Once again the world is at a turning point. The post-Second World War bipolar international order, based on a balance of power between East and West, does not exist anymore. The geostrategic situation of the EU is the reflection of the global confrontation of the US with China and Russia and their real or "would be" partners fighting to improve their position in the new distribution of power and influence on a worldwide scale, which would result in constitution of the new multi-polar world order. This confrontation involves elements of a "new Cold war" which includes different methods without the need to engage in direct military warfare1. While Russia is working decisively to create its own sphere of influence, India, Turkey, Nigeria, Brazil are running for a bigger role in world affairs. In such a vacuum, where the multi-polar international order is yet to be shaped, tensions in relations between the Russian Federation, the United States of America and the EU can have unpredictable consequences.
Nowadays, when the Great Power's conflict is possibly again "on the menu" (certain predictions allude to the South China Sea, Ukraine, Persian Gulf, Korean Peninsula, Baltic, Kashmir or even Venezuela as the potential "inflammable" war zones), the question is why do we not pay enough attention to the escalation of situation in the Eastern Mediterranean where the near future will likely become more and more hazardous?
Pursuit of security by "proxy" in Eastern Mediterranean
For the last two or three years, we are witnessing the escalation of Greek-Turkish relations. The roots of the confrontation in the Aegean which today is its peak is in the immediate post First World War period which in fact did not represent an era of peace and tranquillity. It was a pivotal period, a time for re-drawing the boundaries and spheres of influence in the end of three mighty powers, which consequences are felt even nowadays. It was in the area of the Near and the Middle East that the British Empire immediately faced the necessity of establishing stability and security, an area that has long been seen as vital to the safeguarding of the British interest. Considering the need to bar any Russian ambitions to challenge British interests, whether in the Mediterranean or along the frontiers with India, the sensitive area of Western Asia Minor that included Straits and Constantinople certainly constituted a vital area. As to the question of the Straits, British interests had been well served by the Ottomans up until the beginning of the 20th century when the Ottomans sided with Germany at the outbreak of the Great War. However, the British policy did not manage from the beginning to tackle the problem effectively. On the issue of filling the power vacuum in the area of Straits and Western Asia Minor, Britain had introduced an innovative solution- it supported the case of small regional ally of Britain-Greece, a small country standing at the gates of the Eastern Mediterranean, which could partly provide for the security of British Interests, lightening the load of surveillance for the area. Britain was looking for alternative ways to exert even more influence in the region, without the entanglement of British forces. Greece seemed to qualify for this position following the Ottoman Alliance and the creation and backing of greater Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean guarding Western Asia Minor and the Straits seemed an attractive solution. But was, in fact, Britain in a position to assert its influence on the region after the Great War2?
The British did support the Greeks against the Turkish nationalists, but they did not have land forces in the area to support them. As a result, the Greek army advanced to the depths of Asia Minor, almost reaching Ankara (1920-21), but with its allies operating in favour of the enemy, it was forced to retreat. In the meantime, tendencies of a Greek government in July 1922 for the creation of an autonomous Asia Minor state under the auspices of the Allied forces met the reactions of Italy and France and did not work. The war ended with the defeat and evacuation of the Greek army from Smyrna (26.8.1922). This was followed by the evacuation of Eastern Thrace by the Greek army in front of the advancing Turkish National Army (22.10. 1922), while the islands of Imbros and Tenedos remained outside Greek rule. The Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which ended the Greek-Turkish war, recognized the Turkish domination of Asia Minor and East Thrace and led to a population exchange between Greece and Turkey, resulting in the creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees3.
