Dogfight Over the Aegean: Turkish-Greek Relations in Light of Ukraine
Mutual hostility is nothing new in Turkish-Greek relations. Acts of provocation, as well as outright conflict, have long beset ties between the two states. However, as the war in Ukraine began, there were some indications that tensions between Ankara and Athens had eased. In the middle of March, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis journeyed to Istanbul to meet face-to-face with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The tone of the meeting, according to media reports, was positive and constructive. Both leaders emphasized that the war to the north provided the basis for the visit. In a statement prepared by Erdogan’s communications directorate, it was agreed that “Turkey and Greece have a special responsibility in the European security architecture which has changed with Russia’s attack on Ukraine.” Mitsotakis and Erdogan concurred that it was important for both countries to find avenues of cooperation and “focus on positive agendas” that benefited both nations.
Since the meeting in Istanbul, however, relations between Greece and Turkey have deteriorated rapidly. Toward the end of April 2022, Athens decried what it characterized as an “unprecedented” number of airspace violations by armed Turkish aircraft over Greece’s Aegean islands. During an official visit to Washington, Mitsotakis cited Turkey’s behavior in lobbying Congress to oppose the sale of F-16s to Ankara. Erdogan responded by stating that he no longer “recognizes” Greece’s prime minister, thus ending the possibility of future direct talks. More ominously, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu issued a statement accusing Athens of unlawfully “militarizing” its territories in the Aegean Sea. Should Greece refuse to “demilitarize” its Aegean islands, Cavusoglu warned that Greek sovereignty over its territories would be considered “debatable.”
Understanding why this conflict is escalating starts with appreciating both its long history and the divergent views of international law that drive it. But it also requires understanding how observers in both Greece and Turkey interpret the impact of the war in Ukraine. For both Greek and Turkish policymakers, Russia’s invasion has ushered in new risks and new opportunities for pursuing their divergent goals in the Aegean. In Athens, the war has bolstered fears of Turkish aggression and corresponding efforts to strengthen ties with Washington in light of what it considers an increasingly aggressive Turkey. In Ankara, the conflict has in turn reinforced fears of a joint U.S.-Greek effort to tame Turkey’s ambitions. Although neither side has construed Russia’s invasion as an overt pretext for escalation, these rival interpretations have come together to increase the risk of conflict in the Aegean.
The Weight of Law and History
The current border between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean is the product of a tortuous series of wars and international agreements. With the signing of Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the two countries agreed to the establishment of a fixed frontier across the Aegean Sea. Athens, for its part, retained most of the major islands off the Anatolian coast but promised that no “naval base and no fortification will be established” on these territories. The treaty also placed restrictions on military overflights by Greek and Turkish aircraft along the Aegean and limited the positioning of gendarmes and soldiers on the Greek islands.
Even though Athens and Ankara would sign another treaty of friendship in 1930, tensions and disagreements between the countries mounted in the decades that followed. With the conclusion of World War II, Italy ceded control of the Dodecanese islands to Greece. Despite Turkey’s objections, the 1947 Treaty of Paris, Rome awarded these 12 islands to Athens. Yet as in the Treaty of Lausanne, Greek sovereignty over Rhodes, Kastellerizo, and other territories in the chain came with the promise that these “islands shall be and shall remain demilitarized.” Conflicting claims over the sovereignty of Cyprus particularly widened the divide between the two countries. Unlawful overflights by Turkish military aircraft intensified over Greek islands in the violent aftermath of Cyprus’ independence in 1960. Following Turkey’s 1974 invasion and partition of Cyprus, tensions rose further still in the Aegean. It was in this period that Turkish representatives voiced grave concerns over the territorial sovereignty of Greece’s islands, particularly the degree to which they restricted Turkey’s access to the Aegean seafloor (thus denying Ankara the ability to explore for oil underneath the continental shelf). Greece’s prime minister at the time countered that Turkish foreign policy “had now entered a new expansionist phase” as seen in both Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus and increased military activity in the Aegean.
