What’s Next for Turkey’s Oruc Reis Research Vessel after Greece?

On November 21, Turkey announced through a NAVTEX from Antalya Station, that its research vessel Oruc Reis accompanied by the vessels Ataman and Cengiz Han, would once again conduct seismic research activities in the proximity of the Greek-Turkish maritime borders.

The announcement by the Turkish Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources indicated that the nine-day process, would be the final act of the month-long activity of the vessel, which has prompted much tension between the two neighboring countries. As this chapter is to be concluded quite soon, analysts are now focusing on how much Turkey achieved of its objectives and what is likely to happen next in the Eastern Mediterranean context.

Ankara Uses Diplomatic Pressure After Achieving Main Objectives

In previous days, senior Turkish officials — including President Recep Erdogan — have called upon the EU to act “impartially” and stop targeting Turkey. During a recent speech to fellow Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) or AKP members, the Turkish President emphasized that Turkey is a part of Europe and fully supports an EU perspective for his country. However he highlighted that at the same time, the leading EU countries should keep their promises to Turkey.

Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs  Mevlüt Çavuşoğl also stated in front of the Turkish Parliament that the European Union should acknowledge its mistakes. At the same time, Hami Aksoy, spokesman of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, slammed Athens for the Greek unwillingness to engage in dialogue with Ankara, and personally attacked Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias for his recent open criticism of Turkey.

Ankara Wants de Facto Control of Greek Maritime Territory

Ankara is turning to this sort of diplomacy and adopts this strategy of public grievance at a key point for the Turkish endeavors in Eastern Mediterranean. As we have mentioned in previous articles, Ankara has been looking to establish de facto control in Greek maritime zones.

Once the first NAVTEX was published from the Antalya station last summer covering parts of this region, major controversy arose in Greece and the issue made the headlines; at the same time the Greek Armed Forces have been fully mobilized across the country.

The latest NAVTEX from Antalya is directly stating that the vessel will conduct research in the Turkish Continental Shelf (a term that the Turkish side has been carefully avoiding) and also the zones enclosed in the Navigational Warning are located in the immediate proximity of — if not overlapping — the Greek territorial waters, namely six nautical miles or less from the Greek island of Kastelorizo.

Athens Has Made Many Mistakes and Failed to Engage in Strategic Long-Term Planning

Surprisingly, this latest development has been hardly covered from the major Greek media, while some commentators rushed to present Turkey’s wrapping up of seismic research activity as a Greek success; apparently all these media — probably on purpose — have missed the main point here: the end of the seismic research by no means indicate an actual Turkish withdrawal. It should be simply perceived as the end of the research phase in the Greek maritime zones, setting the ground for the next moves, according to long-term Turkish plans.

Amidst this unprecedented situation for Athens, some major mistakes from the point of the Greek side should be highlighted. First, Greece seemed to be putting too much effort to manipulate the domestic public opinion, rather than pragmatically handling the real challenges, ensuing from the Turkish claims. This dubious stance gave Turkey the necessary room to keep pushing further its positions, while Ankara apprehended that its neighboring country would hardly manage efficiently any provocations in both domestic and international level.

Greece is Too Dependent on Foreign Support

Greece has also been relying too heavily on foreign support, especially from the EU. As thoroughly examined in previous articles, the major EU nations — excluding France — are unwilling to directly challenge Turkey, considering their bilateral economic ties and the political balances across the continent. Therefore, Greek hopes have been rather unfounded, and the sought-after sanctions against Turkey have always been too little too late; and this will keep happening unless major changes are made.

Finally the most critical mistake from the Greek side in this dispute, has been the lack of a strategic plan towards Turkey and the absence of an adequate response mechanism that would block Ankara from establishing de facto conditions in the Greek maritime boundaries.

Paradoxically Athens has neglected the essence of strategic planning both in diplomatic and operational level, totally losing the initiative and forming its actions according to the Turkish moves. The unfortunate comment of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis last September regarding  — once again — the activity of the Oruc Reis is perfectly indicative of this whole ongoing situation. As previously analyzed, the Greek administration consistently failed to correctly interpret Turkish maneuvers and never implemented a long-term or realistic policy towards their neighbors.

What’s Turkey’s Next Move?

Ankara has been executing a well-planned strategy to establish Turkish claims across Eastern Mediterranean. Judging from the Turkish moves in northern Cyprus and Ankara’s unilateral drilling activities, alongside the aggressive rhetoric after Ersin Tatar’s victory in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, we should only expect Turkish demands to keep increasing.

Any de-escalation from the Turkish side is out of the question for now. The latest statements regarding the European Union indicate that Turkey will seek to keep a balance with the major EU powers while Ankara keeps expanding westwards in the Mediterranean Sea.

With regards to the dispute with Greece, if we accept that this really will be the last operation of Oruc Reis in the area, we can anticipate two different courses of action. Either Ankara will proceed to unilateral drilling during 2021 in the zones where the research vessel has been conducting seismic studies or Greece and Turkey will come to an agreement for joint exploitation of the resources in the area under question.

The latter scenario would likely be welcomed by the Greek administration, going by the lackluster approach that Athens has taken up to this point.