NATO brokers Greek-Turkish ‘technical talks’ to reduce military tensions in the eastern Mediterranean

7 September 2020

NATO says alliance members Turkey and Greece have held "technical talks" on ways to de-escalate military tensions in the eastern Mediterranean Sea over disputed gas exploration activities.

"Following my discussions with Greek and Turkish leaders, the two allies have agreed to enter into technical talks at NATO to establish mechanisms for military de-confliction to reduce the risk of incidents and accidents in the eastern Mediterranean," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement on 3 September. "Greece and Turkey are valued allies, and NATO is an important platform for consultations on all issues that affect our shared security", he added.

However, although the respective national delegations at NATO agreed to the talks, reports suggest that Athens has been more reticent. Just hours later, Athens denied that such talks were planned, with one Greek official telling the Associated Press that the NATO statement "does not correspond with reality". "De-escalation would only be achieved with the immediate withdrawal of all Turkish ships from the Greek continental shelf,'' said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. On 4 September, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Turkey should drop "threats" against his country if talks are to commence.

At the same time, the Turkish foreign ministry issued a statement commending Stoltenberg for the initiative. “This initiative, which is also supported by Turkey, refers to the initiation of military-technical meetings between the two countries within NATO, as the Secretary-General announced today,” the statement read. But while according to Ankara, the meetings are meant to be focused on de-confliction related to the arrangements addressed previously on a bilateral level between the military authorities of both countries, “they are not related to the outstanding bilateral issues between Turkey and Greece”. “We expect Greece to support this initiative of the Secretary-General of NATO,” the Turkish MFA stressed.

During an online press conference on 4 September after a meeting of the North Atlantic Council (which discussed the poisoning of Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny), the Secretary General affirmed that the talks had already taken place. “Following discussions with both Greek and Turkish leaders, the two Allies have met already for technical talks here at NATO. The aim of these talks is to establish mechanisms for military deconfliction, to reduce the risk of incidents and accidents in the eastern Mediterranean”, he said. Stoltenberg also stressed that “no agreement on the mechanism has been reached yet. These are technical talks, rather than negotiations on the underlying disputes between Greece and Turkey. And as such, they are meant to complement, not replace, the efforts led by Germany for political mediation towards de-escalation”.

Large reserves of natural gas are believed to be located in the eastern Mediterranean, which Turkey is exploring in maritime areas claimed by Cyprus or Greece. Tensions are running high over Turkey's drilling activities, which Greece and Cyprus say violate their sovereignty, and both sides have deployed warships in a show of force, raising fears of conflict erupting by accident. The EU has repeatedly urged Turkey to stop its exploration activities and threatened to apply sanctions on Ankara if it does not de-escalate tensions and remove its warships from Greece’s waters. Turkey has a deadline until the next EU summit on 24 September to comply.

Both Greece and Turkey have been NATO members since 1952. Membership was meant to stop them fighting each other and to ensure neither fell under Soviet influence. Jamie Shea, former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at NATO, said in a comment piece that NATO has a long history of handling Greek-Turkish disputes in the Aegean, whether over territorial claims, airspace infringements, naval exercises, and recently the monitoring of illegal migration from Turkey to Greece.

NATO had recently opened an investigation into a France-Turkey naval incident in the Eastern Mediterranean, off the coast of Libya. On the question as to whether there is any conclusion in the investigation, a NATO official is reported as saying that “NATO’s Military Authorities have submitted their report on the incident between Turkey and France in the Mediterranean” and as this is a classified report no results will be shared publicly.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the situation in the eastern Mediterranean in a videoconference on 3 September. The two leaders agreed on a "need to reduce regional tensions," according to Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert. A statement from Erdogan's office said: "Our president said it was unacceptable for some countries to support the selfish and unjust attitude of Greece". Apparently Erdoğan was referring to France, which has publicly backed Greece and sent warships to the region.

Further reading:

Judy Asks: Is NATO Paralyzed Over the Greece-Turkey Conflict?, Carnegie Europe, 3 September 2020

French-Turkish tensions continue over UN arms embargo on Libya, NATO Watch News Brief, 11 July 2020