Tensions between Turkey and Greece could disrupt NATO unity, experts warn

Turkey and Greece, both members of NATO, have been at odds for decades over territorial and airspace claims in and over the Aegean Sea. As historic rivals intensify their war of words, analysts warn of the risk that the current tension will spill over into NATO affairs at a time when there is a need to focus on unity against Russia in the midst of his invasion of Ukraine.

The latest row began when Turkey accused its neighbor of locking onto Turkish warplanes with its Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems deployed on the island of Crete. Ankara also said Greek pilots placed Turkish planes under radar lock over the eastern Mediterranean during a NATO mission last month.

Athens rejected Turkish claims and accused the country of violating its airspace.

As the two countries filed complaints with NATO over the incidents, the deletion of a tweet from NATO’s Allied Land Command (LANDCOM) congratulating Turkey on its VE Day, following a a step by Greece, provoked fury in Ankara.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doubled down on his speech during his speech earlier this week at Teknofest, an event dubbed Turkey’s biggest aviation and aerospace festival.

“Look at history. If you cross the line further, there will be a heavy price to pay. Don’t forget Izmir,” he said, referring to the defeat of the Greek occupying forces in the western city in 1922.

He echoed those words earlier this week, warning that “Turkey could come all of a sudden one night”.

His remarks were seen by Greek officials as threatening, suggesting that Turkey might take military action against the Aegean islands. Athens says it is ready to defend its sovereignty.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias called on NATO, European Union partners and the United Nations to formally condemn what he described as “scandalous and increasingly aggressive remarks by the from Turkish officials” in letters to three international organizations, copies of which have been seen by The Associated Press.

In a statement sent to VOA, a State Department official called on the two allies to resolve their differences through diplomatic channels.

Highlighting the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Washington said statements that could increase tensions between NATO allies are ‘particularly unnecessary’, adding that ‘Greece’s sovereignty over the islands is not in question’ .

The Pentagon did not comment on Turkish claims that Greece locked its S-300 surface-to-air missiles on Turkish planes last week, but said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stressed the need to reduce tensions in the Aegean through constructive dialogue in its previous talks with Turkey. and their Greek counterparts.

FILE – In this photo provided by the Greek Defense Ministry, warships take part in a military exercise south of the island of Crete, August 24, 2020.

Possibility of war

Deep-rooted friction has brought Turkey and Greece almost to the brink of war three times in the past 50 years.

Analysts speaking to VOA say they don’t see a solution anytime soon, noting the troubled history of bilateral relations and “tight politics” in both nations’ capitals.

“It will take a mediator who has the skills and some clout to be able to come up with something that these two nations can agree to. But I don’t see that on the horizon,” said Jim Townsend, former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy Townsend is currently Deputy Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security Transatlantic Security Program.

Philip Breedlove, a retired US Air Force general who served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander from 2013 to 2016, said long-standing problems between Turkey and Greece were rising and falling with time.

“Turkey’s leadership is pushing the country in certain directions that have escalated these tensions as they have over the years,” the former top NATO commander said in a telephone interview with VOA on Wednesday. .

Breedlove, who is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said NATO and the United States had handled similar tensions in the past and the alliance was always up to the task.

Fears of disrupting NATO unity

The recent row between Turkey and Greece comes as NATO focuses on displaying a united front against Russia in the face of its invasion of Ukraine.

Experts fear that if the tension escalates into hostilities, Russian President Vladimir Putin could take advantage.

“Whatever small cracks may appear in European unity, Putin can make them even bigger and actually split the rock. So not only does it undermine European unity, but it can also spill over into NATO advice if either country uses NATO as a weapon to hurt the other,” Townsend said. .

He warned that these cracks could be exploited by Moscow as winter approaches; Russia has already reduced its gas exports to Europe.

Electoral dynamics

Turkey and Greece will both go to the polls in crucial elections next year.

Turkish President Erdogan would face a major challenge to his 20-year rule amid the country’s economic woes and immigration issues.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, elected in 2019, has reportedly suffered some loss of popularity due to rising energy prices partly due to the war in Ukraine.

