NATO’s primary raison d’être has always been the deterrence of Russia. Therefore, it is ironic that the Alliance’s moral death may not come in the plains of Poland, but rather in the waters of the Mediterranean.

During the past months, the decades-long tensions between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean have been building up. Turkey has been sending an exploratory vessel, Oruç Reis, accompanied by warships, to conduct energy research in waters over which Greece claims jurisdiction. Greece has been sending its warships to observe the Turkish flotilla. In August, the ongoing tension culminated in a collision between a Greek and Turkish frigate, which considerably damaged the Turkish ship.

The recent showdown between the two countries has been largely portrayed as one over energy resources. Yet, this is a facile reading. Although energy does play a role, it is but an epiphenomenal one. At its core, the confrontation is over geopolitics’ central concept: space. And space is much harder to negotiate over than energy.

Turkey feels constrained by the regional geography: Asia Minor, Turkey’s Asiatic landmass, protrudes like a thumb from the Middle East and the Caucasus. It makes up the whole southern coast of the Black Sea and a significant part of the eastern Mediterranean coast. Yet, on its western edge, Asia Minor is hemmed in by a multitude of Greek islands, some as populated and large as Rhodes, others mere uninhabited islets. De jure, this excludes Turkey from most of the Aegean and limits its rights over the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey cannot abide by that. With a population of 83 million, an area covering over 300,000 square miles, and the world’s 13th highest GDP, Turkey wants to enjoy the power that it believes its numbers entitle it to. Adding to that potent mix is the country’s Ottoman past, which Turkish President Erdogan’s Islamism, a mainstream current in Turkey, espouses. All these create aspirations of regional hegemony.

The starboard of the Turkish frigate Kemal Reis revealing the damage it sustained.

The latest geostrategic and ideological vehicle for these aspirations is the concept of Mavi Vatan — Blue Homeland — a permutation of neo-Ottomanism, an irridentist and imperialist ideology. Mavi Vatan’s main tenet is Turkey’s control of its surrounding maritime space: the southern Black Sea; the waters between Crete and the Republic of Cyprus (which Turkey does not recognize); and most worryingly, the Greek islands and waters of the eastern Aegean. Mavi Vatan has been enunciated multiple times by President Erdogan and Turkish Defense Minister Akar. Turkey’s military support for the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), its legally suspect agreement with GNA over delimitation of maritime rights, its expressed interest over the use of the Misrata naval base and the al-Watiya airbase, and its dispatch of units to Libya should accordingly be viewed under the prism of neo-Ottomanism.

Yet, despite the military standoff between Turkey and Greece, both countries proclaim their desire to resolve their differences diplomatically. Crucially, they disagree as to what should be negotiated. Greece only wants to negotiate a delimitation of the two countries’ Continental Shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone. On the other hand, Turkey wants to negotiate a swathe of additional topics, most tellingly the demilitarization of a number of Greek islands in the eastern Aegean. Greece will never accept such relinquishment of its security. Importantly, Turkey’s Fourth Army, which has a strong offensive amphibious element, is stationed at Ismir (Smyrna) just across these Greek islands.

A few NATO members are concretely standing by Greece, most importantly France, which has been participating in joint military exercises with Greece and other nations in the eastern Mediterranean. Additionally, the two countries have decided to deepen their strategic and defense partnership, with Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis announcing the purchase of 18 Rafale aircraft. The jets are scheduled to be delivered to Greece soon.

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