The simmering crisis brought about by Russia's recent incursion into Georgia is putting Turkey on the spot, presenting Ankara with an undesirable choice between backing its traditional western allies and preserving its growing trade relations with Russia.
"Turkey is torn between the latest developments, not only between Russia and Georgia but mainly between Russia and the United States and NATO as well. Even if we do not go back to the Cold War, at the point that we have arrived to today, Turkey cannot manage this crisis with 'platonic moves,'" said a recent commentary published by the English-language Turkish Daily News.
During the Cold War, Turkey -- a member of NATO and a long-time ally of Washington -- found itself on the frontlines of containing the Soviet Union. Even during the Ottoman period, Russia -- which invaded Eastern Anatolia at the start of World War I -- was viewed as a dangerous regional competitor.
The Turkish-Russian relationship has changed dramatically in recent years, though. Today, Russia is Turkey's largest trading partner, with trade between the two countries expected to reach $38 billion this year, up from $27 billion the year before. Russia also supplies close to half of Turkey's crude oil and 65 percent of its natural gas, used both to heat Turkish home and to run many of the country's power plants. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
But following the invasion of Georgia, Turkey is suddenly facing the prospect of a resurgent Russian presence near its border. "There is a dilemma which Turkey faces," says Ihsan Dagi, a professor of international relations at Ankara's Middle East Technical University. "Georgia is indispensable to Turkey's overall Caucasian and Central Asian strategy, and is central to its claim to being an energy corridor."
On the other hand, he says, "Russia is mostly indispensable for the Turkish economy. What is at stake is Turkey's economic stability."
Moscow forcefully reminded Turks of this fact when it imposed new trade restrictions in August on goods coming from Turkey, holding up Turkish trucks at Russian border crossings for lengthy inspections. For many Turkish observers, the new restrictions were a clear warning for Ankara not to pick the wrong side in the Georgia crisis. Turkish trade officials say they may lose roughly $3 billion over the short term due to the new Russian restrictions.
Turkey's leaders, meanwhile, have been treading carefully around the Georgia issue. Although Turkey has publicly called for Georgia's territorial integrity to be respected, it has refrained from embracing the stronger rhetoric coming out of Washington and Brussels. "We would never want such a thing [a new Cold War] to happen," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said recently. "America is our ally and the Russian Federation is an important neighbor. Russia is our number one trade partner. We are obtaining two-thirds of our energy from Russia ... We would be left in the dark."
In an effort to defuse the crisis, Ankara had suggested the creation of a "Platform for security and cooperation in the South Caucasus," which would create a regional security framework involving Turkey, Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. But neither Washington nor Moscow seemed especially keen on the initiative.
"The idea sounds attractive, but it will not go far. Such pacts can work only if all members are willing to prioritize stability and good relations over their other interests. Yet if there is one thing we know, it is that there is no consensus for stability in the Caucasus," Michael Reynolds, an expert on Caucasian history at Princeton University, recently wrote in a blog maintained by Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.
Given the prospect of prolonged uncertainty in the Caucasus, Ankara is exploring options for diversifying its gas supply, in case any tensions with Russia lead to a cut off. And when the United States recently asked for permission for its navy ships to pass through the Turkish controlled Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits in order to bring aid to Georgia, Ankara at first hesitated before giving an ambivalent "yes."
This ambivalence could ultimately impact the West's future plans for dealing with any further developments in Georgia, experts warn. "Against a background of mixed European reaction to Russian behavior, Turkish ambivalence could be a troubling harbinger of [a] transatlantic disputes to come," Ian Lesser, an expert on Turkey at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, wrote in a recent policy paper. "In theory, Turkey's proximity to the crisis and desire to play a larger diplomatic role in the Black Sea could make Turkey a lynchpin of NATO strategy in Georgia, especially if rapprochement with Armenia is part of the equation. But Turkish willingness to place its territory at the service of Western policy in Georgia is highly uncertain."
Added Lesser: "A large-scale economic and humanitarian assistance program for Georgia is virtually inevitable, and Turkey would be a natural partner for United States and European efforts. The United States and at least some NATO allies may go further and opt for significant military assistance to bolster what remains of Georgian independence, increase the country's capacity for territorial defense, and raise the costs of renewed Russian military operations."
"All of this will be much more difficult without Turkish political and logistical support."
Ultimately, analysts say, the Georgian crisis may force Turkey to reconsider elements of its foreign policy, which seeks to draw on its Ottoman past as a power in the Middle East, Balkans and the Caucasus to help it develop good relations with its neighbors and to act as a regional mediator.
"The Georgian crisis put Turkish foreign policy in a predicament of how to reconcile Georgians and Russians and Ossetians and Abkhazians and Armenians and Azeris all at the same time," says METU's Dagi. "Being a country with good relations with everyone is not possible during a time of conflict. You have to sacrifice something."
He adds: "Using soft power in the region is fine, but when a crisis emerges, it's time for hard choices."
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.