It is unsurprising that a great majority of the decisions and public statements of a thinker as nuanced and historically grounded as Vladimir Putin are devised to serve multiple different purposes. Putin’s skill as a geo-strategist is partially grounded in his historical erudition. His decision on March 18th, the 5th anniversary of Crimea’s re-unification with Russia, to invite Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the opening of the Crimean central mosque, which is scheduled for late 2019, is a case in point. The mosque-project is situated in the Marina region of Simferopol. Through this invitation, Putin partially achieves a number of different things.
Firstly, this move enables Putin to test the trajectory of Russian-Turkish rapprochement which began in the aftermath of the 2016 attempted Turkish coup d’etat. If Erdogan accepts this invitation, then he is breaking ranks with Turkey’s NATO-partners on the Crimean issue.
If he doesn’t accept, then he risks alienating the Crimean Tatar community, especially considering that it was the Grand Mufti of Crimea, Hajji Emirali Ablaev, who first raised the idea of inviting Erdogan. The Crimean Tatars are a Turkic language-group, and Crimea was an Ottoman protectorate between 1475 and 1774, eventually being incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1783. The invitation is devised to present Erdogan with a dilemma, either outcome of which will strengthen Russia’s hand.
Secondly, while a certain proportion of the Crimean Tatar community was apprehensive following Crimea’s 2014 re-unification with Russia, most Crimean Tatars have learned to relax in the 5 years since. All efforts to radicalize the Crimean Tatar community in an attempt to destabilize the peninsula have failed miserably, and an infrastructure of Crimean Tatar cultural and media-organizations which are loyal in principle to the Russian state has formed to replace the discredited “Mejlis” and its media-partners.
In this context, the timing of Putin’s invitation to Erdogan is also devised to project confidence. Through this gesture, Putin is signalling “Whatever soft power you once thought you had in Crimea, it presents absolutely no threat to us now.” Putin can afford to be magnanimous in victory. He is seeking to essentially neutralize Turkish cultural influence on the peninsula by domesticating it, by allowing it to operate under the authority of Russian legal jurisdiction.
Even two years ago, such an invitation extended by Putin would have been geo-politically untenable. Immediately before the March 2014 re-unification, the then Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated that “Crimea is Turkey’s doorway to Ukraine” – the implication being that Ukraine had long been seen by her neighbours in the Black Sea region as a weak, unstable and essentially artificial political construct, and therefore fair game for other regional state-actors wishing to extend their spheres of influence.
Furthermore, at the 2016 Organization for Islamic Cooperation summit in Istanbul, Davutoglu, by then prime minister, provocatively stated "The most important indicator which would show the effectiveness of the OIC is protecting Muslim minorities and liberating occupied lands such as Palestine, Karabakh and Crimea."
Since Davutoglu’s departure, Erdogan himself has intermittently reiterated that Turkey does not recognize Crimea as part of Russia’s territorial jurisdiction, and that Turkey sees itself as a protector of the interests of Crimean Tatars, although regarding the issues of jurisdiction and territorial sovereignty, Erdogan himself does not seem to have spotted the implicit contradiction between those two positions.
It has taken the 2016 Turkish coup-attempt, the implosion of Turkish imperial ambitions in Syria and the outbreak of economic warfare between Turkey and the Trump administration in 2018 to make the level of rapprochement in current Russian-Turkish relations possible. Turkey no longer pursues a unilateral geo-political agenda with the boldness which it did 7 or 8 years ago, at the apex of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman project.
However, on another level, Putin’s invitation to Erdogan encapsulates differences between Russia’s and Turkey’s current domestic political landscapes. While Turkey has become increasingly internally unstable in recent years and also started to veer toward Islamism, Russia’s burgeoning confidence is seen in the resonance of its traditional historical model of statehood.
It is not necessarily cynical to observe that Russia’s traditional model of religious pluralism and cosmopolitanism in Tsarist times was inextricably linked to the state’s taxation-policy. The traditional political contract between the Russian state and her minority narody has been a contract involving the guarantee of local religious and cultural freedoms, plus the provision of security, in exchange for taxes. As long as the minority narody paid the tribute, they had a guarantee that their cultural and religious rights within their national homelands would never be impinged upon.
This pluralistic religious policy and cosmopolitanism is the only way that a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-confessional polis such as Russia could ever exist. That political contract has worked well for 500 years. So while a weak Turkish state currently abandons secularism in an attempt to manufacture new ideological glue, a resurgent Russian state has the confidence to re-assert its traditional historical model of statehood, in which neither Islam nor minority identities are seen to pose any threat to the cultural and political, majoritarian leitkultur.
Geography and demographics unavoidably determine that Russia and Turkey cannot be “friends” as such – given their respective geo-political interests, a certain level of natural competition is inevitable, but this in no way precludes simultaneous geo-political and economic cooperation on other levels. Putin has spoken of “natural competition” often. His invitation to Erdogan concerning the opening of the central mosque in Crimea is loaded with implications concerning the current balance of soft power and both recent and current Russian-Turkish relations.
Primarily, it signifies that Russia, currently being in by far the stronger position in this relationship, has the luxury of provisionally extending the hand of friendship. With Turkish geo-political unilateralism now a largely failed project and a western alliance which has alienated Turkey, we may be witnessing the beginning of a phase wherein, for a time at least, Turkey begins to play the role of a Russian client-state. The implications of such a development for Russia’s geo-political influence in the Balkans, the Middle East and Central Asia, and for Russian-NATO relations, would be immense.