From 1813-1907 Russia and Great Britain were engaged in a political and diplomatic confrontation over Afghanistan and neighboring territories in Central and South Asia. The dispute between the two great powers is known as the Great Game. A similar dispute is currently occurring on Europe’s doorstep, almost unnoticed by the general public and yet with the potential for serious geopolitical implications.
The Great Game 2.0
The reason for this Great Game 2.0 is natural gas reservoirs that lie hidden in the bottom of the eastern Mediterranean and who are in high demand, particularly by Turkey and its Ottoman fantasies.
The conflict was first exacerbated in 2019 when Turkey conducted gas test drillings off the coast of Cyprus. By now, these tests have turned into a hunt by Ankara for the abundant natural gas reserves in the region. That pursuit is the primary reason for Turkey’s intervention in the Libyan civil war.
Turkey delivers weapons to western Libya almost every day, and Islamist combat groups that were already fighting in Syria for Turkey’s interests were transferred to Libya as mercenaries. Without this support, the internationally recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli would have long since lost the civil war against General Khalifa Haftar. In return, Turkish leader Recep Erdogan receives a maritime border agreement from Sarraj, that, to this day, remains controversial under international law. The latter significantly extends the borders of the Turkish sea area in the eastern Mediterranean. However, the extension stands in conflict against the claims and interests of Cyprus.
Turkey vs. Greece
Moreover, the agreement cuts a trail from Libya to the Turkish coast and thus provides the Turkish Navy and Turkish drilling ships the right to operate in Libyan waters. For the agreement, waters south of Crete, among others, are not part of the Greek economic zone.
It contradicts international consensus that states these waters belong indeed to Greece’s economic zone. With Greece continue to claim these waters for itself, and its priority to maintain the legal status quo in the region, Greece’s Defense Minister Panos Panagiotopoulos has already announced that it will deal with any Turkish drilling attempt off Crete by utilizing military means, if necessary.
The EU, meanwhile, makes no secret of the fact that Turkish drilling is illegal and must, therefore, be stopped immediately. A year ago, the EU heads of state and government, under pressure from Cyprus and Greece, condemned the drilling and decided to cut European funding for Turkey and to put an aviation agreement on ice. Turkey continued drilling. The next step for the EU was to pass legislation in late 2019 that should make it possible to impose sanctions on individuals, companies and organizations. Earlier this year, the EU decided to sanction two people involved in the Turkish gas drilling. Their assets in Europe have now been frozen. Turkey’s aspirations, however, have not been deferred by these actions.
Greece and Cyprus are now hoping that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will either find a solution during Germany’s EU Council Presidency or a way to increase Europe’s pressure on Erdogan to relinquish his claims. The crux, however, is apparent: via the refugee deal with Turkey, the EU has been held hostage by Ankara and any application of pressure on behalf of Cyprus and Greece is therefore difficult to facilitate, if not wholly inconceivable.
Erdogan has several goals in the Eastern Mediterranean. Not only is he seeking to block the exploitation of natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean by anyone but Ankara but also seeks to weaken Greece’s geostrategic position while establishing Turkey as the dominant regional power in the eastern Mediterranean. With the European Union as his hostage, Erdogan seems to have a clear path ahead for now, particularly with a paralyzed NATO which has been a no-show in the conflict.