Greece’s armed forces are on high alert in the Eastern Aegean Sea as tensions escalate with Turkey. Officials have been responding to what they say are mounting provocations by Turkey’s leadership.
Senior Greek Defense Ministry sources say the military intelligence they have gathered point to the prospect of so-called hybrid threats that Greece may face from its neighbor Turkey as the two NATO allies compete for oil and gas drilling rights in contested parts of the Aegean and Mediterranean seas.
The points of friction between the two countries are many.
A crisis, the sources say, may also spring from a sudden surge in refugee flows from Turkey, or from unexpected wildfires in remote locations or islands in the Aegean Sea that Turkey wants to see demilitarized.
Some security analysts say that while Turkey’s recent actions – including the bellicose remarks of its leader – are serious, an armed conflict is unlikely. Retired General Leonidas Tzoumis said both countries stand to lose from a military confrontation, but he warned that Turkish actions may lead to a miscalculation. That prospect, he said, requires heightened vigilance by Greece's armed forces.
Tzoumis said Greece is facing what he calls a classic Turkish game of controlled escalation, one of repeated provocations that can trigger a serious enough incident that would eventually force Greece to negotiate matters like the Aegean Sea dispute and territorial rights that Greece has been refusing to discuss because – the analyst said - it does not want to cede an inch.
Greece and Turkey have been at odds for decades over rights to the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. They are also locked in a fierce arms race that has them spending among the highest amounts in defense compared to other NATO member states.
Turkey has the second largest army in the NATO alliance.
U.S. reluctance is blocking Ankara from obtaining a fresh batch of American-made F-16 fighter jets it needs to crush Kurdish separatists in its north. Some officials in the United States and western Europe have voiced concerns that a rearmed Turkey could pose a threat to Greece and others in the region.
Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was cutting off all contact with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis because of an address the Greek leader made to the U.S. Congress, urging it to keep blocking the sale.
Mitsotakis also sealed a deal for F-35 fighter jets, dashing hopes of a détente in relations with Turkey, despite a March meeting with Erdogan in which the two men agreed to avoid “provocations” as the war in Ukraine rages.
Turkey has since carried out what Greek officials say is an unprecedented surge in violations of Greek airspace. Refugee flows are spiking again. Turkey has recently sent out an exploratory vessel to the Aegean. This week, Ankara openly contested Greek sovereignty over 23 islands, many of them populated and some of them tourist destinations favored by Americans and Europeans.
Mitsotakis warns that any serious threat from Turkey will not go unanswered. In a bid to rally European support, he has been meeting key European leaders, presenting them with the worrying intelligence report and a list of what Greece considers Turkish provocations.
In remarks Tuesday at a news conference, Mitsotakis said he was – in his words - not interested in psychoanalyzing Turkey’s behavior, nor would he engage in what he called ‘this play of bellicose remarks.’ But Mitsotakis told reporters provocations will not and should not be tolerated, especially from a country that says it wants to join the European Union.
Mitsotakis said he would push his EU counterparts to issue a strong protest against Turkey when they meet at a summit in late June.
Until then, military officials warn, Greece’s armed forces will continue to remain on alert.