When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Crimea on March 18, he highlighted the area’s sacred history, invoking the tenth-century conversion of Vladimir the Great to Christianity. But Putin’s references to religion were complicated by the absence at the ceremonies of Kirill I, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In the third row, however, behind pro-Kremlin representatives of the Russian Crimean community and other Russian lawmakers and officials, sat the Russian Federation’s two highest-ranking Muslim clerics. Although Putin never mentioned Islam in his speech, their presence at the ceremony, accentuated by their turbans and robes amid a sea of black suits and ties, sent an unmistakable message. The Crimean crisis is not just about Russia’s relationship with the West; it is also very much about Islam’s role in Russia.

Russia's Muslim elites have long played an important role in Russian state expansion. At key junctures in Russian and Soviet history, Muslim clerics from the Volga region cajoled Muslim populations along the southern and eastern frontiers of the empire to become subjects of the tsar. Formal expansion was typically followed by a wave of Tatar merchants, who thrived in newly incorporated territories and helped integrate Muslims into imperial trade networks. In the Soviet period, a number of Tatars led efforts to create a synthesis between socialism and Islam -- and a bridge between the U.S.S.R. and the Muslim world.

From the first days of the upheaval in Ukraine, prominent members of Russia’s Muslim community have mobilized to court their co-religionists on behalf of Moscow. Talgat Tadzhuddin, who is the head of one of the most powerful Muslim institutions in Russia and was one of the clerics in attendance at Putin's speech, has portrayed the annexation as an act of good will. As Tadzhuddin said in an interview with a Russian news agency, "When a neighbor has a fire, you have to help, considering that the flames might jump to your house." The other leading Muslim cleric who attended Putin's speech, Ravil Gainutdin, has been less effusive than his rival, Tadzhuddin, but has generally toed the Kremlin's line. On the eve of Crimea’s referendum on joining Russia, he reminded the region’s 300,000-strong Tatar population that they comprised only 12 percent of the territory’s population, implying that they should accede to the will of the pro-Moscow majority.

Tadzhuddin’s deputies have been even more direct in insisting that Tatars should embrace Russian rule. Pointing to Russia’s large Muslim population, one of his deputies, Damir Gizatullin, asserted in an interview with the Russian press that Russia's compatriots in Ukraine included not just Russians but Tatars as well. He added that Islam would be more secure under Russian rule, because Crimean Tatars would otherwise have to fear the rise of Saudi-influenced radicals in the region: "Ukraine's laws did not forbid the activity of 'members of sects' -- Salafis, all kinds of Wahhabis, and various radical currents that are forbidden in the Russian Federation." (His implicit counterpoint was Russia, where Muslim institutions have enforced Moscow’s edicts against “extremism” in brutal fashion.)

For his part, in late March, Gainutdin traveled to Crimea to meet with the head of the Muslim hierarchy there, Hajji Emirali Ablaev. During his visit, he made a proclamation that his Web site summarized as follows: "The Almighty has ordained that Crimea be attached to the Russian Federation and that the Crimean Tatar nation join the twenty-million strong ummah [Muslim community] of Russia."

But Crimean Tatar elites have mostly responded coolly to these overtures. The Crimean Tatar community generally does not have warm memories of Russian rule. Their ancestors, descendants of Genghis Khan, founded a state of their own in the region in the fifteenth century. Closely tied to the Ottoman Empire, this state, the Crimean Khanate, served as a buffer for the Ottomans and challenged the Muscovites for control of the Black Sea and the steppe region now divided between Ukraine and Russia. In 1783, Catherine the Great dismantled it and integrated the region into the Russian empire.

Some Tatar elites fared well under the new system and even entered the imperial elite. But repeated warfare between the Russians and Ottomans heightened Russian suspicions about the loyalties of these Muslim subjects on Russia's southern frontier. After the Crimean War, which raged among Russia and France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia between 1853 and 1856, tsarist forces pushed perhaps as many as 100,000 Tatars out of the territory. Doubts about the political allegiances of this community persisted into the Soviet period. Under German occupation, some Crimean Tatars -- much like Soviet citizens under Nazi rule elsewhere -- joined special units aligned with the occupiers. When the Red Army retook the peninsula in 1944, Joseph Stalin responded by ordering a police operation to sweep away the entire Crimean Tatar population (along with some Greeks and Germans) from the region once and for all. Entire Tatar villages and towns were forced into railway cars and shipped to Central Asia and elsewhere in the U.S.S.R.

After Stalin’s death, those lucky enough to survive the journey were determined to end their exile, but the state repressed or ignored their petitions and protests. They only began returning to Crimea in significant numbers in the late 1980s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Crimean Tatar nationalist movement pushed for the new Ukrainian state to restore their property, language, and civic rights, but the Russian majority in Crimea and the government in Kiev showed little sympathy.

