Some worrying events happened in the Aegean the past couple of days. Turkey has issued a unilateral NOTAM reserving large swathe of the Aegean, including large part of the Hellenic FIR for military exercises with live fire from 01/03/2015 to 31/12/2015. This effectively cut the Aegean in half, but most importantly it included part of Limnos, a Greek island in north Aegean. So in effect, Turkey has stated that it could use parts of an island belonging to Greece as a firing range.
A close observation of the timeline of events after the cancellation of the South Stream, Greek elections and the recent Eurogroup meeting shows that a few rats are in place:
- Russia cancels South Stream, replaces it with Turkish pipelines up to the Greek border. In order for this scheme to work, Turkey and Greece must cooperate.
- Elections in Greece. Syriza comes to power. All privatisations are cancelled; meeting with the Chinese ambassador regarding the fate of Piraeus port privatisation where COSCO was a lead contender (already owns a good percentage)
- 12/02/2015: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has telephone conversation with Greek Prime minister Tsipras; promises Chinese assistance to Greece. Reports in Chinese media say that the Premier has assurances that Greece has pledged to protect Chinese business interests.
- 16/02/2015: Chinese flotilla visits Greece. Hellenic navy conducts small scale exercise with the flotilla. Official welcoming by the Greek government; everybody from the defence minister downwards participate in the event.
- 17/02/2015: Turkish fighters, led by the Chief of Turkish air force himself, violate the Greek airspace.
- 20/02/2015: Eurogroup approves Greece’s plan. A compromise has been reached where no new privatisations will take place but ones for which the process has started will continue. This reopens the Chinese bid for the port of Piraeus.
- 24/02/2015: The Greek defence minister orders the deployment of the entire Greek rapid reaction force into the eastern and north Aegean for military drills. Part of the drill includes recapturing a lost island.
- 25/02/2015: Greek government reshuffles the military leadership in a more or less expected move. Cyprus signs naval agreement with Russia.
- 26/02/2015: At 10:00am the Greek defence vice-minister had a meeting with the ambassador of Turkey to discuss ways to improve dialogue between Turkey and Greece and to build trust between the two countries. At 11:02am six Turkish fighters violate Greek FIR. Promptly intercepted by Hellenic air force. Greek government announces that it welcomes Chinese investment into the country.
- 27/02/2015: Chinese media report that the Mr. Varoufakis (Greek finance minister) announces the Greek government’s intention to quickly create a new framework for long-term collaboration between Greece and China.
- 28/02/2015: Turkey issues a unilateral NOTAM (A0889/15) effectively cutting the Aegean in half for the rest of the year. Greek government strongly protests the event.
- 01/03/2015: Greece issues NOTAM A0413/15. Turkey responds with NOTAM A0900/15 which removes the part of Limnos and later issues NOTAM A0904/15 which cancelled the original A0889/15.
Violation of Greek airspace by Turkish fighters and subsequent interception (even engagement) is not a rare event. On the other hand, the inclusion of Limnos as a firing range practically amounts to a threat of war. So, why this escalation and why now?
- The most immediate effect this could have is to impact the flow of tourists to Greece. This is the beginning of the tourist season and as Greece has a big reliance on tourism for income then the slightest decline in numbers will have a big impact in Greece’s finances thus limiting their room for manoeuvres when it comes to negotiations with the Troika.
- This could also have been a test of the resolve of the new government as they are seen as inexperienced leftists in the eyes of the EU. Should this escalated further, it would have given a chance to the more “traditional” politicians to bounce back and cause internal instability.
- A longer effect is that the latest events greatly increase the friction between Greece and Turkey thus diminishing the possibility of a pipeline for Russian gas / oil from Turkey to Greece and then to the rest of Europe. Moreover, at some point Russia might be forced to make a choice between Greece and Turkey, whereas this is not in Russia’s interests.