Turkey, Greece Vow to Defend Positions in Escalating Dispute

August 26, 2020 Updated: August 26, 2020

ANKARA, Turkey—Turkey and Greece vowed on Aug. 26 to defend their competing claims in the eastern Mediterranean, as the NATO allies remained locked in a tense dispute over offshore energy exploration rights.

Greece announced plans to extend its territorial waters along its western coastline and held a second day of military exercises in waters where Turkey is challenging Athens’s asserted maritime jurisdiction.

To the alarm of Western allies, the neighboring countries sent warships to shadow each other this month in an area between Crete and Cyprus, where Turkey has a vessel conducting drilling research. The Greek and Turkish militaries both engaged in exercises within that part of the sea on Aug. 25.

Turkey Italy Maritime Exercise
Italian destroyer ITS Durand De La Penne (L), along with Turkish frigates TCG Goksu and TCG Fatih, conduct maritime training in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, on Aug. 25, 2020. (Turkish Defense Ministry via AP, Pool)

“Turkey will take what is its right in the Mediterranean, in the Aegean, and in the Black Sea,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

“Just as we have no eyes over anyone’s territory, sovereignty, and interests, we will never compromise on what belongs to us. We are determined to do whatever is necessary in political, economic, and military terms.”

Turkey's President Recep Erdogan
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves as he attends celebrations marking the anniversary of the 1071 battle of Manzikert, during which Turkish Seljuks beat Byzantine forces, gaining entry into Anatolia, in Malazgirt, Turkey, on Aug. 26, 2020. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)

Erdogan’s tough words came despite mediation efforts by Germany, whose foreign minister conducted shuttle diplomacy between Athens and Ankara a day earlier in a bid to deescalate the situation, as Turkey and Greece engaged in the competing military exercises at sea.

“We invite our interlocutors to get their act together and to avoid mistakes that will lead to their ruin,” he said.

Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis
Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis speaks during a parliament debate in Athens, on Aug. 26, 2020. (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP Photo)

In Athens, meanwhile, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Greece is planning to exercise its legal right to extend its territorial waters along its western coastline from six to 12 nautical miles.

The planned extension along Greece’s Italy-facing coastline wouldn’t directly affect the territory at the center of the Greek-Turkish dispute. But the prime minister told parliament that Greece was abandoning decades of “passive” foreign policy.

Mitsotakis, speaking in parliament, described Turkey’s actions as “illegal and provocative,” but added that Athens was willing to start talks with Turkey as part of a German-brokered initiative if the Turkish seismic surveying work were halted.

“Our position is crystal clear and can be summarized in six words: When provocations stop, talks can start,” he told lawmakers.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Aug. 25 flew to Greece and Turkey to appeal for a dialogue and defuse the tensions, warning that “any spark, however small, could lead to a disaster.” His visits came ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Berlin later this week, at which Turkey will be discussed.

After talks with Maas, the foreign ministers of both Greece and Turkey signaled readiness for dialogue but blamed each other for the standoff.

Mevlut Cavusoglu Heiko Maas
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (L) and German counterpart Heiko Maas speak to the media after their talks, in Ankara, on Aug. 25, 2020. (Fatih Aktas/Turkish Foreign Ministry via AP, Pool)

The Turkish vessel Oruc Reis has for weeks been carrying out seismic research escorted by Turkish warships. Greece, which says the ship is operating over the country’s own continental shelf in an area where it has exclusive rights on potential undersea gas and oil deposits, sent warships to shadow the Turkish flotilla.

Turkey disputes Greece’s claims, insisting that small Greek islands near the Turkish coast shouldn’t be taken into account when delineating maritime boundaries. Ankara accuses Athens of trying to grab an unfair share of the eastern Mediterranean’s resources.

Turkey is also prospecting for hydrocarbons in waters where Cyprus claims exclusive economic rights. Ankara says it is protecting its rights and those of Turkish Cypriots on the ethnically divided island.

“Everyone must see that Turkey is not a country whose patience can be tried, whose determination, capabilities, and courage can be tested. If we say we’ll do something we’ll do it and pay the price,” Erdogan said Aug. 26. “If anyone wants to stand before us and face the consequences, they are welcome to. If not, stay out of our way and we will continue with our work.”

The Turkish leader spoke during an anniversary celebration marking the 1071 battle of Manzikert, during which Turkish Seljuks beat Byzantine forces, gaining entry into Anatolia.

By Suzan Fraser and Derek Gatopoulos