When the USS Mount Whitney, flagship of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, steamed into the port of Poti with a cargo of humanitarian aid, Georgians lined the quayside to cheer. All around lay the wreckage of Russia's occupation—a Georgian Coast Guard cutter dynamited in the bay, the remains of barricades and checkpoints by the town's rail terminus. As Russian soldiers watched from forward positions near the shore, the Sixth Fleet's commander, Capt. Owen P. Honors, insisted the warship's visit was "not a show of force—it's a show of solidarity."
Many in Washington wanted it the other way around—only to find that a show of naval force to face down Russia was refused by the once loyal U.S. ally Turkey. Even before any formal requests were lodged, Ankara made it clear it wouldn't allow heavy U.S. warships through the Bosporus, citing a 1936 international treaty that limited the tonnage of warships allowed through. More, Turkish officials were quick to dial back on earlier support for Georgia's joining NATO. "Turkey has always supported an enlargement of NATO," says Foreign Minister Ali Babacan. But "taking a country with [separatist] problems into NATO would mean importing those problems into the alliance."
Increasingly, Ankara finds itself at the center of bewildering crosscurrents. It's a strategic ally of the United States and Israel—but it also tries to maintain friendly relations with Syria and Iran. It is a candidate for European Union membership—but has divisions with the Union over Northern Cyprus. Its borders with the Caucasus, and cultural ties with Turkic republics in Central Asia, make Turkey a key part of Europe's hopes for energy independence from Russia—but it is heavily dependent on Russian gas and trade. Small wonder Turkey is refusing to choose sides.
Turkey's new ambivalence is made in both Washington and Moscow. The U.S.-led Iraq invasion in 2003 and Washington's support for Iraq's Kurds stirred deep anti-American feelings in Turkey. Meantime, Moscow was working to bring Turkey into its own economic orbit. A recent poll shows that Turks are more sympathetic to Russia than to the United States (by 18 percent to 14) but favor, above all, an independent foreign policy. Yet Turkey grows more entangled with Moscow all the time. Russia has been Turkey's No. 1 trade partner since 2003, with trade expected to top $38 billion in 2008, up from $27 billion last year. Hundreds of Turkish firms, particularly building contractors, operate in Russia, and Russians are the most frequent visitors in Turkey, with more than 2 million each year. Russia also provides half of Turkey's coal and 65 percent of its gas through the world's longest undersea gas pipeline, Blue Stream. As a result, Turkey is highly reluctant to provoke Russia. At the outbreak of war with Georgia, Moscow subjected thousands of Turkish containers and trucks to rigorous customs checks and delayed about $3 billion worth of goods in red tape. "It was a clear, hard signal, and not a very friendly one," says the head of one Istanbul trading company.
But Turkey also has an alliance with Georgia that is crucial to Ankara's energy supplies, and Europe's. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline brings a million barrels of Caspian crude oil from Azerbaijan via Georgia to the Turkish Mediterranean oil terminal of Ceyhan, and a parallel gas pipe to Erzurum provides much of eastern Turkey's energy needs. An Austrian consortium has been planning to extend that gas pipeline as far as Vienna, in order to break Russia's stranglehold on the Continent's energy supplies—a project dubbed Nabucco. And Turkey has provided training and NATO-standard equipment for Georgia's Army; it is also engaged with Georgia on ambitious regional projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, due to connect Europe with Central Asia by 2011.
With such ties at stake, Turkey can't walk away from Georgia, and it insists it remains a Western ally—even if it's one that has to bow to Russia in times of conflict. "Our policy has not changed," insists one senior Turkish official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But we do not want a new cold war," and the way to avoid one is "dialogue and cooperation." Yet the Georgian war has exposed just how far the Iraq War and Russian economic might have split Turkey away from its old allegiances—and set it tacking on its own zigzag course.