The Greeks are redoubling a monthslong diplomatic effort to persuade Germany to stop selling submarines to Turkey, saying that the planned sale of a half dozen subs will shift the balance of naval power in the eastern Mediterranean.
Greece and Turkey have been locked in a quarrel about the territorial status of Mediterranean real estate and waters — and more important, the oil and gas reserves beneath them. The energy potential of the eastern Mediterranean has raised the stakes and drawn in neighboring powers.
Turkey has said it will keep up energy exploration in the contested eastern Mediterranean waters, where last August a pair of Greek and Turkish frigates collided during a volatile naval standoff, bringing the two NATO members near to a military clash.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday, during a tour of Turkey’s northwestern Black Sea province of Sakarya: “Whatever our rights are, we will take them one way or another. And we will carry out our oil exploration operations in the eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus, and all those seas.”
The first of six German-designed submarines destined for Turkey was floated from its dock earlier this year and is scheduled to join the Turkish fleet next year. Five other Reis-class subs are to follow over the next few years in a deal worth around $4 billion.
Greece asked the European Union last month to impose an arms embargo on Turkey, but Germany, Spain and Italy rebuffed the request.
'Proactive' foreign policy
“Greece is entangled in the remarkably swift geopolitical changes in the eastern Mediterranean,” according to Vassilis Ntousas, a senior international relations policy adviser at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, a think tank in Brussels.
“Athens has responded to the region’s explosive mix of competing maritime interests, energy claims and military exercises by pursuing an increasingly proactive foreign policy,” he added. In a paper published last week he said, “Greece has reached out to [EU] member states that traditionally take a more conciliatory approach to Turkey – such as Spain, Italy and Malta.”
Naval tensions have subsided recently in the eastern Mediterranean, where Greece and Turkey are also in a long-standing dispute over the status of Cyprus, following several rounds of face-to-face talks between the Turkish and Greek foreign ministers. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Erdogan also met on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels in June with both committing not to hold naval exercises the next few months.
Kathimerini, the Greek daily newspaper published in Athens, said Erdogan “appeared eager not to stoke tension,” adding, “A calm tourist season is as important for Turkey as it is for Greece. On top of that, Erdogan wants to smooth relations with the European Union and the U.S.”
Erdogan has irritated NATO allies by buying Russian surface-to-air missiles and intervening in Syria and Libya.
But behind the scenes both Greece and Turkey have been maneuvering to strengthen their diplomatic positions — as well as their militaries. “Turkey’s president is trying to sound more helpful to the West. But his broader policy objectives have not changed,” according to Dimitar Bechev, author of a forthcoming book on Erdogan.
He said Erdogan has been engaged in “a charm offensive over several months” aimed at rekindling his relations with the West and the Biden administration. The Turkish president met the U.S. leader last month.
"The overtures towards Biden are broadly in line with Erdogan’s wish to ‘have his cake and eat it.’ That is, he wants to retain reasonably good relations with the U.S., despite the toxic anti-Americanism pervading Turkish media and the public at large, and to cling on to NATO, while at the same time teaming up with Russia on issues where their interests coincide,” he added in a commentary for the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense think tank.
And Turkey, NATO's second-largest military, has been on a buying spree — as has Greece.
Greece announced in December that it was doubling its annual defense spending to $6.6 billion, and it signed a $3 billion deal in January with France to buy 18 Rafale warplanes, 12 of them used.
Turkey is awaiting completion of a light aircraft carrier designed by Spain.
The German-designed submarines are equipped with air-independent propulsion, or AIP, allowing them to go without the air supply normally needed by diesel engines. They can stay underwater for three weeks with little noise emission. Naval experts say they are well-suited for the shallow waters of the eastern Mediterranean and could be armed with medium-range anti-ship missiles.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias expressed his profound disappointment last month when Germany’s ruling coalition blocked efforts in the German parliament by opposition lawmakers to stop the submarine sales. “Both Prime Minister Mitsotakis and I have numerous times spoken to almost everyone in Germany about the necessity to keep the balance in the Aegean,” Dendias told reporters. He warned that the submarine deal risked shifting the balance in the Aegean Sea in favor of Ankara.