The Horde of Khan Islyamov at Crimea's Gates

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Originally appeared at SP, translated by Caspersky exclusively for SouthFront

The illegal Majlis [organization of Crimean Tatar radicals] is preparing to form a Crimean Tatar army for the invasion of the Crimean peninsula.

On Ukrainian television, one of the architects of the Crimean blockade, Lenur Islyamov, declared that the time had come for a Crimean Tatar army within the Armed Forces of Ukraine. ‘Maybe now, the Crimean Tatars will understand that now is the time for its own army. We have our own political power, we have deputies in the Supreme Council of Ukraine, but we don’t have our own army. Accordingly, we should do what’s necessary to bolster our army within Ukraine. We want to take our national politics down a new path, declared Islyamov.

The debate about an ethnic, and armed militia of Crimean Tatars coming into existence is nothing new. Initially – it would be at least a battalion, bestowed with the ‘Crimea’ standard. The leaders of the Majlis – which is prohibited in the Russian Federation – periodically discuss its formation on Ukrainian mainstream media, but it hasn’t translated into concrete action. However, at the end of April, Rafat Chubarov – sought in an international manhunt by the prosecutor of Crimean -announced that the concept of a battalion named ‘Crimea’ has been thoroughly developed and, indeed, suggested to the President of Ukraine and the Minister of Internal Affairs.

Supposedly, 500 natives of Crimea would serve in the battalion. Chubarov says, that the newly formed volunteer units will accommodate all faithful Muslims, providing a Imam, Halal food, etc,. At the same time, he demanded that Kiev not turn a blind eye to the ‘military factor’ of the return of the peninsula, and suggested that, ‘during the de-occupation of Crimean, these armed elements would ensure social order, secure infrastructure, and bolster the organs of power in the first months of the peninsula’s liberation.

Negotiations within the Ukrainian Supreme Council about the formations of the battalion ‘Crimea,’ are ongoing. According to other reports, leaders of the Majlis have begun forming a second such ‘military unit,’ or formation It would be similar to an armed militia because, until now, there is actually no legislative basis for the proposed unit. But this ‘battalion,’ as it turn out, exists, or almost does.

Even Kiev isn’t exactly thrilled with this presumption by the Crimean Tatars. On the 26th of April the same Chubarov complained that the creation of the battalion was lagging because of delays within president Poroshenko’s administration. The administration hadn’t directly refused the Majlis, but they were doing everything to delay its implementation.

Kiev’s position is fully understandable. On the one hand, the Majlis and other ‘activists’ associated with it are fully capable of playing a destabilizing role in Russia’s Crimea. So far, they’ve imposed a blockade of the peninsula, they’ve cut down power lines leading to it, and so forth. For, why not create a strong diversionary militia under the pretext of a battalion, called ‘Crimea?’

Why is Kiev applying the brakes? Well essentially, the Crimean Tatars aren’t hiding their desire for wider autonomy within Ukraine. But, to encourage Tatar autonomy while suppressing others’ attempts to federalize in western and southeastern parts of the country does seem strange, to say the least. If the question is ever posed bluntly, Kiev will find itself in an uncomfortable position, even before their Western partners.

But there’s an even more serious problem. Even now, one can’t say how much the Crimean Tatar activists are subjugated to the administration. For the time being, the aims of the Tatars and the government coincide, it’s as if they’re trailing the same tangent. But what if the politics of Kiev cease to suit the Majlis?

Even now Islyamov and his public organization ‘Asker,’ which has been responsible for the blockade of the peninsula, acts independently. The other day, something very interesting appeared on the pro-Ukrainian resource, ‘Crimea.Realities.’ In essence, a large article, in which the authorities of Kherson region and their local inhabitants complained about the lawlessness of ‘activists’ fleeing Crimea for Kherson.

The deputy of Chongarsky village council, Valery Koblyuk said, that ‘Asker’ militias are erecting their own checkpoints alongside official government ones, so that they can inspect all travellers in order to extort them. Furthermore, they often open fire, in order to provoke nearby Russian border guards into an exchange of fire. This is most common at the villages of Papovka, Ataman, and Sivash. The locals are represented by the ‘Crimean Liberation Army.’

‘Crimea.Realities’ claims it reached a point where, ‘at a recent gathering of citizens in the village Ataman, close to the administrative border of the Crimean peninsula, local inhabitants demanded regional leaders remove members of the ‘Civil Blockade of Crimea,’ as well as ‘Crimean Tatar Autonomous Republic’ signs from regional checkpoints.

Deputy head of the Kherson Regional State Administration, Valentina Sichevaya, posed an unconvincing defense saying, ‘activists’ are struggling with certain shadow schemes, and if they shoot, it’s because they’re conducting exercises. However, she could not answer whether the ‘public organization’ of former Crimeans had the right to conduct exercises with live firearms, including machine guns.

Yet, this whole scandal cannot be attributed to the intrigues of ‘Russian propaganda.’ Essentially, ‘Crimea.Realities’ is a branch of the well-known, global, American organization ‘Radio Liberty,’ which is, naturally, on the side of contemporary Kiev, in both heart and soul. Therefore, there’s no doubt that claims of outrage by the most egregious members of Crimean Tatars in Kherson region must, in fact, be a stark reality.

However, if Crimean Tatar ‘activists’ are already behaving lawlessly on the border with Crimea, what will they do if they obtain their own officially accredited army?

‘Ukrainian legislature does not grant the creation of battalions on a nationalist basis,’ according Dr. Andrei Manoilo, Professor of Russian Politics in the Political Science Faculty at Moscow State University. He adds, any similar formation immediately constitutes an illegal armed militia. But Islyamov and his accomplices are clever. They initially received Kiev’s consent for the formation of such a unit, before beginning to form two Crimean Tatar battalions, while simultaneously seeking their inclusion in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the National Guard.

Whether the application is sufficient for the Ministry of Defense is still not known. It was planned that the battalions would be incorporated into the Armed Forces of Ukraine, much like the so-called territorial battalions – which consisted of nationalists who took part in the Civil War in Donbas – were recently assimilated. But the Crimean Tatar formations can’t exist independently in Ukraine, because then there would be a power struggle between official authorities and their Armed Forces.

Therefore, the question of legality is very acute. In his statement Islyamov insists that the Crimean Tatar people command ‘special merit’ before Maidan authorities, and therefore, have earned their own army. Officially, Kiev has not admitted the battalion into its ranks. Islyamov’s interview underscores the doubt, if not hopelessness in his initiative to obtain legal status. If the Armed Forces of Ukraine don’t admit the battalion into their ranks, it should be disarmed if not disbanded. But the last option on the Majlis’ list is not attainable.

SP‘ – Until now, the Majlis has maintained good relations with Ukrainian authorities. Can they begin a conflict?

Firstly, Crimean Tatar nationalists only support the current Ukrainian regime because they hope to obtain privileges and preferences leading to the creation of a quasi-state. A state, initially, subordinated to Ukraine, but then possibly self-determined. The motives of the Crimean Tatar nationalists are transparent. They have long desired this state, and since Yushenko’s administration, they’ve been tolerated.

Secondly, the formation of varying sorts of militias, battalion size and larger reflects the political landscape in contemporary Ukraine. The government is very weak. Real power is in the hands of oligarchs, like Kolomojsky. Suffice it to say, he maintained, and continues to maintain up to ten territorial battalions. Islymov very much wants to join the ranks of these oligarchs with his own personal army.

SP‘ – Will Kiev agree to the formation of such an army?

The Crimean Tatar battalions are yet another ungoverned force, not subordinated to Poroshenko. If the president strikes a bargain with Islyamov, Chubarov others, whereby the Tatars become privy to what must happen to obtain greater autonomy in Ukraine, he can allow the inclusion of the battalions in the Armed Forces. This type of support could be beneficial to Poroshenko. Considering the difficult economic conditions in today’s Ukraine, the time is ripe for a third Maidan. In the near future, the nationalists may revolt against Poroshenko and take Kiev. Under these circumstances, the Armed Forces won’t defend Poroshenko. He has to depend on his own resources. This doesn’t preclude him colluding with the Crimean Tatar nationalists because he hopes that they will become expedient at the decisive moment.

But this is a very risky game. These formations pursue vested interests. They only consider Poroshenko a temporary companion. Things can change at any time, and the Crimean Tatar nationalists can surface against him alongside the ‘right wingers.’ Until now, Poroshenko’s tactics consist of either, the dissemination of a bloc of ungoverned, nationalistic formations throughout the National Guard and Armed Forces of Ukraine, or to simply annihilate them in a civil war. But it hasn’t completely worked out for him, and now he has some problems, and the Crimean Tatar battalions could be one of them.

The Crimean Tatar nationalists have been behaving very badly in Kherson. They haven’t been capable of anything but robbery. And that has been what they occupy themselves with. The population of Kherson region is gradually fermenting partisan revolts against them. The longer the upheaval lasts, the more intense it becomes. If Poroshenko can’t exploit these battalions, yet another nucleus of civil war will emerge in Kherson.

