IN DEPTH – Volume 17 Issue 5 – September 2020

Andreas Stergiou
Associate Professor at the Department of Economics,
University of Thessaly



As widely known, the current geopolitical situation in the Eastern Mediterranean is worrying. Greece and Turkey, two NATO alliance members with a known historically burdened relationship, have been for several weeks locked in a stiff standoff the region has witnessed in 20 years. Since a possible confrontation could destabilise NATO’s south-east flank for good, the latest cycle of escalation that risks spiraling into a multinational conflict, has caused great uncertainty in the European Union and in the United States. Therefore, amidst the Republican national Convention in late August, the US President Trump stepped in to avert a bellicose incident, by calling the heads of the Turkish and Greek governments to commit to a dialogue.

Since Turkey and Greece have been for years stumbled into a clash over competing claims on offshore energy exploration rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, most of the analysts have speculated that the current geopolitical storm is about energy. It is true that Turkey believes it is being treated unfairly by its neighbours and resents what it perceives as its exclusion from talks on energy discoveries. Erdogan has been following gunboat diplomacy in the region, trying to erect barriers to the looming Israel-Cyprus-Egypt energy collaboration and carrying out his own natural gas and crude oil exploration in the waters that belong to the exclusive economic zones of two EU member states: Greece and Cyprus. However, contrary to the commonly hold perception, is not the existence of valuable offshore energy resources that has prompted Turkey’s aggression.

The crisis started, when Turkey deployed an energy exploration ship along with its naval escort to search for oil and natural gas in waters near the Greek island of Kastellorizo-waters. This particular region, however, has not proved energy resources and has not been mapped out by the big energy companies as an area of interest. Despite the widespread euphoria about the natural endowment of the region, the East Med gas bonanza is rather overestimated. The gas deposits, for those many believe that they even could drastically alter the EU’s energy security in the short to medium term, remain, apart from the Tamar and Zohr fields, so far largely undeveloped and exploration proceeds slowly, because there is no available export route for the large volumes of gas that could be produced. The East Med Pipeline, designed to ship Israeli and Cypriot gas to Greece and on to Western Europe, is for economic and technical reasons more a pipedream than a realistic pipeline project.  Given that the gas exports from the area, in the best-case scenario, would reach the amount of 50 bcm in the next years, probably long time after 2025, and that the EU market consumes more than 400 bcm/y, this perception is rather misguided. The existing gas finds also are insufficient to cover Turkey’s gigantic domestic energy needs. Accordingly, the prospect of economic benefit in connection with the successful exploitation of energy resources can hardly be an incentive for peace or a catalyst for war for the people living in this region.

Regarding Turkey’s claims on the Cypriot gas, it is noteworthy, that the Cyprus Republic has already offered Turkish Cypriots a share of gas revenues as a way to fairly divide revenue from the natural gas deposits thought to lie off the coast of Cyprus and de-escalate tensions with Turkey, if Ankara recognises Nicosia’s energy exploration rights,

Consequently, it was not the discovery of new energy resources that has enabled or facilitated multilateral regional political and defence cooperation between Israel-Greece and Cyprus, but the opposite actually occurred. The various forms of cooperation or strategic partnerships came about for other reasons and the energy dimension either was added later or was utilized in order to dress up the real nature of the rapprochement. Both the escalation of all the regional ethnic and political conflicts and the establishment of new alliances in the region have little to do with energy resources and emerged after certain political incidents had taken place.

Ankara is aware of this fact and therefore Turkish exploration is as fake as its Economic Exclusive Zone claims. Turkish Petroleum, the state-owned company that has been undertaking the drilling work, does not have the expertise to analyse the seismographic data it is collecting. It certainly does not have the capital to bring any gas it finds into production. Moreover, the drilling ships, which the Turkish company has been using so far, might be well-suited for the Black Sea but it is uncertain whether they can achieve any tangible results in the Eastern Mediterranean. It seems that the Turks are not really doing any exploratory drilling at all and that it is all for show. Turkey’s drilling activity appears not to be designed to find oil and gas but to stir up trouble and compel the rest of the East Mediterranean to bow to its leadership on energy.

Also, the show of force is for diplomatic leverage and domestic political advantage. Turkey’s activity in the Mediterranean Sea needs to be seen as the implementation of the ‘‘Blue Homeland’’ doctrine. The doctrine defines any attempts of international co-operation in the region that do not take Ankara’s interests into account as hostile. The fact that Turkey upsets other states in the region in its desire to claim the leadership of Sunni Islam spurred the US State Department to issue some strong-worded statements, although at the same time Washington seems to have turned a blind eye to Turkish actions in Libya, primarily because Ankara took a stand against Moscow’s support for Haftar.

Turkey has unambiguous aspirations to be recognised as the regional superpower. It cannot join a multilateral cooperation as an equal member. It’s rather a country that dictates terms to others. Erdogan’s provocative actions against Greece in the Mediterranean have been the extension of Turkey’s policy against Kurds, Christians, and Yezidis from Northern Syria, Kurds in Northern Iraq and Egyptian interests in the Libyan Civil War. Erdogan knows that Turkey today has no friends except for Qatar, the government Erdogan is propping up in Libya and maybe Pakistan.

Therefore, should brinkmanship in this highly securitised region spill over into military confrontation, there would be no winners. For Turkey, this might mean the irrevocable end of its European Union candidacy and a de facto freeze of its NATO membership, alongside other damaging sanctions. For Greece the repercussion could be even worse. Since Greece would be left to face an open-ended confrontation with an unpredictable Turkey without expecting serious military assistance from NATO or any other country (France has been making a show of military muscle in the region, but no one honestly thinks France is ready to assist militarily Greece against Turkey), it would probably face a war debacle and an unprecedented economic meltdown before the last one is over.