If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan thought last November that by downing a Russian Su-24 bomber near the Turkish-Syrian border he could contain Vladimir Putin’s Middle Eastern ambitions, he is certainly regretting that now. An incensed Vladimir Putin vowed that Turkey would come to rue its actions. He warned that Russia would not settle its accounts with Turkey with mere economic sanctions, adding, “We know what we need to do.”
What Putin meant is becoming clear. Earlier this month, in what can only be described as a menacing signal to Ankara, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (or PYD) formally opened a representative office in Moscow, its first in a foreign country. Meanwhile, inside Syria, the PYD’s armed wing has been using Russian arms and Russian air support to aggressively expand the amount of territory it controls along the Syrian-Turkish border. Ankara is alarmed, and rightly so. Despite possessing its own acronym, the PYD is a subsidiary of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistane), or PKK, which is currently intensifying the insurgency it is waging in Turkey’s southeast. There, PKK activists have declared Kurdish self-rule and PKK fighters are holing up in cities, digging trenches and taking on Turkish security forces with everything from snipers and rocket propelled grenades to improvised explosive devices.
Erdoğan has declared his determination to crush the PKK, but no one should hold their breath: the Turkish Republic has been trying to vanquish the PKK for over three decades. Yet the PKK has perhaps never been so robust and well positioned, militarily and diplomatically, as it is now. Exploiting the collapse of central state control in Iraq and Syria, the PKK built its headquarters in the secure Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq a decade and a half ago. More recently, it established, via the PYD, the de facto autonomous governorate of Rojava in northern Syria. Now it is again waging a burgeoning insurgency inside Turkey’s southeast.
Perhaps most significant is that the PKK’s contribution to the fight against ISIS has won it unprecedented international legitimacy. Whereas in 1997 Washington formally declared the PKK a terrorist organization, and was followed in this designation by the European Parliament, today, U.S. Special Forces are training and arming the PPK’s subsidiary inside Syria. Washington justifies such collaboration with the fiction that the PYD is separate from the PKK, but efforts are under way in both the United States and Europe to remove the terrorist label. If those efforts succeed, they will yield a major boon to the PKK.
But the PKK may not need the assistance or goodwill of the West in order to realize its ambition of an independent Kurdistan. The PKK’s role in the war with ISIS also rekindled its relations with the oldest Great Power patron of the Kurds, Russia. The goals of the PKK and Russia possess a devilish synergy. The two now share common enemies in ISIS and Turkey. By working with the Kurds, Moscow can prosecute the war against ISIS, punish Turkey, outmaneuver the United States in Syria and provoke a rift in Turkish-U.S. relations, thereby weakening NATO.
Russia: the Kurds’ Oldest Great-Power Patron
The first thing observers need to understand is that today’s alliance between Russia and the PKK is hardly new or unusual. The Russian-Kurdish nexus has been a recurring feature of Middle Eastern geopolitics for more than two hundred years, since Catherine the Great commissioned the publication of a Kurdish grammar in 1787. Catherine’s interest in the Kurds was not purely academic. Kurdish tribes, tsarist officials recognized, were important actors along Russia’s southern frontiers. From 1804 forward, Kurds played important roles in Russia’s wars with Qajar Persia and Ottoman Turkey. As the century wore on, the Russian army made increasing use of Kurdish units to fight the Persians and Turks.
Kurdish motives for fighting alongside tsarist forces varied, but most often involved resentment at Qajar and Ottoman interference in tribal affairs or sheer opportunism. But by the dawn of the twentieth century, a number of Kurds began to see Russia as their best hope, not just to throw off external interference, but also to transform the Kurds from an overwhelmingly nomadic, tribal and illiterate society into a modern one that could compete in the information age dawning in the twentieth century. The most famous of these was Abdurrezzak Bedirhan, a scion of the last independent Kurdish emir of Cizre (Cizre, not coincidentally, has been the site of some of the most intense fighting inside Turkey today). Deprived of his patrimony and placed in the Ottoman foreign service, Abdurrezzak’s stint in the St. Petersburg embassy in the 1890s converted him into a true Russophile. In 1910, he crossed over to the Russian side and with Russian backing—arms, money and intelligence—began organizing Kurdish tribal chiefs and inciting a series of rebellions against Ottoman rule across Eastern Anatolia.
Abdurrezzak’s efforts were not limited to insurrection. St. Petersburg was the world’s center for Kurdology, and working with Russian experts in academia and the foreign ministry he opened in 1914 a Russian school for Kurds, and planned more schools, believing that a Kurdish elite trained by Russians and educated in Russian universities would lift the Kurds out of their poverty and ignorance. Only the outbreak of World War I dashed his dream.
