Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 2)

[Part 1 can be read here. Thanks to Iryna Novosyolova for a helpful discussion of some of the issues discussed in this post.]


In 2014, the Russian Federation acquired another Muslim group that may prove troublesome both within Russia and globally: the Crimean Tatars. According to the 2002 Russian census, there were only 4,131 Crimean Tatars living in the country, concentrated in Krasnodar Krai in southern Russia; the March 2014 annexation of Crimea, however, brought with it some 245,000 Crimean Tatars. The referendum, which allegedly showed an overwhelming desire of the people of Crimea to join Russia, was boycotted by Crimean Tatars (various Ukrainian and international media sources reported at the time that 95-99% of Crimean Tatars did not take part in the referendum; see here, here, and here; while Russian media stated that the proposed boycott did not take place). Also, reports surfaced in the social media and Ukrainian news outlets that Russian (para)military personnel were confiscating and tearing up passports of potential voters of Crimean Tatar background (see here, here, here, and here).

Crimean Tatar MapCrimean Tatars have good reasons for viewing the Russian annexation of their homeland with suspicion and worse: since the Crimean Peninsula was first made part of the Russian Empire in 1783, Crimean Tatars have been subjected to massacres, exiles, discrimination, and deportations. By 1897, they constituted only 34% of the peninsula’s population. After the Bolshevik Revolution, persecutions of Crimean Tatars continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s, marked by widespread imprisonment and execution. The confiscation of food to supply central Russia resulted in widespread starvation. According to some sources, half of the Crimean Tatar population was killed or deported between 1917 and 1933. Persecution reached its culmination on May 18, 1944, when the Soviet government deported the entire remaining Crimean Tatar population to Central Asia as a form of collective punishment for alleged collaboration with the Nazis during their occupation of Crimea in 1941-1944 (the reality of this purported collaboration is discussed in my earlier post). The deportation process, as described by the victims in their memoirs, was horrific. More than 32,000 NKVD troops participated in this action. The deportees were given only 30 minutes to gather personal belongings, after which they were loaded onto cattle trains and moved out of Crimea. The expulsion was poorly planned and executed; the lack of accommodation and food, the harsh climatic conditions of the destination areas, and the rapid spread of diseases generated a high mortality rate during the first years of exile. It is estimated than nearly half of the deportees died of diseases and malnutrition, causing Crimean activists to call it an instance of genocide. Even after Crimean Tatars were officially “rehabilitated” in 1967, they were not allowed to return to their homeland until after the fall of the USSR because, as some scholars explain, Crimea was seen by Soviet leaders as too geopolitically and economically crucial. Although many Crimean Tatars have returned to the peninsula since 1991, few managed to move into the areas of their historical settlement. Prior to the deportations, the majority of Crimean Tatars—members of the Tat and Yalıboyu subgroups—lived in the mountainous central and southern parts of Crimea and on the southern coast. These areas, and particularly the coastal region, are climatically favorable, protected by the east-west running mountains from frigid northern winds. But upon their return, most Crimean Tatars had to settle in the less desirable central and eastern parts of the peninsula.

The resentment is further fueled by a new wave of repressions since the 2014 annexation. Many Crimean Tatar activists have been prosecuted by Russian authorities: some face criminal charges in Russia and hence cannot go back to Crimea, others have been subjected to unjustified searches and seizures of their property. As noted in Lily Hide’s article in Foreign Policy,

“The new regime has banned leading Crimean Tatars from the peninsula, and instigated politically motivated court cases against others. It promised to make Crimean Tatar one of three state languages, then reduced hours of Crimean Tatar instruction in schools, closed down ATR, the Crimean Tatar television network owned by Islyamov, and has regularly raided Tatar households and religious institutions in search of ‘extremist’ material. Until a January 2016 visit by a Council of Europe envoy, the new authorities refused to grant access to Crimea to international monitoring organizations and the U.N., though human rights violations have been extensively documented.”

