Updated: Jan 9, 2020
“It seems to me at times that whenever a top official from Turkey makes a statement, it is a statement that involves talk of war.”
The alarm bell rang out across the August heat at Greece’s 111 Wing fighter base, jolting two F-16 Viper pilots who’d been idly watching a Greek soap opera in their air-conditioned hut.
Within minutes, the two men were helming the Hellenic Air Force’s most advanced fighter jets as they raced down the tarmac and roared into the blue skies over the Aegean Sea. They were on a mission to intercept Turkish intruders.
The Greek armed forces are tasked with intercepting and repelling aerial and naval incursions by an increasingly erratic and aggressive Turkey, a dysfunctional relationship at the heart of NATO’s security architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Every day, the fighter jets of the two regional powers engage in mock dogfights over Greece’s eastern borders, maneuvering for “technical kills,” where one pilot locks his missiles onto his adversary’s aircraft, with only the push of a button separating this dangerous dance from war. Sometimes it has proved deadly: Last December, a Greek Mirage pilot was killed in an aviation accident while intercepting Turkish jets.
“For almost 30 years in the Aegean Sea, we have had to deal with our neighbors by ourselves,” explained the base commander Col. Dimitris Giannopoulos, standing on the runway in his flight suit.
Indeed, tensions between Greece and Turkey are not new, but the discovery of rich deposits of liquid and gas petroleum in the Eastern Mediterranean is changing the balance of power in the region at a time when Turkey’s apparent drift away from NATO is causing alarm in Washington and Athens.
“It seems to me at times that whenever a top official from Turkey makes a statement, it is a statement that involves talk of war,” Greece’s new defense minister, Nikos Panagiotopoulos, told VICE News. “War in Syria. War in the Middle East. War in the Aegean. Now if that isn't aggressive rhetoric, then I’m wondering what type of rhetoric it is.”
Over the past few years, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel have held an escalating series of large-scale military drills aimed at enhancing cooperation between their air and naval forces, while simultaneously pushing forward with an ambitious scheme to construct a pipeline transporting the newly discovered oil and gas to markets in the European Union.
The aim is to strengthen relations between allies, while reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy resources, but it’s impossible to divorce these moves from the broader strategic picture of regional powers unsettled by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bellicose rhetoric and growing image as a source of regional instability.
The latest source of tension between the NATO allies is Turkey’s dispatch of drill ships, escorted by warships, into Cypriot waters.
Greece is treaty-bound to defend Cyprus’s territorial integrity, and Turkish encroachment on the island republic’s territory is a source of growing anxiety for Athens.
Though only Cyprus’s Greek-led government is internationally recognized, Turkey has occupied the northern half of the island for 45 years, and claims the right to drill for oil in Cyprus’s waters, a stance that has led to condemnation from both the EU and the U.S.
“We want peace in the region. We do not wish any kind of conflict. But at the same time, in order to maintain the status quo as it is, we are taking a very confident and resolute position against Turkish behavior,” Panagiotopoulos told VICE News. “There is no other way I’m afraid.”
Tasked with dampening the growing tensions within the NATO alliance and managing Turkey’s recent rapprochement with Russia, American diplomats in the region find themselves overseeing a delicate balancing act.
But Erdogan’s not making it easy. His recent purchase of advanced Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles saw Turkey expelled from the F-35 fighter jet program. Erdogan, however, appears unfazed by NATO’s disciplinary actions and has expressed interest in purchasing the alternative Russian SU-57 jet. He’s also continued his threats to invade Northeast Syria, where U.S. troops are stationed alongside fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Within this context, the growing defense relationship between the United States and Greece, manifest in the donation of equipment, enhanced training, and increasing use of strategically attractive facilities like the combined air and naval base at Souda Bay in Crete, can be interpreted as a potential fallback option in case America’s relationship with Turkey is damaged beyond repair.
Greece’s strategic situation at the meeting point of Europe, Asia and North Africa, coupled with the growing Russian interest in the Mediterranean and Putin’s use of energy as a diplomatic tool, makes the region an area of American interest once again after decades of marginalization. Geoffrey Pyatt, the American ambassador to Greece, is a keen advocate of upgraded military ties between the U.S. and Greece and of Greece’s new energy and defense alliances.
“The eastern Mediterranean for many years was taken for granted,” Geoffrey Pyatt, the American ambassador to Greece, told VICE News. “But today it’s a region which is in play. We see Russia playing a more prominent role of course in Syria, China is asserting itself, Iran is present. These are all rivals challenging the order that the United States has tried to support in Europe and around the world.”
Despite the backdrop of growing tensions, Pyatt stressed that the new spirit of enhanced cooperation should not be seen as a direct challenge to Erdogan.
“I think it’s a mistake to view the emerging cooperative framework in the eastern Mediterranean as being anti-Turkey,” Pyatt added. “I think the really important aspect of the Greek-U.S. piece of this is first of all that Greece and the United States share a strong interest in doing everything possible to see that Turkey remains anchored in the West, anchored in Western institutions.”
“We have to be prepared for any type of development.”
Praising the Greek government's commitment to minimizing the risk of an accident spiraling out of control, Pyatt put the onus on Turkey to return the region to calmer days: “The United States hopes very much that Turkey will return to being a stabilizing factor as opposed to a destabilizing factor in the wider neighborhood.”
Greek officials are less optimistic. Asked whether the new alliance system could become explicitly oriented against Turkish threats, Defense Minister Panagiotopoulos told VICE News, “It could evolve into a defense alliance in theory,” though he emphasized Greece would much rather Turkey returned to being an integral part of NATO’s security architecture in the region.
“We have to be prepared for any type of development. That means maintaining the readiness and full capability of our armed forces and working and expanding on our strategic alliances with other key players in the region, like Cyprus and Israel and Egypt… but also our great alliances like our strategic alliance with our EU partners and especially with the United States of America — which at the end of the day provides the ultimate security umbrella for us all,” he added.