In 2013, Tatar relations soured with both Moscow and Kiev. A film titled Khaitarma, which dramatized Stalin's deportation of the Crimean Tatars through the story of a decorated Tatar fighter pilot (who had been declared the "hero of the Soviet Union"), became a flashpoint for conflict. The Russian consul in Crimea provoked outrage among Tatars when he asserted that the filmmakers had distorted the history of World War II and revived accusations about Tatars’ collaboration with the Nazis. Meanwhile, Crimean Tatar leaders stepped up pressure on the Ukrainian government for assistance in organizing repatriation efforts, expanded language rights, and quotas for Tatar inclusion in local government. When protesters took to the Maidan in Kiev last fall, nationalist leaders such as Refat Chubarov, the head of the Crimean Tatar nationalist assembly, the Mejlis, joined the fray and spoke before the demonstrators. It soon became clear, however, that the Crimean Tatars (and Ukraine's Muslims in general) were divided over how to respond to the incipient revolution. At least six clerical institutions and two organizations claimed to speak for Ukrainian Muslims and Islam. Some supported the Maidan protesters, but others were more skeptical and remained apolitical or sympathized with the pro-Russian orientation of the government. Confusion about the position of Ukrainian Muslims was reflected in the case of one activist at the demonstrations, Alexander Krivonosov, who claimed to speak for a Muslim organization but was soon revealed to be a KGB veteran of the Afghan war and was quickly disavowed by the group.

Russia's incursion into Crimea heightened the Crimean Tatars’ anxieties, as they nervously monitored the activities of the assorted gangs of Cossacks, paramilitaries, and bikers that accompanied Russian forces. (At least one Tatar has been murdered in a case in which Crimean Tatar leaders blame pro-Russian militants.) A former Soviet dissident and Crimean Tatar activist, Mustafa Dzhemilev, warned that Russia might face a "jihad" if it mistreated the Tatar population. Others expressed anxiety over a new wave of expulsions. Muslim delegations from Russia have gone to Crimea to try to allay the Tatars’ fears. But Crimean Tatars remain suspicious of Moscow, and they mostly refused to participate in the referendum requesting annexation.

Despite Tatars’ suspicions of Putin, his post-annexation speech rather dramatically promised to fulfill many long-standing Crimean Tatar nationalist demands. He declared that Tatar would be made an official language in Crimea on a par with Russian and Ukrainian. He also made a rare acknowledgement of the Soviet deportation of Tatars from Crimea, even if he added that "Russian people" had suffered more than others from the repressions of that era. The president promised to take "all necessary political and legislative decisions to complete the process of the rehabilitation of the Crimean Tatar people, which restore their rights and good name to the fullest extent." (In turn, on March 20, in a symbolic gesture rendered moot by the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, finally recognized the Tatars as an "indigenous people" -- a gesture their leaders had long connected to the rights spelled out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007 -- and offered to recognize the Mejlis and another Tatar representative body, the Kurultai.)

Putin recognizes that Muslim cooperation is a necessity for his other foreign policy goals, including the maintenance of solid relations with Iran, Syria, and other states in the Muslim world that might serve as counterweights to the expansion of U.S. power. The Kremlin has so far managed to avoid having its annexation of Crimea complicate its relations with these countries. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an international organization of Muslim states, has issued a statement calling for the rights of Crimean Tatars to be respected, and some Turkish politicians have objected to Russian aggression, but these have so far been only very faint voices.

It remains to be seen whether Putin’s pledges and Russian Muslims’ integrative efforts can assuage the Crimean Tatars’ anxieties. Even Russian Muslim elites’ calls for solidarity within the Islamic ummah may not overcome the Crimean Tatars’ doubts. But whatever eventually happens to the Tatars, broad Russian Muslim mobilization on behalf of the Kremlin's geopolitical vision highlights that Muslims have become an important pillar of political support for Putin’s regime. It is difficult to know what senior Muslim clerics may think in private about the Crimean annexation, but in public they have gladly portrayed the move as one that benefits the ummah and Islam. Muslim clerical elites consider Crimea an area where their interests overlap with those of the Putin administration.

But they also undoubtedly expect some political compensation for their pro-Moscow lobbying. Though far from a monolithic group, many Russian Muslims seem authentically moved by the prospect of absorbing Crimea’s Tatar population and reshaping Islam in the region. In Bashkortostan and other regions with sizeable Muslim populations, Muslims have offered declarations of support (including donations for the restoration of mosques and religious landmarks) and participated in rallies celebrating the Russian annexation of Crimea. Leaders of the Tatar diaspora have also welcomed the "return" of their ethnic brothers to Russia. And Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin's strongman in Chechnya, has hailed Russia's expansion, even pledging financial support to sweeten the deal for the residents of Crimea. Few Russian Muslims seem bothered by the fact that Russia's newest territory is an economic basket case and a potential hotbed of ethnic conflict.

For now, the annexation of Crimea has mostly had a paradoxical effect: On the one hand, it has heightened the profile of Russia's Muslim leaders and drawn them closer to the Putin government while straining the Kremlin's relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, which fears losing its Ukrainian flock as a result of Moscow's aggression. The nationalist leadership of the Crimean Tatars, on the other hand, has been outflanked. Yet there is no telling whether Crimea’s Muslim population will remain a stable part of Russia’s Muslim social and political order. If Russia’s Muslim elites try to rid Crimea of ostensibly foreign and dangerous interpretations of Islam, as they have done elsewhere in Russia, Tatars are likely to resist. In that sense, Putin’s success in Crimea may depend not just upon economics or international politics but also on delicate negotiations between Russian Muslim clerics and their fellow believers in Russia’s newest region.

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  • ROBERT D. CREWS is Director of the Sohaib and Sara Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies and Associate Professor of History at Stanford University. He is the author of For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia.
  • More By Robert D. Crews