This pattern of confrontation and provocation reached a boiling point in the mid-1990s. In 1995, the Greek parliament ratified the United Nation’s Law of the Sea, which, among other provisions, allowed states to declare jurisdiction over coastal waters up to a 12-mile radius. Fearing that such a stipulation would limit its access to the Aegean, Turkey was one of a handful of nations to oppose the U.N. agreement. Athens’ decision to endorse the law led to a fierce rebuke from Ankara, with then-Prime Minister Tansu Ciller declaring that any Greek decision to enforce a 12-mile line of control would be treated as a casus belli. Promises to limit Greece’s maritime borders did little to ease relations. When a Turkish freighter ran aground near the uninhabited island of Kardak (called “Imia” in Greek), political leaders clashed over the question of which country genuinely possessed jurisdiction over the island. With the fate of literally thousands of uninhabited rocks at stake, Turkey and Greece deployed ships and troop detachments in anticipation of war. At the end of January 1996, the Greek government relented after Turkish troops landed on Kardak and hoisted the Turkish flag.
Since 1996, neither Turkey nor Greece has demonstrated a willingness to revise its positions regarding the legal or diplomatic issues that divide the two nations. To this day, Ankara still decries what it sees as Greece’s unlawful militarization of the Aegean islands. Turkish aircraft regularly violate Greek airspace over the islands (a pattern that reportedly intensified throughout April 2022). Moreover, Turkey has recently reiterated its willingness to go to war should the Greek government extend its maritime borders to the 12-mile limit. With Athens increasingly seeking international support in its disputes with Ankara, established mechanisms to defuse tensions, such as NATO mediation, have fallen victim to Erdogan’s wrath.
Legacies of the Past: Athens’ Perspective
Why the two sides have proven so stubborn in recent years is as much a product of their bitter past as it is an outgrowth of conflicting interpretations of international law and mutual obligations. The 20th century began well for Greece. Having achieved its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, the country grew significantly in size in advance of World War I. Perhaps of greatest importance, Athens boasted strong ties to two of the most powerful nations on earth, Great Britain and France. In 1919 Athens dispatched troops to the port of Izmir (or Smyrna) in the hopes of establishing a greater Greece that would dominate the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean. This “Megali Idea,” or “Great Idea” as it was often called, collapsed with the defeat of Greek occupation forces at the hands of the Turkish army in 1922. Under the Treaty of Lausanne, Athens was forced to recognize Turkey’s sovereignty over Anatolia. However, despite vague public displays of irredentism, Athens does not question the territorial sovereignty of the Turkish Republic.
Other events further shaped Greek attitudes toward the Aegean. For much of the 20th century, bitter partisan divisions in Greece muddied the country’s approach to matters of security and foreign policy. Ideological and personal loyalties, for example, frequently split the armed forces into opposing camps. Greece’s civil war, fought between 1943 and 1949, as well as a bitter period of military rule between 1967 and 1974, added to popular distrust of the government and its security establishment. After the 1980s, for example, the country’s military spending steadily plummeted. According to World Bank statistics, Greek defense spending is a fraction of that of neighboring Turkey. Domestic polarization has also affected popular and elite perceptions of the United States, Greece’s closest ally. Despite decades of financial and material support, Washington has long been the focus of ire among Greek leftists. In addition to supporting the military government that seized power in 1967, the United States has often been blamed for failing to back Athens in its disputes with Turkey. Recently, Greek opposition leader Alexis Tsipras accused Mitsotakis of turning the country into a “U.S. satellite” despite Ankara’s repeated provocations in the Aegean.
Nevertheless, the signing of defensive pacts with both France and the United States appears to signal the formation of a certain consensus in Athens. Despite disagreements on matters of cost and approach, both Tsiprias and Mitsotakis tend to concur on the need to strengthen the Greek military. In addition to the purchase of new weapons systems from France, Athens continues to deepen its ties with Washington. The prospect of a greater American presence in Greece (including the establishment of four joint training facilities) comes as Greek negotiators continue to pursue a deal that would see the purchase or upgrade of multiple ships from U.S. contractors. Philosophically, however, Greek security strategy remains grounded in a dogmatically defensive posture. The choice, as one former flag officer put it in 2014, is for Greece to either maintain a robust defense (especially a “strong and deterrent navy”) or, if the worst should come, to accept the possibility of becoming “a satellite of Turkey.” It is widely believed that Greece faces substantial obstacles in seeking to grow and modernize its armed forces. In addition to chronic economic shortcomings, Athens suffers from a sheer lack of capacity in terms of technological development and defense production.
