It is by now evident that Turkish aggression will intensify further this year. That said, many analysts fail to see that the improvements in Greece’s deterrent capability made over the past three years will not be enough to curb this trend. Political parties must therefore come together for a review of Greece’s national strategy.
Half a century since the end of the country’s 1967-74 military dictatorship, we need to consider the actual objectives of our strategy. Do we still expect a frustrated Turkey will finally give up its ambitions? Or that it will be forced to do so by international law and, possibly, a third party? Or do we perhaps find comfort in the illusion that we have prevented Turkey from achieving its goals, when it is in fact constantly expanding the scope of its objectives? Over the same period, Greece spent large amounts of diplomatic capital and suffered incalculable lost profits: Athens turned its back (barring very few exceptions) on the geoeconomic wealth of an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that is four times the size of mainland Greece; it did the same with the fruits of a potential peaceful settlement. As for the country’s costly arms procurement programs, they always came a bit late as they were carried out after each crisis (1974, 1987, 1996, 2020).
Meanwhile, it is worth noting that despite Greece’s preference for international arbitration, governments turned to two other problem-solving methods sanctioned by international law, namely negotiation and mediation. In theory Greece still idolizes recourse to the International Court of Justice as a panacea, ignoring the huge differences compared to the 1970s and the reversal of Ankara’s course which these days appears keen to submit all differences with Athens to The Hague (which Greece objects to). In reality however, Greece has often pursued bilateral negotiations (which it prefers to call “dialogue,” “exploratory contacts,” “confidence-building measures” and so on) as well as third-party mediation. Indeed, Greece sought outside mediation at times when risk of conflict was very high (the 1996 Imia crisis and the deployment of the Oruc Reis seismic vessel in 2020) in the hope of containing Turkish aggression; what it really got, however, was equidistant diplomacy.
A similar effort seems to be currently unfolding behind the scenes in view of the looming crisis of 2023. However, without ambitious planning, there can be no realistic hopes for a significantly different outcome. In fact, Turkish analysts predict that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be able to make Greece capitulate without having to go to war.
Greece must make clever use of its two biggest weapons: its membership of the European Union and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The absence of an overall plan in the EU (the decision of the bloc’s leaders to recognize Turkey as a candidate at the 1999 Helsinki summit is mistakenly seen as such to this day) resulted in ambivalent statements of support – also in the face of Turkish revisionism – which Turkey has openly scorned. Nor did Athens make effective use of UNCLOS: Greece, which ranks ninth in the world in terms of coastline length, chose to focus exclusively (and ineffectively) on the issue of extending its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles; meanwhile, it missed out on the multiple EEZ benefits and, strikingly, failed to make a mere delineation on a map. Furthermore, under pressure from the agreement between Turkey and Libya on maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean (which is legally unfounded but cannot be overlooked), Greece adopted previously unthinkable provisions in its maritime deals with Italy and Egypt.
Turkish analysts predict that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be able to make Greece capitulate without having to go to war
Greek energy exploration south of Crete, which signals a welcome show of force, has prompted similar concerns. Does it signal the introduction of some realpolitik into Greece’s foreign policy before hydrocarbons become a thing of the past? Put differently, and with no disregard to the fundamental importance of international law, perhaps we should start to appreciate the use of forceful (not mindless) gestures.
Greece’s unilateral delineation of its maritime border with Libya (by PASOK Energy Minister Yannis Maniatis in 2011) and the warm welcome by Athens officials of Egypt’s recent decision to delineate its maritime border with the North African country perhaps suggest a gradual realization that international law cannot alone contain Vladimir Putin’s Turkish imitators.
In conclusion, amid the growing challenges to the “sacred” postwar rules regarding the inviolability of sovereign borders, a revaluation of Greece’s national strategy is certainly called for. In light of the upcoming elections on both sides of the Aegean and the key strategic decisions that the government will have to face, the country’s mainstream political parties should engage in a discrete effort to find consensus on key national issues (under the umbrella of the National Foreign Policy Council or the KYSEA Council for Foreign Affairs and Defense) so as to avoid a repeat of Imia-style incidents in the future.
Yannis Valinakis is a professor, president of the Jean Monnet European Center of Excellence (EKPA) at the University of Athens and former deputy minister of foreign affairs.