Greece and Turkey, two NATO members, have been teetering on the brink of open military confrontation in recent months.

The conflict was caused by attempts to extract gas in the Aegean Sea, which both countries consider their own.

Is the Alliance able to resolve the problems between its members and stop the war? The solution to this problem is complicated by the fact that the global security architecture is already weakened and cannot offer a mediator for dialogue between hostile parties.

Confrontation lasting a century

The history of the conflict between Turkey and Greece dates back many centuries - from the time of the Byzantine Empire.

In the last century, the culmination of the conflict came in the 1970s. Under the "oil shock" of 1973, Turkey sent a seismological vessel to the disputed areas of the Aegean Sea to search for oil and gas.

In response, Greece landed on the disputed islands and in Cyprus, after which there was a military coup and, finally, a full-fledged invasion of the Turkish army in 1974.

It has been 46 years since the conflict in Cyprus, but the confrontation between the two countries has not stopped.

An ambitious attempt at reconciliation in the early 1990s failed in 1995 due to a dispute over the disputed island of Imia / Kardak. The situation worsened so much that the United States had to send its navy and diplomats, who persuaded the parties to negotiate.

In 1999, Greece and Turkey resumed reconciliation, especially in the wake of the terrible earthquakes in Athens and Istanbul, but in the mid-2000s relations were again marred by numerous incidents at disputed border areas and the failure of peace talks on the frozen conflict in Cyprus.

In 2010, relations improved due to Turkey's foreign policy concept of "zero problems with neighbors", which was actively promoted by then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. But very soon, in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016, various conflicts between the disputed islands erupted again between Greece and Turkey, and after the discovery of gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean in the mid-2010s, the situation worsened.

Island instinct

The current tensions stem from a long-standing dispute over the maritime borders and islands of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean.

Back in 1995, Greece signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which allows countries to claim their own continental shelf, which is measured 12 miles from the coast.

Greece has always claimed that every island in the Aegean Sea has its own 12-mile zone, and therefore it is the territorial waters of Greece.

Turkey strongly opposed this and did not accede to the Convention, instead proposing to divide the Aegean Sea in half.

However, due to the fact that most of the islands are on the other side of the hypothetical line, which in Ankara was proposed to draw, in Athens, such a proposal was rejected.

In order not to provoke a military conflict with Turkey, the Greeks agreed to formally assume that they had 12 miles around the disputed islands, but the actual territory did not exceed six miles, ie was cut in half.

One of the most controversial islands was Castellorizo ​​near Rhodes.

When gas deposits were found in the area, a territorial dispute between Greece and Turkey flared up with renewed vigor.

On July 21, Turkey sent a seismological vessel to the island of Castellorizo, forcing Greece to bring its navy into full combat readiness.

For the next 10 days, the parties brought their warships and submarines to the area.

In parallel, the story of Turkey's illegal drilling of gas deposits on the shelf of Cyprus in hydrocarbon-rich areas claimed by Greek Cyprus (followed by Greece) and Turkish Cyprus (followed by Turkey).

In late July, with the active intervention of the European Union and Germany, Greece and Turkey allegedly agreed to de-escalate. Official Ankara has suspended drilling in the Cyprus area, but seismological work near the island of Castellorizo ​​has not stopped.

On August 6, the situation got out of control again when Greece signed an agreement with Egypt on the delimitation of maritime borders. The agreement was in response to a similar agreement between Turkey and the Libyan Government of National Unity in Tripoli.

For Greece, the Turkish-Libyan treaty was illegal because it effectively secured much of the Cypriot shelf and disputed islands for Turkey. So they decided to sign a mirror agreement with Egypt.

On August 7, Turkey resumed gas drilling near Cyprus, citing "Greece's failure to fulfill its promises," and two days later sent a seismological vessel to the disputed areas of the Aegean Sea for Greece.

This provoked a sharp reaction from Athens, which sent additional naval forces there.

The first fights

The first armed incident between Turkey and Greece took place on August 11 near the island of Lesbos, although it is still unknown what happened, as each side tells its own story.

The Turks accused the Greeks of allegedly sinking a Turkish civilian boat. The Greeks reject the accusations and instead report a collision between Turkish and Greek ships. Of course, from the position of Athens, they won, and the Turks were forced to retreat, and from the position of Ankara, everything looks exactly the opposite.

Regardless of what happened there, international diplomacy intensified sharply after the incident.

The European Union has held several meetings of foreign ministers, but it has been difficult to reach a concrete solidarity position.

Greece insisted on tough sanctions against Turkey, and even compiled its own list. But Germany opposed it, saying it would repel Ankara and only worsen the situation.

August 12-13 were the busiest days when Greece threatened to use military force against the Turkish seismological vessel Oruc Reis, which was still conducting reconnaissance in the disputed waters, accompanied by five or six warships, frigates and corvettes.

In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has personally promised to "protect the sovereign rights and interests" of his country in the event of an attack.

The EU's call for de-escalation was again unheard, and negotiations between Greece and the United States in Vienna ended without tangible results.

Meanwhile, Greek media reported that Turkish submarines were spotted 70 km from the capital. This caused alarm, the Greeks launched anti-ship helicopters, which began to patrol the Aegean Sea daily.

In recent days, Turkey and Greece have been conducting naval exercises near the disputed areas.

The latest episode in the escalation of the confrontation was the recent statements by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in which he promised that parliament would decide to expand its territorial waters around the continental shelf from 6 miles to 12 miles in the Ionian Sea under UN maritime law. , signed in 1995.

This statement has shocked many Europeans and Americans, as it could provoke a real military conflict.

If Greece gets the 12-mile zone the way it wants, it will be able to claim 71% of the Aegean waters, leaving Turkey with only 8.5%, the rest will go under international trade routes.

This will mean that most Turkish ships sailing to Istanbul and Izmir will always have to ask permission in Greece, which is unacceptable for Ankara.

Conflict without intermediaries

The Greco-Turkish conflict is gradually becoming another challenge for the global security architecture.

Greece and Turkey do not intend to retreat, for them this issue is fundamental - large oil and gas deposits in disputed areas that have sacred historical and cultural significance.

Qatar, their longtime ally, sided with Turkey. Greece has been sidelined by France, Israel, Egypt and the UAE, all countries that have a commercial interest in the Eastern Mediterranean gas projects and oppose Turkey's influence in Libya.

Italy, Iran, Russia, China and the United States remain in uncertain positions.

However, Moscow and Tehran are inclined to support Turkey, and Washington - Greece and Cyprus.


One of the dangerous consequences of this crisis will be the militarization of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Greece, France and Egypt have already strengthened their naval presence in the region. Turkey keeps its ships there and plans to build a naval base in the Turkish part of Cyprus.

There are rumors of Ankara's intentions to deploy the latest Russian S-400 SAMs near the city of Izmir and in the province of Hatay near Iskenderun. In this case, they cover with an anti-missile umbrella 400-600 km the entire area of ​​geological exploration, the area of ​​interest of the gas shelf, as well as much of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

The problem of the current crisis, in contrast to the previous ones, is the lack of intermediaries.

The European Union does not have a single position, and the United States refuses to play this role in the era of Donald Trump.

From Ukraine's point of view, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean is a very big risk not only for Ukraine's trade supplies from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, but also for the weakening European security architecture, giving more room for maneuver for Russia seeking to reformat it. their interests.

Author: Ilia Kusa,

expert in international politics
Ukrainian Institute of the Future

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