Greece has entered a difficult phase in its relations with Turkey. History has shown, first in 1974 and then again in 1987, that the prospect of hydrocarbon discoveries stirs tension between the two Aegean neighbors. Ankara has set out its territorial claims – and it always does seem to find the right moment to pursue its objectives, as it did with the 1976 Bern Agreement and subsequently with the agreement between Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou and his Turkish counterpart Turgut Ozal.
The fresh discovery of energy resources off Cyprus has triggered a chain of events whose outcome cannot be safely predicted. Turkey is now actively questioning Cyprus’ sovereignty as well as Greece’s position as regards the continental shelf of Kastellorizo in southeastern Aegean. It is a position that Turkish diplomats call a “death trap” for Greek-Turkish ties.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan feels all-powerful – and that is a big problem. After his meeting with US President Donald Trump at the White House, he seems unrestrained. Key European leaders deem that the Turkish strongman is drifting away from the West. The prospect makes them feel extremely uncomfortable because Erdogan’s control of migrant flows could become a political nightmare for European governments.
The most important issue, however, is the strategic asymmetry between Greece and Turkey – particularly in terms of maritime power. Professor George Dertilis demonstrated the historical implications of this asymmetry. Greek political elites perhaps forgot that Greece is a naval nation and needs to maintain a strong presence in the wider area. No amount of strategic cooperation with third countries can make up for our own inadequacies.
The equation also needs to include an unpredictable Washington under Trump. The US has recommended that Greece does not militarize a crisis with Turkey at its own initiative – and, in any case, not without informing Washington beforehand. That said, Athens cannot be certain about how the US would react to a crisis between Greece and Turkey.
Officials deem that Greece must avoid making any steps that would risk a crisis but at the same time avoid restricting Greek foreign policy to issues pertaining to exclusive economic zones. Regardless of whether they are right or wrong about this, they should also process alternative scenarios because real events rarely unfold according to plan.