Greece, Turkey vie for relevance during Russia’s war on Ukraine

As Russia’s war in Ukraine drags through its third week, the Trans-Atlantic alliance is standing reinvigorated in the face of what they see as President Vladimir Putin’s unilateral attempt to upend the post-Cold War security architecture in Europe.

Broadly, NATO has exhibited few cracks in its armour that threaten to unravel a united front against Russia. But behind this, some of its members see in this crisis an opportunity to bolster their own positions within the alliance. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the cases of Turkey and Greece.

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has condemned Russia’s decision to attack Ukraine, a close Turkish ally, and he has directed his government to shut access to Russian warships trying to reach the Black Sea through the 1936 Montreux Convention. At the same time, Erdoğan has kept in touch with Putin to encourage him to halt the fighting and accept Turkish mediation between him and Ukraine’s Volodomyr Zelensky.

In a small sign of progress, Russia and Ukraine sent their foreign ministers to meet on the sidelines of the Antalya Diplomatic Forum in Turkey on Thursday. Little came out of the meeting - Ukraine said no progress was made towards a ceasefire - but Turkey scored major diplomatic points by arranging the talks.

For its part, Greece has also condemned Russia and voiced its support for Ukraine. On Feb. 26, Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarakis announced that Greece would open its borders to Ukrainian refugees. A day later, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced that Greece would be dispatching military aid to Ukraine that would be delivered to Poland after a Russian bombing of a village near Mauripol, a Ukrainian port on the Sea of Azov, left 10 ethnic Greeks dead.

But tensions between the neighbours remain palpable and in plain sight. In the days since Putin’s troops crossed into Ukraine, Greek and Turkish officials have engaged in a back and forth sniping as they accused each other of seeking to exploit the war rather than putting their differences aside. Doing so promises to be difficult, especially given the last several years of bitter disagreements in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Mitsotakis arrived in Turkey at the weekend for talks with Erdoğan. Both leaders agreed that strengthening relations and putting past disagreements behind them was important for regional security.

NATO, no stranger to managing tensions between the two countries, has not been undermined by this feuding but it is evident that Athens and Ankara each are vying for opportunities to boost their own standings, possibly at the others’ expense, despite the pledges of cooperation by Erdoğan and Mitsotakis.

In a sense, Turkey and Greece are operating from similar positions. Both maintain good relations with Russia and Ukraine, and they have been economically buffeted by the war as well as Western sanctions on Moscow. Yet they diverge in the lengths they have gone to support Ukraine in its fight against Putin’s war machine.

Despite longstanding ties to Russia, Greek officials have shown that they empathise with Ukraine’s struggle. Through it, they make clear that they see their own concerns about Turkey’s expansionist claims in the eastern Mediterranean in recent years that infringe on Greece’s own borders in Ukraine’s fight to protect its sovereignty from Russian revisionism.

In the clearest illustration of this sentiment, Mitsotakis has explained his decision to authorise military aid to Ukraine as "morally correct" and framed it in the context of Greece's own concerns related to Turkey.

“With what moral standing could we ask for such assistance if we were in a similar situation," he said in an interview with the Kathimerini newspaper on March 3. He went on to add that “Turkey will reconsider its rhetoric” towards Greece in light of the war and the collective response to Russian aggression.

In contrast, Turkey has tried to maintain a delicate balance between the West, Russia and Ukraine since the initial alarms were raised about a possible invasion late last year. While Ankara has for years supplied military equipment, including armed drones, to Kyiv to Moscow’s chagrin, Erdoğan has made clear that he has no intention of sacrificing relations with either country.

To this end, Turkey has declined to participate in sanctions against Russia, including by keeping its airspace open to Russian aircraft while Greece and the rest of NATO closed theirs. In the Council of Europe, Turkey abstained from a vote to suspend Russia’s participation in the body whereas Greece’s diplomats voted to do so and joined their European colleagues in a walkout.

Russia has responded by castigating Greece for engaging in “anti-Russia hysteria” and adding it to a list of “unfriendly countries” alongside its NATO and EU partners. Turkey was left off the list and has remained in touch with Russia and Ukraine. 

Zenonas Tziarras, a researcher at the PRIO Cyprus Center in Nicosia, said that Greece in particular has been trying to capitalise on Turkey's attempts to remain neutral by presenting itself as a “more stable and reliable” partner. The struggle for Turkey to stay neutral as Greece aligns itself with the West, he says, is a “window of opportunity” being seized upon by Athens.

"In the context of the Ukraine war, Greece expected that Turkey would have difficulty distancing itself from Russia entirely,"  Tziarras, the author of a recently published study entitled 'Turkish Foreign Policy: The Lausanne Syndrome in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East', told Ahval News.

"Greece would like to convince its Western partners and allies that it is both willing and able to "replace" the strategic role of an untrustworthy Turkey,” he said.

Indeed, Turkey has long depended on Russia to help meet its energy needs while politically relying on Moscow to further its foreign policy projects in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the war in Ukraine directly challenges Turkey’s economy, which is more vulnerable than Greece’s to Russian retaliation, and its desire to forge a more independent foreign policy.

Even though Erdoğan has been critical of the West’s handling of the crisis and insistent on keeping dialogue open with Russia, his government has been careful not to wound NATO’s unity. For example, Turkish diplomats have been in touch with their U.S counterparts throughout the crisis and Washington has endorsed Ankara’s move to close the Black Sea as well as supply Kyiv militarily before the war.

This complicates any attempt by Greece to completely upstage Turkey in the fight to protect Ukraine. 

Hüseyin Konuş, Director of Institute for Diplomacy and Economy in Brussels, said that though there may be similarities in outlook between Putin and Erdoğan as revisionist authoritarian leaders, Turkey and Erdoğan have enough incentives to avoid scuttling efforts to contain Moscow.

For one, he notes that Erdoğan has adopted a “more pro-Western policy” since U.S President Joe Biden entered the White House to dodge further isolation or exasperate Turkey’s current economic woes. Erdoğan has similarly voiced his desire to see reduced tensions with the EU and has reiterated Turkey’s readiness to meet its duties as a member of NATO when needed.

Because of the need to keep Turkey on board in the struggle with Russia and Ankara’s desire for improved relations with the West, Konuş said that Erdoğan is unlikely to risk undermining the alliance. This, he adds, also reduces the odds of Turkey openly aggravating tensions with Greece in a critical moment, let alone invite Brussels or Washington to turn their scrutiny to Erdoğan himself.

"As long as Erdoğan does not make a serious mistake to the detriment of the West in its efforts to maintain the balance between it and Russia, I think the West would not directly confront Erdoğan,” said Konuş.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.
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