I count myself among those who were wrongly convinced before February 24th that Vladimir Putin would not invade Ukraine. We believed invasion defied logic. Putin had already won concessions and therefore (we thought) war was too costly to justify any additional gains. We regarded him as a master chess player calculating all the odds. Instead, he proved irrational. Unfortunately, we may have entered an era of extended irrationality among national leaders these days; think Trump, Bolsanaro, Orban, and others.
Irrationality seems to especially prevail among ambitious authoritarian leaders nursing national grudges. Why would Turkish President Recip Tayyep Erdogan not follow Putin’s example?
The events leading up to February 24, 2022, persuaded us that Putin was on the verge of securing many of his objectives; Zelensky had tacitly acknowledged NATO membership was off the table and had agreed to a process that delayed discussing Russian occupied-Crimea into the distant future. The relatively small size of the Russian forces (220,000 troops) massed on the border seemed inadequate to the conquest of a country almost as large as Texas and with nearly twice the population. We mistakenly thought that the U.S. administration had hyped the repeated warnings for its own political purposes, but no one believed Putin was some warm and fuzzy peace-lover. We thought he was rational and that invading Ukraine made no sense.
We grossly misunderstood an authoritarian leader who dreams about the personal glory of restoring ancient grandeur and the centrality of Ukraine to those dreams. We also underestimated the fact that he had surrounded himself with sycophants and yes-men who fed his hubris.
Do we face a similar scenario with Erdogan? Putin sounded positively accommodating compared to the over-the-top saber-rattling rhetoric Erdogan spews, with a chorus of Turkish politicians and retired military trying to outdo him. “We will come (to take the islands) in the night.” “Remember when we drove you into the Sea.” “Greece has no right to islands given away by traitors.”
We are told that this is all about electioneering. Even Trump at his wildest cannot top this language.
A Turkish attack on Greece would likely inflict severe damage on the Turkish military and catastrophic damage on its economy. The Turkish military appears much more battleworthy than the Russians and, on paper, outnumbers the Greeks. A closer examination, however, reveals that what is on paper does not accurately reflect the realities on the ground. The Turkish Air Force (TAF) has a slight numerical superiority over the Hellenic Air force (HAF), but the latter has been steadily acquiring a qualitative technical superiority. The TAF lost and has not yet fully replaced hundreds of experienced pilots cashiered (and jailed) after the failed 2016 coup. Greece possesses the densest air defense network in NATO; the Turkish air defense system is thin. The two opposing navies on paper have comparable strengths with Turkey having more modern frigates and Greece enjoying a significant advantage in the quality of its submarines and anti-submarine warfare. The 400,000-strong standing Turkish ground forces outnumber the Greeks almost 4:1 but are stretched thin, deployed along unstable borders with Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Large numbers are garrisoned in Turkey’s Kurdish regions watching for a chance at an uprising. And the 45,000 Turkish troops occupying northern Cyprus cannot redeploy to face Greece. With full mobilization the Turkish numerical advantage drops dramatically. Turkey does have an advanced drone force, but the Ukraine war has shown drones can cause damage but are not the decisive element in modern warfare. In any event, Greece has begun to deploy Israeli -made anti-drone systems.
Geography further complicates any Turkish attack. Greek land forces would have no problem defending the Evros River frontier. The Turks would have to attack across a marshy river and up a steep escarpment against defenders with roughly equal numbers and firepower. No amphibious assault on heavily defended islands has ever succeeded without overwhelming air and naval superiority. Turkey cannot achieve this under any circumstances. Turkish commandos could seize small undefended islets but would be vulnerable to Greek counter-strikes.
In the likely event that the HAF gains air superiority, it would attack Turkish logistics infrastructure, especially the Bosporus bridges, inflicting a terrible cost on an already badly troubled Turkish economy. A Turkish attack on Cyprus runs the risk of dragging Israel into the conflict. Cyprus has worked hard on building that alliance. All this, of course, does not even consider the reactions from the United States and the EU – whose interests a Greco-Turkish war would threaten.
Then why does Erdogan persist in his outrageous and unprecedented rhetoric? Erdogan may have populated his entourage with sycophants like those who encouraged Putin in his madness. His bellicosity echoes among Turkish senior officers. American academics who have worked in Turkey tell me that Turks have been educated to believe that the Greeks are too cowardly to fight; after all, the Greek government collapsed after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Are the younger Islamist zealots in Turkey’s general staff, who replaced the more sober Kemalist generals who were dismissed wholesale after the 2016 coup, also telling Erdogan what he wants to hear, that Turkish victory is assured?
How does Erdogan back away from his rhetoric if an incident, such as a collision between Greek and Turkish coast guard boats, leads to Turkish deaths? Reticence to strike back would crater his election chances. Putin’s megalomanic desire to restore the Russian Empire led to the Ukraine invasion. What if Erdogan’s dreams of restoring the Ottoman Empire is not a campaign ploy but rather indicates he drank from the same brand of Kool-Aid that they served in Moscow?