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August 31, 2008, Sunday

Between the bear and the elephant

Turkey is trying to tread a fine line of diplomacy between Russia and the West. As an American ally, Turkey has trained and partially equipped the Georgian armed forces under American guidance that aimed to encircle growing Russian power in the Caucasus.The debated NATO membership of Georgia and Ukraine, following the early examples of Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states on the western end of the continent, were all designed to contain Russia along the East-West axis for a safer Europe. Needless to say, Russia was unhappy about the whole design and was waiting for the opportune moment to retort to what it thought to be a belligerent plot against its security. That moment came when Georgia realized a military operation in the runaway statelets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

There is little doubt that the Georgian leadership made its move with American consent. If it did not, it is very hard to manage the unfolding crisis by such an irrational national leadership. The Russians have seen the bluff and took on the calculated risk that NATO would not respond militarily due to the rifts in the organization as well as a lack of American credibility in the alliance. Now Russia has consolidated its control over the oil and gas resources and transportation lines, leaving little opportunity to regional nations to lead an independent policy on matters related to energy. It is obvious that Russia does not want NATO close to home in this critical region for its national strategic and economic interests.

Since the showdown between the resurgent Russia that vies for its lost superpower status and the US has begun, it was unlikely that it would remain limited to the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. The US is increasing its naval presence in the Black Sea as a show of force. In return Russia is getting ready to replicate the same act in the eastern Mediterranean. As the military action waged in Georgia was unfolding, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to visit Moscow. Damascus needs missiles and modern weaponry as well as Russian support to strengthen its hand against the West, which is pressuring it to reconcile with Israel. In return, Syria may be generous enough to let the Russian Mediterranean fleet benefit from Syrian ports and naval facilities.

The most important beneficiary of an alliance between Russia and Syria will be Iran. Under pressure for its nuclear program and an anti-Israel stance, Iran, which is alienated from the West, may greatly benefit from Russia's support and protection. Well, is the "West" a homogeneous body of nations that would act in concert against Russia as the US (the nominal leader of the western alliance) expects it to do?

While NATO was a medium that provided security and political stability for Europe during the Cold War, it is now a medium of rivalry and only of relative concern. As the results of the latest American efforts to stand up firmly against Russia has demonstrated in the case of Germany, France and Italy, they have not adopted a war-like position against Russia. They even reprimanded Georgian leadership for acting irresponsibly by attacking South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Is this an indication of an independent position differing from that of the US on the part of central countries of the European Union? If so, they would not go along with adopting stringent American measures to penalize Russia. This means European cars will find the necessary gasoline and European furnaces will be ignited in the winter.

What if the US pressures its European NATO allies to a showdown with Russia? A number of them will likely decline taking a harsher stance beyond diplomacy. No one would want a new Cold War in freezing temperatures when gas and oil lines are interrupted by the Mighty Bear. Such adverse conditions and a hard winter may even push old Soviet countries to a more impartial line rather than relying on NATO or seeking NATO membership for their security.

These developments, in addition to the reinvention of "gunboat policy," have increased naval traffic through the Turkish Straits, creating the danger of revising the 1936 Montreux Convention and giving the Turkish government goose bumps -- if it hasn't already, it should. This crisis must be handled carefully in order to avoid being squashed between the elephant and the bear.

Previous articles of the columnist