The escalation of tensions between Turkey and Greece has reached a point that goes far beyond longstanding fears of a Greek-Turkish military accident, and the prospect of a full-fledged war between the two NATO countries is now being discussed in the Turkish, Greek, and international press – and is brought up in the statements of the two countries’ leaders.

A Greek-Turkish war, by all appearances, is no longer unthinkable, and analysts are pondering what could possibly defuse the growing hostility.

The same concerns are preoccupying diplomats in Athens and Ankara, regardless of the fact that each side lays the blame for the worsening situation on the other.

The recurring appearance of the word war in the media and, directly or indirectly, in the statements of top officials, has raised heightened concerns even among the calmest observers.

Mitsotakis: ‘catalytic’ response to a possible Turkish attack

When asked about the alarming prospect at a televised 11 September news conference at the Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF) – where PMs traditionally hold their most important and exhaustive presser of the year – Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis replied: “I do not think that can happen. Yet, even if it were to occur, Turkey would receive a response that would be absolutely catalytic.”

Nevertheless, Athens takes Ankara’s threats very seriously.

Turkey’s bellicose rhetoric, threats and a possible ‘accident’

Although a conflagration under the conditions shaped by the Russian invasion of Ukraine is considered unlikely, as it would risk the crucial objective of solid NATO unity, the escalating, ever more bellicose rhetoric creates an explosive climate that could lead to a possible “accident”.

Some observers believe that a first step in that direction was an incident on 10 September, when the Comoros-flagged, Ro-Ro ship “Anatolian” was moving “suspiciously” in Greek territorial waters, northwest of the coast of the island of Lesvos, carrying what Greek sources say was “illegal cargo”.

A Greek Coast Guard vessel fired warning shots during a chase when the ship refused to stop for inspection and ended up returning to Turkish territorial waters off the coast of Anatolia.

Threats of war high on Erdogan’s 2023 electoral agenda

The threat of an “accident”, with various interim attempts in that direction, is expected to remain high on Turkey’s agenda, and to become increasingly intense as the 2023 Turkish general election approaches.

Erdogan wants to go to the polls with the narrative of a strong Turkey that is growing, expanding alliances, and bolstering its role and position on the international geopolitical chessboard.

Ankara exploits war in Ukraine to its advantage

For Turkey, as Greek diplomats note, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war was a vehicle to get out of the tight spot in which Washington’s consternation over Ankara’s procurement of Russian S-400 missile systems placed it, and indeed gave it the opportunity to play the role of mediator between Moscow and Kyiv.

For their part, Turkish diplomats dismiss the charge that Ankara is implementing a policy of “adroit neutrality”. They defend Erdogan’s policy of maintaining balances with Russia and the West, arguing that as a result Turkey has reaped benefits and advanced its interests.

Turkish opposition adopts nationalist extremes

In their high-pitched, anti-Greek rhetoric, Turkish opposition parties are urging Erdogan to go beyond bellicose pronouncements and to act forcefully against Greece, as the leader of the nationalist İyi Parti (Good Party), Meral Akşener has done.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Kemalist CHP (Republican People’s Party), is fashioning a similarly extreme, ultra-nationalist narrative that declares that various Aegean islands under Greek sovereignty are “occupied islands”.

In such a constricted political terrain, largely shaped by the policies and rhetoric of the Turkish president himself, it would be difficult for Erdogan to adopt a more moderate policy even if he wanted to, which is not at all clear.

International press: electoral motives, serious dangers

The Turkish and the international press have focused on war scenarios and the urgent need for a de-escalation of tensions so that they will not be realised.

The German and the French press have repeatedly reported on Turkish provocations and how Ankara is ratcheting up tensions with Greece.

While acknowledging the electoral ulterior motives underlying Erdogan’s behaviour, they stress the extreme dangers involved.

International players and NATO

The concerns voiced the German and French press largely reflect the views of the two countries’ governments.

During separate visits to Athens, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna (photo, with FM Nikos Dendias) minced no words in denouncing Turkish violations and the climate of tension and instability that they create, declaring that they stand by Greece.

The momentum created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine gives Athens, for the time being, the opportunity to take advantage of the confluence of events.

Mitsotakis has systematically drawn into the picture Greece’s allies and partners as well as NATO, which during his TIF appearance he accused of “adroit neutrality”, and has pressed hard for each to take a clear stand.