On September 5, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias stated in letters to European diplomacy chief Josep Borrel and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, referring to “the recent series of inflammatory statements” by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that a serious conflict with Turkey was looming. He relied on the Anadolu Agency report and the Turkish president’s statement that Turkey would strike an immediate blow, and cited in particular that Greece would pay a heavy price if Athens allowed territorial disputes between states to escalate.
In recent months, the conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean has really started to develop in a very unpredictable way, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for NATO to hide and regulate the contradictions between these two members of the alliance – Turkey and Greece. Their territorial dispute, which has been going on for decades, was joined in 2020 by a confrontation over the development of oil and gas fields in the region. So did naval confrontation after Ankara, Athens and Cyprus had declared areas in the Mediterranean Sea their exclusive economic zone.
The armed rivalry between Greece and Turkey has only intensified against the backdrop of US President Joe Biden’s demonstration of US rapprochement with Athens to the detriment of relations with Turkey. As for the role of the EU and NATO in the timely settlement of tensions in the relations of these two members of those associations, they have shown their commitment to follow Washington’s lead. They support Washington’s military ambitions in Ukraine and the Asia-Pacific region, which promise the Americans, and by extension the European military industry, additional profits from instigating new armed conflicts in the world.
As a result, unfortunately, this confrontation is gaining momentum, with countries making new claims on each other, including disputes over maritime borders and airspace in the eastern Mediterranean. And so Greece, which clearly felt supported by the White House in its actions, already tried to intercept a Turkish patrol plane performing a mission as part of a NATO operation in early September, Anadolu Agency reported, citing sources in the Turkish Defense Ministry. At the same time, the Turkish side stressed that Greece had “dramatically increased its aggressive behavior in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean.” The number of violations of Turkish airspace and territorial waters has grown significantly (from 1,123 last year to 1,616 in just eight months this year). Since August 15, there have also been 14 incidents of Greek pilots pursuing Turkish aircraft flying patrols. The latest such case occurred on September 1 over the island of Rhodes, according to the agency.
In late August, CNN Turk TV, citing sources in the Turkish Defense Ministry, reported that Greece had deployed S-300 air defense systems to track F-16 fighter jets of the Turkish Air Force in international airspace in the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time, Turkish media stressed that “the incident is not compatible with the spirit of the alliance.” Despite this “hostile act,” Turkish warplanes completed their planned missions and returned safely to their bases.
On September 10, Ankara accused Greece of a new armed incident: the shelling of the Anatolian Ro-Ro Cargo flying the Comoros Islands flag, which was in international waters 11 nautical miles southwest of the Turkish island of Bozcaada. As a result, the intervention of the Turkish Coast Guard was required, a diplomatic source said.
This incident, as well as the aggravation of relations between Greece and Turkey in general, was recently commented on by the American military-political publication 19FortyFive, which believes that the prospect of an open armed confrontation between Turkey and Greece is becoming increasingly likely. In its assessments, however, the publication sided entirely with the White House, which has recently supported only Athens in this conflict. And that’s why they tried to portray the recent events in the eastern Mediterranean as the sole fault of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is supposedly “trying to avoid popular anger over the economic crisis that has hit Turkey.” “War with Greece is most likely already imminent – and not because Athens has done anything wrong. But Erdogan desperately needs to distract from the fact that he has failed and is bankrupt. And the Biden administration will likely have to answer questions over the next 12 months about what can be done to prevent Turkish aggression, how the US can help Greece fight Turkish drones, planes, and missiles, and whether America can remain on the sidelines when its staunch NATO ally is attacked by another member of the alliance,” 19FortyFive concludes.
And in this case, it’s worth noting that it’s no longer Turkey whose forces are recognized as the second strongest in the alliance, but Greece is called a “staunch ally in NATO” by the White House oriented 19FortyFive. Although before Turkish President R.T. Erdogan’s party came to power, Washington had unequivocally supported Ankara. But the explanation is on the surface: 16 Greek islands have been fully nationalized and American bases are located there, raising several questions in Ankara. For this reason, Turkey has recently been particularly adamant in demanding an explanation from the US and NATO partners for the nationalization of these islands. As a consequence, Ankara’s policy independent of Washington, as well as its rapprochement with Russia and the purchase of the currently most advanced Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Moscow, are the main reasons for the U.S. reorientation toward another “strategic NATO ally” in the region.
Under these conditions, as well as against the backdrop of normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, Turkey has understandably focused recently on confrontation with Greece. And this is confirmed in particular by a fragment of Erdogan’s September 5 speech:
“On this occasion, I would like to remind you once again about Greece, which has recently increased its oppression and arrogance toward our country.”
The growing conflict situation in the eastern Mediterranean is also due in large part to the fact that the EU and a number of its members have sided with Greece. In particular, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, after negotiations with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in Athens on September 6, explicitly stated that France would side with Greece and Cyprus in the event their national sovereignty is threatened.
It is therefore not surprising that Erdogan himself is increasingly critical of Western policies. This was confirmed in particular in his September 6 statement that Europe reaps what it has sown, including in its recent anti-Russian policies that have led to a deepening economic and energy crisis in the EU.
Despite all this, however, Ankara should hardly be expected to resolve the conflict with Greece by force in the coming months. And this is mainly because of the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2023, since before such events, it is usually not customary to start hostilities, as there is a risk of significant casualties that could lower the approval rating of the politician who started the war. Therefore, Ankara must gain strength and focus on improving the economic situation in the country, which is more conducive to peace and normalization of relations with Middle Eastern countries and Russia. And at the same time, of course, Ankara will wait for the moment when the US and the EU fully feel the damage of breaking economic relations with Russia and are forced to seriously adjust their policies not only toward Moscow but also toward Turkey.
Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.