BERLIN, Germany – On February 12, a Turkish patrol boat rammed one of the Greek Coast Guard. The Greek ship lay at anchor near the controversial Imia Islands between Greece and Turkey, just a few miles from the Turkish coast. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim immediately called his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras: It was a mishap, no provocation.
Awkward – maybe. In the wake of the political cleansing after the failed coup attempt in the summer of 2016, the Turkish navy fired or even detained most of its competent captains. But one provocation was the incident, like countless others before.
At the end of February, Turkey arrested two Greek soldiers on border patrols who had landed in Turkish territory. This happens again and again, but never those involved were arrested. They could soon be accused of espionage, then they would face several years in prison.
The already difficult relations between the two NATO partners have reached a low point since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned Turkey into an autocracy and is pursuing an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy.
Shortly after the failed coup in July 2016, eight Turkish officers fled to the neighboring country and applied for asylum. Erdogan has since demanded their extradition, but Athens invokes the independence of the judiciary, which denies it. Since then, military aggression has increased.
Around 2,000 times last year Turkish warships came Greek territorial waters – or at least what Greece considers to be its territorial waters, but not Turkey. That was four times more than the year before.
3,300 Turkish warplanes breached Greek airspace – twice as many as the previous year. This is an expensive affair for financially ailing Greece. When a Turkish jet enters the Greek airspace, Greek interceptors rise. An hour’s flying time with an F-16 fighter plane costs around 20,000 euros.
The two NATO countries are what Germany and France once were: sworn enemies. The rivalry between Turks and Greeks goes back centuries. The Ottomans conquered the then Greek Constantinople in 1453, today Istanbul.
In recent history, the Greeks shook off the Ottoman yoke in the 19th century, and after the First World War, resistance to a Greek liberation effort of Turkey became the founding myth of the modern Turkish state.
The land was to be divided after the lost World War I according to the Treaty of Sèvres. The Allies, however, found it too cumbersome to enforce this militarily. The Greeks offered themselves, but they were too weak. Modern Turkey defines its birth as the hour of victory in 1922 against the Greeks.
The Treaty of Sèvres was replaced the following year by the Treaty of Lausanne, which has since then. A cruel exchange of population was agreed: 1.2 million Anatolian Greeks had to leave Turkey, 400,000 Hellenic Turks were forcibly relocated from Greece.
The treaty also laid down the border between the two countries. This included that the Aegean islands remained off the coast of Turkey with Greece. Turkey also lost Cyprus – until the Turkish army conquered the north of the island in 1974.
Two completely disproportionate armies
Turkey has never wounded the loss of the Aegean Islands. Turkish politicians do not think that these islands belong to their natural state, since Erdogan introduced a more offensive foreign policy. In 1996, the Imia Islands almost went to war following a similar incident to that of the Turkish patrol boat in February.
Turkey has made every stone that stands out from the sea and is not expressly mentioned in the Treaty of Lausanne its national territory – hence the many violations of Greek airspace and territorial waters. Turkey does not consider these areas Greek.
The dispute over the islands is the reason why Greece and Turkey afford completely disproportionate armies. NATO was for the common enemy of the Soviet Union. But Athens and Ankara were never about Russia. In the minds of the generals, a war against the neighboring country was always the more likely case.
Armament technically, the two armies are about equally strong. Their ground forces have combined more firepower than the rest of Europe: 830 tanks, 2500 other combat vehicles. The two air forces have a total of 450 fighter aircraft. In a war, this arsenal could do a lot of damage in a very short time.
There could be such a war, at present probably more by chance than by intention. The aggressive Turkish strategy of systematic border violences that existed before Erdogan has significantly worsened under him. At the same time, the Turkish officer corps is suffering from loss of competence, especially in the navy and the air force, after the political purges since 2011 and especially since the coup attempt in 2016. Incompetent officers who have the orders to implement a risky confrontational policy – that can be seen.
When the going gets tough, the big powers are in demand to prevent escalation. In the Imia incident in 1996, the US intervened to bring both sides to reason. However, it is not certain that the Trump administration would act similarly today.
After all, the European Union now seems to have realized how big the problem is. At the EU-Turkey Summit in Varna, Bulgaria on Monday, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker emphasized that Turkey’s relationship with Greece and Cyprus was the most important issue in Turkish-European relations.
Ankara must go to the Greeks, otherwise there could be no progress in relation to the EU. With Turkey’s emphasis on thawing icy relations with Brussels and Erdogan in Varna, once again emphasizing that its country wants to continue to join the EU, Brussels’ clear stance may have limited effect.
But there is a fundamental strategic goal of Turkey under Erdogan, as former Foreign Minister and foreign policy whisperer Ahmet Davutoglu once put it: strengthening Turkey’s power and influence wherever possible in the world. The policy towards the EU is subordinate to this. The candidacy strengthens Turkey – the accession even with his renunciation of sovereignty not necessarily.
An expansionist urge with the aim of returning to the political greatness of the former Ottoman Empire belongs to this policy of maximizing foreign policy power. This does not necessarily mean border changes, but it does not exclude them, if there is a possibility.
Ankara will always weigh the balance of power and take advantage of any Greek weakness. The Turkish army is in disintegrating Syria and has announced a military intervention against the Kurds in Iraq.
Greece is de facto bankrupt, Turkey is growing rapidly. Greece is aging, Turkey is also growing demographically. Greece is barely able to invest significantly in arms, and Turkey has invested heavily over the past decade, especially in the naval forces.
The new ships make power demonstrations possible, such as on 9 February, when the Turkish Navy blocked an oil rig that was to seek natural gas off the Cypriot coast on behalf of the Republic of Cyprus. Turkey insists on participating in natural gas exploitation on behalf of the Turkish-occupied northern part of the island.
The current balance of the two forces will not exist in a few years. Turkey will be much stronger. And politically much more important for Europeans than Greece – also because of the refugee crisis.
That will sooner or later have consequences. Erdogan described the Treaty of Lausanne as being in need of correction last December – during a visit to Greece initiated by the Greeks to ease tensions. Erdogan’s statement was not empty talk but a clear statement: the Turkish government is thinking and planning in this direction.
Translated from Welt.