The conflict in Ukraine will have important consequences for Greece, Turkey and the wider eastern Mediterranean region, says John Sitilides, a government affairs and geopolitical risk specialist in an exclusive interview with Greek Reporter.
In the third part of the interview, Sitilides explains the position that Turkey finds itself in regarding the Ukraine dispute and examines how relations with Russia will be affected. He also analyzes Greece-Turkey relations and the role of the US in the dispute between the two NATO allies.
How would Turkey respond to a potential war in Ukraine?
Sitilides says that Turkey’s role is unique, as a NATO member and Black Sea power that enjoys working relations with both Russia and Ukraine.
Even as Turkey and Russia back opposing militaries in Syria, Libya, and in the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan war, they have successfully compartmentalized those differences to sustain high-level communications on a range of strategic issues of shared interest, such as Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system that have severely damaged Ankara’s relations with Washington, he says.
However, “President Putin is furious that Turkey, the largest foreign investor in Ukraine, continues to sell Kyiv the lethal combat drones it is now using against Russian-backed separatists.”
As the Greek-American analyst notes Turkey and Ukraine just signed a $10 billion free trade agreement as well as lucrative joint aircraft and jet engine production deals, and Ukraine plans to purchase Turkish battleships.
On the other hand, Sitilides stresses Turkey is also heavily reliant on Russia for more than 40% of its natural gas needs, and that is expected to increase under a new bilateral energy deal. Ankara did not join the U.S. and the EU when they sanctioned Russia for the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“If Turkey responds in Ukraine in a manner displeasing to Putin, he can threaten to cut off fuel to Turkey just as he has been doing to Europe in recent weeks. That would devastate an already battered Turkish economy, now at its weakest in decades,” Sitilides tells Greek Reporter.
Putin can also order new military operations in Syria that will send millions more Syrian refugees into Turkey, he adds.
“In the end, Turkey will likely stand by Ukraine and simultaneously seek to avoid any direct confrontation with Russia,” Sitilides forecasts.
How would Turkey’s response affect relations with Greece?
Because there are so many potential scenarios in the event the Ukraine standoff escalates into a military conflict, it is difficult to determine with clarity the impact on Turkey-Greece relations.
Sililides says that potentially, joint NATO operations in the Black Sea region could see an opening on direct military cooperation. Equally likely is Ankara’s insistence that Black Sea military operations be limited to littoral NATO allies Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria.
However, as he notes, the constant under Erdogan’s policies of late remains focused on challenging Greece’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in the Mediterranean Sea, dissuading Athens from extending its sovereign territorial waters and airspace in the Aegean Sea, and refusing to recognize the government of Cyprus as the starting point for resolving that half-century-old dispute.
“For the United States, the prevention of a Greek-Turkish military conflict is the overriding objective. Even minor skirmishes emanating from mock dogfights can quickly escalate, especially amid heightened tensions. Once triggered, military escalation is difficult to control and defuse in any meaningful way,” Sitilides says.
Turkey applies different standards in the Black Sea and the Aegean
He stresses that President Erdogan’s coercive strategy in energy exploration and maritime border demarcation is forcing the hand of nearly every country in the region, including Egypt, Israel, and Lebanon.
Turkey is not a signatory to the UNCLOS, preferring to apply its standards in the Black Sea region where it has no EEZ disputes and to reject those standards in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, where UNCLOS supports the positions of Greece and Cyprus.
“EEZs must be delineated between neighboring coastal states, not unilaterally declared by claimant states,” Sitilides says.
“Without a mutual understanding of the UNCLOS, disputes cannot be resolved, and tensions will endure. Turkey’s EEZ agreement with Libya, by ignoring the geopolitical reality of Crete, Rhodes, Kastellorizo and other Greek islands, has no international legal standing.”
He notes that Turkey’s unilateral declaration of an EEZ around the entire island of Cyprus also has no international legal standing. As a result, Turkey is increasingly isolated within its own neighborhood, enjoying relations with Qatar, Azerbaijan, and Libya, and increasingly alienating Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and most of the EU proclaim solidarity with fellow members Greece and Cyprus.
The role of the U.S. in the Greece-Turkey dispute
Washington seeks to maintain the strongest and most effective political, economic, and security relationships possible with both Greece and Turkey, as well as with Cyprus, to prevent intra-NATO conflict for which there is no resolution mechanism, and to promote peaceful diplomatic resolution of regional disputes.
Historically, in the eastern Mediterranean and around the world, the U.S. does not choose sides between its allies and partners when they are engaged in bilateral disputes. But Washington also respects the essential engagement of EU leaders, especially in Berlin and Paris.
The eastern Mediterranean geopolitical dilemma is not Washington’s alone to help resolve. Greece and Turkey have long-standing NATO ties to most European militaries, and Athens and Nicosia continue to press Brussels for stronger and more decisive demonstrations of solidarity.
Washington is also coordinating any conflict resolution efforts with Jerusalem and Cairo, with a sharp eye towards Moscow, whose military presence in Syria and Libya further complicate one of the tensest regions of the world, as well as towards Beijing, which is building a Red Sea military presence and engaged in predatory policies in the Balkans, many eastern and central European countries, and throughout the Middle East and Africa.
John Sitilides is a government affairs and geopolitical risk specialist, and diplomacy consultant under contract to the U.S. State Department. As Southern Europe Regional Coordinator at the Foreign Service Institute, the department’s diplomacy academy, he organizes and directs professional development training programs for American diplomats stationed in Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus.