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.