On December 4th while the Greek defense minister was visiting the small island of Kastelorizo on the frontier with Turkey, four Turkish F-16 airplanes flew over the island. The Greek side responded by launching its own F-16. An air skirmish erupted as a result. Such breaches of Greek air space are not unusual since Turkey contests the fact that some islands, such as Kastelorizo constitute Greek air space. However, the recent escalation in these events is worrisome as it comes in a time of increased tensions between the countries due to negotiations over Cyprus. Moreover, it is a time of political instability and economic struggles for both countries. On top of that a sense of increasing global instability with an American administration whose priorities are unknown, a UK that is departing from the EU and elections in France and Germany. This equation yields the result of tensions in the Aegean which are likely to continue if not escalate.
Ask any Greek what the most threatening country is and you will most likely hear “Turkey” as a response. Greece and Turkey have a long history of conflicts which has left behind multiple wounds, many of which are still open today. Cyprus and the Aegean Sea are the biggest disputes at the moment. However, for the past 10-15 years the prospect of a Turkish membership in the EU gave hope for better future relations. Turkey had an incentive to be less aggressive towards Greeceas well as engage in discussion and dialogue over the contested issues. Indeed for most of the 21st century we saw the two countries getting along better and avoiding rhetoric and actions that jeopardized their relations. For sure there were some problems every now and then but relations were largely characterized by a willingness to at least negotiate disputes if not solve them.
Unfortunately, all this changed when Erdogan realized that EU membership is highly unlikely for Turkey, given Germany’s opposition. Erdogan became increasingly authoritarian especially after the coup of the past summer. In such times of political instability, it is not uncommon for leaders, especially dictators, to seek a common, external foe against whom they can unite the people. For Erdogan that meant increased involvement in the Middle East and especially fighting against Kurds in Syria and Iraq. But it also meant more a more aggressive position towards Greece.
Erdogan made remarks that challenged the legitimacy of the current borders as well as claims that Turkey has a mandate to protect Turkish populations outside its borders. Such statements were perceived as aggressive in Athens, especially since they were combined with increased breaches of Greek airspace as well as naval borders (Turkey considers much of both “international areas”). Meanwhile the Greek government is also facing problems at home and a decreasing popularity due to tough austerity measures. This makes the use of a foreign threat for political gains appealing to the Greek government as well.
Meanwhile actors that traditionally stabilized and diffused tensions between Turkey and Greece have a decreased ability to do so. On the one hand Trump’s America places an increased emphasis on an “America First” strategy and has criticized NATO repeatedly. That could mean that Greece can’t take it for granted that it will be able to rely on the US to deter Turkish aggression. On the other hand the European Union lacks a unified foreign policy and a military that Greece could rely on in times of need. Given its recent fragmentation in foreign policy, Greece can’t take European protection for granted. The elections that are going on in both Germany and France make them less able to have a strong foreign policy given anticipated leadership changes (at least in France). The UK’s Brexit vote signals an unwillingness to be involved in European matters while Spain and Italy’s economies and political instability don’t give much hope for military assertiveness.
All these factors have made Greeks rightly worried about Turkey’s actions. It has been Greek policy to rely on its European allies and, after WWII, on the trans-Atlantic community in order to guarantee its borders vis-à-vis a much larger country. If Greeks feel like they can’t rely on their traditional allies they will see the need for increased military spending. Greece is already extremely militarized and military budgets were not affected by austerity, at least not as much as other parts of the government’s budget. Greece currently spends 2.38% of its GDP towards military expenditures ranking second only to the US among NATO countries. This comes at the expense of welfare, education and any investments that could lead the country outside the economic recession. It sounds truly odd that a country with overcrowded hospitals and schools without teachers recently spent hundreds of millions to upgrade its F-16 aircrafts. However, given Erdogan’s erratic behavior and the lack of international actors powerful enough or willing to guarantee its borders who can blame the Greeks for feeling insecure?