Turkey Caught Greece, EU, Germany Off Guard with Energy Hunt

Εθνικός Κήρυξ

(Ibrahim Laleli/DHA via AP)

The move by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to again send an energy research vessel and warships off the Greek island of Kastellorizo, caught the Greek government, along with the European Union and Germany, which was acting as a mediator in a seas dispute, unawares.

In an interview with Kathimerini, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Turkey’s renewed deployment of the Oruc Reis was “a very bad surprise,” although he had done it twice before.

The first time he withdrew it after being persuaded by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who refused to back Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' demand the EU impose sanctions.

After Mitsotakis and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades – where Turkey is already drilling – pulled back the sanctions demands at an EU meeting with Turkish officials to give diplomacy another chance, Erdogan pounced.

He had already said that no matter the outcome of talks planned in Ankara, not Athens, which Greece scrapped for now, he would go ahead with drilling, undeterred by anyone and disregarding even the United States' calls for him to back off to prevent a conflict.

So far, unlike before, Greece hadn't reportedly dispatched parts of its naval fleet to shadow the Turkish ships while Mitsotakis is trying to decide how to respond and the EU is dithering, still reluctant to confront an emboldened Erdogan. 

Greece’s armed forces remain on high alert for the possibility of any further provocation,said Kathimerini, but the paper said there won't be a military action unless Turkey fires first with fears Erdogan is trying to goad Greece to strike. 

Mitsotakis' approach is said to continue to be trying diplomacy which has constantly failed with Erdogan while wanting the EU to be ready to lower the boom with real sanctions, unlike soft penalties over Cypriot drilling.

The EU had given Turkey until the end of the year to reach a resolution with Greece but the Turkish ship in the meantime could continue to hunt for oil and gas even in Greek waters. 

Turkey issued a navigational warning, a NAVTEX, reserving waters around the Greek island for its energy exploration through Oct. 22 but it could be extended and there are worries the Oruc Reis will sail between six and 12 nautical miles off the island as Greece mulls extending the limit to the 12-mile line.

Mitsotakis, who has been building international alliances against Turkey's plans to claim more parts of the Aegean and East Mediterranean under a maritime deal he signed with Libya – which no other country recognizes – is trying also to deepen ties with Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Greece countered the Turkey-Libya deal by making a similar agreement with Egypt, now in the Greek camp, a move that drove Erdogan to call off a first series of planned talks and the situation escalate.

Greece is also building its military arsenal with weapons, ammunition and plans to buy French-made Rafale fighter jets but tension is also building over reports Turkey tested a Russian-made S-400 missile defense system that could be used against Greek forces, which set off anger in Washington. 

If the Oruc Reis, a seismic research vessel, finds any likelihood of oil and gas in Greek waters that could lead to Turkey sending in a drill ship, ratcheting up the prospect of war.

Maas told the newspaper that Germany – home to 2.774 million people of Turkish heritage – hasn't abandoned trying to persuade Erdogan yet again to back off, “giving up on diplomacy at this point is not a luxury we can afford.”

He said Germany has been acting in concert with the US in trying to cool the jets between Turkey and Greece even as Erdogan has gone full speed ahead in an apparent test of the political will of his adversaries.

He said for now the EU will stick to its end-of-the-year deadline although those have been pushed back before too, saying that sanctions are part of its “diplomatic toolbox,” although they haven't been used.