Monica Lewinsky and the Russian missiles in Cyprus

August 31, 1998|By Robert O. Freedman

WHILE THE Monica Lewinsky affair has slowed the wheels of government in Washington, it has had much more dangerous effect on American policy in the Middle East. Not only has President Clinton not been able to prevent the deployment of surface-to-air missiles which Russia sold to the Greek Cypriot side of the divided island of Cyprus, a development that threatens to lead to war between two NATO allies of the United States, Greece and Turkey.

The Greek-Turkish conflict on Cyprus has been simmering since the 1970s, when Turkish troops landed in northern Cyprus to protect the Turkish community of the island, which felt threatened by a right-wing Greek Cypriot plan to unite Cyprus with Greece.

The island, which lies in the Mediterranean off the southern coast of Turkey, has been divided ever since, with the Greek Cypriots growing increasingly frustrated that neither they nor their allies in Greece have been able to do anything about it.

In 1995, in an apparent attempt to break the stalemate, a Greek Cypriot delegation traveled to Moscow to purchase S-300 surface-to-air missiles, which have the range to penetrate the air space of Southern Turkey. The Greek Cypriots, who had coordinated the missile purchase with the Greek government with whom they have an air defense treaty, evidently hoped to to pressure the U.S. to intervene and the stalemate over Cyprus would be broken. For its part, the Russian arms sales agency, Rosvoorouzhenie, was desperately seeking customers for its arms and, unrestrained by the Russian government, had no compunction about selling such a weapons system.

When the transaction became public knowledge in 1997, the Turkish reaction was to threaten to destroy the missiles if they were deployed. The U.S. publicly expressed its displeasure to Moscow over the sale, while urging the Greek Cypriots not to install the missiles. Neither diplomatic effort worked (although the planned deployment was later postponed from August 1998 to November 1998) and in January 1998 Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov publicly stated that the missiles would be deployed unless Turkey agreed to the demilitarization of Cyprus -- something the Turkish government, in which the Turkish military exercises dominant influence, is not willing to agree to, lest the Turkish community on Cyprus be threatened.

The Russian insistence on going ahead with the missile sale in the face of U.S. opposition is, on the surface, surprising. Given the importance to the United States of preventing war between its NATO allies, one might have expected the United States -- whose political and economic support is helping to prevent the collapse of Russia's economy -- to urge Moscow more energetically to halt the sale. While some in the Clinton administration oppose linking American aid to the sale of the missiles to Cyprus for fear the pressure might cause the regime of Boris Yeltsin to collapse, it is difficult to see how the reversal of a Russian arms sale could cause such a development.

Instead, it appears that the Clinton administration has been so focused on the Monica Lewinsky situation that it has been unable to take decisive action with the Russians, or with the Greeks and Turks, on the Cypriot missile crisis. The irony of the situation is that influential people in both Greece and Turkey feel a crisis over the missiles could be averted if President Clinton were willing to act, and the one thing Greeks and Turks agree on is that the Monica Lewinsky affair is so preoccupying the President that he is unable to act.

Whether or not this is truly the case is besides the point. Perception, rather than reality, often dominates international affairs. In any case, when the Lewinsky affair is finally over -- the sooner the better -- perhaps the Clinton administration can begin to act on the Middle Eastern crises that beg for its attention, from Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the missile crisis in Cyprus, and so end the Middle East perception that Washington is so preoccupied by the Lewinsky affair it cannot conduct a serious foreign policy even to protect its own interests.

Robert O. Freedman is president of Baltimore Hebrew University, and the author of "Moscow and the Middle East" and "The Middle East and the Peace Process."

Pub Date: 8/31/98

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