While brac­ing for Covid’s sec­ond wave and the elec­tion craze, two over­seas crises bear watch­ing.

Forbes - - CON­TENTS - By Steve Forbes

While we are fo­cused on a pos­si­ble new wave of Covid-19 cases and the up­com­ing elec­tions, other crises are brew­ing that could have an out­size—and ad­verse—im­pact on the U.S.

Two big ones are a pos­si­ble con­flict be­tween Tur­key and Greece—whose en­mity goes back cen­turies—and trou­ble in the un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated and un­der­re­ported coun­try of Be­larus, which had been part of the old Soviet Union but be­came a sep­a­rate na­tion when the Soviet em­pire col­lapsed in 1991.

Both Tur­key and Greece are in­creas­ingly at odds over drilling rights for oil and gas in the east­ern Mediter­ranean Sea. Greece, which has nu­mer­ous is­lands in the area, says it has sovereignt­y over the par­tic­u­lar wa­ters that hold con­sid­er­able drilling prom­ise. Tur­key is dis­put­ing this claim and re­cently sent a seis­mic ves­sel, backed up by war­ships, to carry out sur­veys in the area. Both coun­tries have boosted naval and air forces to re­in­force their com­pet­ing claims.

Tur­key’s strong­man Re­cep Tayyip Er­doǧan de­clared, “Tur­key will con­tinue to fol­low a de­ter­mined and ac­tive pol­icy in the east­ern Mediter­ranean . . . . [The Greeks] are ei­ther go­ing to un­der­stand the lan­guage of pol­i­tics and diplo­macy, or in the field with painful ex­pe­ri­ences.” Er­doǧan also made dis­parag­ing re­marks about what he called Greece’s “di­lap­i­dated” mil­i­tary. The EU, par­tic­u­larly France, as well as Egypt and the United Arab Emi­rates, are back­ing Greece.

Nei­ther Greece nor Tur­key wants a war, but an ac­ci­den­tal es­ca­la­tion could trig­ger a con­flict.

The coun­tries nearly went to war over two un­in­hab­ited is­lands in 1996, but diplo­macy won the day.

In 1974, when Greece an­nounced that it would unite with Cyprus, which has a siz­able Turk­ish mi­nor­ity, Tur­key in­vaded the is­land, seiz­ing about a third of it and even­tu­ally declar­ing the oc­cu­pied zone a new coun­try: the Turk­ish Re­pub­lic of North­ern Cyprus. Tur­key has stated that any agree­ments reached by Cyprus are null and void un­less Tur­key’s pup­pet coun­try gives its as­sent. For­tu­nately, both sides have agreed to dis­cus­sions over the dis­pute, but ten­sions re­main high.

Tur­key and Greece are both mem­bers of NATO, and an armed con­flict be­tween them could have cat­a­strophic reper­cus­sions for the fu­ture of that al­liance, which would de­light Rus­sia. There could be other ugly con­se­quences. Tur­key, for in­stance, could send Syr­ian refugees liv­ing in Tur­key—there are about 4 mil­lion—into Greece and then the rest of Europe, some­thing it did briefly a few years ago.

The U.S. has yet to be­come ac­tively in­volved in this situation, leav­ing it to EU diplo­mats, es­pe­cially the Ger­mans, and NATO of­fi­cials. But that may change, given the stakes in­volved.

An­other cri­sis that has erupted is in Be­larus, which has been un­der the iron fist of dic­ta­tor Alexan­der Lukashenko for 26 years. Elec­tions were held in Au­gust, and, pre­dictably, the re­sults were rigged. But the peo­ple have had enough and have been tak­ing to the streets in such over­whelm­ing numbers that the Lukashenko dic­ta­tor­ship is ac­tu­ally crum­bling.

The dan­ger is that Vladimir Putin doesn’t want a gen­uine democ­racy emerg­ing on Rus­sia’s bor­der. Qui­etly, he may al­ready be send­ing in spe­cial forces to help Lukashenko re­main in power, or to in­stall a pup­pet suc­ces­sor.

Lithua­nia, a small neigh­bor­ing coun­try to Be­larus, re­gained its in­de­pen­dence from the Soviet em­pire in 1991. Un­like Rus­sia and Be­larus, Lithua­nia is a vig­or­ous democ­racy. It’s also a mem­ber of the EU and of NATO. The core tenet of NATO—an al­liance that was ab­so­lutely es­sen­tial to de­feat­ing the Soviet Union dur­ing the Cold War—is that an at­tack on one mem­ber na­tion is con­sid­ered to be an at­tack on all. This rule is em­bed­ded in Ar­ti­cle Five of the NATO Treaty and is what has made NATO so pow­er­ful.

Putin has made his ha­tred of NATO clear. He un­der­stands that un­der­min­ing NATO would be a dev­as­tat­ing blow to the U.S. and would make Europe pli­ant to Rus­sia’s wishes.

Here’s what might hap­pen. If Putin in­ter­venes in Be­larus un­der some phony pre­text, he might also be tempted to move troops into Lithua­nia—not a full-scale in­va­sion, just an oc­cu­pa­tion of a piece of real es­tate un­der some other fake ra­tio­nale.

What would NATO and the U.S. do? Would Wash­ing­ton send troops to fight the Rus­sians? Or would this be the re­sponse: It’s not much real es­tate; the Rus­sians prom­ise to get out, so let’s shake a fist, de­nounce it and call it a day. How­ever, if, in ef­fect, we did noth­ing, Putin would have won a mas­sive vic­tory, and the U.S. would suf­fer a big­ger set­back than los­ing the Viet­nam War.

As as­tute Rus­sian ex­pert Leon Aron warns: “A raid would be a very lim­ited op­er­a­tion . . . per­haps a few kilo­me­ters deep . . . and then show­ing that Rus­sia had got­ten away with it would be the point . . . . The Krem­lin’s geopo­lit­i­cal gains could be enor­mous . . . . NATO’s Ar­ti­cle Five, the cor­ner­stone of col­lec­tive de­fense, would be ren­dered a fic­tion. The al­liance might start to un­ravel, as coun­tries on its east­ern flank sought in­di­vid­ual ‘ac­com­mo­da­tions’ with Moscow.”

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