By James M. Dorsey
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has blown new life into Turkey’s vision of a Turkic world that stretches from Anatolia to Xinjiang in north-western China.
“Central Asia now resembles the 1990s when there was a huge competition between global and regional powers for influence over the resource-rich region. The shadow of Russia on the region, coupled with the desire of the Central Asian states to counterbalance Russia and China, has helped further foster relations between Turkey and the Central Asian states on politics and defense,” said Eurasia scholar Isik Kuscu Bonnenfant.
Opportunity for Turkey may be beckoning, but geopolitical minefields pockmark it.
For starters, Turkey’s successful development of a battle-proven killer drone makes it a party to conflicts in Central Asia and a de facto participant in wars in the Caucasus, where Turkey is interested in good relations with Azerbaijan but also its arch-enemy Armenia.
Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine’s use of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 combat drones in the Central Asian state’s border clashes with Tajikistan, and Ukraine’s war against Russia has sparked controversy.
Even before the latest clashes, Kyrgyzstan unsuccessfully sought to delay, if not block, the sale of Turkish drones to Tajikistan.
In April, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Jeenbek Kulubaev told parliament that Turkey had responded to the Kyrgyz request by saying “that it was business.” Even so, Turkey and Tajikistan have yet to ink a deal.
Remarkably, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, like his Chinese and Russian counterparts, made no concerted effort to end the border clashes even though he was mere 320 kilometres away from the battlefield when he attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in September.
Turkey's successful development of a battle-proven killer drone makes it a party to conflicts in Central Asia and a de facto participant in wars in the Caucasus, where Turkey is interested in good relations with Azerbaijan but also its arch-enemy Armenia
The clashes were the most serious Central Asian military conflict since the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine is an even larger minefield for Turkey not only because of the sale of drones but also given plans to build a Turkish drone manufacturing facility in the war-torn country and Turkish links to ethnic Turks in Crimea.
In August, Erdogan called on Russia to “return” Crimea to its “rightful owners.” Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014.
Referring to the Crimean Tatars, Erdogan told Russian President Vladimir Putin: “These are our descendants at the same time, the people who are living there. If you were to take this step forward, if you could leave us, you would also be relieving the Crimean Tatars and Ukraine as well.”
Complicating affairs, a coalition of tens of Caucasian civil society groups in Turkey is helping Russians fleeing to Turkey to avoid military service after Putin announced a mobilization. Turkey is home to 4 million Turkish nationals whose roots are in the Caucasus.
In past times, the Caucasian community supported refugees from Russian interventions in the Georgian regions of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and in Chechnya, as well as Circassians fleeing the war in Syria after the eruption of civil strife in 2011.
The support for Russians refusing to fight in Ukraine came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed to Russia’s ethnic peoples to resist the Kremlin’s military call-up.
The support, against the backdrop of anti-war protests in the predominantly Muslim Russian republic of Dagestan in the northern Caucasus, has not gone unnoticed by supporters of Putin.
Bini Sultan Khamzayev, a member of the Russian Parliament, charged that those protesting Putin’s mobilization were ethnic Turkish Kumyuks whom he accused of waging a Turkish-directed jihad against Russia since the time of Tsar Peter the Great. Kumyuks are the largest ethnic Turkish group in the northern Caucasus.
Blaming Turkey for anti-mobilisation and anti-Putin sentiment in the Caucasus is more than convenient scapegoating. Unrest in the region goes to Putin’s perception of the Caucasus as Russia’s soft underbelly.
James M. Dorsey is an expert on geopolitics and culture
Preventing the Islamist sentiment that flourished in the Syrian civil war from spreading to Muslim regions of Russia was one reason why Mr. Putin intervened militarily in Syria to ensure the survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Were the Kremlin’s regime to wobble because of factors stemming from the Ukraine war, Russia…could become a low-calorie version of the former Yugoslavia, unable to control its historic territories in the Caucasus, Siberia, and East Asia,” said geopolitical strategist Robert D. Kaplan.
Beyond the plight of Crimean Tartars and ethnic Caucasian support for anti-Ukraine war sentiment, Uighur exiles are another Turkic group that complicates Turkey’s vision of a Turkic world.
The exiles have become increasingly vocal in their outcry against China’s brutal repression of the Turkic minority in Xinjiang.
Uighur activity is a particularly sensitive issue for Turkey and China because of long-standing Turkish support for their ethnic cousins and the fact that Turkey is home to the world’s largest Uighur exile community. China does not take kindly to any foreign criticism.
More recently, Turkey has sought to silence Uighur protests amid reports of a relaxation of the crackdown in Xinjiang.
Turkey scored diplomatic brownie points this week by arranging an informal tripartite meeting between Mr. Erdogan, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on the sidelines of a European summit in Prague.
It was the first-ever meeting between Erdogan and Pashinyan. Turkey, which supported Azerbaijan in the 2020 Caucasus war against Armenia and renewed clashes in September, has not had diplomatic or commercial ties with Armenia since the 1990s.
The two countries, despite differences over the deaths of 1.5 million people Armenia says were killed in 1915 by the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkey, have been seeking to reestablish ties since early this year.
Even so, Turkey has to tread carefully in its rapprochement with Armenia to ensure that its diplomacy remains synced with Azerbaijan, its foremost ally in the Caucasus.
Turkey’s positioning of itself as the protector of Turkic and Muslim interests may not be enough to match Chinese progress on the ground in Central Asia, even if it stands to benefit from the scramble to operationalize an alternative trans-Eurasian transport corridor from China to Europe that would circumvent Russia by traversing independent former Soviet republics.
“Turkey has not had the kind of economic firepower to push into the region in the same way as China,” said scholar Raffaelo Pantucci in a recent webinar, despite conducting brisk trade with Central Asian nations.
Turkey hopes its emphasis on cultural links will compensate for its economic weakness.
Last week, Turkey became the first non-Central Asian country to host the World Nomadic Games, a competition dedicated to Turkic ethnic sports. The games were opened by Erdogan, whose son, Bilal, heads the World Ethnosports Confederation.
“Hosting sports organizations of this scale is a crucial aspect of soft power… It focuses on intangible heritage worth saving,” said sports economist Sabahattin Devecioglu.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
Turkey’s positioning of itself as the protector of Turkic and Muslim interests may not be enough to match Chinese progress on the ground in Central Asia