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29 Aralık 2009 Salı

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December 29, 2009 Unwelcomed Missiles By Feryaz Ocakli and Yelena Biberman Special to Russia Profile

Washington May Have Compromised with Moscow over the MDS in Czech Republic and Poland, but Russia Is Not Fully Backing an Alternative MDS in Turkey

In the latest chapter of the U.S. missile defense system (MDS) saga, Turkey has rejected U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposal to deploy missile shield elements on its soil for fear of Russian retaliation. The twist is that it was Russian President Vladimir Putin who, back in June 2007, suggested Turkey as an alternative site for MDS interceptors. It is unclear whether Russia serves as an excuse or the real reason for Turkey’s reluctance to get into the MDS business. In other words, it is unclear who is wagging Washington: Moscow or Ankara? The answer is – both.

This is not the first time Ankara is involved in a missile dispute between Washington and Moscow. The escalation of events that ultimately led to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis began in Turkey. Missiles stationed there boosted American nuclear capabilities at the expense of the Soviet Union. Only when Moscow responded in kind by attempting to install its own nuclear missiles in Cuba did Washington agree to dismantle its arsenal in Turkey.

The George W. Bush administration proposed to install the MDS in Poland and the Czech Republic in 2007. The White House declared that the missile defense system would help to counter a possible Iranian missile threat. The Kremlin responded by signaling that it would station short-range Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave bordering Poland, and accused the White House of using Cold War tactics against a rejuvenating Russia. Putin hinted at Turkey, Iraq, and Israel as potential, non-threatening locations for the defense system instead of Russia’s western border with the European Union. When the Obama administration decided to drop Warsaw and Prague off the agenda, Washington returned to Ankara.

Obama first voiced the possibility of installing the MDS in Turkey during Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington on December 7. Turkish daily Milliyet soon quoted a Turkish military source claiming: “both Russia and Iran [would] perceive that as a threat.” Several days before Erdogan’s Washington trip, Russia’s ambassador to Ankara Vladimir Ivanovskiy told Turkish daily Aksam that Russia would approve of an MDS in Turkey if Turkey, the United States and Russia act as “partners” to the project. Why, then, is Ankara turning down Washington’s request?

The first plausible explanation for Turkey’s puzzling behavior is that it is an attempt to please Russia by helping it get a larger role in the missile defense project. After all, Russia is Turkey’s largest trading partner, and Turkey depends on Russia for 65 percent of its natural gas and 40 percent of its oil imports. There are some signs that the United States is at least considering bringing Russia into the project, at least as long as Iran remains the bigger threat. NATO’s new Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called for “linking the United States, NATO and Russia missile defense systems at an appropriate time.” Associated Press reported Russian envoy Dmitry Rogozin responding by calling cooperation with Russia “not a matter of choice but of necessity.”

The second explanation lies in Turkey’s recent shift in foreign policy. Since the Turkish Parliament rejected the Bush administration’s plan to open a northern front in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Turkey has increasingly asserted itself as a diplomatic force in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Southern Caucasus. Ankara has turned to a policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors. Surrounded by countries historically seen as rivals at best, Turkey has traditionally oriented itself towards the United States and Western Europe at the expense of closer relations with its neighbors.

Still, Turkey’s recent shift in foreign policy should not be confused with a turn away from “the West.” Ankara misses no opportunity to reassert its intentions to join the European Union, and to remain a “strategic partner” to the United States, even when the latter seems less than enthusiastic to establish the relationship as such. Turkey’s new foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, symbolizes the shift in policy orientation. As a chief advisor to the prime minister before his new appointment, he is credited with masterminding Turkey’s shift toward the “zero problems with neighbors” approach.

Ankara’s unwillingness to accept Washington’s missiles on Turkish soil reflects Turkey’s new foreign policy line. While striving to maintain its close strategic ties with the United States, Turkey is also juggling newly improved relations with Moscow and Tehran. Iran is Turkey’s second biggest supplier of gas and oil, after Russia, and trade between the two countries is steadily increasing. Ankara is also taking a cautious approach toward Iran’s nuclear program, frequently voicing its disapproval of sanctions against Tehran.

Moreover, Ankara is concerned about becoming a front against Iran. Installation of an American MDS in Turkey would inherently be perceived as an offensive move by Tehran, and Turkey wants to avoid becoming a target for Iranian missiles – a possible byproduct of a defense system intended to improve security against this threat. On the other hand, Turkey is considering acquiring its own MDS from either the United States, Russia, or China. The details of this purchase have yet to be worked out.

As the issue stands today, Turkey will not want to take part in a future standoff between neither Washington and Tehran nor Washington and Moscow. The United States would therefore find it difficult to compel Turkey to redefine its foreign policy in a way that would directly compromise Ankara’s relations with its neighbors and, especially, Russia.

Feryaz Ocakli is a doctoral candidate at Brown University specializing in Turkish politics. Yelena Biberman is a doctoral candidate at Brown University specializing in post-Soviet politics.

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