Following a brief period of stillness between Greece and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean, the tension is rising once again.
During the summer, the two countries reportedly reached the verge of military confrontation due to Turkish research activity in the Greek continental shelf. After the intervention of EU officials and diplomatic efforts spearheaded by Germany and the US, the two countries reached a stalemate and bilateral exploratory talks were due to take place.
However, since last week Turkish vessels have once again crossed Greek maritime boundaries and are currently conducting research and drilling activities in the proximity of the Greek islands.
Turkey is Gaining de Facto Control Over the Greek Continental Shelf
According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and specifically according to articles 77 and 81 therein, a coastal state exercises sovereign rights over its continental shelf, and any research or drilling activities by third parties may take place only after the clear and express consent of the coastal state.
Turkey is not abiding by UNCLOS provisions about the delimitation of the maritime boundaries between neighboring countries. Ankara has been proceeding with unilateral actions and interpreting international law as they see fit. Turkey has a considerably extended coastline, however due to the existence of numerous Greek islands near Turkish shores, Ankara’s rights over the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf are significantly reduced.
Thus Ankara is unilaterally rejecting the rights of the Greek islands in the Eastern Mediterranean, and proceeding in research and drilling activities as if access to the continental shelf in the area is determined by the Turkish mainland alone.
Turkey’s Actions are Against International Law
The Turkish approach can be by no means justified according to current international laws and conventions; however, Turkey is following a careful strategy and aiming to create a de facto situation of control over the extended region.
Last August Turkey conducted research in the Greek continental shelf and the only reaction from Athens was a discreet presence of the Hellenic Navy in the proximity of the Turkish vessels. The aforementioned vessels were conducting seismic research and directly violating Greek sovereign rights according to the UNCLOS, yet despite this Athens only reacted mildly. Once the research was completed the Turkish vessels withdrew and Greece falsely presented this development as a huge Greek success.
In fact, Turkey has concluded its first act, creating a de facto context for control and claiming rights in several parts of the Greek continental shelf, and Athens has hardly even reacted. Now we are witnessing the well-expected second part of this plan; Turkey has sent three ships, R/V Oruç Reis, Ataman and Cengizhan to the same area for further research activities.
This time the ultra deep-water drillship Kanuni is also accompanying the research vessels. Not only research but also drilling activities should be expected shortly in the region by Turkish ships. What we should also stress here is that this time the NAVTEX issued by the Antalya station, withholding the area for about 10 days, is referring to research activities in the Turkish continental shelf, emphasizing the Turkish achievement of de facto establishing its presence and supposed rights to areas which should actually be under Greek maritime jurisdiction.
The EU’s Muted Reaction and Greece’s Utter Diplomatic Failure
While Turkey is pushing forward its claims, Greece has avoided adopting a responsible stance. Further to the inefficient decision-making process domestically, Greece has utterly failed to appropriately address the issue via EU institutions.
Even though Athens has been supposedly pushing for EU support and a decisive response, there has been no progress at all in this direction. Albeit the Turkish moves in the Eastern Mediterranean have been put in the agenda of recent summits and meetings of the EU leaders, the adoption of actual restrictive measures to block the Turkish provocations are out of the question.
Athens has not been able to convince EU leaders to seriously consider the imposition of sanctions on Ankara, as the bilateral trade relations and political ties with Turkey of many prominent EU member states, and particularly Germany, are too deep to be interrupted.
In this sense the only Greek achievements have been some generic comments about possible consequences if Turkey takes further provocative steps; these statements have only been made to impress public opinion and have no actual impact on the international diplomatic scene or geopolitical reality.
The Question of 12 Nautical Miles and Turkey’s Likely Next Moves
As the Turkish research vessel Oruç Reis is en-route to its final destination, which is less than 8 nautical miles away from the Greek island of Kastelorizo, and Turkish top officials are openly talking about the division of the Aegean Sea according to the “Blue Homeland” doctrine, the political debate in Greece is escalating. Numerous sides are calling for the official extension of the Greek territorial waters in the Aegean Sea from six to 12 nautical miles.
The extension of the Greek territorial waters to 12 nautical miles is an unquestionable right of Greece according to UNCLOS; however, various Greek administrations have been consecutively hesitating to take this step, under threats and pressure from Ankara.
At this point, where Greek sovereign rights are constantly disputed, the extension of the Greek territorial waters seems to be the most appropriate solution, since it would crucially limit Turkish options for unilateral actions, and a potential violation of the Greek territorial rights from the Turkish side, an undeniably act of aggression, would definitely put Ankara in a very harsh position internationally.
The Greek government has wrongfully talked several times about so-called “red lines”, namely Turkish provocative actions that would not go unanswered. The continuous violations of those red lines and the incapacity of the Greek government to respond appropriately have eventually put in question the very credibility of Athens.
The best solution of extending boundaries might seem too simple for Greece at the moment, but it is seriously doubtful if this is going to happen. To the contrary, considering the current geopolitical balances and implications, the most probable scenario is that Turkey will keep pushing for further claims and keep successfully establishing de facto objectives at the expense of Greece.