The Aegean Dispute – NATO's Persistent Predicament

From South America to Europe to East Asia, there are several cases where Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of two or more countries overlap. However, none of these maritime boundary issues has led to as much dissension as the Turkey-Greece maritime dispute of overlapping EEZ in the Mediterranean. Both states engage in frequent skirmishes where Greece accuses Turkey of violating its sovereignty, and Turkey blames Greece for violating the international agreement by militarising the Islands near the Turkish shores. This analysis, considering the recent bilateral escalations and the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, presents a broader picture of the dispute. It assesses why similar disputes between other countries have been resolved while Turkey and Greece remain in a deadlock. It also analyses the implications for NATO and the prospects of the Turkish neo-Ottoman rise.

Amidst the Russia-Ukraine crisis, challenges keep presenting themselves as NATO needs a united front more than ever. The Turkey-Greece dispute is the primary exhibition of the disunited NATO alliance. Since Turkey has not consolidated a strong position as Greece in European Union (EU) yet, the EU is unsurprisingly inclined towards Greece in the dispute. The European Commission has warned Turkey to de-escalate the situation. As a result, the EU’s inclination towards the Greek stance has been reflected in Turkey’s response throughout the Russia-Ukraine crisis. While Greece, along with other NATO member states, has contributed to NATO’s war efforts by providing the western allies with an important transhipment base, Turkey has assumed a relatively balanced approach. At a time ripe for Putin to manipulate any NATO ally, this policy rift between Turkey and its fellow NATO members is not exactly desirable for the EU. Turkey’s conciliatory approach towards the Russia-Ukraine crisis is a matter of resentment for Greece because the latter’s narrative is based on the fact that Russian troops are killing people of Greek origin as well. In fact, the Greek president showed concerns about Turkey following in the same footsteps towards Greece as Putin when he invaded Ukraine.

While Greece, along with other NATO member states, has contributed to NATO’s war efforts by providing the western allies with an important transhipment base, Turkey has assumed a relatively balanced approach.

Similarly, the United States also came out in support of Greece while emphasising that the sovereignty of Greece over the said islands was not in question. Turkey is also accused of violating the Greek airspace over Alexandropoulos, a city that hosts a US transhipment base for providing military equipment to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Turkey has expressed its displeasure over the increasing number of US military bases in Greece. The United States is eager for its political involvement in the EU because it complements its dominant power through NATO, which eventually translates into its strategic influence in Europe.

Turkey’s apprehensions regarding US military bases are based on the allegation that Greece is militarising the islands on Turkish shores with US military equipment. Moreover, Turkey has also accused the United States of disrupting the balance on Cyprus Island by making it pro-Greek Cypriot, which is substantiated by the recent uplift of the arms embargo on the Greek Cypriot administration by the United States. In one of his speeches, the Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu explicitly stated that those who are supporting Greece to please them should not expect friendly relations with Turkey. Similarly, Greece has lobbied against Turkey’s potential deal to buy F-16 fighter jets from the United States on the grounds of alleged air space violations by the Turkish air force, which eventually mounted to further bitterness between both officials.

As far as Turkey’s regional endeavours are concerned, under the leadership of Tayyip Erdogan, a neo-Ottoman foreign policy outlook has been adopted by Turkey in its domestic and foreign policy pursuits. The new Turkish global and regional outlook that is emerging is aligned with the Turkish objective of reviving the Ottoman legacy. This could be one of the factors why Turkey has preferred to stay in a deadlock rather than conciliation towards an agreement. In fact, Greek-Turkey contention can be traced back to the Ottoman era when the Ottoman empire conquered Greece in the 15th century and later, Greece got independent in 1922. It was one of the earliest Balkan states to emancipate from Ottoman rule. Neither of the two is giving up on their claims in the Aegean dispute because Turkey aspires to assert a strong posture of regional power while Greece is committed to untiredly challenging it. Turkey has been called out for its “imperial” and “revisionist” agenda by Greece over various platforms, including United Nations General Assembly, when Greek prime minister Mitsotakis said that growing intensity from Turkey is alarming as it is pursuing an even more aggressive and revisionist agenda. He also said in one press conference that “There is no place for imperial visions in the 21st century” – overtly referring to Turkey.

The Turkish rise as a regional power has triggered the offshore balancing on the part of the United States, which is why the United States is favouring the Greek “defensive measures” by providing them with military equipment used to militarise the islands at the Turkish coast. The Mediterranean dispute now includes states beyond Turkey and Greece as well, i.e., Libya, Egypt and Israel are now caught in the crosshairs of this dispute when a maritime border sharing agreement was signed between the Tripoli government and Turkey. Hence, it implies that compromising on its claims will not only mean backing off from territorial claims but will also portray the weakness on the part of Turkey, not a very affirmative look provided that it is striving to become one of the regional powers. But at the same time, Turkey’s efforts to strengthen its position for EU membership require it to be more flexible and less intransigent. Hence, it is a crucial time for Turkey to decide between choosing to pursue regional dominance by reviving its Ottoman legacy or strengthen its position as an EU member state and NATO ally – the indecision regarding which is precisely why the Aegean dispute has not been resolved while many other conflicts of the same nature have reached resolution agreements.

Ana Arooj

Ana Arooj studied International Relations from National Defence University, Pakistan. She is currently working as Research Assistant at CSCR.

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