The Kremlin is once again seeking to use the Kurds, the largest stateless national group in the world, for Moscow’s own purposes. In particular, Russia has opened a quasi-diplomatic representation office in Moscow for Syria’s Kurds. Moreover, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the outspoken leader of the fringe nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) who is believed to have close ties to the Kremlin, has said that Russia would recognize an independent Kurdistan if Turkey sends its forces into Syria (Svopi.ru, February 13). But counter-intuitively, these signals actually highlight the limits on Russia’s ability to exploit the Kurdish issue given that an independent Kurdistan would threaten Russian allies as well as Turkey and could pose problems for Moscow within the confines of the former Soviet space. In short, although Moscow is quite ready to exploit the Kurds against its opponents, it is not ready to support their national aspirations and will again betray them when that suits Russia’s purposes.
Moscow has a long history of playing the Kurdish card against Turkey, a history that extends back to the 1920s. During the Cold War, this took the form of Soviet support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey—a group that Ankara considers a terrorist organization. Indeed, for much of the post–World War II period, Moscow’s support played a key role in the ability of the PKK to cause trouble for Turkey. But throughout that time, the Kremlin promised more to the Kurds than it was ever prepared to deliver, encouraging Kurds to think that Moscow would ultimately back their national aspirations and then disappointing them when larger geopolitical calculations took precedence. The same thing appears to be happening now.
Aleksey Volodin, a Russian military commentator, argues that the opening of “a social-diplomatic mission of Syrian Kurds” in Moscow is “a signal to Russia’s ‘partners’ ” about Moscow’s support for the Kurds. He notes that there are some 40 million Kurds in the world, about half of whom live in Turkey. Other major centers include Iran (7.5 million), Iraq (7 million), and Syria (2.5 million). He does not mention Armenia or Azerbaijan, where there are still small Kurdish populations; but he does refer to the fact that there are 70,000 Kurds in the Russian Federation, most of whom came there from Central Asia after 1991 (Topwar.ru, February 10).
Volodin is careful to note that “the social-diplomatic mission of Syrian Kurdistan in Moscow” is not a full-fledged embassy as there is no such state as Syrian Kurdistan. But he stresses that this is “the only such mission” of its kind for the Kurds “beyond the borders of the Middle East.” The Moscow analyst adds that the opening of this office is a political response to Ankara’s actions not only in Syria but also in support of the Crimean Tatars, thus suggesting that Russia is also ready to play ethnic politics inside another country.
All this, in addition to Zhirinovsky’s threat, is certainly music to the ears of many Kurds. But then, at the end of his commentary, Volodin makes clear that Moscow is prepared to deliver far less than it appears to be offering. He writes that the new Moscow office is designed to allow Russia “to listen to and unite all those Syrian forces that really are prepared to preserve a united Syria,” something that an independent Kurdistan would almost certainly preclude.
As Ukrainian analyst Sergey Klimovsky notes, Russia has even more to fear from an independent Kurdistan than does Turkey. Ankara has already shown itself willing to deal directly with the Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, cooperating economically and militarily with Mosul over the last three months in order to fight the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—ISIS). Thus the Turkish government could quite possibly cope with an independent Kurdistan that did not threaten its own territorial integrity. Indeed, Moscow’s only option would seem to be restarting the PKK campaign within Turkey against Ankara—which, in fact, it may already be attempting (Caucasreview.com, February 14; see EDM, September 22, 2015).
However, there is an even more compelling reason why Moscow will not proceed very far along that path: an independent Kurdistan would not only threaten the borders of Russia’s allies in the Middle East and of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria in the first instance, but it would threaten Russia as well. According to Klimovsky, the appearance of an independent Kurdistan—whatever its borders—would “provide ‘a bad example’ to Chechnya, Dagestan and Tatarstan,” now within the Russian Federation.
Thus, while other world powers are committed to a status quo in Syria as far as international borders are concerned, Moscow is even more so, even though, in Klimovsky’s words, “the independence of Kurdistan would represent a serious step toward the end of ISIS,” the fall of the al-Assad regime, and the end of the war in Syria, something powers other than Russia profess to want. He ends by saying that he hopes that “an independent Kurdistan will be proclaimed in 2016 and that Ukraine will be one of the first states to recognize it.”
Klimovsky is almost certainly overly optimistic given that Russia is not the only country that opposes an independent Kurdistan or that has betrayed the Kurds in the past. And consequently, even if Russia is overruled by facts on the ground, others may not be.