Will Turkey side with the United States, its NATO ally, and let more U.S. military ships into the Black Sea to assist Georgia? Or will it choose Russia?
A Turkish refusal would seriously impair American efforts to support the beleaguered Caucasus republic. Ever since Turkey joined NATO in 1952, it has hoped to never have to make a choice between the alliance and its Russian neighbor to the North. Yet that is precisely the decision before Ankara. If Turkey does not allow the ships through, it will essentially be taking Russia`s side.
Whether in government or in the military, Turkish officials have for several years been expressing concern about U.S. intentions to "enter" the Black Sea. Even at the height of the Cold War, the Black Sea remained peaceful due to the fact that Turkey and Russia had clearly defined spheres of influence. But littoral countries Romania and Bulgaria have since joined NATO, and Ukraine and Georgia have drawn closer to the Euro-Atlantic alliance. Ankara has expressed nervousness about a potential Russian reaction.
The Turkish mantra goes something like this: "the U.S. wants to expand NATO into the Black Sea -- and as in Iraq, this will create a mess in our neighborhood, leaving us to deal with the consequences once America eventually pulls out. After all, if Russia is agitated, it won`t be the Americans that will have to deal with them."
Nonetheless, Ankara sided with fellow NATO members in telling Georgia and Ukraine that they would be invited to join the alliance -- albeit without any time frame. But now that Russia has waged war in part over this decision, the Turks will have to pick sides. Deputy chief of the Russian general staff Anatoly Nogoivtsyn already warned Turkey that Russia will hold Turkey responsible if the U.S. ships do not leave the Black Sea. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will travel to Ankara on Monday to make clear that Russia means it.
Russia is Turkey`s largest trading partner, mostly because of Turkey`s dependence on Russian gas. More important, the two countries share what some call the post-imperial stress syndrome: that is, an inability to see former provinces as fellow independent states, and ultimately a wish to recreate old agreements on spheres of influence. When Mr. Putin gave a speech in Munich last year challenging the U.S.-led world order, Turks cheered. The Turkish military even posted it on its Web site. President Abdullah Gül recently suggested that "a new world order should emerge."
Turkey joined Russia at the height of its war on Georgia in suggesting a five-party "Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform." In other words, they want to keep the U.S. and the EU at arm`s length. Both Russia and Turkey consider Georgia`s American-educated president, Mikheil Saakashvili, to be crazy enough to unleash the next world war. In that view Turkey is not so far from the positions of France or Germany -- but even these two countries did not suggest that the Georgians sign up to a new regional arrangement co-chaired by Russia while the Kremlin`s air force was bombing Georgian cities.
Two other neighbors -- Azerbaijan and Armenia -- are watching the Turkish-Russian partnership with concern. Azeris remember how the Turks -- their ethnic and religious brethren -- left them to be annexed by the Soviets in the 1920s. Armenians already fear their giant neighbor, who they consider to have committed genocide against them. Neither wants to have to rely on Iran (once again) as a counterbalance to Russia. Oh, and of course, Iran had its own sphere-of-influence arrangements with the Soviets as well.
Though Turkey and Iran are historic competitors, Turkey has broken with NATO countries recently by hosting President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad on a working visit. As the rest of NATO was preoccupied with the Russian aggression in Georgia, Turkey legitimized the Iranian leader amidst chants in Istanbul of "death to Israel, death to America."
A few days later, Turkey played host to Sudan`s Omar al-Bashir, who is accused of genocide by the rest of NATO -- but not by Russia or Iran, or by the Muslim-majority countries who usually claim to care so much about Muslim lives.
Where is Turkey headed? Turkish officials say they are using their trust-based relations with various sides to act as a mediator between various parties in the region: the U.S. and Iran; Israel and Syria; Pakistan and Afghanistan, etc. It may be so. But as more American ships steam toward the Black Sea, a time for choosing has arrived.
By Zeyno BaranThe Wall Street Journal
Ms. Baran is senior fellow and director of the Center For Eurasian Policy at the Hudson Institute.