Russia's Kurdish politicsWith Russia’s changing the balances in the Middle East following its active intervention in Syria in 2015, Moscow’s Kurdish policy has become one of the most debated issues. In order to understand this policy well and foresee the future of this relationship, it is necessary to mention some important facts from a historical perspective.

The initial contact between the Russians and the Kurds dates back to the Gulistan Treaty signed in 1813 between Qajar Iran and the Czarist Russia. The first field work and Ph.D. thesis on the Kurds titled “Northern Chaldeans, ancestors of the Iranian Kurds” was elaborated by Petr Ivanovich Lerkh in St. Petersburg University in 1855. By learning the Kurdish language from nearly 100 Kurdish people who had been taken as prisoners from the Ottoman army during the Crimean War of 1854-1856, a Russian-Kurdish dictionary was prepared in 1856. The Czarist Russia`s relations established with the Kurdish tribal leaders continued during the Soviet time.

The Soviet Russia supported the establishment of the so-called Red Kurdistan (Kurdish autonomous region within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in 1923. The Soviets also worked for the creation of the Republic of Mahabad within the borders of Iran in 1946. As a result of the failure of this project, the Soviets withdrew from northern Iran. Mustafa Barzani, who had migrated to Moscow, was sent back to the region in 1958 and the Russian formed their Kurdish policy in Iraq. Throughout the Cold War, Russia’s Kurdish policy in Iraq saw ups and downs. These turbulent relations continued during the period of Russian Federation as well. After Saddam Hussein`s fall in 2003, the relations between Moscow and Erbil was evolved into a relationship based on self-interest rather than a strategic character.    

In the case of formation and development of Russia`s Kurdish Policy in Iraq, it is impossible to ignore Yevgeni Primakov, who had observed the region closely since his early career as a news reporter during the Soviet time and eventually rose up to the position of Prime Minister in the Russian Federation. Primakov is one of the architects of the Middle East policy of the USSR and the Russian Federation. Until his death in 2015, he was one of the most influential persons in Russian foreign policy. We cannot be mistaken if we even name him Russia’s Kissinger. At present, Primakov`s successor is Russian President Vladimir Putin's Special Representative for the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov.

After the Cold War, Russia embarked on a quest of new allies rather than former Kurdish political leaders in the Middle East. Watching the changing balances in the Middle East following Saddam`s downfall in Iraq in 2003, Russia tried to balance the geopolitical conditions, which turned against itself, by developing the relations with Turkey as well. The fall of Baath administration in Iraq positively affected the Erbil–Moscow relations. In 2007, Russia’s representative office was opened in Erbil. Nevertheless, Russia still believes that the U.S. is the most important actor in cooperation with Kurds in the region.      

 

Series of meetings in Moscow 

Due to the outbreak of the civil war in Syria following the Arab Spring and facing the risk of the fall of Baath regime, the last stronghold of Russia, Moscow began to reshape its policies regarding Kurds in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. A series of meetings were held in Russia with the help of the Kurdish Diaspora to discuss the Kurdish issue in the region. The Kurdish leaders paid a visit to Moscow, where the problems of the Middle East Kurdish geography were discussed. 

Salih Muslim has been frequently seen in Moscow since 2012. And each time, Muslim was greeted at senior level - by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. A big diplomatic step was taken following Barzani’s visit to Moscow in 2013 and the representative office of Syrian Kurdistan was opened in Moscow on April 1, 2014, with an official ceremony. At the same time, the visits of HDP deputies from Turkey started from 2012. Selahattin Demirtaş, co-head of HDP, paid visits to Moscow in 2014 and 2015. What grabs attention regarding the dates of those visits is that they took place right after the annual meetings of the Turkey-Russia High-Level Cooperation Council (ÜDİK) which are held once a year. The jet crisis was ongoing in Turkish-Russian relations during Demirtaş`s latest visit in 2015. 

One of the important issues that many experts who are involved in Russian studies in Turkey should be aware of is the existence of the Kurdish Diaspora in Russia. This diaspora, which has been formed since the 19th century, is active in Russian academic circles, foreign policy decision-making structures and international relations institutes. Mihrab Shamuev, the leader of the Kurdish Diaspora, explained the role of Russia in Kurdish politics as the following way: "Russia is a major force and an important actor in the Middle East. In fact, it is not just an actor, it writes the script as well."

 

The Clause of Autonomy in the Constitution 

It should be understood from regional politics and diplomatic maneuvers that Russia's priority in Syrian policy is the continuity of the Bath regime. In order to prevent the fall of the last stronghold of the Baathist Arabism, it has to carry out a policy by considering the circumstances in the region. In the context of historical relations with northern Iraqi Kurds, Russia does not oppose federalization in Syria in order not to repeat the former mistakes. To have a closer contact with Syrian Kurds, Russia let PYD open a representative office in Moscow in 2016. In that regard, Russia was carrying out a balanced policy between Kurds and the Assad regime in Syria and strives for both groups to have a closer relationship with one another. In this way, it stands in front of American activity in the SDG / PYD region and is trying to protect its own influence. Bogdanov, who is closely related to the Kurdish Diaspora, is an important figure shaping this policy.

An important incident on the second round of the February 6 peace talks which by Turkey and Russia to resolve the Syrian crisis in Kazakhstan's capital city Astana on January 23-24 was Moscow's proposal for a draft version of the new Syrian constitution. There were worrying elements in the context of Turkish and Russian relations and Ankara's Syrian policy in that draft. The draft new constitution proposes the establishment of the Syrian Kurdish Cultural Autonomous Region and grants Kurdish language in this region the same status as Arabic.

Russia`s accepting Kurdish leaders in the Hmeymin Military base twice and negotiating peace with the Assad regime before the Astana talks was also leaked into media. Though SDG and PSD were not invited to the Astana meeting, but afterwards, on January27, the Russian Foreign Ministry invited them along with a group of oppositioners to a meeting in Moscow. Moreover, organizing the Kurdish Congress in Russia in February demonstrates that the Kremlin will not yield the Kurdish card to the Americans and will continue to play through this factor.

Although accepting Russia-proposed draft constitution of Syria seems impossible, the main issue is to see Moscow's perception and vision of regional policies through this proposal. Moscow, as observed in the case of Syria, is holding its Kurdish card and playing its own game by pressuring on Rojava over Afrin. Despite Afrin and Rojava cantons were cut off by the successful operations of ÖSO and Turkish troops, it is still possible to open the corridor in the regime-controlled territory. This corridor will certainly be available and in a controlled way if SDG / PYD / YPG accept the rules set by the Russian and Assad regime. Therefore, the Assad regime and Russia intend to relocate their cooperation in Afrin to Rojava and establish a new game. It is impossible for Russia to abandon SDG / PYD / YPG completely in Syrian politics under the current conjuncture conditions.

Turkish-Russian cooperation may be effective in changing the new equation established in Syria. However, both the US and Russia will have to maintain a very subtle diplomacy to disrupt the game of SDG / PYD. If we add the position of the Arabs in this issue, Barzani-Turkey cooperation, even Iran in a right way to this equation, the race between Moscow and Washington could be harmful to both sides. The visit of Russian President Erdogan to Russia in March will be effective in the context of the deterioration of existing plans and in the process of the formation of new rules before Raqqa operation. 

 

Originally published here.

 

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