Last week, attending congressional delegates clapped 37 times at the speech of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the first ever by a Greek leader. Everything was there: from Greece as the cradle of democracy and basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks to, more politically sensitive, the parallels between the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Turkish threat to Greece.
The warm reception of the speech was captured by the Turkish media. “The enthusiasm of the US Congress surprised even Mitsotakis,” the newspaper wrote Hurriyet † The newspaper noted that Mitsotakis often made implicit references to Turkey, such as when talking about Greek airspace violations and Turkey’s order for new F-16s.
“The last thing NATO needs, at a time when our focus is on helping Ukraine defeat Russian aggression, is another source of instability on NATO’s southeastern flank,” Mitsotakis said without mentioning Turkey. “I ask you to take this into account when making defense purchasing decisions related to the Eastern Mediterranean.”
This caused irritation in Ankara, where there is a feeling that the Greeks are being favored by Washington. President Recep Tayyip Edogan said Mitsotakis “no longer exist” for him. And Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu complained during his meeting with his US counterpart Antony Blinken last week that the balance sheet is out of order. “They have always kept the balance between Cyprus, Greece and Turkey,” Çavusoglu told reporters afterwards. “But they’ve been losing it lately.”
The Turkish government is particularly concerned about its order for the new F-16 from the US defense company Lockheed Martin, which is to be approved by Congress. The F-16s are desperately needed for the modernization of the Turkish Air Force, which has an obsolete fleet. Turkey was actually to buy the F-35, NATO’s new generation of fighter jets. But the Pentagon threw Turkey out of the F-35 program in 2019 to buy a Russian missile system.
The Turkish square now appears to have been taken by Greece. One of the main purposes of Mitsotakis’ visit to Washington was to lobby for the sale of the F-35 to Greece. The Prime Minister also strengthens the Greek Air Force in other ways, prompted by the perceived threat from its major neighbor Turkey. Last year, Greece and France signed an agreement on defense cooperation, including the purchase of 24 French Rafale fighter jets.
It is part of a broader arms race between Greece and Turkey, primarily driven by weapons from the United States, Germany and France. Both countries are among the largest arms buyers in the world with defense budgets sometimes twice as high as those of the G7 countries. By 2020, they both spent 2.8 percent of their GDP on defense. Turkey spends more money in absolute numbers as the Turkish economy is bigger than the Greek.
Despite this, Erdogan fears he will lag behind the Greeks, especially in terms of the air force. Turkey has taken important steps towards self-sufficiency, for example when it comes to drones, thanks to the development of its own defense industry. But a private jet fighter is still far away. President Joe Biden has expressed his support for the sale of the F-16 to Turkey, but Congress is very suspicious of Erdogan. The sale is not over yet.
The interests are great. Greece and Turkey may be formally NATO allies, but in practice they are very much at odds with each other. This has almost led to armed clashes several times in recent decades. The last time was in 2020, when a clash between the Turkish and Greek navies led to a clash between two frigates. There are also frequent clashes between Greek and Turkish warplanes over disputed parts of the Aegean Sea.
Pr. On April 27, Greece counted as many as 126 alleged violations of its airspace. Half were the work of Turkish F-16s, and the other half by drones. Mitsotakis said in his speech to Congress that these violations of Greek airspace must end. But it appears that Erdogan prefers to escalate tensions with Turkey’s longtime rival ahead of the 2023 presidential election.
Meanwhile, Greece is in a hurry to buy the F-35s. So very busy that the government is even willing to accept planes already used by the US Air Force. Otherwise it must be connected at the back of the row. Chances are, Mitsotakis will get his wish.
also read this report about the tensions around the eastern Mediterranean