Between 2019 and 2021, there was a rise in political and military tensions between Greece and Turkey. The escalating strains between the two neighbours – in terms of both the demarcation of maritime boundaries and seabed exploitation – are due to a number of domestic and foreign policies implemented by both Athens and Ankara. Although a conventional war between the two countries (which are both members of NATO) is very unlikely, there is currently a higher risk of localised clashes between the respective armed forces and regional tensions have generally increased.
Conservative Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s rise to power in 2019 has led to a change in the attitude of Athens, which has become more assertive towards Ankara (as far as its economic and political conditions allow it). This has prompted the Greek government to take a number of measures to counter Turkish foreign policy in the Mediterranean, which Athens believes is too aggressive.
For its part, Turkey has been more and more active politically and diplomatically to turn the scale in the central and eastern Mediterranean region in its favour. To this end, in 2019 Ankara entered into an agreement with Libya to set the respective maritime boundaries. The agreement does not recognise Greek sovereignty over the waters surrounding Crete and paves the way for Turkey exploiting the underwater resources of a strip of sea that reaches Libya. Although it has not been recognised internationally, the Turkey-Libya agreement is one of the thorniest stages in tensions between Ankara and Athens.
The disagreements between the two countries over the demarcation of maritime boundaries and their respective continental platforms have coupled with two other major crisis factors in recent years.
The first one is the flow of refugees and migrants from Turkey to the European continent. Ankara has on several occasions been accused of exploiting the issue of migrants to put pressure on Europe and obtain political and economic compensation. In light of Athens’s major role in migrant flows (especially as a transit country) and the significant socio-economic repercussions for Greece (the situation was precarious as early as before the Covid-19 emergency due to the serious economic crisis in 2010), any stance taken by Turkey on the matter is seen by Athens as an action against Greek interests.
The second crisis factor is Turkish military aircraft frequently violating Greece’s airspace, which causes the Hellenic air force to be alarmed. One of the most significant incidents occurred on 5 August 2020, when the Greek media reported 33 violations of the Hellenic airspace on that day alone by 8 Turkish military aircraft, which had allegedly flown over several Aegean islands. It must be said, however, that Ankara criticises Athens for having illegitimately expanded its airspace in terms of both area and responsibility. In other words, Ankara argues that Athens reserves the right (not provided for by international law) to know in advance about the flight plans of military aircraft crossing international airspace.
Against this backdrop, in recent years the political strategy of Athens has been based on seeking support from international partners (primarily the European Union and the United States) in opposing Turkish initiatives. Within the EU, Athens’s priority is to have economic sanctions imposed on Ankara. In 2020, talks were held within the EU on whether to impose sanctions on Turkey for (illegally, as the EU sees it) having explored the seabed of a Turkish ship near the Greek island of Kastellorizo. However, the talks did not lead to sactions, especially in light of Germany’s reluctance due to a number of reasons (such as, among others, the presence of a large Turkish community in Germany).
More generally, Athens is increasingly engaged in promoting and entering into agreements with all those countries which it shares common interests with in terms of managing the resources in the Mediterranean region. A sign of this strategy is the June 2020 agreement signed with Italy to set the respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), seen by Athens as a response to the 2019 agreement between Turkey and Libya. Italy and Greece’s common interest in managing a number of crises in the Mediterranean has recently been confirmed during Mitsotakis’s trip to Libya, which coincided with that of Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi (6 April 2021).
In addition to support within the EU, Athens aims to strengthen military ties with Washington by exploiting its strategic position in the Mediterranean. The Suda naval base in northwestern Crete is becoming a key hub for the naval ships of NATO countries in the eastern Mediterranean. Thanks to its pier K-14, it is the only facility in the Mediterranean (and one of the few in the world) capable of hosting the largest aircraft carriers (the so-called ‘supercarriers’) of the US Navy. This makes Athens a key and reliable ally to the US in the area, to the detriment of Turkey. Recently (11 March 2021), US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has expressed concern about a number of Turkey’s provocative acts against Greece (such as airspace violations) in 2020. Blinken has, however, called on the two neighbours to settle their disputes peacefully and through diplomacy.
On 7 April, Greece signed a military cooperation agreement with Cyprus and Egypt, two other countries that have different political agendas from Turkey when it comes to exploiting the underwater energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Among other things, the agreement provides for joint military exercises at sea in areas of common interest, which, however, Ankara also lays claim to.
In general, both rivals are enhancing their war apparatuses. In December 2020, the Greek parliament decided to double military expenditure in 2021. Among other things, there is a plan to purchase 18 French-made Rafale fighters, as well as frigates, helicopters, and drones. For its part, Turkey bought the Russian S-400 missile system in 2019, which led to sanctions from Washington, including the exclusion of Ankara from the project to create a F35 fighter-bomber.
Actually, a negotiated solution to the ongoing disputes – presumably sponsored by the international community in general, and primarily by the EU – cannot be ruled out. Against this backdrop, official negotiations between the two countries were resumed on 25 January 2021, after a stalemate of about five years. However, the escalating tensions between the parties make it harder and harder to reach a solution, at least in the short term.
The success of Athens’s political strategy in the eastern Mediterranean will mostly depend on its regional and international partners’ stance in regard to Turkey. For the time being, neither the US nor the European Union (especially Germany) seem willing to take a clear stand in favour of Greek authorities and in opposition to Turkey’s demands. In contrast, Ankara seems less dependent (but in any case not completely independent) on external actors, as it has enough means and resources to expand across the Mediterranean. Furthermore, Turkey is willing to keep exploiting its strategic geographical position (which allows it to control access to the Black Sea and, therefore, the outlet into the Mediterranean for Russian warships) as a means to put pressure on its partner or rival countries.
The escalating tensions between Greece and Turkey would pose a risk to foreign entrepreneurs and companies active in those countries, as they could get accidentally involved in the ongoing dispute. Specifically, boats or other assets belonging to private companies and involved in underwater exploration operations with the authorisation of either of the two parties could become the target of military obstruction from the other party.
Secondly, if the sanctions Athens want the EU to impose on Turkey were actually introduced and applied, they could have adverse effects of various kinds (reputational, economic, legal, etc.) on European companies operating in Turkey. In response to any such EU decision, Turkey could in turn impose sanctions on European companies (in particular those active in Greece), with a risk of negative mirror effects.