A century later Greek - Turkish issues again reach a climax
The current tensions in Greek-Turkish relations have an obvious historical background, starting with the fierce struggles of the two nations for sovereignty and territorial distribution. Today, a century later, Turkey claims to be an ambitious regional superpower. At this very moment in the face of ambitious and strong Turkey Greece is exhausted by a decade long crisis. However, today's confrontation between Athens and Ankara has other roots, different from circumstances a century before which resulted in the Asia Minor Disaster, when the boundaries of coexistence in the treaty of Lausanne were settled. Moreover, these relations cannot be dealt with in a bilateral context primarily because of the geostrategic dimension of their confrontation, but also because of their dependence on international actors such as the US, NATO and the EU. The main areas of contemporary conflict between Greece and Turkey are the claims to the Aegean - coastal zone, territorial waters, the continental shelf, the Exclusive Economic Zone, the national airspace, the demobilization of the Dodecanese, the minority of Western Thrace and Cyprus question. The current object of the Greek-Turkish conflict is obviously the domination of the Aegean and the assertion of rights over its expected mineral-oil wealth.
The main motivation for demarcating the continental shelf is the exploitation of underwater resources, mainly hydrocarbons. The Greek-Turkish dispute over the Aegean continental shelf dates back to November 1973. To date, the issue remains unresolved and it has not been long before Greece and Turkey have reached the brink of war. The factors that make it difficult to resolve are the fact that the maritime border in the northern Aegean has not been demarcated; Greece and Turkey have not set EEZs. The political tensions and the legally complex nature of the Aegean delimitation weaken any effort to find solutions. History is also repeated in Cyprus with recent discoveries in energy fields in the Eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, the situation is becoming more complex due to the fact that other countries such as Israel and Egypt are involved in this case except Cyprus and Turkey. Obviously, the developments in the Eastern Mediterranean are becoming sources of ignition and of great concern4.
Energy security by "proxy" in Eastern Mediterranean
The tangible result of the decades-long Greek-Turkish diplomatic dispute was that the US has finally put the Aegean under their NATO umbrella. Tangible gains from the Greek-Turkish competition were also derived first and foremost from the US, but also from the Germany, France, Britain and Russia. Due to prevailing conditions Athens and to a certain extent Nicosia was dominated by the view that Washington is on the side of Greek and Greek Cypriot interests at this juncture and because of the great disharmony in US-Turkish relations. Proof of these assessments was claimed to be the Americans' move to strengthen with their participation the economic-political alliance between Greece-Cyprus-Israel.
Meanwhile, despite of the Russian Foreign Ministry's concern about further escalation of tensions in the exclusive economic zone of the Republic of Cyprus and proposals to avoid escalating of potential crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean and strict adherence to the principles of international law5 it seems that the US does not want a conflict with Turkey.
The inactivation of the Republic of Cyprus's sovereignty over the maritime territories south of the island which Ankara seeks to achieve, threatens to radically transform energy architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean. This is against US strategic planning. Especially at the moment when the integrated reserves of Israel, Egypt, the Republic of Cyprus and Greece could be an important energy reservoir that could reduce dependence on Russian gas transforming the Eastern Mediterranean in an intermediate energy space between Russia and the Middle East. It could drastically enhance European energy security, limit Russia's role and allow the US to focus on tackling rising China. But Turkish rule in the Eastern Mediterranean threatens to destroy this prospect. In addition, given Iran-Russia relations, a single energy centre could be formed with three centres (Moscow, Ankara, Tehran) threatening Europe with energy strangulation and thereby undermining US strategy. It was very unlikely that the United States would accept such a huge boost in the role and power of unpredictable Turkey permitting it to become "a key energy crusader" in the Eastern Mediterranean.
However, those who do not share this view explain the US "forced friendship" with Turkey, not just in order to maintain the Western security architecture, but supporting as well that US companies have already taken the "lions share" of the Cypriot EEZ and prefer the cheaper route through the Turkish territory and the existing pipeline system. Moreover "rumours" suggest that US involvement in trilateral Greece-Cyprus-Israel is in fact marginalizing Europeans and in practice undermining the idea of creating the submarine pipeline for the transportation of Cypriot gas on European markets.
