ATHENS -- "Greece is pursuing an appropriate, and thus far largely successful, strategy for containing Turkey. It is leaning on its European allies while working to strengthen bilateral ties with the United States," Andrew Novo, Professor of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, said in an interview with the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA) released on Saturday.
"Provocative Turkish behavior in the region is nothing new. In the past, it has led to several close calls, heightened tensions, and diplomatic realignments. Fortunately, open conflict has been avoided," he said.
"The United States frowns on these aggressive actions by Turkey because it’s current narrative for the Eastern Mediterranean is one of stability and the rule of law. Turkish actions go directly against this and, of course, undermine the coherence of both the EU and of NATO," he added.
The full interview follows:
Q: "Despite the disapproval mainly from the USA, but also from the European Union, Tayyip Erdogan seems to be returning to the logic of aggression and challenges, in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, as shown by the challenges of the last days in the sea area east of Crete. What is the intended purpose of this strategy? Can it have negative results for Greece and Cyprus and what could they be?"
An: Provocative Turkish behavior in the region is nothing new. In the past, it has led to several close calls, heightened tensions, and diplomatic realignments. Fortunately, open conflict has been avoided. Turkey’s moves are largely negotiating tactics. They are a signal to remind Greece and Cyprus that Turkey does not want to be excluded from diplomatic, economic, and strategic developments in the region. Turkey continues to work actively to promote its interests and wants to be part of broader agreements on energy and security in the region. Negative results are certainly possible for Greece and Cyprus since Turkey’s behavior might continue to undermine foreign investment in energy projects. At the same time, Turkey’s actions expose (and potentially exacerbate) divisions within the European Union between those countries more willing to confront Turkish aggression like Greece or France, and other countries unwilling to risk their commercial and political relations with Ankara by openly condemning such actions or even taking more tangible steps. It is easy for Russia and China to step into these cracks and disrupt partnerships within Europe and within NATO. The United States frowns on these aggressive actions by Turkey because it’s current narrative for the Eastern Mediterranean is one of stability and the rule of law. Turkish actions go directly against this and, of course, undermine the coherence of both the EU and of NATO.
Q: "What do you think would be the appropriate strategy for Greece to contain Turkish aggression in the Eastern Mediterranean? What role do you think the recent defense pact between France and Greece will play in containing Turkish aggression?"
An: Greece is pursuing an appropriate, and thus far largely successful, strategy for containing Turkey. It is leaning on its European allies while working to strengthen bilateral ties with the United States. With America, we see deepening partnerships, friendly rhetoric (often centered on stability, democracy, and other shared values), and heightened American investment in Greece. At the same time, Greece has improved relations with Israel. The United States is looking for stability in the region and Greece is making a strong case to be an important contributor to that security. At the same time, we see Greece looking to move closer to particular European partners, especially France. Greece’s most recent agreement with France is further evidence of its desire to also use the European Union as a framework for defense against Turkey. Unlike Greece’s alliance with the United States, which exists on the basis of NATO, Greece’s relations with France are part of an EU framework either bilaterally or through the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). As a concept, however, European defense is challenging, because the EU has yet to develop the ability to speak with one voice, but Greece’s deepening partnership with France is a clear message to Turkey that Athens is not alone if it comes to confronting Ankara. These are much more "appropriate" strategies, to borrow the term from your question, then trying to balance Turkey by leaning on Russia or China. Neither of these powers shares Greece’s democratic values, nor do they share Greece’s commitment to stability in the region. An external power would more likely seek to undermine security in order to weaken NATO or the European Union leaving Greece vulnerable.
Q: "Do you think that the new US administration under President Biden intends to curb Turkeys expansionist ambitions? How is it considered that Washington will move in order, on the one hand, to restore Turkey within the framework of international legitimacy and, on the other hand, not to isolate it by turning it into the arms of countries such as Russia or Iran?"