SP‘ – Do these battalions pose a threat to the Crimean Republic?

They sooner represent agitating rhetoric. Let’s begin with the fact that the Crimean Tatar battalions are hardly made up of all Tatars. Following the Majlis, a very small portion of Crimean Tatars left for Kherson, and after a few months many returned back to Crimea. The remainder stayed on the peninsula and, by all appearances, have been happy there. In any case, there have been no mass protests by that portion of the population over the last two years on the peninsula. Thus, a considerable portion of Crimean Tatar battalions actually consist of mercenaries from all over the world.

These formations are created and financed for the sole purpose of agitating Russia. The militia’s sponsors require them to cause provocations and organize incidents on the borders, in essence, fighting a diversionary war against the Russian Federation. Turkey has funded and equipped these formations. Islyamov’s deferral to bellicose rhetoric is nothing more than him briefing his sponsors. Regarding their actual military might, I don’t think the inhabitants of Crimea have anything to be afraid of. If even one of these battalions moves towards Russia, it will be swept aside in five minutes. They don’t pose a military threat. But the information war, stirring about these formations, is certainly persevering.

Islyamov’s declarations are even an affront to the rather striking and twisted world of Ukraine’s domestic politics, says Ivan Konovalov, director at the Centre for Strategic Affairs. He adds, when someone speaks like this, questions should be asked, even in Kiev. But there, such things are encouraged. But, in my opinion, any encouragement of nationalistic tendencies is counterproductive.

In Kiev they’ve already come toe to toe with nationalistic battalions, these ‘Azov’ battalions, whom even the Americans consider to be Nazi formations. Now they’re beginning to consider a Crimean Tatar army, even though they wouldn’t be able to mobilize more than a couple battalions. From where would they draft their soldiers? Crimean Tatars aren’t exactly a populous people. And the majority of them don’t recognize the Majlis and his activities. Beside, people are living peacefully in Crimea.

But whether they intend to form a militia under the standard of a Crimean Tatar army, which is composed of whomever they please, is another question. The Tatars themselves will be a minority. But it’s likely that even this won’t work so there isn’t really anything to react to. It’s just another emotional and inadequate declaration, which isn’t even esteemed in Washington. It’s not in their interests. If the civil war in Ukraine escalates to a new level – and all signs point to the fact that it will – on whose side will this army fight?

SP‘ – That is, Kiev won’t allow the formation of a Crimean Tatar army?

If a similar formation emerges, it will just be another ‘Azov’ battalion, loosely commanded by the central government. But I don’t believe Kiev will allow this. It’s one thing to exploit, but quite another to form an ethnic army, which will later break free of its subjugators control. Imagine that the USA forms a separate Mexican army to resolve trafficking issues with Mexico.

I can think of one circumstance where this army is formed: a brigade of Nepalese Gurkha volunteers, serving under contract in the British Army. But that’s one small brigade, not an army. Besides that, everyone knows about the French Foreign Legion. But it’s not mono-ethnic. And it’s not the army that Islyamov is talking about. And from where will his plans be financed?

By all appearances, Kiev is trying to brush the issue under the rug, without categorically resolving it. They will exploit the Tatars, as long as it’s politically expedient. For now, there is a benefit. For example, the Americans have unequivocally prohibited the Majlis in Crimea. This ban pays political dividends, and, once again raises the question of Crimea, which Europe has absolutely no desire to contemplate. Therefore, as long as it’s relevant, the creation of a Crimea Tatar army will be discussed.

Some facts about Crimean Tatars:

  • The Crimean Tatars emerged as a nation at the time of the Crimean Khanate, an Ottoman vassal state during the 15th to 18th centuries. Until the late 18th century, the Crimean Khanate maintained a massive slave trade with the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East as the basis of its economy. One of the most important trading ports and slave markets was Kefe (modern: Feodosia). The Russo-Turkish War (1768–74) resulted in the defeat of the Ottomans by the Russians, and according to the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774), Crimea became “independent”. In 1783, Russians seized Crimea. It was the end of the Crimean Khanate’s slave buisiness.
  • In May 1944, the entire Crimean Tatar population (about 230000), at the time about a fifth of the total population of Crimea,  was exiled to Central Asia, mainly to Uzbekistan as result of a massive collaboration with the Nazi Germany during the German occupation of the peninsula. Overall, the number of Crimean Tatar men who joined SS battalions of the Nazi army was about 20,000 (8,69% of the total population).
  • According to the recent census (2014), Crimean Tatars are 10,57% of the Crimean population.

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