Officially, Greece and Turkey are allies, both being members of NATO. Historically, this relationship has been much more hostile. A hot-and-cold pattern of war and reconciliation has characterized their interactions since the first Byzantine-Ottoman conflicts.
Turkey and Greece have disputed territorial claims and rights to resources in the Eastern Mediterranean over the last several decades. This is to say nothing of the problem with Cyprus, which was divided into a Greek side and a Turkish side in 1963, ultimately resulting in the creation of Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey.
Greece and Turkey’s induction into NATO was assumed to come with the understanding that being part of the alliance would neutralize their conflicts of interest and thus minimize the possibility of violence breaking out in the Mediterranean. But a multilateral alliance cannot undo that history on its own.
The most recent dispute between Turkey and Greece has created a disturbance within the alliance that was supposed to deter such conflicts. In September of 2020, Turkey began to actively search for oil and natural gas deposits close to Cyprus, quickly escalating into a quarrel over boundaries similar to those in the past.
It was seen as serious enough to elicit intervention both by NATO and the European Union. NATO quickly implemented a mechanism to deter fighting from breaking out between Greece and Turkey. On December 10 of this year, the European Union, supported by the U.S., voted to place sanctions on Turkey for its drilling activity.
The boundary dispute could be the last straw for NATO given Turkey’s inconsistent record as an ally. Turkey, which has the second-largest military in NATO, had already been kicked out of the F-35 fighter consortium in 2018 for purchasing S-400 missiles from Russia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also become increasingly hostile toward the U.S., even volatile. He has threatened to cut U.S. military access to the Incirlik Air Base, believed to house nuclear weapons, in the aftermath of a 2016 coup attempt led by pilots from Turkey’s Air Force.
Since the S-400 episode, Erdogan has become closer to Vladimir Putin, who would like nothing more than a clash between two NATO powers. Nevertheless, Ankara has far from abandoned its bid for membership in the EU, in spite of troubling human rights violations and irregularities in the rule of law.
A new dispute between these two countries was always going to bring NATO’s F-35 fighter jet program into focus. This is where Greece has the opportunity to usurp Turkey’s former role, and Athens appears to be taking it. As of November, Greece has also been in negotiations to acquire F-35s of its own, thus petitioning to join the consortium from which Turkey was excommunicated. Greece has already received six of the jets, originally intended for sale to Turkey.
The U.S.-produced F-35 fighter has become a key feature of NATO plans to deter Russian aggression. The plane's advanced survivability and versatility provide warfighting advantages that Russia cannot match, and its adoption by many NATO members assures that diverse air forces will synch effectively in combat. Greece's acquisition of the F-35, combined with its existing force of over a hundred F-16 fighters, will make it a bulwark of the alliance’s southern flank.
As a result of Turkey's fall from favor, Greece is an increasingly appealing candidate to step in. It has one of the largest NATO airbases in Europe and has long hosted the F-35s of other countries. Iraklion Air Base in Crete is now being eyed by the U.S. as a candidate to replace Incirlik. The rest of Europe also appears favorably disposed to Greece. On December 14, Angela Merkel stated that European leaders would discuss changes to weapons sales to Turkey in response to Greece's petition for an arms embargo on Ankara.
How Ankara will respond in the near future is unclear; however, the foreign minister has made it clear that Turkey will not abandon its claims in the Eastern Mediterranean (nor its EU bid) simply because of sanctions and criticism from Europe.