He was far from alone. In the years leading up to World War I, multiple Kurdish chiefs began collaborating with the Russians to mount a chronic insurrection against Ottoman rule in eastern Anatolia. The depth of Russian involvement with the Kurdish movement was revealed in the famous Bitlis Revolt of 1914, when Kurdish tribesmen seized that town in April. The uprising erupted prematurely, with Abdurrezzak still negotiating in far away St. Petersburg, and thus failed. Upon the revolt’s collapse most rebels made dashes across the border to Russia while four ringleaders, unable to get away, took sanctuary in the Russian consulate where they stayed until the beginning of World War I.
Red Kurdistan, the Mahabad Republic and the PKK: The USSR and the Kurds
The end of the Russian empire in 1917 did not mean the end of Russia’s Kurdish ambitions. In 1923, Soviet authorities established “Red Kurdistan,” a nominally autonomous Kurdish province wedged between Soviet Armenia and Soviet Azerbaijan. It was the first ethnically defined Kurdish entity. Complete with a Kurmanji (Kurdish-language) newspaper and Kurdish schools, its purpose was to serve as a beacon of socialist revolution to Kurds throughout the Middle East. Deciding that devices to export revolution might serve instead to import counterrevolution, however, Stalin disbanded Red Kurdistan in 1930.
But Stalin did not forswear the Kurds as a tool of geopolitics. Divvying up Iran with Churchill in 1941, Stalin oversaw the establishment of a regional Kurdish administration centered in the town of Mahabad in northern Iran. The Mahabad administration declared itself a sovereign Kurdish republic in December 1945, and so when Stalin had to formally withdraw Soviet troops from Iran later year, he conveniently left in place a client state that was complete with Soviet military and political advisers but clothed in Kurdish national self-determination.
The Mahabad Republic lasted just a year. It fell in December 1946, after Truman warned Stalin not to intervene when the shah sent the Iranian army to crush it. But that was not the end of Soviets’ interest in the Kurds. The Iraqi Kurdish Mullah Mustafa Barzani, commander of the Mahabad army (and the father of the current president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani), took refuge in the USSR in 1947 along with two thousand of his armed followers. Barzani remained in the Soviet Union for over a decade before returning to Iraq.
KGB Chairman Alexander Shelepin advocated using Barzani and other Kurds to “activate the movement of the Kurdish population of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey for creation of an independent Kurdistan.” Shelepin’s policy preference was no passing fashion. Famed Soviet spymasters such as Pavel Sudoplatov and Yevgeny Primakov notably recounted their involvement in the “Kurdish Question” in their memoirs.
As the guardian of NATO’s southern flank from 1952 onward, Turkey became a priority target for Moscow and stoking Kurdish separatism was one means to weaken Turkey. Among other things, the Soviets beamed subversive radio broadcasts to Kurds from inside Armenia, worked with the Bulgarian secret services to arm Kurdish rebels inside Turkey, and recruited Kurds from Turkey and elsewhere who were studying in the Soviet Union to become agents of influence.
The most formidable threat to the territorial integrity of the Turkish Republic to have emerged is the Kurdistan Workers Party. A young Turkish Kurd named Abdullah Öcalan founded it in 1978, during the heyday of Soviet-backed national liberation movements. Although the PKK was not a Soviet creation, as its name indicated it was certainly in the Soviet ideological camp. It espoused a variant of Marxist-Leninism, with the PKK and its founder, Öcalan, serving as the vanguard of the Kurdish socialist revolution. The PKK became a beneficiary of Soviet support, and in 1984 it initiated its violent struggle against the Turkish Republic in pursuit of its goal to establish a Kurdish state.
Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, a Soviet client state, was the PKK’s most vital supporter, providing the group safe basing inside Syria and logistical and military support for PKK operations inside Turkey. The PKK trained alongside the Red Army Faction, the Japanese Red Army and other Soviet-backed terrorist organizations inside Lebanon and elsewhere.
Post-Soviet Russia and the Kurds
Significantly, the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not sever the ties between Moscow and the PKK. To the contrary, the PKK maintained a representative office in Moscow through the 1990s. In the city of Yaroslavl to the northeast of Moscow, it operated a “cultural-educational” camp that housed surly but disciplined young men and came complete with a television studio for preparing programs for the Kurdish television satellite broadcaster Roj TV. When Abdullah Öcalan was forced to flee Syria, he made a stop in Moscow, where he had the support of important parliamentarians. Russian support was not limitless: the United States and Turkey were in hot pursuit of Öcalan, and his profile was too high for hiding, so Moscow sent him on his way.
