Greece faces Turkish aggression but also international aloofness: the need for public diplomacy

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

The Greek-Turkish dispute has taken an unpleasant turn within the last days. Although openings for some sort of de-escalation remain present – the Prague meetings over the European Political Community offer the chance of an Erdogan-Mitsotakis face-to-face which would be far more productive than any NATO de-confliction routine… – tensions over the Aegean are getting out of hand. Ankara has somehow kidnapped the Greek insistence that international law should reign sovereign over the two parties’ disputes, by turning this argument on its head. Turkey claims now that the de-militerised status of several Aegean islands entails – once Greece has maintained a military presence on them, so as to build defenses against a possible Turkish aggression from the near-by coast – some sort of fading sovereignty, ending up in loss of such sovereignty on part of Greece. While Greece invokes the (U.N. Charter-based) right of self-defense to explain its need to keep defenses on the islands, Turkey resorts to a peculiarly aggressive reading of self-defense so as to asset its own “right” to enforce de-militarisation by force. Indeed, Turkish verbiage that “we will come by night” constitute clear threats.

Meanwhile on the related fronts of EEZ/continental shelf sovereign rights, Turkish challenge is mounting: this is true for Greece, at the eastern-most part of its sea domain; it is even more pronounced regarding Cyprus. (Since we mention Cyprus, there are also Turkish statements of intent to increase Turkish military imprint on the northern, occupied part of the island).

All of which might end as an evident case of a Chronicle of Aggression Foretold; problem is, will international public opinion adopt such a reading? Greece – and Cyprus, at that – are on an arduous diplomatic campaign at Government and International Organisations level. What is sorely missing is successful public diplomacy; i.e. the potential to influence international public opinion and, through it, official positions in times of crisis. This is all the more important since the world goes now through extremely rough waters.

A new reality results on the ground through the proclaimed annexation by Russia of four Ukraine oblasts/regions – further to the Dombas (Luhansk and Donetsk), Zaporizhia and Kherson, which build a continuum with Crimea, annexed ever since 2014. Local referenda, largely decried as sham by the West, are conjured as the legal basis for President Putin’s grandstanding that “people living [in these regions] are becoming our citizens – forever”. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian counter-offensive is gaining ground on these very areas.

In a tit-for-tat reaction to the annexations, Ukrainian President Zelenski proceeded with a formal request for his country’s accession to NATO – through a “fast-track” procedure. Such a move, if successful, would directly pit the Alliance’s forces against Russia, bringing the collective defense clause of Article 5 into play.  As should be expected, NATO reminded all and sundry that for accession to take place, unanimity is required (that is, Hungary should for instance accept the move).

Meanwhile, an act of “sabotage” on both natural gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea   – NordStream-2 which has been mothballed ever since the Ukraine crisis started and NordStream-1 which was running at 20% capacity – increased tensions on the “energy war” front. According to Polish PM Morawieck, “[this] probably marks the next step of escalation of the situation in Ukraine”. The European Commission President von der Leyen warned on “strongest possible response” to attacks on European energy infrastructures; meanwhile, EU energy ministers were. Unable to find adequate common-ground for an economic response to spiking energy prices.

So, now, take a step back – and compare! Compare the de-stabilising developments in the Greek-Turkish dispute (with all of their unsettling potential) with the all-out conflict situation in Ukraine, a conflict claimed by invading Vladimir Putin as being increasingly between Russia and the West. What sort of visibility can the Greek-Turkish issue get, in case of real conflict? How prepared will international opinion be to gauge a flare-up at a remote place of the Aegean?

True enough, public diplomacy is not something that can be built overnight – and Greece has been recently on the wrong side of international media. But. The sooner the need for action on the front of public diplomacy is realized, the better.