The initial reaction from Crimean Tatars has been “to resist through peaceful means”, says Hide. For example, a long-term media campaign led by Serhii Kostynskyi of Ukraine’s National TV and Radio Committee aimed to “expose human rights abuses and win back Crimea with ‘soft power’”. However, such attempts to draw the attention of international and domestic media to Crimea have been a limited success. The continuing fighting in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine has deflected the attention of both politicians and the media, locally and internationally. Moreover, the majority of Crimea’s Russian-speaking population are happy to be part of Russia, even if it brought the peninsula little economic or social development. Thus, Crimean Tatars, who constitute a minority in their historical homeland, have little support within Crimea and have to look for an alliance elsewhere. As noted in Hide’s article, “Crimean Tatar activists and Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary groups” have joined forces in “leading a low-level insurgency against the Russian annexation”. In the fall of 2015, the two groups together imposed a unilateral “trade blockade of the peninsula, stopping traffic, demanding to see travelers’ documents and confiscating goods”; in November 2015, “unknown saboteurs cut four nearby power lines providing electricity to Crimea, leaving the entire peninsula in the dark”. Many Crimean Tatar activists realize that joining forces with the paramilitaries and adopting their tactics “meant giving up the moral high ground”. But Hide cites Evelina Arifova, one of Crimean Tatar activists pushing for a trade and electricity embargo on the peninsula, as saying: “Without their radicalism, we wouldn’t have achieved anything”.

This conclusion in favor of radicalism can be based not only on Kostynskyi’s less-than-successful media campaign in Ukraine on behalf of Crimean Tatars, but also on the contrasting experiences of Muslim groups in the North Caucasus, particularly the Chechens and the Circassians. When I mention the two groups in my classes, I typically get many nods of recognition for the first group and mostly blank stares for the second. As mentioned above, the Circassians, like the Chechens, were subjected to a prolonged war with the Russian Empire and ultimately the majority of them were expelled from their ancestral homeland. The exiled Circassians—those who survived the brutal expulsion—found new homes throughout the Ottoman Empire, especially in present-day Turkey, Jordan, Syria, and Israel. Yet unlike the Chechens, today’s Circassian activists chose to follow a peaceful, non-violent path for maintaining their ethnic identity and culture, seeking recognition of the genocide committed against them, and campaigning for Russia to allow some of them to return to their homeland in the Northwest Caucasus (the latter issue is particularly relevant for the Circassians in war-torn Syria). The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, where the Circassians’ ancestors were boarding the Ottoman ships, offered them an excellent opportunity to draw international media’s attention to their cause. And yet, most mainstream media organizations downplayed or ignored the Circassian issue, as discussed in detail in Martin Lewis’ earlier GeoCurrents post. The Chechens, in contrast, have gained much more media attention. “They got their PR campaign together”, a student in one of my adult education classes once joked. “By blowing stuff up”, I replied. Here, I agree with Martin Lewis that the media is to some extent complicit in driving nationalist movements to become more radicalized and more violent. As Lewis puts it, “if news source chose to highlight violent responses while ignoring non-violent ones, a perverse message is seemingly sent: ‘If you want our attention, kill someone!’”. While Crimean Tatars have not yet been involved in violence against persons, they are evidently prepared to blow up power lines and destroy goods. It is, however, a step in the radical direction.

Several other factors suggest that we might see a rise in violence perpetrated by Crimean Tatars and an internationalization of their more militant activists. Unlike the Chechens and the Volga Tatars, the Crimean Tatars do not constitute the majority or even a plurality in their region. It is therefore hardly likely that they will be able to gain much cultural or economic autonomy, regardless of whether Crimea remains under Russian control or is transferred back to Ukraine—and independence is entirely out of the question. In fact, the vector of Russian policy with respect to Crimean Tatars is clear from the recent persecutions of the Crimean Tatar activists, including the exile of their leader, 72-year old Mustafa Jemilev, a veteran of the dissident movement. Jemilev is now banned from Crimea by Russian authorities, while his wife remains in Crimea and his son is in prison in Russia. While for now Crimean Tatars align themselves with Ukrainian paramilitaries, it would not be surprising if the more militant wing of their movement begins to look for alliances in the larger Muslim world.

