describing such actions as a violation of Russian sovereignty. Such incidents have become more common since the beginning of the Ukraine war.
Many Caucasian leaders with strong ties to Ankara have found support among Ukrainian legislators. In October 2022, the Ukrainian parliament passed a resolution condemning Russia for genocide against Chechens and recognizing Chechnya as occupied territory. The resolution's author, Deputy Goncharenko, also asked the parliament to recognize the Circassian genocide.
The recent Azeri victory over Armenia places Turkish troops next to Russia's Dagestan. While the creation of a Turkic nation stretching from the Mediterranean to the Pacific remains a pipe dream, Turkey has successfully and firmly established its military presence on lands sandwiched between the Mediterranean and Caspian seas. Turkish and Pakistani troops fought alongside Azerbaijanis to retake Nagorno-Karabakh and Turkish state media encouraged fraternity by referring to their forces as the Turan Army or Turkic NATO.
Erdogan calls Azerbaijan Turkey’s red line in the normalization of relations with Armenia. Turkey’s troops monitor the cease-fire alongside Russian peacekeepers as the tripartite agreement, which includes Russia, allows Turkey to maintain observation points in contested areas. With time, Ankara hopes to expand its military presence in the Caucasus and aid the Azeri government in thwarting regional adversaries. Furthermore, Turkey's presence on Russia's border would deter Russian intervention in the Kurdish conflict and check possible supply of sophisticated Russian weapons to the Kurd rebels.
Turkey's long-term goal is to secure continuous access and permanent physical link to the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, the Central Asian Republics and Siberia via the Zangezur transit corridor. Armenia currently enjoys sovereignty over 44-km long Zangezur which separates Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan province from the rest of the country. In October 2021, news agency Anadolu Ajansi and Turan quoted President Aliyev boasting that Armenia's control over the Zangezur corridor was the last obstacle in uniting the Turkic world and Azerbaijan and Turkey were taking steps to solve the dispute. Erdogan backs Zangezur annexation as this would cement Turkey’s role as Eurasian transit and logistics hub. Ankara is the main buyer of Azerbaijan’s natural gas and oil and having control over Zangezur ensures stability. This also helps Turkey and Central Asian Republics bypass the traditional Russian supply lines to Europe. Further, it eliminates Turkey’s dependence on the Georgian ports in the Black Sea. In order to secure continuous transit rights through Zangezur, Ankara and Baku are now using the constrained Lachin corridor between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia as a negotiating chip.
Many analysts believe Turkey instigated the latest episode of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in order to impose a solution to its liking. The time-tested Turkish-Azeri alliance effectively dominates regional disputes as prolonging rather than resolving conflicts profits Ankara and helps maintain and expand dominance in the Russian sphere of influence. Turkey is one of the countries with the largest number of ISIS recruits. Russia is concerned that the Turkish-Azeri victory would bring ISIS to its doorstep. In this context, many Russian experts believe Putin's continued adversarial collaboration with Erdogan endangers Russia's long term interests. Although a military conflict between Russia and Turkey is unlikely, the power balance between the two regional giants will inevitably shift, with one gradually losing out in the Caucasus, Central Asia and Siberia.
Iran considers Armenia's Zangezur corridor to be a geopolitical redline, and Azerbaijan's invasion of Armenia as a direct threat to its security. Zangezur provides a direct physical link between Tehran and Armenia, as well as northward transit to the Caucasus and the Black Sea. Iran recently dispatched a sizable contingent of troops to the Azerbaijani border in order to prevent Azerbaijan [and Turkey] from escalating. This occurred after Azerbaijan and Turkey conducted joint military exercises near the Iranian border. As the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia grinds on, Tehran would seek greater military cooperation with the Kremlin in order to counter Turkey's permanent presence in the region.
