Ownership in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean seas remains bitterly contested. Turkey’s continued dispute with Greece’s claim to islands in these waters has made Athens wary—and, after Russia’s Ukrainian venture, more unified than ever.
Last Tuesday, March 1st, Greece’s Hellenic Parliament convened to discuss the Russian-Ukraine war as it grinds on. It fears Russia’s challenge to the post-Cold War status quo could inspire others with designs on territory they think belongs to them—in their case, Turkey. A tense naval standoff between the two occurred in 2020, when Turkey held an unsanctioned oil and gas survey. Meanwhile, disagreement over mineral exploitation rights in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean is ongoing. It is a territorial dispute that goes back to the early 20th century.
During the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, Greece had wrested control over the islands of Limnos, Samothrace, Lesvos, Samos, Chios, and Ikaria from the Ottoman Empire. Official sovereignty over these regions was awarded to Greece in the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923. However, an earlier treaty, drawn up in London in 1914, acknowledged Greek possession of these islands on the condition that they remain demilitarized. As the Lausanne Treaty makes reference to that earlier treaty, Turkey has pounced, asserting that the same conditions still apply and that Greece, having been militarizing the islands since the ’60s, has possibly forfeited its rights. Unsurprisingly, Greece has always rejected its neighbor’s interpretation of the treaty.
Contemporary Greek politics are not known for their placidity, nor their consensus-building. Yet, the Parliament’s denouncement of Russia over its actions against Ukraine has facilitated precisely that. Even with minor dissension among its ranks on issues such as the energy crisis, or whether arms should be sent to Ukraine, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ (Néa Dimokratía) government and opposition parties Syriza and Kinal showed themselves remarkably even-keeled.
Once other MP’s finished their statements, the prime minister expressed his approval of such relative harmony, saying that “it is very important to focus more on the positive messages that Parliament can send and to reduce to a minimum any of our disagreements.” It was of great relief to him that opposition parties Syriza and Kinal condemned “without any asterisks and footnotes Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.”
This sentiment was echoed by Alexis Tsipras, leader of the leftist Syriza, Greece’s main opposition party: “When the moments are critical it is necessary to have a high level of political dialogue,” he said.
The political parties have good reason to band together. Only a couple of days before, ten Greek expatriates had been killed as a result of Russian bombing near the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Six others were wounded. A ‘humanitarian corridor’ has been opened since Wednesday, March 2nd, a 21-vehicle convoy prepared to take remaining expats into Moldova. Consul General Manolis Andoulakis has opted to stay in the besieged city, home to a vibrant ethnic Greek community since the 18th century. Greece has also made arrangements to take in Ukrainians fleeing the violence.
It is a sobering reminder that Greeks are indeed vulnerable, and that their authority in the region may be challenged. Recent provocative rhetoric by Turkey has put authorities on high alert. In letters sent to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last July and September, Turkey’s Permanent Representative in the supranational body, Feridun Sinirlioglu, brought up Greece’s sovereignty over its east Aegean islands, urging they “be kept demilitarized.”
A few days later, the U.S. State Department intervened, and rejected Ankara’s claim. “The sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected and protected. The sovereignty of Greece over these islands is not in question,” a spokesman said. Only a day earlier, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had reiterated Sinirlioglu’s statement. It is a controversy that has an eerily familiar ring to it.
Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis realizes that maintaining healthy Greek-Turkish relations is of the essence. “Despite the tension and despite the provocative rhetoric of Turkey, the framework of bilateral contacts at the level of both political negotiations and confidence building measures, as well as exploratory contacts, is open,” he said, adding that “I have never closed the door to dialogue with Turkey. I am personally ready to meet with [Turkish] President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan at any time, and indeed the current circumstances may justify such a meeting.” He concluded by saying that “I think everyone today has realized that revisionism in practice can come at a huge cost,” an obvious reference to the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Eastern Europe.
Syriza leader Tsipras welcomed his PM’s “declared openness in the dialogue with Turkey,” adding that he found it “a good strategy for the country.”
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar proved less appreciative. After a cabinet meeting late Tuesday, March 1st, he said that “certain [Greek] politicians continue their anti-Turkish rhetoric, distorting in a deliberate and aggressive manner incidents and events…escalating tensions,” adding that “they even use developments in Ukraine in order to attack Turkey.” He went on to say that Turkey nevertheless expects a Greek delegation for a fourth round of talks on confidence-building measures.
With an election looming in 2023, and a runaway inflation crisis to solve, it would be political suicide for Erdogan to risk open conflict at this point. Staving off further economic damage, which means working towards de-escalation in Ukraine, is a far more pressing concern. While Turkey had always made sure to maintain trade relations with Russia and Ukraine, all of which share a maritime border, Russia’s actions have forced it to come out in solidarity with Ukraine. On Monday, Ankara called for an immediate ceasefire and announced it would be closing its Black Sea straits, thereby limiting passage of Russian ships coming from the Mediterranean.
When asked about Ukraine’s bid for EU membership at a news conference, Turkish President Erdogan said that Turkey, which has been an EU candidate for decades, would support any enlargement of NATO and the EU. Disgruntled over the sympathy being shown to Ukraine, he called on the bloc to show the “same sensitivity” towards Turkey’s application, while accusing member states of insincerity. Somewhat sarcastically, he added “will you put Turkey on your agenda when someone attacks (us) too?”
Since Greece began repairing its relations with a previously much-maligned U.S., it has upped its maritime capabilities within the NATO constellation—and increasingly invited in its American friends. The U.S. Navy has shared the use of a naval base at Souda Bay on the island of Crete since the 1950s. As of 1990, Greece allows American forces to train and operate within its territory. In 2019, it granted the U.S. access to three additional military spots. Two years later, the agreement was extended indefinitely. These new areas are all critical military hotspots.
Most important is the city of Alexandroupolis to the north, which houses an airport, a port, and military barracks. The city has become a cornerstone of U.S. security in Europe, and source of concern to the Russians. Meanwhile, there is Larisa Air Base, a stopping place for U.S. Air Force units. At Stefanovikeio Army Base, U.S. and Greek military forces regularly conduct joint exercises. For protection of the NATO alliance’s southeastern flank, Greece is of vital importance. To help fulfill that role—and to dissuade Turkey—it recently approved a €3 billion bill that would buy them three new frigates, all made in France.
A shared NATO membership with Turkey is a handy insurance policy for Greece, to be sure. Yet, Greece also knows the wisdom of looking to its own for strength. While its azure seas are unlikely to be dotted by Turkish frigates in the foreseeable future, Greek eyes are—and must be—ever watchful.