Greece and Turkey: Energy Security Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean

Greece and Turkey: Energy Security Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean

Overlapping maritime claims and strategic energy interests have resulted in a clash between Greek and Turkish naval ships in the waters of Cyprus, mutual public hostilities. The high tensions and decades of antagonism between the two, however, are unlikely to result in open warfare. The recently discovered Eastern Mediterranean gas and oil fields have inspired a powerful energy alliance between Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, which challenges Turkey’s energy hub ambitions.

Drilling rights and escalating tensions

Tensions between Greece and Turkey over Eastern Mediterranean natural gas and oil fields, intertwined with maritime claims, have rapidly escalated in August 2020. On August 10, 2020, Turkey sent the Oruc Reis research ship, accompanied by warships to look for hydrocarbon resources in the waters between Crete and Cyprus, which Greece claims as its own. Since then Greece has responded by sending warships in the area, and both countries’ vessels collided. The escalation of Greek-Turkish relations has compromised the energy ambitions of private actors and regional nation-states and has exacerbated an already challenging regional security environment.

Old disputes, new developments

Regional tensions and skirmishes between Greece and Turkey are nothing new. Greece and Turkey have historically disagreed on the status of Cyprus, split into two after the 1974 war between them. This resulted in the establishment of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, solely recognized by Turkey. The proximity of the Greek islands to the Turkish mainland has also been a source of disagreements. Most notably, in 1996, the two almost went to war due to a series of disputes over the delimitation of exclusive economic zones (EEZ), territorial waters, continental shelf, international flights rights, and demilitarisation of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea.

Turkey’s announcement that it would not be able to keep migrants from entering the EU, renewed tensions between Ankara and the block, and the resultant migrants crossing from Greece and Turkey, among other issues, has strained relations between the two countries in 2020. Moreover, Ankara’s decision to turn Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine-era cultural and historical landmark, back into a mosque, received serious disapproval from Greece.

The current crisis has been the result of both countries’ competition over hydrocarbon reserves in the territorial waters and the EEZ of Cyprus. Turkey has argued that Cyprus’s resources should be shared, and it stepped back from drilling last year. However, Ankara signed an agreement with the UN-recognised Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), establishing an EEZ from the southern Turkish coast to the northern Libyan coast, ignoring Crete’s territorial waters, EEZs, and continental shelf. In early August 2020, Greece and Egypt reached a deal, creating an EEZ between the two counties’ coasts, which contradicted the Turkish-Libyan agreement. This resulted in Turkey’s decision to send the Oruc Reis research ship near the small Greek island of Kostellorizo. Since the collision, tensions have been high with Turkey threatening Greece with war if it does not withdraw its naval vessels from the area. France and Italy have notably sent warships and conducted military exercises with Greece.

Greek-Turkish claims in the Eastern Mediterranean, © BBC, 25 August 2020

Turkey’s endangered energy ambitions

The current maritime escalation between Greece and Turkey exceeds usual neighbourly quarrels, as it adds tension to an on-going struggle for resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since the discovery of the Leviathan (Israel) and Zohr (Egypt) gas fields ten years ago, the previously deemed oil-and-gas-free region has attracted the attention of international investors and European and Middle-Eastern states. The discovery of Cyprus’s gas fields in 2015, has encouraged the strategic cooperation between Israel, Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt. In January 2020, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel signed an agreement to build a 1,900-km pipeline distributing natural gas to Europe and bypassing Turkey. In addition, although temporary drills of Cyprus waters have been put on hold, the American ExxonMobil, Qatar Petroleum, and Italian Eni amongst other key players are to continue exploiting the resources.

This powerful geopolitical alliance contradicts both Turkey’s ambitions of becoming an energy hub and its maritime claims. Ankara currently seeks to develop the Trans-Anatolian pipeline, which can deliver natural gas from Azerbaijan to Turkey and Europe. However, the Azerbaijani gas is not sufficient in distributing the target 61bcm. Thus, Turkey’s Blue Homeland Doctrine, which disregards the Greek islands’ territorial waters and continental shelf, aims at providing Ankara with the necessary energy resources to sustain that plan. 

Maritime claims and legal resources

Legal uncertainties further complicate a possible solution of the naval dispute and a de-escalation of tensions in the region. Greece’s maritime claims are based on the Seville map, which provides every Greek island with maximum territorial waters (12 nautical miles) and EEZ (200 nautical miles). The map, authorised by the European Commission in the early 2000s, has been dismissed by Turkey as “unjust and unfair”. Although Ankara’s territorial waters and continental shelf have been arguably damaged by the map according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Turkey is not a signatory to the Convention and thus loses this legal resource. The situation is further complicated by Ankara’s maritime agreement with the GNA, which actively dismisses the territorial waters and EEZ of Crete. This is in violation of UNCLOS, of which Greece is a signatory. 


Although tensions in the region are high and military build-ups continue, it is unlikely that Greece and Turkey will go to war. Both countries are NATO allies and are thus obligated to resort to peaceful means when resolving a dispute between them. Notably, US President Donald Trump has advised Turkish President Erdogan to resort to negotiations.  In addition, Germany, which currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, has already made attempts to foster dialogue and a consequent peaceful resolution of the conflict, despite the block’s evident support for Greece. On 28 August, EU members states also decided to impose sanctions on Turkey in case it continues to refuse the withdraw its vessels from the territorial waters and EEZ of both the Republic of Cyprus and Greece. Although Ankara remains resolved to keep its research mission in the Eastern Mediterranean, the conflict is likely going to be peacefully resolved. Turkey’s maritime activities hurt a high number of international and private actors’ strategic interests. Historic animosity between Greece and Turkey is highly likely to remain, with frequent quarrels and clashes due to overlapping maritime claims and energy ambitions.


About Author

Boryana Saragerova

Boryana Saragerova received a MA in Terrorism, Security & Society from King’s College London. She has previously attained a BA degree in International Relations from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. Boryana specialises in international affairs, and political instability and international security, namely terrorism and extremism, insurgencies, regional and global conflicts and has expertise in Public and Private International Law. She has worked on a diverse set of topics from the prevention of religion-motivated violence in Bangladesh, during the 64th International Student Conference in Tokyo, Japan to bilateral and multilateral relations in South-Eastern Europe during her internship at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Bulgaria.