Russia’s Diplomatic Boomerang

, May 4, 2012

Israel Hayom http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_opinion.php?id=1828

Looking at the map, of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, who along with Germany will be negotiating with Iran in Baghdad on May 23, Russia is probably the country that will be most directly affected should Iran complete its nuclear weapons program. Yet, ironically, Russia has served as Iran’s most important partner in protecting Tehran from international pressures and providing it nuclear and missile technologies. It might be that the Russians, who have dealt over the last 20 years with a Islamic insurgency across the Caucasus, have dismissed the Iranian threat because their problem is from Sunni Muslims, who are dominant in Central Asia, rather than with the Shiites, who are isolated mostly in Azerbaijan. Moscow might have concluded that the advantages of having a preferred position for Russian exports in Iran, including its nuclear industry, more than offsets the risks of letting Iran equip itself with nuclear military capabilities.

However, Moscow should recall that skillful diplomacy requires examining the indirect consequences of the foreign policy a state pursues and not just its immediate impact. President Barack Obama has correctly pointed out that should Iran cross the nuclear threshold, one of the immediate consequences will be accelerated nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. It is often pointed out that the likely states who will seek nuclear weapons will be Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which have been the U.S.’s military partners in the past. The other Middle Eastern state that will likely seek nuclear weapons will be Turkey – which will have a profound impact on the future security of Russia.

In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party has made clear that it views the Caucasus as an area under its sphere of influence. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke in Sarajevo in October 2009, and explained that “The Balkans, Caucasus, and Middle East were all better off when under Ottoman control or influence; when peace and progress prevailed.” The speech was reported in an American diplomatic cable that was disclosed by WikiLeaks. Another leaked American cable spoke about Davutoglu’s “neo-Ottoman fantasies” of regaining lost Muslim lands. An American diplomat who visited an AKP think tank, which helps propagate the party’s ideas, reported the commonplace idea that Turkey should “avenge the defeat at the siege of Vienna in 1683.” Apparently, Davutoglu closed his famous Sarejevo speech with a declaration: “…now Turkey is back.”

How did Turkey’s foreign minister envision the new Turkish role in the part of the Caucasus that stretch into Russian sovereign territory? Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Turkey has been active in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, seeking to loosen Russia’s control over the area. The peoples across this belt of territory speak dialects of Turkish – and for that reason, over the years there have been pan-Turkic movements that have called for the unification of this area under Turkey. For its part, Turkey has built mosques, Islamic centers and universities. There is also a vast network of Turkish schools sponsored by the Gulen movement, a religious organization that has drawn closer to the AKP in recent years. These activities have a popular base of support since there is a substantial percentage of the Turkish population whose families trace themselves back to the Caucasus in the 19th century, when they came to the Ottoman Empire as political exiles escaping the Russian Army under the Czar.

During the 1990s, Turkish penetration of the Caucasus had great value since it offered the Muslim populations of Central Asia a more moderate version of Islam, which could compete with the work of Wahhabi missionaries from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states as well as the efforts of Pakistani networks in the region. But what will happen to the Turkish activism in the Caucasus when Turkey is lead by the AKP? In the Middle East, Turkey under the AKP no longer serves as an alternative to radical Islam, but unfortunately has emerged as its ally. Israel has noted that, since 2006, Turkey has regularly hosted Hamas and even backed the efforts of a Turkish NGO, the IHH, to help Hamas’ attempt to break Israel’s legal blockade of Gaza in 2010 with a flotilla of ships. Turkey also emerged as a critical hub for the global Muslim Brotherhood, which began to hold international conferences in Turkey rather than in Arab countries. It should not be surprising that Russia suspects Turkey has been providing sanctuary for Chechen insurgents; indeed one of the IHH operatives who participated in the Gaza-bound flotilla was involved in a 1996 attack on a Black Sea ferry whose aim was to win the freedom of Chechen prisoners in Russia.

If it is extremely likely that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would lead to Turkey seeking nuclear weapons, then Moscow is promoting a process that would result in it having a nuclear power close to its southern border, positioned to export radical Islam into Russia. Of course, Russia will have the military means to deter any new nuclear powers from launching an attack. But nuclear weapons will empower the most radical elements in Turkey to advance policies in the Caucasus that will directly undermine Russian interests. Those who recall Turkish history will undoubtedly remember that the first major loss of lands populated by Muslims to a European power was the Ottoman Empire’s agreement to concede the Crimea to the Russian Empire in the 18th century. If the ideology of Istanbul’s ruling party is even partly driven by avenging past defeats, then the Russians must not be part of a process that will unleash a chain reaction of nuclearization in the Middle East – including the successor state of its old Ottoman rival.

Amb. Dore Gold

Ambassador Dore Gold has served as President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000. From June 2015 until October 2016 he served as Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (1997-1999), and as an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.