As Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan pursues influence in the radical Muslim Arab world and Iran, his political sidekick president Abdullah Gul is courting two Christian nations to the East – Russia and Ankara's historic foe, Armenia.
Moscow is the key to the Caucasian and Caspian regions on which Gul has set his sights. By winning the 2008 Georgia conflict, Russia lords it over the Caucasian and Central Asia as never before since Soviet days. The Turkish president has begun fashioning a plan he calls the Platform for Security and Stability in the Caucasus, which he says will be open to all the region's countries, including Armenia and possibly Iran with a special role for Russia.
To push his scheme, Gul is avidly courting Moscow and neighboring Armenia.
Since the Turkish president's historic visit to Yerevan last summer, Turkish-Armenian contacts have expanded and cross-border exchanges, including trade are flourishing – partly at the expense of Turkish relations with Azerbaijan, a close ally of the US and Israel. This change has strengthened Yerevan's hand in settling the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute with Baku.
Gul's move on Armenia ties in, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Moscow and Caucasian sources, with two stealthy Russian steps in the region:
Russia integrates Armenia in its air defenses
1. Moscow has shipped $800 million worth of military equipment to Yerevan (which the Russians deny).
2. A Russian-Armenian integrated air defense network has been established, modeled on Moscow's arrangement with Belarus.
Announced Feb. 13 by Nikolai Bordyuzha, secretary general of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, this network provides Armenia with a Russian air defense shield. It further opens the way for Moscow to deploy its most advanced missile and aircraft interceptors in Armenia.
This major Russian advance in the Caucasian and Central Asian regions comes on top of Moscow's success in persuading Kyrgyzstan to withhold the Manas air base from US forces fighting in Afghanistan.
Barack Obama's administration is playing down the strategic implications of losing this base – especially within the context of its impact on the Nabucco natural gas pipeline project.
The US, European Union countries and Azerbaijan are heavily invested in this pipeline for bypassing the Russian monopoly on gas supplies to Europe by piping it from Turkey to Austria.
The project has enraged Moscow, especially prime minister Vladimir Putin, the grand master of Russia's energy trade.
On Jan. 31, Aleksandr Dugin, a Eurasian leader close to the Kremlin, told the Russian Novosti news agency that Putin was determined to wreck the Nabucco project because “we are talking about the geopolitics of gas.” And if Russia needs to use military tools to do so, Moscow would not hesitate, he said.
Dreams of a nuclear-armed, radical Turkish Islamic Republic
His comment reinforced a report from Moscow at the end of January suggesting that Putin was considering provoking a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan to block the flow of Caspian gas westward.
Language this tough has not been heard from Moscow since the Georgian war last August.
Since Erdogan and Gul are clued in by intelligence sources in Baku on all these developments, they must also be aware that by joining forces with Moscow and Yerevan they are acting against the interests of the United States and NATO of which Turkey is a member.
They also risk provoking Iran and the Arab rulers whose favors both Turkish leaders are pursuing.
World experts on Turkish affairs offer three conflicting theories to account for Ankara's self-contradictory behavior:
One school believes that Erdogan and Gul both entertain imperial yearnings, however irrational.
A second adds the Islamic element to the imperial dream – although not necessarily in the form of an Ottoman revival. They both envision the 76 -million strong Turkish nation as a nuclear-armed, radical Islamic republic that would cut loose from the United States and Europe and forge ties with Russia.
This school of thought suggests that ideally, Iran will eventually feel threatened enough by an empowered Turkey to turn to the West.
The third group warns both Washington and Moscow that if they fail to get together, they may well wake up one day to find themselves challenged by two nuclear-armed Islamic powers in league against them both.