Ukraine – Russia conflict and the Muslim world

Muslim world
Map of the Muslim World (Credits: أحمد.طارق, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The KazanForum 2023 and Zelensky’s visit to Jeddah during the Arab League summit underlined how strategic is the Muslim world for Russia and Ukraine. Both Moscow and Kyiv are seeking to attract Muslim countries’ political and economic support during the time of the Ukraine conflict.

KazanForum 2023

On May 18th-19th, 2023, Tatarstan was the venue for the XIV International Economic Forum “Russia – Islamic world”. The event attracted over 7 thousand people from 85 nations, 45 diplomatic missions and 37 ambassadors.

The KazanForum 2023 allowed Russia to strengthen relations and cooperation with Muslim countries and attract foreign investors in the national infrastructural projects. At the international level, the forum hosted panels dedicated to Russian bilateral relations with Malaysia, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Egypt, accentuating Moscow’s multilateral approach in foreign policy.

This year, the economic forum’s organisers paid special attention to Islamic finance and banking, considering that, on February 1st, 2023, the Russian government launched the pilot project in Chechnya, Dagestan, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan on Islamic banking and Islamic financial products.

According to official statistics, Islam is one of the major religions in Russia, with approximately 12-15 million believers (according to official statistics). The Russian government recognises Islam as one of the country’s traditional religions, and its practice is protected by law. The Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion for all citizens, including Muslims.

Today, most Muslims in Russia are Sunni Muslims, belonging to various ethnic groups such as Tatars, Bashkirs, Chechens, Ingush, and others. There is also a smaller population of Shia Muslims, mainly comprising Azerbaijanis, Iranians, and some communities in Dagestan.

Zelensky’s visit to Jeddah

On May 19th, 2023, at the Arab League Summit, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky spoke as an honoured guest, addressing Arab countries and seeking for their support in the conflict against what the Ukrainian leader defined as the ‘Russian aggression’.

In his speech, Zelensky gave a significant importance to the Islamic dimension by arguing that the Muslims of Crimea are the first victims of the Russian violence in Ukraine. The Ukrainian president defined Crimean Muslim as the centre of the Ukrainian Muslim culture and a territory that was and should remain an integral part of the global Islamic world.

During the summit, Zelensky also met with Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman, and leaders of other Gulf Arab countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Although the Saudi Crown Prince offered his mediation between Moscow and Kyiv to resolve the conflict, Zelensky vowed that the only and possible Ukrainian formula for a peace is that the Russian troops must leave the Ukrainian territory.

Geopolitical Scenario

Both Russia and Ukraine have historical ties with the Muslim world and have developed a foreign policy aimed at enhancing bonds with Muslim countries. Since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, Moscow and Kyiv targeted the Arab-Muslim world with diplomatic campaigns, attempting to get support.

Russia’s interaction with the Islamic world dates back to the 10th century when Islam reached the Volga region. Over time, the Russian Empire expanded into territories with significant Muslim populations, such as the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Volga-Ural region.

During the Soviet era, the government pursued policies aimed at secularising society and suppressing religious practices, including Islam. The Soviet authorities closed mosques, persecuted religious leaders, and restricted religious education. This resulted in strained relations between the state and Muslim communities, particularly in regions with strong Islamic traditions.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow sought to establish diplomatic relations with countries in the Islamic world and engage in economic and political cooperation. Russia also became a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as an observer state in 2005, further enhancing its engagement with the Islamic world.

Russia’s significant energy resources, including oil and natural gas, have made it an important partner for various Arab and Muslim countries. Energy cooperation, including trade agreements and investments, has been a key aspect of Russia’s relations with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Central Asian republics and the Gulf states.

The Kremlin’s geopolitical interests also shape its relations with the Islamic world. The Russian Federation has been involved in conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War, where it supports the Syrian government against various opposition groups, including Islamist factions.

Ukraine has a historical connection with the Muslim world thanks to the Crimean Tatars, an ethnic group with a significant Muslim population. The Crimean Peninsula, which was part of Ukraine before its annexation by Russia in 2014, has a long history of Tatar presence and cultural heritage. Ukraine recognises the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people and has sought to protect their rights.

Since its independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has established diplomatic ties with many Muslim-majority countries. It maintains embassies and consulates in countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. These diplomatic relations encompass various areas of cooperation, including political dialogue, cultural exchanges, and collaboration on regional and international issues.

Since 2014, after the Euromaidan and because of the beginning of the Eastern Ukraine conflict, Kyiv has received humanitarian aid and support from Islamic countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Why does it matter?

We might interpret Zelensky’s visit to Jeddah as a strategic move to counter Russia’s KazanForum 2023 and the Kremlin’s effort to get closer with the Muslim world.

Indeed, while Russian authorities and Muslim countries’ representatives were discussing issues related to boosting cooperation, trade, and financial ties, thanks to his visit to the Arab League Summit, Zelensky promoted the Ukrainian view and initiative in the Islamic direction, both in domestic and foreign policy.

In this context, we might foresee a major involvement of Arab and Muslim countries in the international arena since both Moscow and Kyiv will attempt to gain their political and economic help to face Western sanctions, in case of Russia, or the military aggression, in case of Ukraine.

Authors: Giuliano Bifolchi and Silvia Boltuc

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