Lessons from history and Ukraine


During the week, Turks celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the commencement of the “Grand Campaign,” the “Commander in Chief ’s Battle,” and “Victory Day.” These events mark the last stage in the Turkish War of National Independence where a campaign against the occupying Greek armies culminated in their disastrous defeat and the reconquest of Izmir where the Greek armies backed by the British had landed in May 1919 to incorporate Western Asia Minor into an expanded Greek state. The celebrations were particularly lively this time because it was the centennial. But, the festivities also marked a nationalist reaction to government policies that have aimed in recent years to transform Turkey from a secular state\ to one characterized as moderately Islamic.

The celebrations came at a time when Turkish-Greek relations are at an ebb. Frequent allegations of Turkey’s violations of Greek airspace have become so routinized as to constitute non-events in the eyes of all observers. But the current Greek government has been particularly aggressive in reenforcing militarily the islands close to the Turkish coast whereas treaties allow it to maintain only law enforcement forces. In addition, the Greek government has claimed as their own rocks near Turkey’s shores whose ownership had not been contested before. These actions are backed up by visits of government officials to these areas indicating that this is a deliberate policy to challenge Turkey that the Aegean is an exclusively Greek Sea. Recently, Russian-built S -300 Greek radars (presumably not active) locked onto Turkish jets that were taking part in a NATO exercise.

Aggressive behavior on the part of the Greek government has been criticized not only by Turkey but also by the Greek opposition that argues that locking horns with Turkey is not a good idea. Settling differences by negotiations is the right way to proceed. One might wonder, therefore, why the current Greek government is so aggressive in its approach to relations with Turkey. The brand of nationalism it pursues, its desire not to lose votes to its right may offer part of the answer. Another part may derive from the aspirations of some leading Greek politicians to pave their way to the leadership of the New Democracy Party. But, what encourages the current Greek government most is the external backing it feels it enjoys in the international arena, particularly from the European Union and the United States.

Let us begin with the EU. Greece is a member. Furthermore, it has a sister state in Greek Cyprus that would support it under almost any circumstance. The Greek line of thinking is that the EU would be expected to come to its defense in any conflictual relationship with Turkey. Judging by the way the EU authorities have behaved so far, such an expectation appears not to be surprising. To begin with, EU members feel obliged to support each other as members of the same community. This is all the more important since most decisions require unanimity which means that other members would need Greek support in pursuing their own causes. Reciprocity, in other words, is a strong motivation. Second, Greek tussles with its neighbor is an additional factor that stand in the way of EU’s developing closer relations with Turkey, which many members, at the moment, are content to accept. Third, some members see Greece as an asset in their own competitive relations with Turkey. France, which recently accused Turkey, somewhat entertainingly, of working against it in Africa, had previously expressed interest in forming some kind of a Franco- Greek alliance against Turkey. The critical question is, of course, whether these states would either allow Greece to initiate armed conflict with Turkey into which they would be dragged or send troops to Greece if it initiated armed conflict with it.

Before answering that question, let us look at the developing Greek-American relationship. Greece has become a major American base presumably for backing Bulgaria and Romania and accessing the Black Sea to contain Russia. Turks suspect that the American presence is also intended to have a greater presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and constitute a Plan B in case Turkey ceases to be reliable NATO partner. The Greek expectation is that Americans will support them in their contestations with Turkey. No doubt the Americans would constrain Turkey or Greece in initiating action against each other. The Greeks might also feel that the US will back them up if minor skirmishes escalate into more comprehensive fighting. The current US administration and Congress is extremely friendly to Greece which they also find encouraging. But, let us turn to the original question of whether America would commit troops to fight along with Greece against Turkey.

If history is a guide or current developments in Ukraine offer wisdom, more powerful states do not allow smaller powers to drag them into armed conflict, while they might be willing to extend various forms of support to a junior partner that is militarily engaged with others. They will not commit their own troops. That is even more unlikely in Turkey’s case since Turkey’s breaking ties with the Western camp would likely affect global power balances. Turkey understands that. Whether the current Greek government does is open to speculation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.