The motives for post-Soviet Russia’s continued collaboration with the Kurds were twofold. The Russian state had been dealing with Kurds for over two centuries and retained memory and infrastructure. Maintaining that capacity was a relatively cheap way to preserve some Russian leverage in the Middle East. More specifically, the “Kurdish card” provided an effective deterrent against Turkish support for Chechen or other militants in the Caucasus. Whereas the Kurdish and Chechen questions are symmetrical in form, they are not in impact: Turkey is smaller than Russia, and Turkey’s Kurds are some twelve to eighteen times more numerous than Russia’s Chechens. Kurdish separatism poses a far graver challenge to the Turkish Republic than Chechen separatism could ever to the Russian Federation. The contrast between Chechnya today and the state of virtual civil war in Turkey’s southeast illustrates this.
Russia’s Kurdish Play: A Warning to the United States
Today, Russia is once again vigorously backing a Kurdish national movement. Given Russia’s long track record in cultivating relations with the Kurds, it should be little surprise that Putin, like his predecessors in intelligence Shelepin, Sudoplatov and Primakov, finds himself collaborating with the Kurds to pursue Russia’s foreign policy goals.
Similarly, Salih Muslim, the head of the PYD, is following in the footsteps of Abdurrezzak Bedirhan and Mustafa Barzani (not to mention Abdullah Öcalan) in looking to Russia as a partner in the pursuit of Kurdish self-determination. Kurds remember this long history of cooperation. Russia right now has a good deal to offer the Kurds. It is not just a source of arms and intelligence, but also, unlike the United States, it is proving itself to be a militarily decisive actor inside Syria. Russia, as a diplomatically experienced country and permanent member of the UN Security Council, can offer support to the Kurds on multiple levels. And most unlike the United States, Russia, in dealing with the Kurds, is not constrained by a need to maintain good relations with Turkey.
This is not to suggest that a Russian push for Kurdish statehood is imminent. Self-interest has guided both sides in the Russian-Kurdish relationship. Moscow’s priority in Syria is to save Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and although Assad is now willing to recognize wide autonomy for Syria’s Kurds, he has not yet signaled a readiness to accept the secession of Rojava from Syria and the redrawing of Syria’s borders. Another brake on any rush to recognize a fully sovereign Kurdish state would be Iranian opposition. Iran is an essential partner for Russia in Syria. It is only thanks to Iran’s far larger military commitment to the Assad regime that Russia’s effort to prop up Assad can succeed. Iran faces its own violent Kurdish insurgency, one led by another PKK subsidiary, PJAK, and has no desire to see an independent Kurdistan. Indeed, prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war Turkish-Iranian relations were amicable, thanks in large part to a common animus toward the PKK and PJAK.
Still, the proven ability of the PKK over the course of more than three decades not merely to defy efforts by Turkey and others to suppress it, but to emerge as a regional player, guarantees that the question of Kurdish self-determination will remain high on the regional agenda. Whether or not the PKK’s ascent is a good thing for Kurds is not as clear as it might appear. The PKK is a supremely disciplined and hierarchical organization, and is neither liberal nor democratic. It does not command anywhere near unanimous support even among Turkey’s Kurds, and it poses a mortal threat to the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, with which it has irreconcilable visions of the Kurds’ future.
Success in achieving self-determination rarely comes without assistance from an outside power. Russia has been a champion of Kurdish causes longer than any other external actor, and today is uniquely positioned to facilitate further movement toward an independent Kurdistan. If the thought of Putin as Kurdistan’s godfather keeps Turkish President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu up at night, it should. As admirers of Sultan Abdülhamid II, those two should know that Russian arms and diplomacy secured Bulgarian, Romanian and Serbian independence in 1878. Perhaps Kurdistan awaits its own liberator tsar.
Finally, Russia’s Kurdish play should also shake up Washington. American policymakers’ willful misreading of Russian interests and persistent underestimation of Russian capabilities has allowed Russia to successfully blindside U.S. policymakers in Georgia, Ukraine and now Syria. It is no secret that Putin seeks the disruption of American alliances and aspires to weaken the NATO alliance. American partnership with the PYD has introduced severe tension into relations with Turkey. There is no mystery why. The PYD’s parent organization is seeking through violence to change the political order in Turkey, and the PYD’s success in Syria will aid the PKK immeasurably. The war with the PKK has claimed an estimated forty thousand lives over the past three decades, and it will claim more. There has been considerable angst in Turkey that U.S.-supplied arms will be employed not against ISIS but against targets inside Turkey, whether civilian or military. Brett McGurk’s visit in February to PYD-controlled territory in Syria prompted Erdogan to ask angrily and openly whether the United States was on Turkey’s side or that of the PYD. Many Americans, of course, have posed precisely the same question about Turkey’s past policy toward ISIS.
These are signs of a painfully fragile relationship. Among other lessons, what Americans needs to take away from Russia’s Kurdish play is that they are not the only game in town, and that their leverage over the Kurds is limited. The Kurds have options, and in Russia, the PYD and PKK see a patron with extensive experience—and without the best interests of the United States at heart.
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, 1908-1918, winner of the American Historical Association’s George Louis Beer Prize.