ATHENS - Greece has lashed out at Turkey, warning it will push for sanctions against its neighbor if it continues with what it calls “hostile” and “provocative threats.” The warning from Athens comes as the leaders of the two NATO allies, age-old foes, prepare to meet in an effort to accelerate talks aimed at easing growing tension in the past year over energy rights in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean Seas. Chances of a breakthrough look bleak.
It was this remark by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that raised critical eyebrows in Athens.
He said Turkey was ready to defend territories once held by the Ottomans …and that a recent string of military exercises in the Aegean Sea had Greece... an "enemy" state as he put it …both scared and worried of Turkey’s capabilities to do so.
Echoing that threat, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar later called on Greece to uphold international agreements and scrap missiles and military apparatus deployed on a string of Greek islands in the Aegean, situated just miles off Turkey’s Western Coast.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias rebuffed the demand with a stiff warning.
He said Greece has long supported Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. But if Ankara failed to tone down what he called its "hostile" actions and "provocative" rhetoric, then Athens was ready to renew its call for EU sanctions against its neighbor state and NATO ally.
Greece and Turkey have been at loggerheads for decades, challenging each other’s sea and air rights to the Aegean. But as massive oil and gas reserves have been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean in recent years, the two foes have clashed over their rights to explore and tap those energy reserves.
The standoff has been so intense that both sides came to the brink of war last year when a pair of Greek and Turkish frigates nearly collided in a dangerous chase over drilling rights in disputed parts of the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas that divide the two countries.
As tensions flared dangerously at the time, the U.S. State Department intervened to push the two sides to the negotiating table to ease the energy standoff. Washington remains involved in the process, but the talks so far have yielded little result.
Still, in a recent visit here by Turkey’s foreign minister, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis agreed to meet with Erdogan to try and jump start the peace talks. The high-level meeting is scheduled for June 14, on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels.
"What we are seeing in the last weeks in a sort of kinetic energy from both sides to talk to each other. So, they are prepared to talk to each other at the highest political level. But this does not mean that the talks will yield results. This is a completely different story because the differences are existing, they are diachronic and the demands from both sides are contradictory. So, while I am optimistic that both sides are prepared to defuse tensions, I don’t believe they are chances of solving the problems themselves.”
Even so, other experts concede, keeping both sides engaged in the peace process may be enough to buy precious time, keeping tempers down and pushing back the chances of an accident that could spark a potential war and serious rift within the NATO military alliance.