Each of these factors have figured prominently in how Greek commentators have viewed the current state of affairs in the Aegean. The deterioration of Western relations with Russia, as one Greek scholar put it, “does not reduce Turkey’s expansionist momentum but inflates it. Because, unlike us, Turkey no longer belongs to the West.” Consequently, the scholar predicted that Erdogan would take advantage of the war in pushing Turkey’s claims to the Aegean more forcefully. At the same time, there is still a great deal of apprehension as to the degree to which Athens can rely upon its allies for support. While commending the United States, Great Britain, and the European Union for their recognition of Greece’s sovereign rights in the Aegean, Costas Iordanidis, a historian and frequent commentator on Turkish affairs, recently voiced a degree of caution. He argued that it was “naive to believe that the complete harmonization of Athens with Washington, in the war in Ukraine, would result in the practical support of Greek policy towards Turkey.” Paramount in the minds of American policymakers was the “normalization” of ties with Ankara. This desire, he concluded, had consistently led Washington to avoid any criticism of Turkey’s actions. Meanwhile, Athens continues to insist that Greece would not retaliate in the face of Turkish provocations. “Greek foreign policy,” as one government spokesperson put it, “is strongly based on history, international law and our alliances, no matter how much it bothers some.”
Legacies of the Past: Ankara’s Perspective
Turkish policy in the Aegean is predicated upon many of the events that have shaped Greece’s outlook on the region. Greece’s seizure of its Aegean islands in 1912 corresponds to a time of defeat, humiliation, and suffering in Turkey’s national history. Unlike Athens, which historically boasted strong allies, the Ottoman Empire bore the cost of these and other losses alone. It is for this reason that Turkey’s victory over Greece in 1922 is remembered as an unparalleled victory for Turks today. In ending the Greek occupation of Anatolia, Ankara established its independence in defiance of Greece’s Western allies, particularly Great Britain. The cost of this triumph, however, was steep. Much of the Anatolian interior was left devastated in the wake of Greece’s retreat. Even though Greece and Turkey may be allies under the auspices of the NATO, Turkey still commemorates its war with Greece as a crime for which Athens has never been held accountable.
For many in Turkey, the Greco-Turkish war still serves as the crucial precedent that defines Turkey’s relationship with Greece and the West at large. The continuities, it is often said, are clear. U.S. opposition to Turkish policy in Syria, as well as recent European challenges to Turkey’s maritime rights, are cited as attempts similar to those of Greece’s Western allies to subvert Turkey’s sovereignty between 1919 and 1922. Erdogan has invoked the war when accusing the West of subverting the Turkish economy or organizing the 2016 coup attempt against him. On television and in Turkish print media, commentators have echoed these sentiments, emphasizing, above all, the belief that Greece plans to accomplish what it failed to achieve a century ago. Greece has never abandoned its desire to establish a “Greater Greece,” one former flag officer recently warned. Despite a century of reversals, Athens, he believes, still harbors “the ideal of capturing Istanbul” and re-establishing Christian rule in the city.
In looking specifically at the Aegean, Turkish commentators regularly decry Greece’s militarization of its islands as an indicator for Athens’ desire for war. Though visible evidence of active troop deployments in the Aegean is scant, Turkish media has documented the arrival of Greek troops to islands off the Anatolian coast. Prominent security commentators regularly suggest that the position of Greek forces in the Aegean constitutes an attempt to cordon off Turkey’s coastline or perhaps threaten the country’s interior. Athens’ defense of its actions has varied. While asserting the legal right to garrison some islands (particularly those in the north Aegean), Greek officials have long maintained that the country is forced to station troops on many islands due to the threat of invasion. In countering Turkish objections, Greek commentators have pointed to comments made by Erdogan questioning the validity of the Treaty of Lausanne as well as Greece’s sovereignty over its Aegean islands. Turkey, he declared in 2016, “gave away the islands at Lausanne” despite the fact that “they were ours” and “still possess our mosques and tombs.”
