Greece and Turkey nearly came to blows last summer, and the risk of war remains
Last summer, Greece and Turkey came closer to war than they have done since 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus. The drama began to unfold on 21 July, when Turkey announced it was sending a seismic survey ship, the Oruc Reis, to look for oil and gas in areas the UN Law of the Sea awards to Greece.
Within hours, the Greek and Turkish navies had deployed throughout the Aegean and east of Crete. They remained so for two months. Greek helicopters pinned down Turkish submarines off the island of Evia. Frigates shadowed each other so closely, that on 12 August two of them collided when a Turkish frigate performed a manoeuvre across the bows of a Greek one. Greek and Turkish F-16s intercepted each other between Crete and Cyprus. Greece came close to invoking the European Union’s mutual defence clause.
On 13 September, Turkey withdrew the Oruc Reis, ostensibly for maintenance, and redeployed its navy. In the coming days, Greece and Turkey are to resume talks abandoned four and a half years ago on carving out their continental shelves – vast swathes of the east Mediterranean where they may exercise exclusive commercial rights to exploit undersea resources.
For now, there is de-escalation, but expectations for the outcome of these talks are low.
“Right now, Turkey doesn’t consider itself an extension of the West. It doesn’t consider that it has commitments and responsibilities towards the West,” says Konstantinos Filis, who directs the Institute of International Relations in Athens. “It believes it is an autonomous power in the region, that it is very potent, and that all its neighbours should respect it. The Turkish leadership doesn’t appear to be prepared for compromises with neighbours it considers inferior.”
The east Mediterranean is where the world’s most significant natural gas discoveries have occurred since the turn of the millennium. Israel and Egypt are now energy independent. Cyprus soon hopes to be. But Greece potentially dwarfs them all.
A nationalist, revisionist narrative has now become embedded in Turkish political rhetoric
Seismic explorations it conducted six years ago suggest that Greece has natural gas reserves of 70-90 trillion cubic feet – as much as Israel, Egypt and Cyprus have discovered combined, with a pre-Covid-19 market value of about $200 billion. Assuming gas is viable for the next 25 years, Greece’s reserves, if proven, would cover its energy needs and turn gas into a lucrative export to the European Union. As much as a third of the value of the gas would go to the Greek state in taxes and royalties, allowing it to pay off a fifth of its external debt, now approaching twice its GDP.
This is clearly a future Turkey, with eight times Greece’s population and four times its economy, would rather claim for itself. Legally, it cannot do so. Under the rules of the UN’s Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the lion’s share of east Mediterranean waters goes to Greece and Cyprus. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s leader for the past 18 years, feels that the Greeks are hemming him in.
“For the first time since the founding of the republic by Kemal Ataturk, Turkey is openly talking about changing borders,” says Aristotle Tziampiris, professor of international relations at the University of Piraeus. “Erdogan doesn’t like any of the treaties since Sykes-Picot and Lausanne. Turkey wants to play the role of regional hegemon and within that kind of great ambition, to have a hand in exploiting regional natural energy resources.”
The Sykes-Picot agreement defined French and British spheres of influence in post-First World War Middle East, awarding France a large chunk of what is now south-central Turkey. The Lausanne Treaty set the borders of modern Turkey in 1923, after the Greeks lost a war to reclaim western Asia Minor.
Erdogan openly called for a revision of the Lausanne Treaty during a visit to Athens in December 2017. His coalition partner Devlet Bahceli, who leads the National Action Party (MHP), has often called on Erdogan to claim 15 Aegean islands he says Lausanne never explicitly awarded to Greece.
Turkey has intensified every tactic short of war in the Aegean
This nationalist, revisionist narrative has now become embedded in Turkish political rhetoric, and Turkey has intensified every tactic short of war in the Aegean. Its violations of Greek territorial waters numbered in the dozens per year until 2009, when they rose to 300-400 a year. In 2017 they shot up to two thousand, a level they repeated last year and are set to repeat this year. Something similar is happening in the air. In 2014, the year Greece discovered probable deposits of natural gas in the Aegean, Ionian and Mediterranean, Aegean airspace violations by Turkey quadrupled to over 2,200. Last year they doubled again to 4,800 and are set to outpace that level this year.
The Turkish coast guard has been mobilised as well. Eight years ago, its vessels changed tactic. Instead of patrolling along the length of the Asia Minor coast, they launched sorties towards the puddles of international water that lie in the middle of the Aegean, testing Greek reactions. This year Turkish coast guard vessels openly harassed Greek ones with hot pursuits which nearly caused collisions.
The action is not always military. Greece sees Turkey’s attempt to flood the Greek land and maritime borders with refugees last March as experimentation with hybrid war. The Hellenic Coast Guard has filmed Turkish coast guard vessels guiding refugee-filled dinghies to the international waterline and releasing them into Greek waters.
