A heated dispute over energy, security, and ideology is brewing in the Eastern Mediterranean as long-running tensions between Greece and Turkey have flared up again. According to reports from Ankara, Greece deployed armored vehicles and artillery units to the Turkish border. Unofficial information from Turkey’s Defense Ministry suggests that Ankara responded by sending more than 400 tanks and other military equipment to its shared border with Greece.
In other developments, Greece is negotiating the purchase of air-to-air missiles from Israel. In addition, Athens has reached out to Washington in a bid to join the F-35 fighter jet program. When Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis urged the US not to sell F-16 fighter jets to Ankara, Turkish President Erdogan replied that Mitsotakis "no longer exists" for him.
The latest flare-up was triggered by a naval exercise that Turkey conducted in the Aegean Sea last month. In fact, this military drill was a Turkish response to Greece’s alleged militarisation of Aegean islands in violation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty and the 1947 Paris Treaty. Athens maintains, however, that Greece has no option but to violate the treaties because of Turkey’s growing military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Ankara's activity in the region is driven by very specific interests. Turkey and Greece have long been at odds over maritime boundaries and overlapping claims on substantial gas reserves discovered in the Aegean Sea and on the continental shelf of Cyprus. These reserves are estimated to hold about 1.7 trillion cubic meters of fuel – an immense source of supply located right next to Europe’s gas-intensive market. Clearly, Turkey has set its sights on taking it all.
During his recent visit to the United States, Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis even complained to President Biden about Ankara's expansionist intentions. As evidence, he showed the so-called map of Turkey’s Blue Homeland doctrine. The map suggests that Erdogan certainly has a great appetite for territorial acquisitions: it shows that Turkey owns significant parts of the continental shelf and the Aegean Sea that are under the jurisdiction of other states.
"Blue Homeland" map also known as "Mavi Vatan" in Turkey. Photo: turkeygazette.com
Interestingly enough, Ankara has pledged to ship gas from these offshore reserves straight to Europe so as to provide the EU with an alternative to Russian gas supplies. Presumably, the move is expected to head off the world community’s backlash Turkey’s territorial claims in the region. However, at best it will be several years before this project comes onstream.
Control over vast areas of the Eastern Mediterranean will enable Ankara to come close to implementing its concept of "a logistical superpower". In line with this concept, Turkey intends to control southern and south-eastern gas supply routes to EU countries, that is shipments from gas fields to the mainland. To this end, Turkey is working with the interim government of Libya and is also seeking assistance from Italy.
The rivalry over Aegean islands nearly resulted in an armed conflict between Greece and Turkey in 1996 but in the end tensions were defused thanks to mediation. Old animosities resurfaced in 2020 after Turkey began gas exploration off the coast of Northern Cyprus. Once again, the conflict was resolved in time when external parties intervened.
Turkish research vessel heading for exploration of gas fields under the cover of the Turkish fleet. Photo: Anadolu agency.
As matters stand now, Greece is not strong enough militarily to counter Turkey’s ambitions on its own. To strengthen its hand, Athens is trying to get other countries involved in the conflict. The United States, for instance, has vowed to make Greece its key ally on NATO’s south-eastern flank. In return, Greece will provide the United States with four military bases in addition to the four facilities granted earlier.
Initially, this deal is valid for five years, after which the agreement is due to become indefinite. The Greek opposition is concerned that subservience to the United States will not allow Greece to pursue a moderate foreign policy. Besides, the Greeks are unlikely to receive any benefits from the deal but they will have to deal with new problems associated with the loss of national sovereignty and the expanded list of military facilities on Greek soil.
Trying to please the United States makes Athens rather inconsistent in its actions. On the one hand, in April Greek authorities seized a Russian tanker carrying Iranian oil, citing sanctions imposed against Tehran. According to The Wall Street Journal, Greek shipowners, on the other hand, have significantly increased Russian oil shipments. Reportedly, the Greeks do not even mind transferring oil from one tanker to another in transit and turning off their GPS transponders.
The pro-American sentiment that prevails among the Greek ruling elite suits the United States fine. First of all, it helps Washington use Athens to put more pressure on Turkey, which, being a NATO member, causes the alliance a lot of trouble. Some NATO allies believe that Erdogan employs force arbitrarily: in addition to deploying warships to the Eastern Mediterranean and sending troops to Libya, he also supported Azerbaijan in its confrontation with Armenia. On the diplomatic front, the Turkish president threatened to veto NATO membership for Sweden and Finland. Finally, Erdogan is not very keen on implementing anti-Russian sanctions.
Generally speaking, the Eastern Mediterranean conflict between two NATO members once again raises the issue of unity within the Atlantic Alliance as a whole rather than just on its southern flank. Divisions continue to deepen; for example, Erdogan said in no uncertain terms that the new US bases in Greece would threaten Turkey's security. In other words, there is no such thing as trust between Washington and Ankara. Nor is there any allied commitment between Ankara and Athens.
US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt. Photo: Greek Ministry of National Defense press office.
From any point of view, it does seem odd that one NATO ally is demanding that another should demilitarise its islands and withdraw troops from its own border. As a matter of interest, should Turkey be attacked by a third country, which side would Greece take? Apparently, there is no straight answer to this question.