Will Putin Be the 'Liberator Tsar' of the Kurds?

Putin Turkey PKK
Russia's President Vladimir Putin takes part in talks with members of the Turkish delegation during his visit to Ankara. Putin is the latest in a long line of Russian leaders with close ties to the Kurdish independence movement. Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

When Turkey downed a Russian jet last November, it did so in the hopes of containing Russian efforts in Syria. Instead, it may have triggered a process that is putting Vladimir Putin in the driver's seat in redrawing the borders of the Middle East, including Turkey's.

After the incident, Putin vowed that Turkey's leaders would come to rue their action and promised to retaliate with more than boycotts of Turkish tomatoes and other economic measures. "We know what we need to do," Putin intoned ominously.

Putin has been delivering on his word. As part of his revenge, Putin has been expanding ties to Kurdish groups in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. In December of last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov personally and publicly welcomed to Moscow Turkey's leading Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chairman of Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). During his visit, Demirtas proceeded to open a representative office for his party in Russia's capital. In February, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) opened its first foreign office in Moscow, a major step forward in the group's campaign for international legitimacy. Russia has been a consistent advocate on behalf of the Kurds at the Geneva peace talks.

Russian support has not been limited to diplomacy and public relations. In January, Lavrov confirmed that Russia has been delivering arms to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Multiple sources report that Russia has been supplying weapons to Syrian Kurds.

These moves by Russia have set off alarms in Ankara, and with good reason. Both the HDP and Syria's PYD are offshoots of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which for over three decades has been waging an armed struggle against the Turkish Republic in the name of Kurdish self-determination. After a two-year lull, the PKK last July resumed its insurrection, putting Turkey in a state of virtual civil war as PKK militants hole up in cities throughout Turkey's heavily Kurdish southeast and declare "self-rule."

As its name suggests, the PKK was founded during the Cold War and was inspired by a variant of Marxism-Leninism. Its ideological orientation, collaboration with the Soviet Union, and profligate use of terror tactics including suicide bombing alienated public opinion in the West and led the U.S. State Department and the European Parliament to label it as a terrorist organization.

In the past year and a half, however, the PKK's image has changed dramatically. The group and its subsidiaries have revealed themselves to be the most effective forces in the fight against the Islamic state and their secular nationalism offers a sharp contrast to the sectarianism of the Islamic state and its main foe, the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran.

This, plus increased familiarity with the Kurds' sorrowful modern history, have won the PKK considerable sympathy. U.S. military advisors now work closely with the PYD's armed units and cite the fiction that the PYD is separate from the PKK in order to get around the official terrorist designation. Experts and lobbyists in Washington and European capitals call for lifting that designation altogether.

For Turkish officials this is a nightmare, as it would hand to the PKK the most precious thing any insurgency can gain—international legitimacy—and encourage it to persist in its violent campaign to achieve self-rule and, eventually, a state of its own.

Yet the fact is, with Russia back playing an active role in the Middle East and in a position of advantage in the war in Syria, the PKK does not need the West. Indeed, the interests of the PKK and Vladimir Putin share a synergy. By working with the Kurds, Moscow can prosecute the war against ISIS, punish Turkey, and retain influence in Syria and beyond. For its part, the PKK receives a booster that can support it not just with arms, advising, and air support, but also a U.N. Security Council member that can offer invaluable backing.

Little here should surprise. Russia happens to be the Kurds' oldest great power patron. Russian leaders from Catherine the Great onward have grasped the importance of the Kurds to the politics just south of Russia's borders. Tsarist armies employed Kurdish irregulars in their wars with the Ottoman Turks and Persians while Tsarist diplomats and spies encouraged Kurdish tribes to unite and rebel against their imperial overlords. On the eve of World War I, St. Petersburg was the world's center of Kurdology, and some Kurdish leaders saw the Russian empire as their best hope for development and political independence. Bolshevik Russia in 1923 created the first ethnic Kurdish political entity, so-called Red Kurdistan, in the Caucasus, as an instrument to export revolution through the Middle East via the Kurds.

Stalin took this one step further in 1946 when, upon ordering Soviet troops to withdraw from northern Iran he oversaw the creation of the Kurdish "Mahabad Republic" there. Although the Mahabad Republic collapsed just a year later after President Truman gave cover to the Shah of Iran to crush it, it marked the first nominal Kurdish nation-state. Kurdish activists celebrate it to this today, not least because the president of the Mahabad Republic was Mustafa Barzani, the father of the current head of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional government, Masoud Barzani.

Some of the Soviet Union's leading spymasters, such as Pavel Sudoplatov and Yevgeny Primakov, found the "Kurdish card" a useful instrument to destabilize Middle Eastern governments seen as too pro-Western, particularly Turkey. The PKK received Soviet support precisely for this purpose.

Notably, Moscow did not cut its ties to the PKK after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The PKK in the 1990s continued to operate a representative office and even a "recreational-educational" camp in Russia. The Russian state had over 200 years of experience dealing with Kurds, and maintaining that relationship was a relatively cheap way to preserve leverage in the Middle East. In particular, Russia's threat to play the Kurdish card provided a deterrent of sorts against potential Turkish support for Muslim separatists in Chechnya and elsewhere inside the Russian Federation.

Putin's multi-faceted Kurdish gambit thus represents not a radical departure in Russian foreign policy but a well-worn tradition that affords him considerable flexibility in projecting Russian influence and confounding Russia's foes. Putin's announcement of a drawdown of forces from Syria hardly translates into a withdrawal of Russian influence from the Middle East.

The Kurds today—in Iraq, in Syria, in Turkey, and even in Iran—are stronger and more important actors in the Middle East than they have ever been in modern history. A bid to establish an independent Kurdish state is ever more plausible. Success in achieving self-determination, however, rarely comes without assistance from an outside power. And unlike America, whose relationship with NATO ally Turkey blocks it from embracing full-fledged Kurdish statehood, Russia is relatively free to back the idea of a sovereign independent Kurdistan.

Putin, in short, is in a unique position to bring Russia's centuries-long relationship with the Kurds to a logical culmination and deal a devastating blow to Turkey in the process. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu both profess an admiration for Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II. They would do well to remember that it was during Abdulhamid II's reign that Russian arms and diplomacy secured Bulgarian, Romanian, and Serbian independence. Kurdistan perhaps awaits its own liberator tsar.

Michael A. Reynolds is associate professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He is the author of Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires.