Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Russian forces were ready to enter neighboring Belarus “if necessary,” apparently following a request from embattled Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Putin’s remarks were his first public comments on the situation since Lukashenko claimed victory in an election widely viewed as fraudulent. Worker strikes and mass protests have rocked Belarus in the days since. E.U. governments want a national dialogue between Lukashenko and the opposition, but both the Belarusian leader and Putin have dismissed these calls as outside interference from the meddling West.
It’s been a busy week abroad for the Kremlin. Russian and U.S. forces were involved in an awkward armored-vehicle skirmish in Syria. And in Germany, doctors concluded that leading Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, now hospitalized in Berlin after falling ill on a flight from Siberia, had been poisoned. Russian authorities insist they do not see grounds for a criminal investigation, but the Kremlin’s track record on such matters and Navalny’s political stature mean the scrutiny won’t fade anytime soon.
“We expect Russia to join efforts to clear up what happened but at the moment that doesn’t seem to be the case,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told ZDF television Thursday.
Beyond the politicking, sabers are rattling. This week, Sweden stepped up its defense operations in the Baltic Sea in reaction to a perceived uptick in Russian military maneuvers. Swedish television channels broadcast footage of armored vehicles rolling past vacationers on the island of Gotland. Sweden is not a member of NATO; its officials warned of a “deteriorating security situation” as Russian jets and vessels push further afield. The last time it raised its military preparedness to this level was in reaction to the failed 1991 coup against then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
“Extensive military operations are underway in the Baltic Sea region, both from Russia and the West, in a way that in some parts has not been experienced since the days of the Cold War,” Chief of Joint Operations Vice Adm. Jan Thornqvist told reporters.
It’s in the Aegean where tensions are nearing a boiling point. France and Italy joined Greece and Cyprus in military exercises this week — naval drills that were seen as a riposte to Turkey’s own maneuvers against Greece and Cyprus over maritime claims.
“Tensions escalated in mid-August when Turkey sent a seismic exploration ship with a navy escort into a disputed part of the Eastern Mediterranean, and Greece dispatched a flotilla to the same area,” explained the Wall Street Journal. “A Greek frigate collided with one of the Turkish warships, damaging the latter and showing the potential for an armed clash, whether deliberate or accidental. French President Emmanuel Macron responded by sending naval forces to back up Greece.”
Turkish officials were outraged over the apparent and brief deployment of French jets in Cyprus, only the latest source of friction between two NATO members. The geopolitical clash has given Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the chance to don his nationalist mantle and champion Turkey’s rights in the face of European powers that would deny or undermine them.
“We invite our counterparts to smarten up and avoid mistakes that will cause their ruin,” Erdogan said in a speech Wednesday. “Those who wish to confront us at the cost of paying a price, are welcome. If not, they should keep out of our way.”
But it’s not simply about Erdogan grinding a revanchist’s ax. “Over the last decade, the country’s more assertive foreign policy in Syria, Libya, and the eastern Mediterranean has some analysts seeking solace in neo-Ottomanism without doing the hard work of identifying Turkey’s geo-economic interests,” wrote John Bowlus for War on the Rocks, pointing to the economically wounded country’s need to tap newfound natural gas riches in the Aegean and Black Sea.
“The scramble for resources and how best to exploit them is aggravating international tensions. That is partly because of the awkward history and geography of the eastern Mediterranean,” noted the Economist. “Greece argues that each of its scattered islands, however small, is legally entitled to its own continental shelf with sole drilling rights. Turkey, hemmed into the Aegean by a forbidding archipelagic wall of those islands, counters that the eastern ones rest on Turkey’s continental shelf and refuses to accept that they generate economic zones around them.”
Experts say Ankara is hoping to pressure its longtime rival into making concessions. Erdogan’s “strategy is to use hard power tactics to demonstrate two things,” Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based think tank Edam, told the Financial Times. “One, that Greece cannot unilaterally impose its own map on Turkey and that Turkey will react to this even with military force. Two, to compel Greece to sit and negotiate with Turkey with a view to finding an equitable partition plan for the east Med.”
Europe’s credibility is at stake, said Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides. “A union of 27 member states must stand up for international values, for a global, international order based on the values and principles of the European Union.”
But Europe is not as united on this matter as the Cypriots may hope. Some countries appear unimpressed by Macron’s aggressive approach to Turkey. “French fury at Ankara is met with a mix of understanding and eye-rolling in Berlin, Rome and London,” wrote Emile Hokayem of British think tank IISS last month. “There is little love for Turkey in Western capitals these days, but the French way of confronting Erdogan is not popular either.”
“Even the smallest spark can lead to a catastrophe,” Maas, the German foreign minister, said this week. “Nobody has an interest in that, nor in a military confrontation among NATO partners and neighbors.”