krimea3The comparison between Tatarstan and Chechnya above also suggests that stunted economic and social development facilitates radicalization of Muslim groups. While the authors of a recent article in Foreign Affairs William McCants and Christopher Meserole focus on “political culture”, they too admit that economic factors play a role, particularly the high degree of unemployment. As many other authors have suggested, high unemployment among young males creates a demographic base for jihadi recruiters to draw upon. By all accounts, Crimea was economically underdeveloped already on the eve of the Russian annexation in March 2014, even according to Russian sources such as Russia Today, a media outlet that peddles pro-Putin state-sanctioned propaganda in English. According to their article “Crimea’s economy in numbers and pictures”, published on March 15, 2014, Crimea’s budget deficit at the time constituted $1 billion, while the republic’s annual GDP was only $4.3 billion (see image on the left, reproduced from the Russia Today article). By 2018, Crimea expected Russian investment of about $5 billion. Yet Crimea also had a lot to lose by severing its ties with Ukraine: on the eve of the annexation, 90% of water, 80% of electricity, 60% of primary goods, and 70% of tourism came from Ukraine. The Russia Today article hypothesized that “if Crimea becomes a part of Russia it’ll become a more attractive holiday destination for Russia’s population of 142 million, whose per capita income is more than three times that of Ukrainians”. However, in reality, the hostilities turned off tourists and the logistical difficulties in getting to and from the peninsula with a ferry caused a further drop in Russian tourism. As reported by, “almost 60% of tourists from Russia do not consider the resorts of the annexed Crimea … to be a decent replacement for Turkey and Egypt”. Thus, although Sergey Aksyonov, Crimea’s prime minister and an advocate of joining Russia, had hoped that breaking away from Ukraine would transform the economy for the better and would turn the peninsula into another Singapore, this has not happened. The economic sanctions imposed by the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia, and several other countries directly against Crimea and Crimean individuals have further inhibited tourism and infrastructure development.

eng_ukraine_mapThe political and economic problems, as well as direct persecutions, have caused many Crimean Tatars to leave the peninsula; according to, 10,000 Crimean Tatars have been forced out of Crimea and moved to Kherson, Lviv, Zaporizhye, and Kiyiv districts of Ukraine (see map on the left from This mass displacement parallels what had happened in Chechnya in the wake of the two Chechen wars. Thus, the destruction of family and community ties as a result of this relocation may bring Crimean Tatars to the point where religious identity would matter more than ethno-linguistic identity. As is, only a small minority of Crimean Tatars speak their indigenous language, which is considered to be endangered: although it is taught in several schools, it is mostly spoken by older people, according to the Ethnologue. Islam, on the other hand, has always been an important part of Crimean Tatar identity. Historically, Crimean Tatars were described as “diligent Muslims”, but while some important Muslim traditions—charity, fasts (including that of Ramadan), and pilgrimage to Mecca—were strictly observed, others were downplayed or ignored. For example, the German geographer Gustav Radde, who visited Crimea in the mid-1850s and wrote an ethnographic treatise about Crimean Tatars, informed his readers that Crimean Tatars drank vodka and a low-alcohol homebrew, though not wine. Another Islamic proscription that was generally ignored by Crimean Tatars is the ban on gambling, playing cards and dice, which were considered acceptable and indulged in widely, Radde wrote. Yet the treatment of women and the family law in traditional Crimean Tatar society, as described by Radde, is reminiscent of what is practiced in the most strictly Islamic countries. Thus, although Crimean Tatars today have certainly not seen the de facto implementation of Sharia law that has been experienced in Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov, including polygamy and enforced veiling, they could move in the more radical Islamist direction, especially as dislocation, persecutions by Russian authorities, and the continuing loss of their indigenous language make Islam the linchpin of their identity.

All in all, Chechnya has experienced significant radicalization and internationalization of its rebels, Tatarstan seems to be experiencing the same phenomena in a milder form, and the Crimean Tatars may be beginning to move in the same direction. Such developments may be driven as much by Russia’s repressive policies and the international media’s silence on non-violent protests as by internal causes such as economic and social underdevelopment. I think the conclusion of the authors of the Chatham House summary about the North Caucasus applies as well to Crimea:

“The causes of radicalization in the North Caucasus mean the situation is unlikely to change until Russia itself changes and Moscow is able to offer an alternative vision to the people in the region. If religious repression continues, so will the insurgency.”

“Russian political culture” may yet prove to be as deadly as the French one, albeit not by banning the veil but by allowing it—and by leaving little room for moderate Muslim identity based on history, culture, traditions, and language rather than jihad.




Russian Envelopment? Ukraine’s Geopolitical Complexities

The current issue of Time magazine features an article by Robert Kaplan that emphasizes the geographical aspects of what he refers to as “endless chaos and old-school conflicts,” especially in regard to Ukraine. In general, I appreciate Kaplan’s insistence on the abiding importance of geography and I am impressed by his global scope of knowledge, although I do think that his analyses tend to be a bit too simple. My reaction to his most recent article is much the same.