"Turkey in Libya- Starting point for the demarcation memorandum" or…
Although the conclusions of a statement by the Greek Foreign Ministry that "it is time for Turkey to finally revise its stance and comply with the requirements of International Maritime Law for the sake of stability and cooperation in the region", in which it responded to "allegations of the Turkish shelf coordinates contained in the official letter of the Turkish Permanent Representative to the UN", we have to wait to see what happens next, taking into consideration the letter of deposition and the memorandum of understanding that Turkey has signed with the recognized Libyan government. Although the Ankara's intention was proclaimed and Turkish diplomatic efforts to draw the government of Tripoli into this agreement were publicly held these events are a particularly challenging escalation. Greek diplomatic sources have argued that Greece is now obliged to change its stance on the Libyan issue.
However it seems that by putting Libya in its game (by signing of the Memorandum of Understanding which was submitted to UN on November 13th 2019), Turkey hoped to legitimize it ambitions. The memorandum signed by the Turkish government with Tripoli government may, according to diplomatic sources, complicate matters not only in the Castellorizo-Rhodes-Crete arc, but also south of Crete where Greece has bordered maritime plots and granted research to major oil companies. Additionally the Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Cyprus condemns the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between Turkey and Libya, which attempted to delimit maritime zones between them. Moreover, considering this issue, important meeting is about to take place between Greek and Egyptian Ministers of Foreign Affairs.
… the end of existing international system?
The whole story might be considered just as the episode in a series of "turbulent events" that could potentially lead to an escalation of conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean, Nevertheless, some reputable analysis characterized it as a turning point and the beginning of establishing a multi-polar order and "death of international system controlled by the US". According to these estimates within this new system being created, Turkey wants to become one of the world's leading poles of power. In order to achieve this, it is obliged to examine completely the most important area of the Eastern Mediterranean in general and the Aegean in particular, based on a series of changes that are taking place in the international system lately (the melting of Arctic ice and the opening of the Arctic Circle to shipping and the famous Belt and Road Initiative), thus completely confirming Sir Halford John Mackinder's premise " whoever controls this area is seriously questioning to become one of the world's rulers ". Obviously, Turkey is seeing the international system disintegrate and a window of opportunity emerges until the new world architecture is formed.
As far as Greece and Turkey are concerned, they are two countries in a geographical area whose sovereignty is crucial for future global sovereignty. While Greece seeks to play the role of bridge from the West to the East, Turkey want to reverse by starting from the East to build the bridges with the West. The recent discovery of hydrocarbons south of Cyprus has dramatically accelerated Turkish claims and this time Greek-Turkish conflict is not about a rocky island (Imia crisis). However, its new role in the global economic and geopolitical system coupled with its previously strong economic growth and large export expansion of its military industry give Turkey considerable power to pursue its dynamic objectives in the SE Mediterranean. At the same time, the uncertainty on the horizon provokes an important question with enormous scope for alliances and partnerships in near future- who wants the strong Turkey?
1 S. Devetak, "The role of the EU in building the New European International Order as a basis for Peace, Security and Development. The time is ripe for a new conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe", 144-164, Peace and Democratic Multilateralism, Proceedings of the Thirteenth ECPD International Conference, Belgrade 2017.
2 E. Daleziou, Britain and Greek-Turkish War ans Settlement of 1919-1923: The Pursuit of Security by Proxy in Western Asia Minor, PhD Thesis, University of Glasgow, 2002.
3 T. Breidel Hadjidemetriou, War and Diplomacy in the Middle East, The Activity of Lorens of Arabia, Athens 2015.
4 Κ. Παναγιωτήδη, "Το ΝΑΤΟ, η Ευρωπαϊκή Ένωση και η χρόνια ελληνοτουρκική διένεξη", Βαλκάνια Εύθραυστες ισορροπίες, ΕΛΙΣΜΕ 2018.
5 Cfr. pronews.gr.