The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 sent a shudder across Europe. And Greece did not escape it. Russian revisionism and Putin’s intention to redraw the borders in Europe cause greater fear in Athens than in other western capitals for its own reasons.
Moscow’s aggressive behaviour reminds many of Ankara’s stance towards Greece. It is particularly reminiscent of the years following the 2016 foiled coup in Türkiye. The crackdown has since enabled Recep Tayyip Erdogan to establish unprecedented authoritarian control over the state apparatus: from the military command and the judiciary branch down to the smallest provincial municipality.
Two Countries. Three Crises.
It is worth noting that Greece and Turkey have recently been at the very centre of several crises.
Crisis No One occurred in November 2019 when Türkiye exploited the weakness of the Libyan National Unity Government (led by Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli) and actually forced it into agreeing to two major concessions. The first concession allowed Türkiye to station its military detachments in Libya, mostly ships and UAVs. The other one — also known as the Turkish-Libyan memorandum — demarcated the maritime border between Libya and Turkey in complete violation of International Law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). That second deal was designed in such a way that utterly ignored the fact that between these two countries lie the Greek islands, with the main one being the island of Crete. Greece perceived the Turkish-Libyan memorandum as a form of escalation by Ankara.
Crisis No Two unfolded from February through March 2020 on Greece’s land border with Türkiye. In just one month, up to 12 000 refugees and migrants attempted to cross the river Evros and were pro-actively assisted by the Turkish law enforcement authorities. It was a hybrid operation that had many ramifications. The Turkish Gendarmerie and the Special Police Forces employed electronic jamming, reconnaissance UAVs, as well as other tools and deception measures that were aimed at creating a false impression of reality — i.e., a disinformation campaign. The crisis died down as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, and countries started to go into lockdowns, one after another.
Crisis No Three lasted from August to November 2020. Two navies At one point, a total of 40 warships were sent to the area spanning from Eastern Crete to the south of Kastellorizo. To compare, that is more than the NATO fleet currently deployed in the entire Eastern Mediterranean and the Russian naval presence at the Syrian base in the port of Tartu. It is worth noting that Türkiye deployed Oruc Reis after — in an attempt to diplomatically shield itself against the Turkish-Libyan memorandum — Greece and Egypt had moved forward with partially delimiting their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). Since NATO does not have a standard procedure to resolve disputes between its members, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had to establish an ad hoc deconfliction mechanism within the Alliance to mitigate the crisis.
Russia’s War Sends Waves Through the Bosporus
Tensions in the region had been running high even before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Yet Turkey’s strategic importance to NATO’s security in the southeast of the Alliance promised some cohesion and unity among the member states in the face of Russian aggression. Across the Atlantic, Washington was adamant in calling for a firm posture against Russia while helping Ukraine to fight back. It demanded the differences between Greece and Türkiye be put aside for the time being to counter Russia.
On the day of the Feast of Orthodoxy that fell on 13 March 2022, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis travelled to Istanbul and sat for lunch with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Turkish presidential residence overlooking the Bosporus. On both sides, there was a sense of optimism that at least a temporary reduction of tension was likely to follow. That hope, however, would soon prove to be short-lived.
The differences began with how the two countries positioned themselves vis-a-vis Ukraine. Greece was one of the first states to dispatch ammunition and RPGs to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Türkiye, on the other hand, has not yet joined any sanctions against Russia and has been trying to play around to please both sides instead. The Black Sea Grain Initiative, negotiated with President Erdogan’s active involvement, might have been one of the few deliverables that Ankara has championed to justify its strategic choice.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to Türkiye’s decision to close the Bosporus Strait for vessels with military equipment onboard. The port of Alexandroupolis in north-eastern Greece thus became indispensable for the rotation of NATO forces and shipping equipment from the Mediterranean all the way to Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland, as well as directly to Ukraine. The port of Alexandroupolis is still of paramount importance for the Alliance, with the facility currently functioning as a bypass while the Bosporus remains closed. In the meantime, Athens and Sofia have been strengthening energy cooperation to assist Bulgaria’s resilience, especially after the country was completely cut-off from Russian gas and oil supplies.
Competing for America’s Attention
Washington has long been concerned about the deepening ties between Moscow and Ankara. In particular, it disapproved of Türkiye’s decision to allow Rosatom, a Russian state corporation to build nuclear power stations. And having defied the American demands not to acquire the Russian-made S-400 ground-based air-defence systems, Türkiye was expelled from the F-35 program in 2019.
President Erdogan failed to secure a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden. An invitation from the White House to PM Mitsotakis added to Ankara’s frustration. Between 21 April (the day when the White House announced the upcoming meeting) and 26 May 2022, Greece reported hundreds of violations of its airspace. Furthermore, Ankara interpreted the Greek prime minister’s speech before the Joint Session of the U.S. Congress as opposition to Türkiye’s bid to procure American F-16 fighters. Although mothing could be further from the truth —as Athens repeatedly communicated to Ankara via diplomatic channels — Türkiye’s president still tried to spin it mainly for domestic politics. Erdogan’s government has also stepped up the anti-American rhetoric that it utilizes during the political campaign to win the next elections scheduled in May this year.
An old storm brewing in the Mediterranean
Another milestone in bilateral relations was reached in the fall of 2022. In late September, the Permanent Representative of Türkiye to the U.N. issued the third consecutive letter in sixteen months that tabled a rather aggressive claim and challenged the Greek sovereignty over the islands in the eastern Aegean Sea by connecting it to their demilitarization.
Following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the subsequent occupation of Northern Cyprus, total demilitarization of the islands has been out of the question for any government in Athens. In 1995, the Turkish Grand National Assembly also voted for a resolution that would declare a formal casus belli in the event that Greece exercised its right to extend territorial waters from six to twelve nautical miles, as stipulated by the UNCLOS.
No matter how grave the political grudges might be, however, the earthquake that ravaged parts of Türkiye and Syria was met with a surge of solidarity in Greece. The government has already dispatched two rescue teams to Hatay Province, and private citizens have been sending aid to the devastated cities.
Both Greece and Türkiye are going to hold elections in the next three months. And their outcomes may either calm or muddy the troubled Mediterranean waters.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine