Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ratcheted up already soaring tensions with Greece Wednesday, telling an audience that his country would take “whatever it is entitled to” amid an escalating dispute over energy reserves in the eastern Mediterranean.
"We will not compromise what is ours,” he said, at an event commemorating a centuries-old military victory by Seljuk Turks over the Byzantine empire. “We are determined to do whatever is necessary.”
The bellicose comments came as Greece and Turkey carried out rival naval manoeuvres in the eastern Mediterranean, amid a fiery standoff between the neighbours over rights to untapped natural energy reserves. The shows of force have raised fears of an escalating military confrontation between the two countries, historic rivals but NATO allies, leading to urgent efforts by Germany to de-escalate the situation.
Tensions in the region surged earlier this month when Turkey sent seismic research vessel Oruç Reis, protected by warships, to survey energy deposits in disputed waters of the eastern Mediterranean, in a move Greece considers illegal.
Athens and Ankara dispute their boundaries in the region, and the associated rights to energy reserves below the seafloor.
When Ankara announced Monday it was extending the mission, Athens announced a joint naval exercise in the same area, prompting an angry response from Erdogan that Turkey would “not take even the smallest step back”.
France, which has supported Greece and Cyprus in their dispute over ownership of the reserves, said Wednesday it had joined the military exercises, sending three fighter jets and a warship equipped with a helicopter.
“The eastern Mediterranean is turning into an area of tension. Respect for international law must be the rule and not the exception,” French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said on Twitter Wednesday, adding that the region “should not be a playground for the ambitions of some.”
Asli Aydıntaşbaş, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News that Erdogan’s assertive expansionism was in part fuelled by “a sense of desperation regarding the emergence of an anti-Turkey axis” in the region.
Developments such as a deal between Greece, Cyprus and Israel for the construction of a massive undersea gas pipeline from the eastern Mediterranean, excluding Turkey, and Gulf support for forces fighting Turkish-backed forces in Libya, had left Ankara “feeling that it is under siege” and at risk of becoming “landlocked on its own shores”.
She said the European Union could de-escalate the dispute if it put its weight behind mediation efforts, which would be unlikely to permanently resolve the rival maritime claims, but may take the heat out of the confrontation. While the EU broadly backs Greece in the dispute, the bloc is divided over a request from Greece to slap sanctions on Turkey.
Erdogan’s bombastic comments Wednesday followed indications the day before by the Turkish and Greek foreign ministers that they were willing to engage in talks to resolve the crisis, following separate meetings with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who is attempting to broker a solution.
Maas said in Ankara that a military conflict between the neighbours would be “absolute insanity.”
"The situation is very risky, because in the end, whoever moves closer and closer to the abyss, can at some point fall down,” he said.
The tensions have already resulted in a mild collision between a Greek and a Turkish naval frigate earlier this month, however nobody was injured.