Do you remember the Kardak/Imea crisis in the Aegean Sea back in 1996? The spiraling events of action-reaction then brought political mishandling of old Greek-Turkish issues, with roots from the time of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, to the brink of open war between the Aegean neighbors. Incredibly, the casus belli was two tiny islets inhabited only by some goats (of uncertain nationality given the disputed nature of the rocks), but the very location of the islets, close to mainland Turkey but claimed by (far away) Greece, nonetheless became the reason for accelerating conflict, including the death of a helicopter crew. It took Richard Holbrooke and other US diplomats day and night for a week or so to calm down the war hysteria.

Fast forward and we are at the summer of 2020. The bilateral issues between the two neighbors over all the unresolved Aegean border issues – and over Cyprus – had simmered over the years between periods of relative stability and genuine search for solutions and periods of escalating conflict, and had seen in later years a new come into play, a factor that in some political conjunctures could be one of peace and in others one of escalating conflict: the discoveries of oil and gas in key areas of the Eastern Mediterranean. So economic dispute had come to add to historical and political dispute, adding tremendous difficulties. All the while, in spite of recurrent attempts by the United Nations and key international actors, notably the plan presented by Kofi Annan in 2006, the Cyprus question had managed to remain a question, without answer or resolution. All this, as we know, is a long, long story of diplomatic frustrations.

In the summer of 2020, things turned ugly and seemingly dangerous, as a result of a process of action-reaction between, on the one hand, a grouping of EastMed countries, Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, with considerable support rendered by several Western powers and their oil giants (Total, ENI, Shell and others), and on the other hand Turkey, an increasingly isolated Turkey. Rising political tension over competitive interpretations of maritime rights, and competitive plans for new under-water pipelines, even took on military shapes with naval incidents. The international community seemed long to be rather helpless in imposing order and stability – the EU politically unable to act as the non-partisan arbiter and NATO, and the UN, without relevant and effective means to do much about it. Other than to appeal for dialogue.  It took months and months that summer to bring the parties to some degree of calming down. But again, nothing was solved, rather the issues were again parked, for later possible detonation.

And meanwhile, prospects for a peaceful settlement of the protracted Cyprus crisis, a unification of the divided island along the federal, bicommunal lines promoted internationally for decades, had all but ground to a halt. After the last-ditch unification attempt under UN auspices had (again) failed, the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot position had now evolved into a strong no to unification and a strong yes to a two-states solution, objected to by a unified international community, conducted by agitated Greek political voices. A recipe, then, for recurring incidences of instability, even conflict, for the years to come, without a solution in sight unless basic changes in geopolitical parameters were to occur.

AND NOW THIS: Recent decisions on the part of the US – tilting strategic balancing in Greek favor at the expense of Erdogan’s Turkey –  both to lift the long-established weapons embargo against Cyprus (a reward for Nicosia’s anti-money laundering efforts and refusal to harbor Russian naval vessels in its ports) and to supply military vehicles for deployment at (disputed) Greek islands in the Aegean have now made president Erdogan and his regime very upset, so much so that it was announced the other day that Turkey now intends to increase its military presence on Cyprus, currently 40 000 troops, a real and present threat perceived by the Greeks on the island and their friends in Athens and elsewhere. A Turkish National Security Council resolution recently urged the US to reconsider these steps, threatening also other retaliatory measures. To no avail, so far, if ever.

So this is now both a Greek-Cypriot-Turkish and a Turkish-US crisis (even though, as always, the word crisis can be debated). But clearly the two are linked in various ways. The name of an important part of this link is obviously Ukraine and the Russia-Ukraine escalating war, and the various dilemmas involved in US and Western decision-making.

During the Cold War, ever since their admission to NATO in 1952 and in spite of their earlier bellicose history, both Greece and Turkey were the indispensable but mutually problematic pillars of NATO’s southern flank. From a US point of view, in recent years Erdogan’s Turkey (while remaining indispensable, of sorts, e g a much-trumpeted mediator role when the time comes) has evolved as the clearly more problematic pillar of the two, also in view of its size and military power and hence role in the Middle East and Black Sea regions. The resulting need to invest relatively more in the military and security capacities of Greece in turn tends to anger Turkey and hence to reduce its incentives to act as a loyal member of NATO and ally to the US. Potentially dangerous power asymmetries tend to come to the fore as a result of a necessary US and NATO prioritization of the Russia-Ukraine war. The emerging energy crisis, enhancing Western needs for supply alternatives to Russian sources, adds further dimensions to an extremely complex security arena.

In view of the seriousness and escalatory nature of Russia’s war with Ukraine after Putin’s annexation of the four Ukrainian provinces and ensuing nuclear threats one can easily claim that all three Western entities, the US, the EU and NATO, can ill afford Eastern Mediterranean strategic developments to spiral into open military conflict. But even freezing or parking these conflictual issues is easier said than done, in view of the all but uncontrollable dynamism characterizing the complex pattern of unresolved antagonism. A huge challenge, in any case.

It could be added that that these issues are relevant also to the current challenges facing Finland and Sweden as invitees for NATO membership but with a Turkish Damocles sword still hanging over them, pending ratification by the Turkish parliament (pending implementation of the provisions of the Trilateral Memorandum agreed in Madrid in late June. Dealing with issues pertaining to Turkey’s special agenda, and with Greek-Turkish and other related, regional issues, will face Sweden and Finland as new NATO members, long after the specific, current problem has been overcome, somehow.

The author is ambassador, holds a PhD and is a fellow of RSAWS.
This article is earlier published in Consilio International.