On September 8, the Turkish presidential adviser on security and foreign policy, Professor Mesut Hakkı Caşın, threatened Greece and France with military action in an attempt to violate Turkey's natural gas rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. He said that the Turkish nation would tear to shreds anyone who violates its rights, and threatened to shoot down Greek planes and sink a French aircraft carrier. The day before, French President Emmanuel Macron sent the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier with fighters on board, accompanied by several warships and submarines, into the waters between Crete and Cyprus, where the dispute between Greece and Turkey over the exploration of offshore natural gas fields continues.
The Turkish research vessel Oruç Reis is conducting exploration work accompanied by warships in the exclusive economic zone of Greece. In August, an incident occurred: Greek and Turkish warships collided in the research area. After that, Turkish President Recep Erdogan promised that anyone who attacks Oruç Reis will pay dearly for it. The Greek-Turkish crisis demonstrates a split among NATO member states, which should provide each other with military assistance in the event of external aggression, and not threaten each other with the use of force, and creates the preconditions for changing the balance of power in the Mediterranean.
Greece and Turkey are long-standing geopolitical adversaries, despite the two countries' membership in NATO since 1952. The countries failed to agree on the delimitation of the Aegean Sea, which repeatedly led to armed clashes. Attempts by Greece to reunite with Cyprus (Enosis), clashes between Cypriots from the Greek and Turkish communities in 1974 led to the armed intervention and occupation of the northern part of the island by Turkey (unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus), which continues to this day. Recently, the confrontation between Greece and Turkey turned to the religious ground, after Erdogan's decision to open a mosque in the Orthodox Church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which was previously a museum.
The object of the dispute between Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey is the large natural gas fields discovered in the 2000s in the Eastern Mediterranean. According to the US Geological Survey, the reserves of blue fuel offshore Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine are 122.4 trillion cubic feet (approximately 3.4 trillion cubic meters).
The turning point was February 2019, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a course to reduce the country's energy dependence on external sources through its own production of natural gas. In the future, the Turks expect to stop buying liquefied natural gas from the United States and reduce their dependence on gas pipeline supplies from Russia and Azerbaijan and limit themselves to the transit of "blue fuel" from these countries to the European market. In November of the same year, Turkey and Libya signed a memorandum on the delimitation of the Mediterranean Sea, according to which the Turks can claim vast areas, including gas fields, contrary to the existing norms of international maritime law.
According to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the state's exclusive economic zone with access to the sea extends over 200 miles. Turkey, which is not involved in the document, insists that Cyprus is only entitled to 12 miles. The Turkish authorities are guided by the Blue Homeland (Mavi Vatan) doctrine, introduced by Admiral Ramazan Cem Gürdeniz in 2006. According to Gürdeniz, Turkey should control a part of the water area, bottom, and bowels of the Mediterranean, Black, Aegean Seas with a total area of 462,000 square meters (half of its land area).
If earlier Ankara obstructed the production of natural gas by foreign companies in certain areas of the Cyprus shelf, believing that they belong to the local Turkish separatists, now it expresses claims for almost everything it finds. At the same time, the Turks are conducting exploration work in the Black Sea. In August, Turkish geologists found a 320 billion cubic meter natural gas field there, near the maritime borders of Romania and Bulgaria.
A significant help that allows Turkey to appropriate water spaces is the presence of the second largest armed forces in NATO, a developed and efficient fleet, which is one of the ten largest naval forces in the world. The Turkish fleet is made up of 112 warships, with 24 new ships planned to be operational by 2023. For comparison, the French navy includes over 180 ships, Italy - 184, Egypt - 245, the Russian Black Sea Fleet - 89. Turkey is on the list of 20 countries capable of independently building frigates - multipurpose warships capable of destroying air and submarine targets. escort convoys at any distance offshore.