An: Your question correctly implies that the Biden administration faces a number of significant foreign policy challenges. As we know, many of these challenges relate directly to the Eastern Mediterranean and relations between the United States and Turkey. Turkish expansionism is a question of both influence and territory. Turkey has moved into parts of Iraq and Syria and has used a partnership with Azerbaijan to change borders in the disputed area of Nagorno Karabakh. It is also seeking expanded influence in the region and extending its influence into Libyan as well. Turkey’s actions are a function of its growing power in economic, political, and military terms. Turkey remains an important partner for the United States, as well as a NATO ally. Its growth increases its importance to the United States. At the same time, the Biden Administration’s commitment to a foreign policy based on "rules" and "values" could create additional stresses in American-Turkish relations. Erdogan’s behavior has repeated undermined democracy in Turkey. In July, Turkey withdrew from an international treaty to prevent violence against women. Recently, violence against the PKK and other Kurdish groups in Syria, Iraq, and along the Turkish-Iranian border has flared up. Turkey remains a challenging, but important partner for the United States. Erdogan has also expressed frustration with American policies, not least criticizing American actions in Syria and Iraq and the support the United States has given Kurds in both those conflicts. Neither Russia nor Iran is greeting Turkey with purely open arms. Both Putin and the Iranian regime are wary of Erdogan’s unpredictability. Both Russia and Iran understand the deep and long-standing relationship between Turkey and the United States and their own fraught histories with Turkey. Moscow and Tehran are willing to pursue opportunistic gains with Ankara at the expense of Washington, but major other factors would have to change for them to completely overturn the current alliance structure. There will be
opportunities, both during and after the presidency of Erdogan, for the United States and Turkey to reach a broader understanding and to improve relations. It seems that Erdogan is attempting to move in this direction. The recent economic weakness of Turkey is likely to make him more amenable to a compromise of some sort.
Q: "What do you think will be the impact on the already fragile balances in the Eastern Mediterranean from any increase in migratory flows due to the Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan?"
An: The Taliban’s return to power is likely to create displaced persons both within Afghanistan and in neighboring countries. I am not sure it will push tens of thousands of Afghans into Europe and threaten the stability of the Eastern Mediterranean, at least in the short term. This will depend on how the Taliban chooses to govern and whether local resistance movements develop against the Taliban. In that case, we would expect to see more refugees fleeing the country and potentially reaching Europe’s borders. In such an event, Erdogan would be ready to make full political use of Afghan refugees in Turkey in relation to Europe.
Q: "How will the US-UK-Australia (AUKUS) agreement affect NATO’s strategy and internal balances? Do you think that a period of competition between the USA and the EU is starting? How feasible is it to pursue a strategic EU autonomy, which includes the creation of a Euromilitary?"
An: The AUKUS agreement is clearly a pact focused on curtailing Chinese power. It represents a powerful step by Australia into the American camp and a reaffirmation of Britain’s place at America’s side. These countries are starting to choose sides in the US-China rivalry. The EU, as a whole, has tried to avoid making this choice. European ambiguity with regard to confronting Chian is perhaps a contributing factor to the AUKUS agreement. All European countries have important economic relationships with China. Italy has signed up for a role in the Belt and Road Initiative. Greece enjoys large Chinese investments in Piraeus. Europe has enormous trade interests with China, profits from Chinese investment, and from Chinese tourism. European countries are not eager to sacrifice those economic benefits on the altar of "Great Power Competition." Consider, for example, the manner in which Germany attempts to disassociate its dependence on Russian energy from its political stance against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine or various other provocations. Strategic EU autonomy and the creation of a Euromiliary are entirely possible if we are only considering European capacity. European states have money and resources. But for Europe to have strategic autonomy it needs to first define its strategic interests in a unified and coherent way. The different approaches of Germany and France to Turkish behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean or contrasts between the various members states in their attitudes to Russia and China make it difficult for the European Union to achieve strategic autonomy and in turn develop a pan-European military.
*Andrew Novo is Professor of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and a non-resident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. The views presented here are entirely his and do not reflect the views of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the National Defense University.