ANKARA – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to stop talking to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis – after they had agreed to a detente in March – has brought renewed worries the two countries could clash and growing tension.
The volatile Erdogan, who has undermined NATO by buying Russian-made S-400 missile systems that could be used against Greece, was irked that Mitsotakis had the ear of the US Congress in an address – after meeting President Joe Biden.
Read more: Mitsotakis Vows to Defend Greek Sovereignty amid Turkish Revisionism
Erdogan said that Mitsotakis used the opportunity to try to prevent Biden from going ahead with his hope to sell more F-16’s to Turkey and upgrade the Turkish air fleet at the same time that the US renewed a military cooperation deal with Greece.
NATO has stayed out of the feud between Greece and Turkey and refused to intervene over repeated Turkish violations of Greek airspace and waters and Erdogan’s vow to veto the hopes of Finland and Sweden to get into the defense alliance was sign by Greece as aimed at forcing the US to sell F-35’s to Turkey.
“This year we were supposed to have a strategic council meeting,” Erdoğan said in a televised address.. “From now on there is no one called Mitsotakis in my book. I will never accept meeting him because we (only] walk on the same path as politicians who keep their promises, who have character and who are honorable,” said Erdogan, who has jailed journalists by the dozen.
Forgotten now is the March meeting where the two leaders said the would set aside differences and try diplomacy again, which was followed almost immediately by the Turkish President breaking his word.
That came in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but Erdogan – Turkey has been trying to join the EU since 2005 – refused to go along with bloc sanctions at the same time he sold drones to Ukraine to take out Russian tanks and soldiers.
Erdogan, who will run for re-election in 2023 and regularly appeases his hard-core conservative base, blamed Mitsotakis for breaking the deal not to antagonize each other and chilled the EU.
“We had agreed not to include third countries in our disputes,” he said. “Despite this, last week, he had a visit to the US and talked at the Congress and warned them not to give F-16s to us,” said Erdogan.
In that address, Mitsotakis didn’t name Turkey but everyone in the room knew that’s who he meant when he warned about rising troubles in the region if arms purchasing agreements were made – except for Greece buying F-16’s and wanting to acquire F-35’s denied Turkey over the Russian missile defense system buy.
During the lingering COVID-19 pandemic that has brought the worst inflation in decades and households struggling to make ends meet, Mitsotakis’ New Democracy government has increased defense spending 700 percent.
That includes buying French-made Rafale fighter jets and French and American warships, signing a mutual defense deal with France, renewing a military cooperation deal with the US and seeking more foreign allies against Turkey.
Mitsotakis told the US Congress that, “The last thing that NATO needs at a time when our focus is on helping Ukraine defeat Russia’s aggression is another source of instability on Nato’s south-east flank.”
He added in a remark pointed at Turkey without mentioning that country’s need in a veiled attempt at diplomacy that, “I ask you to take this into account when you make defense procurement decisions concerning the Eastern Mediterranean.”
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said that Greece, despite Erdogan’s remarks, could try to resist “falling into the trap” of escalating tensions needlessly. “There is no need to answer in the same way,” he said, expressing disbelief at the Turkish leader’s reaction to a speech that had, he claimed, not deviated from any of the positions Greece has long held, said the British newspaper The Guardian.
Greece and Turkey have been squabbling over rights to the seas – Turkey warned it would be a cause for war if Greece doubles its maritime boundaries to 12 miles – and Erdogan said he would send an energy research vessel and warships off Greek islands in a hunt for oil and gas.
Erdogan also pressured the US to end support for the so-called East Med pipeline from Israel to the EU through Cyprus and has been lobbying hard to get the F-35’s that could prove decisive if Turkey and Greece come to blows.
Erdogan was also said to be upset over the US signing the military cooperation deal with Greece and wanting to add bases there at the same time the US also has troops at a Turkish base.
“At this moment there are 10 bases in Greece. What is the reason? Who are they threatening? For what reason are these bases being built in Greece?” said an obviously peeved Erdogan.
Kostas Ifantis, a Turkish affairs specialist who heads the Institute of International Relations at Athens’ Panteion University, told The Guardian that said with a détente now “stillborn” the coming months could be unpredictable.
“I think we are now looking at a breakdown in communications in the short term,” he said, predicting increased Turkish activity on and around Cyprus where Turkey – which has occupied the northern third of the island since 1974 invasions – has been drilling for oil and gas in Cypriot waters, defying soft EU sanctions.
“Mitsotakis’s visit to Washington is very much perceived in Ankara to have undermined any effort towards rapprochement. Turkey realizes that the US has gradually reduced its strategic dependency on Turkish soil by increasing its military presence in Greece,” said Ifantis.
Speaking to Kathimerini, Dana Spinant, Deputy Chief Spokesperson of the European Commission, said that, “Mitsotakis is the leader of an EU government, recognized as such by the entire world.”
Spinant clarified that, as pointed out by the European Council conclusions in March and June 2021, “Turkey is expected to engage constructively with the EU and its member states, and undertake steps towards de-escalation.”
“Respect for neighbors and fostering good neighborly relations form the basis for a constructive cooperation with the European Union,” she said.
But she also added that, “We cannot comment and we will not comment on bilateral meetings between leaders to address various bilateral issues or other; so there is nothing for us to comment,” shying away from further support.
“Obviously we promote and encourage very good cooperation between leaders, in particular of course between Greece and Turkey, and we hope of course that positive vibes will spread and will be reflected in statements and in actions in the region,” she added.