Ukraine Not Encircled MapHere Kaplan stresses Ukraine’s military and economic vulnerability imposed by its relatively flat terrain and its proximity to the Russian heartland. His assessment is clear: “the dictates of geography make it nearly impossible for that nation to reorient itself entirely to the West.” Kaplan reiterates this point in the caption of his map of “Ukraine/Crimea”: “Ukraine is too enveloped by Russia to ever be completely tied to the West. Crimea gives Russia its only access to a warm-water port.”

Many works on the current conflict emphasize the significance of warm-water ports, the pursuit of which have been a historical mainstay of Russian geopolitics. It is essential to note, however, that the naval value of Crimea’s Sevastopol is rather seriously compromised by the fact that its access to the high seas is constrained by Turkey’s—and hence NATO’s—possession of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. Yet Sevastopol certainly is of regional strategic value, as became evident in August 2008, when Russian ships based there were used to blockade Georgian ports.

Kaplan’s emphasis on Russia’s envelopment of Ukraine is less often encountered, and for good reason, as it is hardly evident on the map. As can be seen from Kaplan’s own visualization, only about a third of Ukraine’s border fronts on that of Russia. Further analysis, however, along with more detailed mapping, strengthen Kaplan’s envelopment argument. Consider, for example the position of Belarus, which sits across Ukraine’s northwestern border. If Belarus is counted as a Russian satellite, as it often is, then Russian-dominated territory does come much closer to encircling Ukraine. Yet the actual geopolitical position of Belarus is hotly debated. According to the title of Andrew Wilson’s recent article in Foreign Affairs, “Belarus Wants Out”—out of the Russian embrace, that is. As Wilson perceptively writes, “Above all, [Belarussian leader Alexander] Lukashenko wants to avoid having to make a decision between Russia and the West. He has always been happy to be Russia’s ally, but only as the leader of a strong, independent state capable of steering its own course.” The fact that Belarus, unlike Venezuela and Nicaragua, has not recognized the independence of the Russian-dominate statelets of Abkhazia and South Ossetia underscores the independence of its foreign policy. Lukashenko’s avoidance of choosing between Russia and the West is also evident from his recent actions. While accepting the results of the Crimean referendum, he has also initiated negotiations with NATO.

Ukraine Encircled MapBut Belarus is not the only territory unmapped by Kaplan that contributes to potential Russian envelopment of Ukraine. Crimea, of course, is now under effective Russian control, and thus should be depicted as such on maps aimed at showing the de facto rather than the de jure geopolitical situation. Equally significant but more often overlooked is the self-declared state of Transnistria, which is situated along Ukraine’s southwestern flank. Transnistria, like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is often regarded as a Russian puppet, although its actual situation is complex, as will be seen in a forthcoming GeoCurrents post. The main point, however, remains: if one were to include all of these additional Russian-influenced territories, then it would appear that Ukraine is almost encircled by powers potentially hostile to its current government.

In fleshing out his argument, Kaplan foresees Russian ascendency over eastern Ukraine, owing to its proximity to Russia, its economic importance, and its demographic domination by pro-Russian groups. He does not, however, anticipate annexation of the region:

Putin is not likely to invade eastern Ukraine in a conventional way. In order to exercise dominance, he doesn’t need to. Instead, he will send in secessionists, instigate disturbances, probe the frontier with Russian troops and in other ways use the porous border with Ukraine to undermine both eastern Ukraine’s sovereignty and its links to western Ukraine.

A similar prognosis is made by James Traub of Foreign Policy:

Putin has so many lower-cost options available to him that a large-scale invasion — even one limited to border areas — still seems unlikely. Putin may calculate that he can destabilize Ukraine, and thus turn its dalliance with the West into a failure, by using Russia’s immense economic power to squeeze Ukraine, by blanketing the east with propaganda from Russian media and by sending agents provocateurs to whip up popular discontent. Putin doesn’t “need,” as he put it, to divide Ukraine by force; he just needs to keep it out of the Western orbit.

Ukarain's Fears mapIt remains to be seen, of course, whether such events will occur, although Kaplan’s warnings do seem justified. But Putin does not need to “send in” secessionists, as plenty of them are already present, and it does seem odd that Kaplan would write about eastern Ukraine’s “sovereignty,” a quality that the region does not possess.