The timing of these escalations is coincident with diverging economies
It would appear, from all this, that war has all but been declared in the Aegean. The timing of these escalations is coincident with diverging economies. Since Erdogan came to power in 2002, he has more than tripled Turkey’s GDP. In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, though, Greece went bankrupt. Its euro area partners bailed it out with cheap loans, contingent on Greece performing the most painful budget-balancing exercise of any developed economy since the Second World War. That shaved away a quarter of its GDP and halved its defence expenditures to from 7.88 billion euros in 2009 to 3.75 billion euros in 2018.
This month, Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced the first defence budget hike in 12 years. Greece will build new frigates, buy fourth-generation fighters and increase its career officers by 15,000. This is not a vote of confidence in the upcoming exploratory talks with Turkey.
A rocky path ahead
Turkey disagrees with the UN Law of the Sea, and the international courts that uphold it, about whether Greece’s 9,000-odd islands should have a continental shelf. It disagrees that Greece, like the world’s 166 other signatories of the law, is entitled to 12 nautical miles of territorial water off its mainland and island coasts. Turkey wants a purely discretionary agreement with Greece that reflects its growing economic and military might rather than international law. The military pressure it exerted over the summer was designed to coerce Greece into such a deal. Can talks resolve such fundamental differences?
The optimistic view is that the same dynamics that brought Turkey to the negotiating table can see the process through. By all accounts, Greece emerged from the summer a winner.
By deploying its navy at full strength, apparently within four hours, Greece demonstrated that it is neither weak nor intimidated. France, Italy and the UAE have held joint military exercises with the Greeks in the areas Turkey disputes off Crete and Cyprus, signalling that Greece will have friends in a fight. Israel and Egypt are also holding military talks with the Greeks. No one has offered Turkey military assistance.
Turkey’s demands on Greek soil and water have now become embedded cultural mantras
Diplomatically, too, Greece scored well. It signed maritime agreements with Italy and Egypt that recognize the continental shelf of Greece’s islands. These had been in the works for decades. The Turkish crisis expedited them, because Turkey’s belligerent behaviour in the region has alarmed everyone. Greece declared that it will double its territorial waters in the Ionian Sea to the full 12 nautical miles allowed under international law, a clear signal of its intent to do the same in the Aegean and off Crete. For four decades Turkey has threatened Greece with war if this should happen. As the prospect of war nears anyway, Greece showed that it is not cowed.
The European Union, which buys 42 percent of Turkish exports, has threatened sanctions and told Turkey to strike a territorial deal with Greece on the basis of international law. With the Turkish lira plummeting and the central bank spending the country’s foreign currency reserves to prop it up, Turkey seems to have had little choice.
“If Turkey hadn’t withdrawn and had instead issued a new exploration round that would have brought the Oruc Reis very close to Greek territorial waters, that would have elicited a possibly military Greek response and it would have made it very difficult for EU members to [not impose sanctions],” says Filis. “Even if those sanctions were mild, they would be more bad news for the Turkish economy.”
The United States seems quietly to be duplicating in Greece and Israel the military capabilities it now enjoys at the NATO air force base in Incirlik. “If relations with Turkey continue to go sour … the US has to have ready military answers if its military footprint in Turkey is reduced,” says Tziampiris. The new US defence pact with Greece opens the way for massive infrastructure investments in its military bases there, more joint exercises and investments in Greek defence industries. This month, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo broke with decades of tradition by visiting Cyprus and Greece without visiting Turkey or the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey.
“The tricky part was how [to] get from a situation where you’re on high alert to a situation where diplomacy takes the lead but without giving anything, without having to change your positions or compromise before diplomatic negotiations. In that sense, Greece was extremely successful,” says Tziampiris. “This was a clear-cut, unambiguous success for Greece.”
There is a more pessimistic view, however. Turkey’s demands on Greek soil and water have now become embedded cultural mantras among major political parties. Striking a deal consistent with international law may no longer be politically possible, and it is entirely possible that Turkey will make a tactical appearance at these talks in order to derail them.
The US may be showing favour to Greece, but it is unlikely ever to intervene in a war between NATO allies. The memory of 1974, when US forces allowed Turkey to invade Cyprus but stopped Greek forces from defending it, still rankles. And there is the perennial Greek concern that the EU, for purely financial reasons, will neither develop a military presence of its own nor sacrifice trade with Turkey.
“I believe Europeans now understand the situation much better than they did six months ago,” said Mitsotakis after the latest meeting of heads of government. He warns, however, that the EU has a long way to go if it wants to be taken seriously by more raptorial powers on the world stage:
If we want to exercise greater geopolitical influence, we must leverage our power, which is economic. We wield great economic influence. We have to be more present and more demanding when we formulate policy in our immediate neighbourhood. [The Greek-Turkish standoff] is not something that’s happening on the other side of the world.