The latest Imia crisis simply serves as confirmation of Ankara’s longstanding strategy as an expression of nervousness or frustration over ongoing developments at home.
Put simply, Turkey is making it clear, and in a brutal manner, that it will not halt the process of Finlandization which has been gradually at work in the Aegean. The deal reached on January 31, 1996 after the first Imia crisis said “no ships, no troops, no flags.” The deal was respected only in part as both countries have their military ships and coast guard vessels patrolling the area on a constant basis. Hence Washington’s equal-distance policy. The US intervention in 1996 defused the crisis, but it did not solve the problem.
A key turning point in the Finlandization of the Aegean was the crisis of 1987, when Greece decided to halt its unilateral hydrocarbon exploration across the Aegean. After that came the ruling by the Turkish assembly in 1995 that any unilateral expansion of Greek territorial waters would constitute a casus belli, Ankara’s claims of “gray zones” in the Aegean in 1996, and the Madrid agreement in 1997 which acknowledged Turkey’s legitimate interests in the Aegean. All the above burden Greek-Turkish relations, and are hard for any government in Athens to digest.
Some were surprised to hear the commander of the Turkish armed forces saying that Turkey has the capability to conduct two military operations at the same time. But this has been the case for decades, and it was confirmed with the formation of its Aegean Army. We are rightly worried about the increasing activity of the Turkish Air Force in the Aegean. But the Turkish Air Force was purged after the attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016. The new pilots need to be trained before operating in Syria, and it appears they are acquiring the necessary skills by engaging in mock dogfights against Greek fighter jets.
The problems in the Aegean have, according to Ankara, been placed under control. Turkey’s aim now is to neutralize Athens over Kastellorizo. As per Cyprus, it was to be expected that Turkey would react to Nicosia’s offshore hydrocarbon exploration, not just as a guarantor force, but as an occupying one. The cooperation pacts signed between Israel, Cyprus and Greece sound great in theory, but they are little more than that without military backing. After 1974, when Greece enjoyed military superiority at sea and in the air (yet did nothing to stop the Turkish invasion of Cyprus), Turkey went on to build a military advantage and seems determined to make use of it. This, unfortunately, is how things stand.