The Crimean crisis is bound to shake up the Middle East

It is not only Turkey watching Russia's intervention in Crimea closely; the whole Middle East is, writes Alan Philps

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In the 18th century, Prince Potemkin, the favourite general of the Russian empress Catherine the Great, urged his sovereign to invade the Tatar Khanate of Crimea, a centre of military power and Islamic learning on the north shore of the Black Sea. The presence of the Tatars in Crimea, the minister said, was a “wart on the nose of Russia”.

The imperial army conquered the peninsula in 1783 and annexed it to Russia. Catherine thought the conquest was the high point of her reign, and pointedly referred to the peninsular as Taurida, the name it held as a Greek colony, to signify the return of the land to Christendom.

In 1944, under the Soviet Union, Stalin deported the remaining Crimean Tatars on the grounds of alleged collaboration with the Nazi invaders. While some did join the German ranks (as did many other Soviet citizens), there was no shortage of Tatars who fought with the Red Army. The ethnic cleansing was simply to clear a strategic territory for Russian settlement.

This is the historical background for the referendum scheduled for Sunday in Crimea to justify the reincorporation of the peninsula into Russia, after 60 years as part of Ukraine. The result of the poll is not in doubt: 60 per cent of the population identify themselves as Russian-speakers. Sergei Aksionov, the pro-Kremlin businessman who was installed by Russian forces as prime minister of Crimea, managed to get only four per cent of the vote in the last elections in 2010. But the referendum cannot fail to produce a “yes” vote, even if it is unrecognised internationally and has no moral force. The pressure of Russian guns and the atmosphere of threat whipped up by Russian media will ensure that.

The Ukrainians – about 25 per cent of the population – will surely boycott the vote. That leaves the Tatars, who now number some 12 per cent, as the only population that could give the poll a veneer of legality. A lot is hanging on their decision, not least Russia’s standing in the Middle East, already dented by giving military and diplomatic support to President Bashar Al Assad of Syria. Only by coaxing the Tatars into accepting Russian rule could Moscow appear other than a neo-imperial power.

Turkey is watching the situation closely – though prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has other problems on his mind. For Moscow, the worst nightmare would be for Crimea to be declared a jihadist front. So far, this is a distant scenario, but it has been raised by Mustafa Dzhemilev, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and former Soviet dissident, who claims that militant Tatars have come to him to offer to fight the Russians. Some Tatar volunteers are fighting in Syria, and may relish the chance to attack the source of the Syrian regime’s power.

The Crimean Tatars have a well-founded fear of Russia. The appearance of some crosses scratched on the homes of Tatar families – the same sign used to mark out families for deportation in 1944 – has revived fears of what life would be like under Russia. It is not known who carried out this provocation.

Politically they support Ukraine, but over the past 20 years the Ukrainian government has failed to make good on its promises to give them land rights and development funds.

Formally, the Tatars are boycotting the referendum. But Russian envoys have been promising that life will improve under Moscow rule. Ballot papers have been printed in Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar, in a sign that the Tatars’ language rights will be respected. The word is that Russia has billions to spend on making Crimea thrive, and this will transform the lives of the returned deportees, many of whom live in shanty towns.

In Moscow’s favour is the fact that the Tatars are an integral part of the make-up of the population of Russia. Setting aside the bitter history of conquest by the Mongols – forebears of the Tatars – and reconquest by the Russian state, the Tatars are well integrated. There are 5.5 million Tatars in Russia – more than half of them in the Volga region – and they are prominent in national life.

The choice before the voters is stark: the very real memory of being rounded up by Russian soldiers, with half of the deportees dying on the way to Central Asia, their bodies thrown out of the railway cars unburied, or the promise of a new life as Russia tries to wipe out its past and present sins with billions of dollars.

The Crimea is just one element of a wider crisis that cannot fail to affect the wider Middle East. It has thrown into doubt the calculus behind the joint projects that the United States and Russia were working on – the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian peace talks, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Already a couple of things are clear. Israeli right-wingers will seize on the Ukrainian crisis to harden their rejection of a peace settlement with the Palestinians. The territorial integrity of Ukraine was guaranteed in 1994 by the US, Britain and Russia, but Vladimir Putin is being allowed to seize Crimea. So the Right will ask: what use are international guarantees to Israel?

As for the Iran nuclear talks, despite the breakdown in relations with Washington, Moscow needs to keep the talks within a United Nations framework. The issue is too important for Russia to allow that process to break down. If the current formula collapses, the Iran dossier will fall into the hands of the US and Israel, and will become one of military threats, with Moscow on the sidelines.

For that reason alone, it is a fair bet that Mr Putin will not want to go further than swallowing Crimea at this stage. For all the angry words, he still has a clear interest in doing business with the US in the wider region.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter: @aphilps