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