ATHENS, GREECE - The massive American warship, the USS Hershel Woody Williams, has arrived in the Greek island of Crete, on a mission to keep an eye on escalating tensions between NATO allies Greece and Turkey over energy rights in the eastern Mediterranean. The US vessel joins others from the European Union and Russia, raising concerns among some in Greece about what a military buildup could mean.
Military experts describe the USS Hershel Woody Williams as a floating base, the second of a new class of massive ships the US Navy is now using as fast transport and support centers for military operations.
The 230-meter-long ship, about the size of some skyscrapers, was earlier in Naples, Italy, for a routine logistics stop before it was sent to Crete where it is on standby as Greece and Turkey remain locked in a standoff.
Greek and Turkish battleships have been gathering in the region since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered a research vessel to the eastern Mediterranean to survey for gas and oil.
Greece says the seabed off the coast of Crete and other islands in the region are its own to exploit – a claim Turkey has repeatedly refused, saying islands are not entitled to what is known as an exclusive economic zone.
US officials have not given details on the orders the Hershel Woody Williams received or how long it will remain in Crete’s Souda Bay.
But its presence comes as France last week also deployed a pair of frigates to the eastern Mediterranean – a move that quickly drew Moscow’s attention. The Russian navy moved in one of its frigates.
Cyprus Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulidis says forces from other EU nations and countries in the region are likely to arrive and join the effort.
He says it is something Greek officials are expecting to build up as we they try to find a diplomatic solution, he says. He praised the buildup as vivid proof of the West’s resolve to block what he said is Turkey’s growing influence in the region.
Analyst Kostas Ifandis, a professor of military studies and diplomatic relations, doubts the show of force will change things very much.
He says that if the situation gets dicey, we may see other countries like Egypt mobilizing. But from the EU’s standpoint, he says, it is unlikely that this buildup will impact Turkey because its biggest trading partner and closest ally, Germany, is unlikely to join in such a maneuver.
Currently chairing the EU’s rotating presidency, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been trying to convince Athens and Ankara to enter into negotiations over the conflicting claims each side has to air and sea rights in the region.
Germany has been reluctant to support stiff sanctions against Turkey, but it has advised the government in Ankara to pull back its survey vessel from the disputed waters.
Turkey has said it will continue to survey the contested region through next week.
But the buildup of vessels, submarines and even combat aircraft in the region, has experts fearing an accident that could spark a bigger confrontation between Greece and Turkey.
In a recent incident, Greek Defense Ministry officials said a Greek frigate collided with the rear of a Turkish ship as the Greek vessel moved to intercept it. There was no damage to either vessel but the incident prompted armed forces on both sides to be on heightened alert.