Tensions Set to Escalate in East Med as Moscow Moves In
Russian military to conduct drills in the sea amid a dispute between Ankara and Athens over maritime rights and gas exploration
Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean may soon intensify as Turkey says Russia will participate in naval exercises amid a dispute between Ankara and fellow NATO member Greece.
The two NATO countries have been at odds over oil exploration and maritime rights in the region, with escalating rhetoric leading to concerns of a military confrontation taking place in the sea.
“We are almost at [the level of] war rhetoric right now between Turkey and two members of the European Union,” said Kadri Tastan, a Brussels-based senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund who focuses on the Anatolian nation’s relations with the European Union. “Anything can happen,” he added.
Tastan said there was a chance of an accidental confrontation, although he did not believe Turkey wanted to engage Greece militarily.
“It would be completely crazy,” he said.
The 2015 downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jet by a Turkish F-16 near the Syria-Turkey border, against the background of the Syrian civil war, highlighted the chance of a clash, even if neither country wants one.
Turkish ships have been drilling for gas in the sea off the island of Cyprus, which is divided between Greek Cypriots who are members of the EU and Turkish Cypriots who are allied with Ankara.
The exploration has angered the EU, and Greece in particular.
[They see] Erdoğan as defending Turkey’s sea homeland against Greek aggression
Muzaffer Şenel, an assistant professor of political science and international relations at Istanbul Şehir University, told The Media Line that Turkey feels boxed in by its regional rivals who have made agreements independent of Ankara for exporting gas through the sea.
Most of the Turkish public supports President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s actions, Şenel said.
“[They see] Erdoğan as defending Turkey’s sea homeland against Greek aggression.”
Turkey also sent exploration ships accompanied by the military to other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean where it had reached a maritime borders deal with the UN-back government of Libya.
The agreement claims rights to a large swath of the sea connecting the Turkish and Libyan coastlines. Greece argues it illegally ignores its rights in its economic zone created by the existence of its large island of Crete.
“Greece has consistently tried to maintain and secure a degree of unity between the mainland and the island parts of the country,” said Kostas A. Lavdas, a professor of European politics at Panteion University in Athens.
Athens argues a deal it struck with Egypt in August claiming exclusive rights to a zone across the sea nullified Turkey’s Libya deal.
“Following the signing of today’s agreement, the null and void Turkish-Libyan memorandum has ended up where it belonged from the beginning: in the rubbish bin,” said Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, the Reuters news agency reported.
Lavdas wrote in an email to The Media Line that Athens wanted talks with Ankara over the delimitation of maritime zones, but with an agreement that if they failed to reach a deal, the issue would go to the International Court of Justice.
Following the signing of today’s agreement, the null and void Turkish-Libyan memorandum has ended up where it belonged from the beginning: in the rubbish bin
Another sticking point is that Turkey does not recognize the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea while the EU does.
“Athens today does genuinely wish to enter talks, provided such talks are within the framework of international law and do not simply reflect multiplying Turkish demands … and Turkish bravado,” wrote Lavdas.
The announcement of Russia’s military involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean came via Turkish naval alerts, which stated that Moscow would hold an exercise starting next week and lasting until September 25.
Turkey has strengthened ties with Moscow, including with the purchase of the Russian S-400
mobile surface-to-air missile/anti-ballistic missile system.
The deal is a flashpoint in Turkey’s relations with the US and NATO. Defense systems of NATO’s military members are supposed to be integrable but one from Russia would not be.
The move came as Ankara’s relations with the EU became more fragile.
They have close financial ties, with European companies investing in Turkey, which manufactures many of the continent’s imports.
While Turkey’s accession to the bloc was already seen as highly unlikely, there were hopes of updating their customs union.
Tastan told The Media Line that, while he did not believe there was permanent damage to ties, there had been a strong chance that relations would improve during Germany’s presidency of the EU Council (July-December 2020), but that those hopes have been scuppered by the Eastern Mediterranean tensions.
The EU also relies on Turkey in security matters.
Turkey has returned foreign fighters who were involved in the Syrian war back to their home countries in Europe, possibly thwarting future terrorist attacks on the continent.
Turkey has also stemmed the flow of migrants to the EU after the two sides signed a deal in 2016, which promised Ankara billions of dollars in return.
However, Turkey has warned that migrants in the country would want to head to Europe after the coronavirus pandemic, in a nod to clashes on the border between migrants and Greek authorities in March.
Amid complaints from Ankara that it had not received all of the promised EU money, it stated it would not stop people from heading to the bloc, which led tens of thousands to try to cross into Greece.
Now, sanctions are expected as soon as this month from the EU over the Eastern Mediterranean dispute.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that both parties need to come up with a diplomatic solution.
Part of the reason we are approaching a crisis point is because the US has been absent
Earlier, the US lifted an arms embargo against Cyprus, angering Turkey.
“Part of the reason we are approaching a crisis point is because the US has been absent,” said Soner Çağaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has written the book The New Sultan: Erdoğan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey.
He added that the US has managed tensions between Athens and Ankara by playing a mediator since the end of the Cold War.
Şenel said a diplomatic solution was the only win-win outcome for the two sides and they should accept that they must get along as neighbors.
“You cannot change your geographic fate,” he said.