When outgoing Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias announced last month that Greece intended to expand its territorial waters from six nautical miles off the coast to 12 nautical miles, it reignited a dispute that had been simmering for decades. It may seem like a minor change at first glance, but Greece has thousands of islands scattered throughout the Aegean and Ionian seas, so expanding its territorial limits will have outsize effects on the region. According to Kotzias, the first planned extension will be to Greek territory in and along the Ionian Sea – from the island of Othonoi to the island of Antikythera. Then, Greece plans to expand the extension to its east coast, from Antikythera to the Saronic Gulf and then through the Pagasitikos Gulf in the Aegean Sea. This is where it has run into opposition, namely from Turkey, which has major ports along the Aegean and depends on free passage through this sea to access the Mediterranean.
Grounds for War
Turkey has long been at odds with Greece over control of the Aegean, and predictably responded with stern warnings. It summoned Greece’s ambassador to Ankara and released a statement reminding Athens of a 1995 declaration by the Turkish parliament that Greek expansion of territorial boundaries beyond six nautical miles would be considered “casus belli,” or grounds for war. In response, Greece has decided to refer the matter to parliament, instead of passing the change through presidential decree as originally intended.
Greece has argued that it has a right under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to extend its maritime borders to 12 nautical miles, the maximum allowed by the treaty. (Turkey is one of few countries, along with the U.S., that hasn’t ratified UNCLOS, which has more than 160 signatories.) Since 1936, however, Greece has claimed sovereignty over only six nautical miles from its shores. (Prior to this time, it had control over only three nautical miles.) Turkey wants to keep it that way, claiming that the Aegean is a special case given the proximity of Greek islands to the Turkish coast. According to the Turks, UNCLOS shouldn’t apply there and the issue must be settled through bilateral talks.
Turkey has effectively drawn a red line in the Aegean Sea, and it’s not hard to understand why. If Greece were to extend its territorial control to 12 nautical miles, it would create a potential chokepoint in Turkey’s access to the Mediterranean, forcing Turkish vessels departing from, say, the Bosporus (arguably Turkey’s most valuable strategic asset) or even Izmir (a major port on the Aegean) to navigate through Greek-controlled waters. The extension would increase Greek jurisdiction over the surface area of the Aegean from 43 percent to 71 percent, and reduce international waters from 49 percent to 19.7 percent. It would also increase Turkish claims over the sea, from 7.5 percent to 8.8 percent, but navigation through these waters could still be hampered for the Turks by its historical adversary, an unacceptable proposition for Ankara.
While UNCLOS does allow for “innocent passage” through sovereign territorial waters, there are restrictions. For example, states are prohibited from carrying out military exercises that involve any sort of weapons, and submarines that travel through the waters must remain above the surface. There are also restrictions on loading or unloading any commodities in violation of the laws and regulations of the coastal state and conducting research or survey activities, which Turkey needs to do if it’s to secure access to natural gas supplies in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Enforcement measures for UNCLOS are notoriously weak, but the European Union has backed Greece’s right to extend its territorial control. It’s undoubtedly a worrying development for Turkey, which has increasingly squared off against European countries over drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. And if Greece does extend its territorial boundaries, Turkey may not be able to carry out military exercises in these waters to intimidate other countries competing for natural resources there or block European vessels from accessing drilling rigs, at least not without violating UNCLOS, which could draw an EU response.
Extending the maritime boundary by six nautical miles won’t really change much in the balance of power between Greece and Turkey. The balance of power between two states is defined not by what either side says it controls but by the military hardware and forces it has to back up its claims. Still, it’s a good litmus test for Greek power. If Greece can extend control by six nautical miles without a Turkish challenge, it would demonstrate that Greece is more powerful than it previously was and than many believed it to be. Conversely, if Turkey can push back, it’ll be a sign of the limits of Greek power.
Cyprus Heats Up
Why is Greece making this move now? One possible reason is that it’s looking for ways to push back against Turkey’s recent moves around Cyprus and to test how far Turkey is willing to go there.
The long-standing dispute between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus – an island split between a majority Greek Cypriot population in the south and a minority Turkish Cypriot population in the north – has remained relatively calm for decades but has intensified this year. In February, Turkey blocked an Italian ship contracted by energy firm Eni en route to explore for natural gas in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone, claiming that Cyprus had given access to a portion of its EEZ that actually belonged to the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a state recognized only by Ankara. In October, the Turkish navy blocked a Greek frigate that Turkey claimed was trying to obstruct a Turkish energy exploration ship operating in the region. And on Wednesday, Turkey announced its own deep-sea drilling vessel, the Fatih, had begun drilling off Turkey’s southern coast, near Cyprus.
For Turkey, having access to natural gas reserves off Cyprus is about more than money. Turkey is highly dependent on imported natural gas to meet its growing energy needs. Natural gas accounts for roughly 27 percent of Turkey’s energy consumption, and about 99 percent of its supply is imported. In 2017, its natural gas consumption reached a record high – 53.5 billion cubic meters – and over 50 percent of this supply came from Russia. Its second-largest supplier, Iran, supplied 17 percent. So long as Turkey remains dependent on these countries for natural gas, its strategic flexibility will be limited.
For Greece, Turkey’s assertiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean is concerning because it demonstrates a willingness to use force in pursuit of economic interests. To that end, Turkey may be willing to establish a greater military presence closer to Greek shores. In any case, Athens has been suspicious of Turkey’s intentions for many years. Greece’s move this week to end its diplomatic spat with Russia over Moscow’s alleged undermining of the deal on the Macedonia name dispute may be a hint that Greece wants more allies in its corner should any conflict with Turkey erupt.
Although it’s unlikely that Turkey would want direct confrontation with Greece, given that it’s already engaged in northern Syria, it can’t be ruled out completely. After all, Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 following a Greek-backed military coup on the island, even though both countries were already NATO members at the time. They almost went to war again in 1987 and 1996 over similar issues.
That the Greek prime minister is turning the decision on maritime borders in the Ionian Sea over to parliament indicates he’s not willing to press the issue, at least not for now. (Though he may also be looking for parliamentary approval so he can avoid blame if the move ignites a conflict with Turkey.) The real test would come if the Greek parliament decided to move ahead. At that point, the Greek government would be faced with a tough decision: back down or risk possible confrontation with a NATO ally, however unlikely. If it chooses the latter, the Turks would then have to decide how to respond. If a conflict were to break out, there would be consequences beyond Greece and Turkey. A war between two NATO allies could substantially weaken the alliance or even lead to Turkey’s expulsion. When they confronted each other in 1974, the Soviet Union was still a considerable threat, and Turkey was a key part of the containment line, which limited how widely the conflict could spread. Today, Russia poses nowhere near the danger the Soviets once did, and thus the alliance isn’t as secure as it once was. Still, so long as Turkey is unable to independently defend itself from Russia, it needs NATO as a shield, and it’s therefore unlikely to challenge a NATO ally and risk incurring the consequences.