Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has breathed new life into Turkey’s vision of a Turkic world that stretches from Anatolia to Xinjiang in northwest China.
“Central Asia now resembles the 1990s, when there was huge competition between global and regional powers for influence over the resource-rich region. The shadow of Russia over the region, coupled with the desire of Central Asian states to counterbalance Russia and China, has helped strengthen relations between Turkey and Central Asian states on politics and defence,” said Eurasia specialist Isik Kuscu Bonnenfant.
The opportunity for Turkey may present itself, but the geopolitical minefields mark it.
For starters, Turkey’s successful development of a combat-proven killer drone makes it a party to the conflicts in Central Asia and a de facto participant in the wars in the Caucasus, where Turkey is interested in good relations with Azerbaijan. but also his sworn enemy Armenia.
Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine use of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 combat drones in the Central Asian state’s border clashes with Tajikistanand Ukraine’s war against Russia has been controversial.
Even before the latest clashes, Kyrgyzstan tried in vain to delay or even 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 stating “that it was business.” Even so, Turkey and Tajikistan have yet to sign an agreement.
Remarkably, Mr Erdogan, like his Chinese and Russian counterparts, made no concerted effort to end the border clashes, even though he was only 320 kilometers from the battlefield when he attended the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in September.
The clashes were the most serious military conflict in Central Asia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Ukraine is an even bigger minefield for Turkey, not only because of the sale of drones, but also given the plans to build a Turkish drone manufacturing plant in the war-torn country and Turkish ties to the Crimean Turks.
In August, Mr. Erdogan called on Russia to “return” Crimea to its “rightful owners”. Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014.
Referring to the Crimean Tatars, Mr Erdogan told Russian President Vladimir Putin: “They are our descendants at the same time, the people who live there. If you took this step forward, if you could leave us, you would also relieve the Crimean Tatars and Ukraine.
To complicate matters, a a coalition of dozens of Caucasian civil society groups in Turkey helps Russians flee to Turkey to avoid military service after Mr. Putin announced a mobilization. Turkey is home to 4 million Turkish nationals whose roots are in the Caucasus.
In the past, the Caucasian community has supported refugees from Russian interventions in the Georgian regions of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Chechnya, as well as Circassians fleeing war in Syria after the civil war erupted in 2011. .
Support for Russians refusing to fight in Ukraine came as Ukrainians President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to the ethnic peoples of Russia to resist the Kremlin’s military appeal.
The support, in the background of anti-war protests in the predominantly Muslim Russian republic of Dagestan in the northern Caucasus, has not gone unnoticed by Mr. Putin’s supporters.
Bini Sultan Khamzayev, a member of the Russian parliament, accused those protesting Mr Putin’s mobilization of being ethnic Turkish Kumyuks whom he accused of wage a Turkish-led jihad against Russia since the time of Tsar Peter the Great. The Kumyuks are the largest Turkic ethnic group in the North Caucasus.
Blaming Turkey for anti-mobilization and anti-Putin sentiment in the Caucasus is more than just a scapegoat. The unrest in the region is due to Mr. Putin’s perception of the Caucasus as the soft underbelly of Russia.
Preventing the Islamist sentiment that flourished during the Syrian civil war from spreading to Muslim regions of Russia was one of the reasons Mr. Putin intervened militarily in Syria to ensure the survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“If the Kremlin regime wavered due to factors related to the war in Ukraine, Russia…could become a low-calorie version of the former Yugoslaviaunable to control its historic territories in the Caucasus, Siberia and East Asia,” said geopolitical strategist Robert D. Kaplan.
Beyond the plight of the Crimean Tartars and ethnic Caucasian support for anti-Ukrainian war sentiment, Uyghur exiles are another Turkish group that complicates Turkey’s vision of a Turkish world.
Exiles have become increasingly vocal in their outcry against China’s brutal crackdown on Xinjiang’s Turkish minority.
Uyghur activity is a particularly sensitive issue for Turkey and China due to long-standing Turkish support for their ethnic cousins and the fact that Turkey is home to the largest Uyghur exile community in the world. China does not appreciate any foreign criticism.
Turkey scored diplomatic points this week by organizing 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 very first meeting between Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Pashinyan. Turkey, which backed Azerbaijan in the 2020 Caucasian War against Armenia and renewed clashes in September, has not had diplomatic or trade relations with Armenia since the 1990s.
The two countries, despite differences over the death of 1.5 million people according to Armenia, were killed in 1915 by the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkey, have sought to restore ties since the beginning of this year.
Even so, Turkey must tread carefully in its rapprochement with Armenia to ensure that its diplomacy remains in sync with Azerbaijan, its main ally in the Caucasus.
Turkey’s positioning as a protector of Turkish and Muslim interests may not be enough to match Chinese progress on the ground in Central Asia, even if it is likely to benefit from the scramble to operationalize an alternative Trans-Eurasian transport corridor from China to Europe which would circumvent Russia by crossing the former independent Soviet republics.
“Turkey hasn’t had the kind of economic firepower to penetrate the region in the same way that China has,” researcher Raffaelo Pantucci said in a recent webinar, despite sustained trade with countries in Central Asia.
Turkey hopes that its emphasis on cultural ties will compensate for its economic weakness.
Last week, Turkey became the first non-Central Asian country to host the World Nomad Games, a competition dedicated to Turkish ethnic sports. The games were opened by Mr Erdogan, whose son, Bilal, heads the World Ethnic Sports Confederation.
“Hosting sports organizations of this stature is a crucial aspect of soft power… It focuses on intangible heritage worth safeguarding,” said sports economist Sabahattin Devecioglu.