Tehran accuses Turkey and Azerbaijan of fomenting discontent among Iranian Turkic groups such as the Azeris, Qashqais, Afshar, Qarai, and Turkmens. To the discomfort of many Iranian leaders, President Aliyev refers to Iran's Azeri provinces as South Azerbaijan and a part of his historical homeland. At a conference of Turkic states in March 2023, President Aliyev referred to Iranian Turks as a part of his nation and vowed to go to any length to ensure their safety, freedom, and rights. The secular state of Azerbaijan inspires a large number of Iranian Turks who struggle for freedom from the theocratic mullah regime. The Tehran-Baku relationship was at an all-time low recently after Tehran accused Baku of inciting dissent against the Khamenei regime and orchestrating terrorist activities within Iran in order to destabilize the country.
Pan-Turkism received a shot in the arm during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as the three Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan supported Azerbaijan over Armenia despite Russian displeasure. The decision of three CARs manifests Moscow’s diminishing sway over its geopolitical orbit. Their support to Azerbaijan made the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) appear bankrupt as it failed to save Armenia, another CSTO member, from retaining geo-strategically significant lands. The outcome encourages Turkey to bypass Russia to establish a direct commercial energy route to Central Asia and Siberia.
Russia's Ukraine folly has paved the way for Turkey's new foreign-policy course. Following the redundancy of the Nord Stream pipelines, Central Asian republics are looking for alternative routes to Europe. In this context, Ankara is expanding energy ties with CARs with little opposition from Russia. Western allies of Turkey are also not opposed to Ankara expanding its economic and military influence in Central Asia and Siberia because it allows geopolitical inroads in Russia’s eastern hinterlands. China is currently Turkmenistan's main gas buyer. Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov, however, wants to find alternatives that could help Ankara become a regional gas hub by redirecting the flow to Europe via the Caspian Sea.
Kazakhstan, like Turkmenistan, wishes to diversify its energy policy. Until recently, nearly one-fifth of Kazakh oil exports to Europe were routed through Russia. In addition, Kazakhstan transports oil to Europe through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), which is the current main export conduit via the Black Sea. Astana is now considering using railroads to avoid Russian oil pipelines. This has created opportunities for Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to strengthen energy cooperation and develop the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route for oil and rare earth metal exports. In addition, Kazakhstan signed an agreement to expand military cooperation with Turkey, with joint production of Turkish TAI Anka drones in Kazakhstan on the horizon. Due to the favorable conditions, the bilateral business portfolio increased to $5 billion in 2021, and both nations now intend to increase it to $10 billion by the end of 2023.
The conflict in Ukraine appears to have occurred at the right time for Turkey as the Kazakh government is creating a transportation corridor between the Chinese and European markets via the Caspian Sea. This is taking place in the wake of the Kazakh parliament hurriedly equipping the Asian and European members of the transregional Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA) with a single-transit permit. In this context, both Turkey and Azerbaijan want to make the Zangezur corridor operational as soon as possible in order to eliminate reliance on Georgian ports on the Black Sea. This will significantly reduce the transit costs while providing Turkey with superior strategic control over regional trade and security.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Turkey generously supported cultural, educational, and religious projects in six Islamic republics in order to strengthen ties with various Turkic groups. Pan-Turkism assists Turkey in gaining control of local markets and natural resources, as well as in establishing deeper military cooperation in Central Asia. More importantly, these ambitious economic and strategic goals help with the ultimate objective of launching Erdogan’s brand of political Islam in partner countries.
Turkey is strengthening interdependency and strategic collaboration by utilizing the mosque, madrasah and zakat as soft power tools. Turkish government-run Islamic organizations such as the Maarif Foundation, Turken Foundation, Yunus Emre Institute, Diyanet Foundation, Ensar Foundation, and TURGEV assist Erdogan in disguising proselytizing operations as educational and cultural services. Erdogan appoints the heads of these organizations from the ruling AK Party, which adheres to the Muslim Brotherhood's political Islam concepts. The vast majority of policymakers are well-known Islamists with jihadist leanings.
These organizations receive millions of dollars from the government each year and operate schools in over a hundred countries, including Kyrgyzstan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Turkey uses these schools and cultural centers as extensions of the AK party’s political and ideological arms, and as platforms for meddling in host countries' educational policies and religious politics. These organizations seek to train students as Turkey's foreign policy spokesperson. Many religious and educational institutions in Europe, Russia, and Central Asia import Turkish Imams and teachers who serve as information gatherers. Countries that open their doors to these schools risk damaging social fabric and undermining secularism and interfaith harmony. The 2022 Intelligence Online report mentions Erdogan's Turken Foundation promoting political agenda in foreign countries.
Over the last six years, the Turkish government has granted over five billion Liras to the Maarif Foundation, a budgetary increase of nearly 2000% since the foundation's inception in 2016. Despite protests from Turk citizens facing blockade and economic hardships in the midst of the COVID crisis, Erdogan approved a 300% raise for Maarif which is around 140 million euros. According to a 2017 report by the Stockholm Center for Freedom, Turk-Maarif schools promote extremism, radicalism and xenophobia and exacerbate Muslim-Christian conflicts through Islamist rhetoric and publications. Some videos also show Maarif students in foreign countries praying and chanting for Erdogan's election victory.
Maarif has established six schools in the Turkic provinces of Afghanistan. In 2021, President Erdogan reaffirmed that Turkey and the Taliban hold similar ideologies and that the Taliban taking over Afghanistan would improve relations between the two countries.
In 2018, Erdogan inaugurated the largest mosque of central Asia in Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, which can accommodate over 30,000 attendants. Speaking at the mosque's inauguration, Erdogan referred to Kyrgyz and Turks as one Islamic nation divided into two states. The government-funded Diyanet Foundation and the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TKA) establish mosques and Madrasas throughout Central Asia. The Diyanet foundation has also built the Faculty of Theology in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.
The government-funded Yunus Emre Institute, which operates over a hundred cultural centers around the world, also has offices in Moscow and Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan. The Institute, founded in 2007 by President Erdogan, promotes educational and cultural programs as part of Turkish soft power diplomacy. Key decision makers of the Institute include Turkey’s minister for culture and the president of Maarif Foundation.
Turkey was the first country to celebrate the breakup of the former Soviet Union and recognized Central Asian republics as sovereign. If history repeats itself and Russia disintegrates, Turkey will not hesitate to take the oil-rich Uralic and Siberian republics under its wing. The fallout would equip Turkish religious organizations with the required governmental sponsorship to replicate their Central Asian strategies and alter the region's religious landscape. Many argue that the Turkish model of Islamic nationalism is causing ethnic and sectarian polarization in many former Soviet republics. In places like Kazakhstan, the transition from Cyrillic to Latin alphabets, combined with growing Islamization and radicalization, is driving Christian-Russians out. In recent years, the Russian population of Kazakhstan has decreased from 40% to 15%.
The radicalization of Siberian and Uralic Muslims under Erdogan's interpretation of Islam would hasten the fusion of politics and religion and undermine inter-tribal harmony. Muslims from the Urals, Central Asia, and Siberia are proud of their distinctive localized interpretation of Islam, which accommodates ancient traditions and customs. Siberian Islam contains many traces of Buddhism, Tengrism and Shamanism that should be cherished, preserved and developed.
Despite aggressive Turkish diplomacy, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman of the oil-rich Saudi Arabia continues to challenge Erdogan's ambitions to lead the Islamic world. While the Gulf Cooperation Council members take a more conciliatory approach to territorial disputes such as Kashmir and Palestine, Erdogan is attempting to gain Muslim respect through his loud nationalistic façade. As the genocide against Turkey's own Alawis, Bektashis, and Kurds reflects poorly on Erdogan's character as a benevolent ruler; penetration into the Caucasus, Urals, and Siberia could leverage his role as Islam's wannabe Caliph.
The Western nations want Turkey to provide consistent assistance in Ukraine, which can be accomplished best by maintaining leadership continuity. More effective European cooperation would not only help Erdogan win the election next month, but would also allow him to endure his Russia policy. As Turkey's foreign policy trajectory demonstrates, Putin's decision to invade Ukraine could backfire on him on multiple fronts.
(Senge Sering is the President of Gilgit Baltistan Institute in Washington D.C).