Over the last three years Greece needed to be vigilant and institutionally prepared to deal with “poly-crises”, namely traditional and contemporary threats and challenges that evolve simultaneously and which seemed to constitute the “new normal” in the Mediterranean’s extremely unstable environment. Indeed, geographically located on the verge of relative stability (Europe) and total instability (MENA region), Greece has been –and still is— the main recipient of most of the new security threats and challenges appearing in the Mediterranean region in the post-9/11 era, e.g., transnational organized crime, international terrorism, uncontrolled mass irregular migration, cyber-threats, and the consequences of the climate crisis.
Moreover, with neighboring Turkey remaining the main threat to Greece’s security over the course of almost half a century and given the numerous ways in which Turkish revisionism could combine with other potential threats and/or new vulnerabilities in Greece’s national security, Greece is called upon to “punch above its weight” by “doing more with less”. By implication, there is an immediate need for a refinement of Greece’s balancing strategy vis-à-vis Turkey so as to become less costly and most efficient.
It should be noted that Greek-Turkish relations have remained extremely tense, particularly throughout the past couple of years, with Turkey dialing up its rhetoric against Greece to hitherto unheard-of extremes. Indeed, in the context of the broader revisionist narrative of the “Blue Homeland”, Turkey has remained true to its policy of creating and maintaining multiple “parallel fronts” of controlled tension in its relations with Greece. In addition, the past year saw Turkey challenge not only Greece’s sovereign rights but its sovereignty over certain islands and islets in the Aegean as it developed a narrative which presents Turkey as defending itself against Greek illegality and aggression—a narrative in which Greece is supposedly arming various islands as a threat to Turkey, as well as systematically oppressing the Muslim minority in Thrace. In fact, it was President Erdoğan himself who threatened that Turkey might “come suddenly one night” and even that Turkey’s home-grown ballistic missile might be aimed at the Greek capital.
Yet Greece’s immediate support and solidarity it expressed to the victims of the devastating earthquakes that hit Turkey in the beginning of February 2023 (destroying at least 214,000 buildings in the ten most affected Turkish provinces and leaving 46,000 people dead and another 2.7 million displaced) have led to a change in climate between the two neighbors; the lofty rhetoric and extreme statements have ceased, and Greece’s concerns that Erdoğan may translate his extreme rhetoric into action in the Eastern Mediterranean and/or the Aegean have been allayed.
For dealing with the additional challenges and risks (“poly-crises”) and for effectively balancing the threatening neighbor Greece should proceed to a refinement of its current balancing strategy vis-à-vis Turkey and employ a strategy of “smart balancing”. Indeed, apart from allowing for the efficient use of the available limited means, the rationale of a “smart balancing” strategy is to change Turkey’s assertive behavior by impeding its ability to profit from aggressive policies; by increasing the marginal costs of these policies; and by delegitimizing its behavior in the eyes of the broader international community.
Moreover, the proposed “smart balancing” strategy argues for the adoption of an indirect approach of confronting security threats aiming at altering Turkey’s cost-benefit calculus through international institutions and concerted diplomacy allowing thus Greece to avoid some of the costs and consequences of countering threats directly through traditional hard security strategies, such as vigorous military alliances or costly arms build ups. It is worth noting that a “smart balancing” strategy is not limited to the short-term goal of achieving “crisis stability” and normalization of relations with Turkey but it aims at the resolution of the conflict between the two neighbors.
Specifically, Greece’s “smart balancing” strategy consists of two particular pillars, namely “limited hard balancing” and “soft balancing”. The policies of the first pillar Greece should adopt concern (a) limited arms build ups that would allow Greece to acquire the minimum deterrent ability, i.e., an equilibrium that would preserve peace; (b) investment in strategic partnerships with key-neighboring countries (Israel and Egypt) and certain pro-Western Arab states (Saudi Arabia and the UAE), yet not of an anti-Turkish orientation; (c) the establishment of a coherent and functional crisis management mechanism for preventing “faits-accomplis” and “hot-incident” by accident in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean and (d) the establishment of a “CBMs safety net” through an agreement on certain military Confidence and Security Building Measures.
The policies of “soft balancing” Greece should adopt concern (a) the support of Turkey’s European path by linking elements of the EU’s “positive agenda”, e.g., the upgrade of the Customs Union and/or a new deal on migration with certain conditionality, e.g., Turkey abandoning the “casus belli” against Greece and/or accepting the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in The Hague; (b) the reactivation of the “Exploratory Talks” between Greece and Turkey and (c) the promotion of certain multilateral initiatives proposed by the President of the EU Council, namely the “Multilateral Conference on the Eastern Mediterranean”, which concerns the organization of an international conference in order for the thorny issue of maritime boundaries in the region but also other issues, such as energy, security, and migration, to be addressed.
The Conference should indeed be viewed as a ‘window of opportunity’ for dragging Turkey into a ‘rules-based’ multilateral context based on the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Apart from preparing to prevent a hot incident and/or new faits accomplis in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Greek strategy of balancing a geopolitically upgraded, due to the war in Ukraine, Turkey could be rendered more effective if it is complemented by international initiatives which would oblige Turkey to consider the cost of its continued aggression towards Greece and Cyprus, while highlighting the benefits that would accrue to a change of stance. Moreover, it is in Greece’s interest for the bilateral maritime delimitation agreements signed to date with Italy, Albania, and Egypt, as well as the effort currently underway to jointly delimit the EEZ with Libya, to be incorporated into the EU proposed multilateral context with Greece playing a key role in becoming the “agenda setter” of the EU proposed “Multilateral Conference on the Eastern Mediterranean”.
At a time when expansion is more difficult and offensive capabilities are in disadvantage; the norm of territorial integrity is present, although weakened; the regional environment is not receptive to revisionist policies and international institutions can be used for soft balancing and engagement, a combination of “limited hard balancing” and of “soft balancing”, namely “smart balancing” is by far the less costly and most efficient strategy Greece may employ vis-à-vis Turkey.
*The Hellenic Observatory hosted a research seminar on the topic on 14 March 2023. For more information please visit the event page.