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Yugoslavia: Analysis From Washington -- In Dire Straights

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 2 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's decision to dispatch warships through the Turkish straits into the Mediterranean is likely to embolden Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and further worsen relations between the Russian Federation and the West.

In announcing on Wednesday that Ankara had given Moscow permission to transit eight ships from the Black Sea through the Bosphorous and Dardanelles into the Mediterranean, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit expressed concerns on both points.

Noting that "only Russia can make Milosevic renounce his operations of genocide" in Kosovo, Ecevit said that "the move of the Russian fleet, especially to the Adriatic, will embolden Milosevic," thus reducing the chances for peace and opening the way to a broader conflict.

More than that, Ecevit's comments highlight a shift in Western attitudes toward Russia's response to Serbian actions in Kosovo. When Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov went to Belgrade, Ankara was among Western governments expressing hope that he would somehow restrain Milosevic.

But following the failure of that Russian mission, the increasingly critical tone of Russian commentary on Western actions in Kosovo, and now the request for the passage of Russian warships, both Turkey and many other NATO countries are becoming increasingly worried about Moscow's intentions.

This latest Russian move, dramatic both by its size and its timing, appears likely to harden Turkish attitudes toward Russia, destabilize the always difficult relations between Turkey and Greece, and exacerbate ties between Moscow and the West.

Under the terms of the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey is virtually required to approve requests for transit of Russian and other ships through the Bosphorous and Dardanelles.

But Moscow's request, the largest in more than five years, is especially troubling to the Turkish authorities by virtue of its size and timing and also because Ankara is ever more concerned about the possibility of shipping accidents and oil spills in the narrow channels passing by Istanbul.

Moreover, ever more Turkish officials and commentators have been alarmed by Russia's open support for pro-Serbian, anti-NATO demonstrations in Greece, support that many in Turkey see as directed not only against the Western alliance but also against Turkey itself.

And while Greece has given Turkey permission to overfly its territory for relief missions connected with the Kosovo crisis, at least some in the Turkish capital are concerned that Russia's dispatch of ships toward the Mediterranean might change Greek attitudes.

Such a change in Athens would limit Turkey's ability to help out in the current crisis and also complicate its role as a participant in NATO operations. And it could reignite longstanding conflicts between these two neighboring states.

The larger implications of this latest Russian move, however, go far beyond the eastern Mediterranean and even Milosevic and Kosovo. They concern the entire relationship between Russia and the Western powers.

By sending its war ships toward the crisis area, Moscow is sending the clearest signal yet that it is prepared to support Serbia regardless of Milosevic's behavior or Western concerns. And it is calling Western attention to Russian comments about the West that recall those of the Soviet era. As a result, ever more Western political figures, including Turkey's Ecevit, are asking ever more openly just how much Moscow has changed since the end of the Soviet Union and just how reliable a partner it can be now or in the future.

But Russia's dispatch of ships through the strait, something it did routinely during the 19th century, sends another message as well: It highlights Moscow's current weakness rather than its strength.

Regardless of which message governments around the world receive, they are likely to act in ways that will make it more difficult to reach a settlement in Kosovo and may make it more problematic to move toward the Europe whole and free that most people on the continent and in the West say they want.