Implications for NATO
By its behavior, Turkey demonstrates its unwillingness to coordinate its actions with the United States and NATO, ignoring the rules of the game existing in the alliance. NATO membership for Erdogan is a rudiment of history, not a responsibility. In fact, Ankara is developing as a self-sufficient independent regional player. In fact, NATO ceases to act as a guarantor of security in the Eastern Mediterranean and has turned out to be powerless in resolving the contradictions between the two member countries.
Europeans and Americans have sided with the Greeks in the current crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Turkey to stop exacerbating the situation, and EU member states to support Greece and Cyprus. US President Donald Trump decided to lift the 33-year embargo on the supply of non-lethal weapons to Cyprus (radars, vehicles, other equipment that is not designed to destroy the enemy), which drew criticism in Ankara. The American president held trilateral talks by phone with Recep Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, called on the Turkish leader to stop provocative actions. The United States called on Turkey to accept the offer of NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to negotiate with Greece at the military level. The talks were supposed to take place on September 8, but they were postponed for two days.
At the same time, neither the United States, nor Germany, nor the United Kingdom, which has military bases in Cyprus, initiated the imposition of sanctions, including an arms embargo, against Turkey. Donald Trump is focused on preparing for the US presidential elections amid protests, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is busy preparing a trade agreement between the UK and the EU before the end of the transitional period of membership in the bloc, until early 2021. Angela Merkel does not want to aggravate relations with Turkey, since the country is a major trade and economic partner of Germany. Berlin is one of the largest suppliers of weapons to the Turkish army. The freezing of negotiations on Turkey's integration into the EU and the US refusal to sell the fifth-generation F-35 multipurpose stealth fighters to Turkey did not make the latter more restrained.
Speaking about the reaction of the NAO member countries to Turkey's provocative behavior, France’s one was the toughest. President Emmanuel Macron stressed that Erdogan only understands the language of action and sent an aircraft carrier group to support Greece. Italy limited itself to a show of force and sent its warships to participate in the maneuvers along with France and Greece. By and large, Paris and Rome are defending their energy interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. Oil and gas companies Total (France) and Eni (Italy) operate on the Cyprus shelf. France is positioned as the leader of the Mediterranean region and sees Turkey as a competitor. Paris has previously intervened in crises in countries with access to the Mediterranean: it participated in the NATO military operation in Libya in 2011, provided mediation services in the settlement of the Syrian conflict, the armed confrontation between Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj in Libya.
During a meeting with Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiadis, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed the Kremlin's readiness to act as a mediator in resolving conflicts with Turkey. Despite the existing disagreements between Moscow and Ankara in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts, where they support different warring parties, the Russian authorities benefit from the strengthening of Turkey's military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Tensions in the region are postponing the implementation of the Greek Cypriot-Israeli project of the EastMed underwater gas pipeline, which is supposed to link gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean with the European market. This initiative competes with the Russian Turkish Stream gas pipeline and will affect the reduction of the EU's energy dependence on Russia.
New alignment of forces
The Greco-Turkish crisis is likely to affect the change in the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean region. The West has less and less hopes for the restoration of a constructive partnership with Turkey in the security sphere, as in the period of the Cold War, in the 90s, and the beginning of the 2000s. This begs the question of pursuing a policy of containing Ankara's expansion in the region.
It is possible that over time, the United States will move its military base from Incirlik and the nuclear warheads located there to one of the military facilities in Greece. In Greece, there is an American naval base Souda Bay. Athens is interested in modernizing and strengthening the army and navy to contain Ankara. Arms deliveries from the US and Europe are likely to increase.
Not only Greece, Cyprus, France but also regional players such as Egypt and Israel, do not agree with the Libyan-Turkish memorandum. It is possible to combine the efforts of these countries in the military-political sphere. The navies of France and Egypt might conduct joint maneuvers to contain Turkish activity in the Eastern Mediterranean, as the United States is sending its aircraft carrier groups to the South China Sea to pressure China, which is militarizing the islands and obstructing freedom of international navigation. The contradictions between Turkey and the countries of the region will only grow.