Why Europe’s next war could be between Greece and Turkey

Dr Oliver Hartwich
28 June, 2022

The last thing Europe needs right now is a war. Or, more precisely, another war. As we enter the fifth month of Russia’s aggression on Ukraine, inflation is soaring, and the Euro crisis has restarted.

To make matters worse, yet another war is on the horizon. It would even be a conflict between two Nato members. I am referring to Greece and Turkey, of course. (Or Türkiye, as the country now wants to be called.)

If there is a traditional arch enmity in international affairs, it is the one between Athens and Ankara. Their conflict dates back more than half a millennium, which makes it older than the two modern states of Greece and Turkey.

The potted history is this: In the 15th century, the Ottoman and Byzantine empires struggled for dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean. After the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453, the Greeks were forced into centuries of minority status in the Ottoman Empire.

Even after Greece became independent and recognised by the Ottoman Empire in 1830, the animosity continued. A hundred years ago, the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922 ended with a Greek defeat as well as ethnic cleansing and resettlement on both sides.

After this tumultuous history, it was a small miracle that both countries formed friendly relations that led them to join Nato in 1952.

However, since the mid-1950s the old animosities returned. First, over who controls Cyprus, and then increasingly over access to natural resources in the region. All this always played out against the backdrop of a long-running cultural rivalry.

The Greek-Turkish conflict is so old it is almost part of European folklore. Yet the escalation of rhetoric over the past weeks is extreme, even by its normal standards. The timing was also surprising.

When Putin started his aggression against Ukraine, there was a brief moment when it looked like both Athens and Ankara had buried the hatchet. Instead of their usual bickering they may for once stand together and confront the Russian invasion as Nato members.

But then the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, gave a speech to both chambers of the US Congress on May 17. It was an address dominated by foreign policy issues, not least the importance of US military bases in Greece for supplying Ukraine with weapons.

Mitsotakis, however, did not stop there. Instead, he made Greece’s case for acquiring the F-35 stealth fighter jet from the US – and against allowing Turkey to upgrade their F-16 jets with new missiles, radar and electronics.

In his address, Mitsotakis said: “The last thing that Nato needs at a time when our focus is on helping Ukraine defeat Russia’s aggression is another source of instability on Nato’s South-Eastern flank. And I ask you take this into account when you make defence procurement decisions concerning the Eastern Mediterranean.”

It did not take long for Ankara to reply. Its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, tweeted: “We warn Greece once more to avoid dreams, statements and actions that will lead to regret, as it did a century ago, and to return to its senses.”

The threat of war may not be obvious unless one is familiar with the history of the conflict. “A century ago” refers to the last Greco-Turkish war. The “lead to regret” line was a hint that Greece lost.

In other words, rather than coming closer together in the face of the Ukraine war, Greece and Turkey are drifting further apart.

This is a nightmare scenario for Nato. It is the opposite of what it would have hoped for. Turkey and Greece being on the same page would have contributed to the alliance’s collective security in the Mediterranean.

In the years before the Ukraine war, Russia and China became more active in the Eastern Mediterranean with economic initiatives. Counteracting this would have required a new Turkey and Greece to find a way to live together – a possibility that now looks less likely.

How will Nato members position themselves in this conflict? At the moment, the majority of Nato members support Greece. Or perhaps more accurately, they are against Turkey.

Erdoğan has irritated Western Europe for many years. The role he played in the various refugee crises is questionable. His domestic economic policy is a disaster. His relationship with Russia has long been ambiguous.

It is no wonder more Nato members are siding with Greece in this conflict. The US has traditionally been on Greece’s side anyway. Regardless of how other Nato members are positioned, the most important question is how the Turkish president will handle this crisis.

It is a challenging situation for Erdoğan. Next year, he will face presidential elections. The economy of his country is in turmoil, with an inflation rate of more than 70 percent. Because of Erdoğan’s idiosyncratic understanding of economics and his constant interference in the Turkish central bank, Turkish price increases are directly linked to him.

In these circumstances, it may be tempting for the president to start a war against Greece to win back popular respect. A war would provide a distraction from domestic politics and inflation.

In contrast, Greece has little to gain from war. Yes, Prime Minister Mitsotakis may also wish for distractions from economic policy. Nevertheless, Greece’s military is no match for Turkey’s, so it would almost certainly lose in a conflict with Turkey.

Overall, it is hard to imagine a proper winner in a new Greco-Turkish war. Turkey may prevail militarily, but it would only further destabilise its economy and isolate itself more from other Nato members.

At the moment, a war seems unlikely because it would be an all-around catastrophe. Then again, that is precisely why many believed Putin would never invade Ukraine.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates