The era of gunships is back – “Europe” opts for suave diplomacy

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenia-controlled enclave within Azerbaijan and the theatre of armed conflict for the last weeks before a truce of sorts has been imposed at Russian instigation, is hundreds of miles away from the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. So is Libya, where after several months of proxy confrontation between Russia and Egypt-backed Libyan National Army (controlling the easternmost part of the country) and Turkey and Qatar-backed (UN-recognised, West-part of Libya) Government of National Accord, there reigns uneasy silence.

The fact that armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has stopped only once Russia stepped in and guaranteed a corridor connecting Azeri access to Nakhichevan (a further enclave within Armenia), but also passage from Armenia to a (much diminished) area of Nagorno-Karabakh under Artsakh/Armenia – supported control,  while Turkey’s participation to the hostilities at the side of Azerbaijan was openly admitted, shows two things: first, that the era of gunships, of military force projection is back; second, that only equally open Great Power intervention can stop a conflagration underway.

The proxy participation element was even more pronounced in the Libyan conflict, where Ankara had supplied heavy equipment put also put boots on the ground with Syrian-war-experienced islamist mercenaries; Moscow also lent support, especially Wagner Group paramilitary troops, but also some airpower.

In both situations, active presence of Turkish surveillance and (most important in Nagorno-Karabakh) attack drones has been noted. Civilian populations were under drone attack -or even under ever-present, morale-sapping drone threat. With the US in genteel withdrawal from the region, it fell on the EU to mark the interest of the West. In both cases, this was done through exhortations of the EU Foreign Affairs Council/FAC and European External Action Service/EEAS, with European Council resolutions thrown in for good measure.

Insofar the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is concerned, the October EU Summit invited the parties to cease hostilities and “work towards the peaceful settlement of the conflict”; the European Parliament expressed through his President D. Sassoli condolences to the families of victims and called “for the cessation of hostilities”. As to Libya, the EU mainly expressed support to the – Berlin-orchestrated – Berlin Process “as the sole viable framework” for Libya to return to peace and “resume its transition towards a stable, secure and prosperous country”.

The contrast between the two approaches is stark. So, in the Eastern Mediterranean (and southern flank of the Aegean, from Rhodes to Karpathos to Kasos to the South of Crete) region, where the latter-day gunship presence has taken the form of frigates escorting Turkish seismic vessels (Oruc Reis over the Greek continental shelf, Barbaros in Cyprus EEZ) but also drillships (Yavuz, drilling on Cyprus continental shelf, reportedly to a depth of 6000 m), one has reason to be alert. The latest EU reaction to this sort of Turkish presence was the concern expressed by the lead spokesperson of the HR/VP for foreign affairs Peter Stano and the Secretary General of the EEAS Helga Schmid to Turkey’s Permanent Delegate to the EU, Mehmed Kemal Bozay. Turkey’s naval presence was termed “deeply regrettable” and a factor of “escalation of tensions” in the region. For the EU “a cooperative and mutually beneficial relation between the EU and Turkey should be found”. Slightly stronger language was used concerning Cyprus – both over the illegal opening of the enclosed Varosha/Famagusta area (notwithstanding Security Council Resolutions) and future negotiations over the Cyprus issue.

Were one to compare such positions – welcome as they are – with the actual presence and behaviour of Turkey in the wider neighbourhood, one is rather entitled to worry. Just remember the drone presence/overfly, some weeks ago, at Kastellorizo, where Turkish anthems were played and a Greek flag drawn on a hill was disfigured with red paint.