When the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva, slipped beneath the waves in April after being hit by two Ukrainian missiles, the Kremlin knew it had little hope of replacing it. Just days after President Vladimir Putin’s tanks started rolling towards Kyiv, Turkey announced it was barring warships from sailing past Istanbul and through the Bosphorous Straits.
Closing the only route between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea overnight, Ankara prevented Moscow from reinforcing its armada off the coast of Crimea. Since then, Turkey has re-emerged as a major maritime power for the first time since WWI, brokering a deal that has seen its navy escort grain ships from blockaded Ukrainian ports and through miles of minefields.
Now though, there are fears that Ankara’s increasingly assertive stance at sea could spark a new conflict on the continent. As the Moskva sank, Turkey fired the starting pistol on a series of massive war games, deploying 122 ships and more than 12,000 sailors across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea in a show of strength. The drills were named “Blue Homeland,” taking inspiration from a naval officer who had previously pledged the admiralty was ready to “fly the Turkish flag in all our seas.”
That ambition is bringing it into conflict with its neighbours. In a fiery speech on Saturday, the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, railed against Turkey’s historic rival Greece, issuing a thinly veiled threat to take military action in a long-running dispute over islands in the Aegean Sea. “When the time comes, when the hour comes, we will do what is necessary,” he blasted at the rally in the coastal city of Samsun.
Turkey disputes Greece’s sovereignty over a number of islands, including popular tourist destinations like Rhodes, Lesbos and Kos. Citing a series of treaties signed more than half a century ago, Ankara insists that Athens must “demilitarise” the region, withdrawing troops and equipment stationed not far off Turkey’s coastline. Greece rejects claims its forces threaten its neighbour’s security, insisting it has the right to self-defence and warning Turkish landing boats are ready for action just across the waters.
The fact that both nations are members of the NATO military alliance appears to have done little to calm tensions. Both sides have accused each other of flying warplanes through their airspace, and Ankara lodged a protest after a Greek S-300 rocket launcher reportedly locked on to one of its jets flying a reconnaissance mission.
At the heart of the dispute is the right to explore the waters around the islands for oil and gas reserves, and Turkey has previously sent out survey vessels under the watchful eye of its warships. With no major reserves of its own, Ankara has been dependent primarily on Russian fossil fuels to keep the lights on. As Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine drags on, and the price of energy skyrockets, so too have tensions over the Aegean.
It is not just the issue of self-defence and militarisation that is now on the table. In his speech over the weekend, Erdoğan went as far as to accuse Greece of “occupying” the islands, warning: “we may come down suddenly one night” to challenge Athens’ control in the region. Meanwhile, a spike in nationalist sentiment has seen mainstream Turkish news channels speculate about how a full-blown attack could help resolve the situation. One right-wing politician has even unveiled an expansionist map that would see the country annex dozens of islands, including Crete.
Given memories of the 1974 Turkish invasion of Athens’ close ally, Cyprus, still loom large, the rhetoric has raised eyebrows in Greece. The country also filed a formal complaint with NATO last week after the alliance congratulated Ankara on 100 years of independence, without mention of the “Asia Minor disaster” that saw more than a million Greeks kicked out of their homes and thousands killed shortly after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The bloc’s officials deleted the tweet shortly afterwards.
The brinkmanship comes as Erdoğan begins his campaign for a third term in office, with the election billed for some point within the next year, amid a worsening economic crisis at home. Inflation in the country hit an estimated 81% last month, and the president has stubbornly refused to raise interest rates to help bring it down, describing interest as “evil” and un-Islamic. A series of polls found that, if the election were held tomorrow, he would lack majority support and, as the vote looms, he is playing more and more to his hardliners.
“Turkish elections have become less free and less fair, and since 2015 the AKP has been losing popular support, but it has been using this narrative of crisis to stay in power and remove some of the pressures of democracy,” says Dr Karabekir Akkoyunlu, a lecturer in international studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “As we get closer to the election, we should expect the unexpected.”
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Erdoğan also knows his country is more important to the West than ever before, playing a leading role in reopening the Black Sea for grain ships and supplying Ukraine with fearsome Bayraktar TB-2 attack drones. He has already claimed credit domestically for forcing Sweden and Finland to agree to hand over wanted Kurdish activists as part of a deal that would allow the Scandinavian nations to join NATO, and it is clear he is intent on cashing in on Ankara’s growing influence.
The chances of two European nations fighting a full-blown war over oil and gas may still seem slim, but Turkey’s leader clearly knows that Europe can only afford to take on one country at time and, at the moment, it is focused on defeating Russia. Keeping up the pressure on Greece doesn’t just play well with Erdoğan’s core voters – recent history shows that when he acts tough, he tends to get what he wants out of the West.
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