The withdrawal of Turkey’s Oruc Reis seismic research vessel from the Greek continental shelf to the southern port of Antalya was described on Sunday by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis as a positive first step to ease tensions between Athens and Ankara.
“The return of Oruc Reis is a positive first step, I hope there will be continuity. We want to talk with Turkey but in a climate without provocations,” Mitsotakis told reporters in Thessaloniki. He added that dialogue is the only way forward and reiterated that there is one issue up for discussion between the two countries, and that is the delimitation of maritime zones. “The first step (by Turkey) will be the prologue of an improving situation in our bilateral relations,” he said.
Ankara’s decision not to renew a navtex for the activities of the Oruc Reis, literally at the 11th hour before the expiration of the previous one on Saturday night, was reportedly the result of intensive behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts.
Although it was seen as a clear step towards de-escalation, Athens remains cautious because if developments proceed as planned by Berlin, with the support of Washington, the next phase will comprise a long period of difficult consultations with no guaranteed result and the risk of a resurgence in tension.
Turkey’s decision not to renew its navtex for the Oruc Reis to conduct activities within a 6-12 nautical mile range from the Greek island of Kastellorizo was reportedly taken after Berlin conveyed that it would be difficult for the European Council not to issue a tough response. Moreover, the timing of the navtex would have made matters worse, given that Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou started a visit to the island on Sunday.
Part of the pressure on Ankara was also seen to come from the visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Nicosia on Saturday – the day that the Turkish navtex was to be renewed – signifying Washington’s keenness for a reduction in tension in the wider Eastern Mediterranean.
On Saturday, meanwhile, Mitsotakis announced ambitious plans to upgrade Greece’s military power with the purchase of 18 French Rafale fighter jets, four new frigates, four Romeo naval helicopters, antitank weapons, torpedoes and guided missile. He also said 15,000 professional soldiers will be added to Greece’s armed forces over the next five years.