ANKARA – Defense analysts believe it’s remote at best but can’t rule out that if he feels desperate about losing re-election in 2023 that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won’t make good his threat to invade Greece.
He tipped his hand with gung-ho bombast about the idea, saying out loud that Greece shouldn’t be surprised if Turkey’s forces “come suddenly one night,” even more unlikely given that Greek forces, being buttressed with French Rafale fighter jets and warships are expecting it so you can rule out surprise.
But Erdogan, under whose near 20-year run as Prime Minister and now President, a title he thought more befitting, has shown he is as unpredictable and perhaps more dangerous as he sees hopes of joining the European Union fading under his autocratic rule, the bid more than 17 years old now.
The New York Times, in a report by its chief diplomatic correspondent in Europe, Steven Erlanger, said the volatile Erdogan keeps the EU off balance, knowing his country’s geo-political value – and holding more than 4 million refugees and migrants he could unleash on the bloc.
His bugaboo is Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whom he tried to take down in front of the 27 EU heads of state during a meeting in Prague, interrupting the Greek leader at a dinner in a protocol no-no.
The paper reported Erdogan began a shouting match with the usually unflappable Mitsotakis, who kept his cool as Erdogan said it was Greece raising provocations, although Turkey has repeatedly violated Greek airspace and demanded Greece take troops off some Aegean islands.
When a reporter asked Erdogan if he would attack Greece, the Turkish President said, “actually you have understood,” although he blows hot and cold and backed off plans to send an energy research ship off Greek islands after the normally timid EU finally seemed serious about imposing sanctions.
Compounding the dilemma for the bloc is that the two countries are alleged allies in NATO although Turkey bought Russian-made S-400 missile systems that undermine the defense alliance and could be used against Greece in a conflict.
“While few diplomats or analysts are predicting war, there is a growing sense among European diplomats that a politically threatened Mr. Erdogan is an increasingly dangerous one for his neighbor – and that accidents can happen,” is how the paper portrayed the risk, accidental or otherwise.
Erdogan, the report said, needs a crisis to prop up his standing beyond his ultra-nationalist base and threatening Greece is working, with even his rivals rallying around the Turkish flag, ironically giving him a re-election boost.
Nothing galvanizes an entire country like the patriotic fervor of a war and Erdogan seems willing to make it happen to stay in power, some critics and political pundits have said about his willingness to wag the dog.
Sinan Ulgen, the Director of EDAM, an Istanbul-based research institution, told the paper there is electioneering behind Erdogan’s move, but that there were deep-seated problems, especially the faltering economy, that make him more likely to do anything to stay in power.
“Turkey and Greece have a set of unresolved bilateral disputes,” he said, “and this creates a favorable environment whenever a politician in Ankara or Athens wants to raise tensions.”
The two countries have nearly gone to war several times since the 1970’s, the latest in 1996 in a heated contest over the uninhabited rocky islets of Imia that both claim, three Greek officers killed in a mysterious helicopter crash still unexplained, prompting speculation it wasn’t an accident.
“And now we’re at it again,” Ulgen said. “And why? Because of elections in Turkey and Greece.”
Mitsotakis has matched Erdogan move-for-move although he, too, faces a tough re-election in mid-2023 and has hushed up a spyware and phone bugging scandal and is dealing with record inflation, although not as bad as in Turkey.
At the dinner in Prague, Mitsotakis pulled the rug out from under Erdogan by saying the event was designed to solve problems, not create them – but that he wouldn’t stay silent while Erdogan keeps threatening Greece’s sovereignty.
“No, Mr. Erdogan – no to bullying,” he said in a recent policy speech. He told reporters that he was open to talks with Erdogan despite the enmity, saying he thought military conflict unlikely. “I don’t believe this will ever happen,” he said. “And if, God forbid, it happened, Turkey would receive an absolutely devastating response,” he said, outgunned Greece still a formidable foe.
Ulgen said he doesn’t think there will be a war but is hedging his bets. “It could happen; it’s not something we can rule out anymore,” he said. “But if it happens, it will be small-scale.”