Recent changes to Ankara’s interpretation of its legal and historical rights to the Aegean have provided Turkish critics still more fodder in asserting claims to the sea. Over the last several years, press commentators have promoted the contention that international law gives Turkey the right to disregard maritime sovereignty of Greece’s islands. Under the aegis of the country’s new maritime doctrine, dubbed Blue Homeland or Mavi Vatan, former flag officers have played a key role in suggesting that Ankara is allowed to lay claim the eastern half of the Aegean sea floor. Erdogan has helped bolster these designs after signing a memorandum of understanding with the Tripoli government in Libya over a shared maritime border in the Mediterranean. For Ankara, the agreement validates Turkish arguments that Crete, as well as other Greek islands, possesses no legal standing in establishing Greece’s rights to the Aegean sea floor. Despite Greek insistence that such claims are in stark violation of the U.N. Law of the Sea, Turkish television commentators often suggest that a diplomatic path remains open in achieving Ankara’s claims in the Aegean. “Behind diplomacy,” one talking head recently said, “is the threat of force.”
The war in Ukraine has done little to moderate the bellicose language often heard from Turkey with respect to the Aegean. When Athens asserted there had been an unprecedented number of incursions into its airspace by Turkish jets in April and May, a spokesperson in Ankara rejected such claims, insisting instead that the Turkish air force had “reciprocated” in the face of Greek “provocative flights and violations.” Nightly news talk shows tend to feature more dire prognostications. In the wake of Erdogan’s pronouncement that he no longer recognized Mitsotakis, one former air-force general declared that Greece “is preparing for war” with Turkey. Turkish media sources now widely claim that Athens is complicit in an American-backed plan to use the crisis in Ukraine as pretext to undermine Turkey and its regional ambitions. Athens’ decision to accept a greater American presence in the country (particularly U.S. use of the Greek port of Alexandroupoli) constitutes a direct military threat to Turkish territory. NATO’s backing for Ukrainian resistance efforts, according to many, is part of this wider plan of asserting American control in the Aegean as well as the Black Sea. “Behind all of this,” noted one prominent columnist, “is the plan of the United States of America to expand its international hegemony.” Supporting Greece, as well as promoting NATO membership for Sweden and Finland, are each components of this broader ambition. Turkey, in each case, stands in the way.
There is every reason to believe that a shooting war over the Aegean remains an unlikely event. After all, Athens and Ankara have managed to avert conflict for decades despite bitter disagreements over a host of issues. Moreover, given the uncertainty created by the war in Ukraine, the political and economic costs of armed confrontation in the region would be dire for both Turkey and Greece. Domestic affairs in both countries, however, may push political leaders to take drastic action. The popularity of Mitsotakis’ governing New Democracy Party has slipped in recent public polling, leading to questions over whether it would remain generally centrist or drift further right. The need to shore up his base and election prospects weigh even more heavily on Erdogan’s mind. With inflation running rampant and the popularity of his own party beginning to slip, his own reelection hopes have begun to flag. In recent weeks, Erdogan has demonstrated a willingness to stand in defiance of the West in spite of NATO’s relative unanimity in dealing with Ukraine. It is also clear that Erdogan does not necessarily fear the potential fallout from his threat to attack U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria.
Making matters worse, Turkey’s current posture toward the Aegean is not solely the product of domestic politics. In assessing the impact the war in Ukraine could have upon Turkish foreign policy, scholar Selim Koru suggested that Erdogan may sense a moment of opportunity to pursue a broad set of revisionist goals in its near abroad. Koru prophesized that, with the backing of right-wing politicians and the country’s security establishment, Ankara “could push more strongly against Greek naval boundaries, which it believes to be unfairly stacked against it.”
To some extent, Turkey’s expressions of insecurity echo those of Russia’s in the lead-up to the war with Ukraine. Like the case of Turkish-Greek relations, Russia and Ukraine share a long history of antagonism and disagreement over matters of territory. Like Russian supporters of Putin’s war against Ukraine, prominent voices in Turkey similarly see the Aegean as a potential front in a proxy struggle against the United States. It may be this fear that has led Erdogan’s government to reiterate its threat to “take matters further” in challenging Greek sovereignty in the Aegean. If the current crisis in Ukraine imparts any lesson, it is that one should not underrate the risk of conflict. A war between Greece and Turkey is not only possible but perhaps, at some point, probable.
Ryan Gingeras is a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and is an expert on Turkish, Balkan, and Middle East history. He is the author of six books, including the forthcoming The Last Days of the Ottoman Empire (to be released by Penguin in October 2022). His Sorrowful Shores: Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire received short-list distinctions for the Rothschild Book Prize in Nationalism and Ethnic Studies and the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize. The views expressed here are not those of the Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
Image: Hellenic Army