Turkey and Greece, both NATO members, have been at loggerheads for decades over territorial and airspace claims in and over the Aegean Sea. As the historic rivals escalate their war of words, analysts warn about the risk of current tension spilling into NATO business at a time when there is a need to focus on unity against Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine.
The latest spat began when Turkey accused its neighbor of locking onto Turkish fighter jets with its Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems deployed on the island of Crete. Ankara also said Greek pilots placed Turkish aircraft under a radar lock over the Eastern Mediterranean during a NATO mission last month.
Athens dismissed Turkish claims and accused the country of violating its airspace.
As both countries lodged complaints with NATO about the incidents, the deletion of a tweet by NATO Allied Land Command (LANDCOM) congratulating Turkey on its Victory Day, following a demarche by Greece, caused fury in Ankara.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doubled down when he spoke earlier this week at Teknofest, an event dubbed as Turkey’s biggest aviation and aerospace festival.
“Look at history. If you cross the line any further, there will be a heavy price to pay. Don’t forget Izmir,” he said, alluding to a defeat of occupying Greek forces in the western city in 1922.
He echoed those words earlier this week, warning “Turkey could come all of a sudden one night.”
His remarks were perceived by Greek officials as threats, suggesting Turkey could take military action against the Aegean Sea islands. Athens says it is ready to defend its sovereignty.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias asked NATO, European Union partners and the United Nations to formally condemn what he described as “outrageous and increasingly aggressive talk by Turkish officials” in letters addressed to three international bodies, copies of which were seen by The Associated Press.
In a statement sent to VOA, a State Department representative called on the two allies to resolve their differences diplomatically.
Pointing to the Russian invasion in Ukraine, Washington said statements that could raise tensions between NATO allies are “particularly unhelpful,” adding “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 onto Turkey’s jets last week but said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin emphasized the need to reduce tensions in the Aegean through constructive dialogue during his previous talks with Turkish and Greek counterparts.
Possibility of war
Deep-rooted friction brought Turkey and Greece almost to the point of war three times in the last 50 years.
Analysts speaking to VOA say they don’t see a resolution any time soon, noting the troubled history of bilateral relations and the “tight politics” in the two nations’ capitals.
“It will take a mediator who has the skill and some leverage to be able to come up with something that these two nations can agree with. But I don’t see that on the horizon,” said Jim Townsend, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense on European and NATO policy. Townsend is currently an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security Transatlantic Security Program.
Philip Breedlove, a retired U.S. Air Force general who served as NATO supreme allied commander from 2013 to 2016, said the long-standing problems between Turkey and Greece rise and fall over time.
“The leadership in Turkey is pushing the country in certain directions that have caused these tensions to rise once again as they have over the years,” the former top NATO commander said in a phone interview with VOA on Wednesday.
Breedlove, who is now a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute, said NATO and the United States have managed similar tensions in the past and the alliance is still up to the task.
Concerns about disrupting NATO unity
The recent spat between Turkey and Greece takes place as NATO is focusing on displaying a united front against Russia in the face of its invasion in Ukraine.
Experts are worried that if the tension escalates to the point of hostilities, Russian President Vladimir Putin can take advantage.
“Whatever little cracks can appear in European unity, Putin can make them even larger and in fact split the rock. So, it not only undercuts European unity but also can spill over into NATO councils if one or the other country uses NATO as a weapon to hurt the other,” Townsend said.
He warned that those cracks can be exploited by Moscow as winter approaches; Russia has already cut back on its gas exports to Europe.
Turkey and Greece will both head to the polls for crucial elections next year.
Turkish President Erdogan is said to be facing a major challenge to his 20-year rule amid the country’s economic woes and immigration problems.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, elected in 2019, reportedly suffered a popularity loss to some degree because of rising energy prices partly driven by the war in Ukraine.
“Rhetoric on both sides has always been part of the problem and it’s something that doesn’t help things,” said Townsend.
Breedlove agrees. He believes some of this is “playing to an internal audience.”
The United States is known to have maintained a balance between regional rivals Turkey and Greece, which it says are both important NATO allies.
Athens and Washington extended a bilateral military agreement for five years and the deal was ratified by the Greek parliament in the summer, days before the Greek prime minister’s visit to Washington in mid-May. The deal gives the U.S. more 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. “The military leaders discussed mutual items of interest,” said a statement from his office.
That visit was followed by Greek Defense Minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos’ visit to the Pentagon July 18 to meet with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The two discussed the “growing defense partnership between the United States and Greece and the close cooperation on basing, [and] defense modernization,” according to a statement from the Pentagon.
They also discussed “the need to reduce tensions in the Aegean through constructive dialogue.”
Austin spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, July 25, discussing “the need for continued efforts to reduce tensions in the Aegean through constructive dialogue.”
Turkish and Greek defense requests
Greece is seeking to acquire F-35 fighter jets from the United States. The country formally requested the fighter jets in June.
Turkey was kicked out of the F-35 program because of its purchase of an advanced S-400 missile system from Russia. Ankara wants to buy F-16s and modernization kits from Washington. U.S. weapons sales to foreign countries are subject to congressional approval.
Analysts argue that Turkey’s decision to buy the Russian S-400 system was a huge blow to defense cooperation between Washington and Ankara, which they say has traditionally been very strong.
Townsend, who spent 30 years at the Pentagon working on Turkey issues, tells VOA that he “mourns the loss of [the] close working relationship with Turkey,” hoping it can be restored again.
He is hopeful that the United States will be able to provide the F-16s requested by Turkey, saying he thinks the administration — working with Congress — will be able to allow that transfer to happen.
Retired U.S. Air Force General Breedlove maintains the same hope.
Focusing on ‘common threat’
The former NATO commander argues that Turkey made some security decisions that aligned it more closely with “NATO’s enemy,” in reference to its S-400 purchase from Russia, which was identified as the most significant and direct threat to the allies’ security in NATO’s strategic concept document.
“The enemy is not Greece versus Turkey and Turkey versus Greece. It is NATO versus Russia. I would want Turkey to have that if they can't have the F-35. We need to understand who the enemy is,” Breedlove tells VOA.
He said the United States would want to move forward with Turkey because it is an incredibly important part of the NATO alliance despite recent lows in the relationship, adding he cannot speak to the policy of the current U.S. government.
But he also acknowledged that “Greece is a little more aligned with where America wants to go in the area,” saying Washington would want to have the same kind of relationship with Turkey.
He calls on the United States and Turkey to focus on how they can bring back the same level of cooperation rather than growing apart.
Erdogan’s criticism of the West’s Russia policy
Meanwhile, Erdogan has recently accused Western nations of provoking Russia, without naming any.
Speaking at a news conference in Serbia, he suggested the “West’s policy on Russia was based on provocations.”
He vowed to continue Turkey’s balancing policy between Russia and Ukraine, adding Russia is not a country that one can underestimate.
“Russia has cut off natural gas now. Prices in Europe have skyrocketed. Everyone now broods on how they will get through 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 secure the deal that allowed grain exports to resume from the ports in Ukraine. But it has not joined the Western sanctions against Russia.
This story originated in VOA’s Turkish Service. The service's Dilge Timocin contributed.