Such concerns, moreover, are by no means limited to eastern Ukraine. Although the far east is the most Russian-oriented part of the county, pro-Russian sentiments are also widespread over southern Ukraine, including the southwest. Consider, for example, Odessa (both the city and the oblast). Odessa figures prominently in the Russian historical-geographical imagination, and the local Russian minority is substantial. According to The Voice of Russia, thousands of people have recently taken to the streets of Odessa to demand “that the authorities hold a referendum on de-centralization of power in Ukraine, grant the status of a state language to the Russian language and change the country’s foreign policy course.” In recent elections, moreover, the pro-Russian Party of Regions has trounced all other parties in Odessa Oblast. But such Russia-oriented sentiments are far from uniform here, as even The Voice of Russia admits that the protestors that it highlighted were “opposed by local pro-European supporters who asked a court to forbid the march.” By the same token, the Party of Regions handily won the most recent Ukrainian election in Odessa Oblast only because the opposition was divided; as a result, it easily took first place with only 41.9 percent of the vote. In contrast, the Party of Regions won over half of the votes in Crimea and over 65 percent in the eastern oblast of Donetsk.

Odessa Oblast makes an interesting case, as its population is relatively heterogeneous, and in the recent past it was more cosmopolitan than it is today. As of the 2001 census, Ukrainians constituted 62.8 percent of its population, with Russian making up a fifth. Bulgarians, Moldovans, and Gagauz (the latter a Turkic-speaking, traditionally Christian people) together accounted for more than twelve percent of the oblast’s population. Numerous other groups are also found in the region, some of which (Jews, Greeks, and Belarussians) were formerly much more numerous. The Russian population has also been declining, having dropped from 27.4 percent in 1989 to 20.7 percent in 2001. Russian nationalist in the region are no doubt concerned about this decline.

Even far western Ukraine presents a challenge for Ukrainian nationalists. The region in question here is Zakarpattia Oblast, also known (from the Russian perspective) as Transcarpatia and (from the Hungarian perspective) as sub-Carpathian Ukraine (a more neutral term is Carpathian Ruthenia). In terms of physical geography, this is a crucial region, as it lies on the far side of the formidable Carpathian range from the rest of Ukraine, its core area situated in the lowland Danubian basin. Part of Czechoslovakia between the world wars, Carpathian Ruthenia subsequently passed to Hungarian control and then, in 1945, to the Soviet Union and hence Ukraine. Gaining the region gave the Soviet Union a geo-strategic advantage in the Cold War, although Soviet annexation was justified on the basis of its mostly Ukrainian population. But, like that of Odessa, the population of Zakarpattia Oblast is ethnically mixed, although, again, such diversity has long been declining. According to official figures, its population in 1921 was 62 percent Ukrainian, 17 percent Hungarian, and 13 percent Jewish (with significant numbers of Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Germans, and others), whereas by 1991 the Ukrainians had increased to over 80 percent while the Hungarians had dropped to 12 percent. The Jewish population, on the other hand, was no longer even tabulated. Russians currently constitute only about 2.5 percent of the population of the oblast.

Despite its large Ukrainian and small Russian populations, Zakarpattia’s voting patterns deviate substantially from those of the other regions of western Ukraine. The pro-Russian Party of Regions, for example, took a plurality (31 percent) of the oblast’s votes in the 2012 legislative election, as opposed to taking less than five percent in the Ukrainian-nationalist stronghold of Lviv. One of the main problems for the Ukrainian nationalist movement here is the presence of the so-called Ruthenian or Rusyn ethnic group. According to Ukraine’s government, such a community does not exist, as its members are merely Ukrainians who refuse to admit as much. Ruthenian partisans, not surprisingly, strongly object to such a classification, and some of them have long advocated independence for their region. According to the Ukrainian source Radio Svoboda, “Moscow has recently been fueling separatist sentiments among the Ruthenians in order to weaken Ukraine.”

The Ruthenian issue is complicated enough to deserve its own post, which will be forthcoming. But as we have seen from this post, the geopolitical situation of Ukraine is complicated indeed.  Further posts this week will explore such complexities in greater detail.

(Note on Maps: In this series of maps, color is crudely used to show the degree of potential Russian domination. Russia itself is shown in the darkest shade of red, with Crimea, now under Russian control, in a slightly lighter shade of the same color, and Transnistria in a still lighter shade. Belarus, being a sovereign state, is depicted in red-orange on the final map rather than a shade of red, in order to signal this difference. In the last map, Ukrainian Oblasts with Russian-speaking majorities are shown in a still lighter shade of red, and those with Ukrainian-speaking majorities that nonetheless exhibit major challenges for Ukrainian nationalism are shown in the lightest shade or red.)