“The rhetoric from both sides has always been part of the problem and it’s something that doesn’t help matters,” Townsend said.

Breedlove agrees. He thinks part of this is “playing to an internal audience”.

FILE - In this photo provided by the Turkish Presidency, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, left, is seen with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a rare bilateral meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, March 13, 2022.

FILE – In this photo provided by the Turkish Presidency, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, left, is seen with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a rare bilateral meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, March 13, 2022.

Balance

The United States is known for maintaining a balance between regional rivals Turkey and Greece, both of which it says are important NATO allies.

Athens and Washington have extended a bilateral military agreement for five years and the agreement was ratified by the Greek parliament this summer, days before the Greek prime minister’s visit to Washington in mid-May. The deal gives the US greater military access to bases in Greece.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, met with his Greek counterpart, Konstantinos Floros, at the Pentagon in July. “Military leaders discussed matters of common interest,” a statement from his office said.

This visit was followed by the visit of Greek Minister of Defense Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos to the Pentagon on July 18 to meet Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The two men discussed the “growing defense partnership between the United States and Greece and the close cooperation on the base, [and] defense modernization,” according to a Pentagon statement.

They also discussed “the need to reduce tensions in the Aegean through constructive dialogue”.

Austin spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, on July 25, discussing “the need for continued efforts to reduce tensions in the Aegean through constructive dialogue.”

Turkish and Greek defense demands

Greece is seeking to acquire F-35 fighter jets from the United States. The country officially requested the fighter jets in June.

Turkey was kicked out of the F-35 program over its purchase of an advanced S-400 missile system from Russia. Ankara wants to buy F-16s and modernization kits from Washington. US arms sales to foreign countries are subject to congressional approval.

Analysts say Turkey’s decision to buy the Russian S-400 system was a blow to defense cooperation between Washington and Ankara, which they say has always been very strong.

Townsend, who spent 30 years at the Pentagon working on Turkey’s issues, tells VOA he “mourns the loss of [the] a close working relationship with Turkey”, hoping that it can be restored again.

He hopes the United States will be able to provide the F-16s requested by Turkey, saying he believes the administration — working with Congress — will be able to authorize the transfer.

Retired Air Force General Breedlove harbors the same hope.

FILE - Parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system are unloaded from a Russian transport plane near Ankara, Turkey July 12, 2019.

FILE – Parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system are unloaded from a Russian transport plane near Ankara, Turkey July 12, 2019.

Focus on the “common threat”

Former NATO commander says Turkey has made security decisions that align it more closely with ‘the enemy of NATO’, in reference to its purchase of S-400s from Russia, which has been identified as the most significant and direct threat to the security of allies within the framework of NATO. strategic concept document.

“The enemy is not Greece against Turkey and Turkey against Greece. It’s NATO versus Russia. I would like Turkey to have that if they can’t have the F-35. We have to figure out who the enemy is,” Breedlove told VOA.

He said the United States would like to move forward with Turkey because it is an incredibly important part of the NATO alliance despite recent lows in relations, adding that he cannot speak. current US government policy.

But he also acknowledged that “Greece is a bit more aligned with what America wants to do in the region,” saying Washington would like to have the same kind of relationship with Turkey.

He calls on the United States and Turkey to focus on how they can restore the same level of cooperation rather than separating.

Erdogan’s Criticisms of Russia’s Western Policy

Meanwhile, Erdogan recently accused Western nations of provoking Russia, without naming any.

Speaking at a press conference in Serbia, he suggested that “the West’s policy towards Russia was based on provocations”.

He pledged to continue Turkey’s balancing policy between Russia and Ukraine, adding that Russia is not a country that can be underestimated.

“Russia has cut off natural gas now. Prices in Europe have exploded. Everyone is now wondering how he will spend this winter,” Erdogan said.

Turkey supplies Ukraine with combat drones, which are used by Kyiv to destroy Russian targets in the conflict.

Ankara also played a role with the United Nations as a mediator to conclude the agreement which allowed the resumption of grain exports from Ukrainian ports. But he did not join Western sanctions against Russia.

This story was born in the Turkish service of VOA. Dilge Timocin from the service contributed.

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