ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece will be bolstering its military with new armament programs, a boost to military personnel and the development of the country’s defense industry, the government spokesman said Monday, as a tense stand-off with neighboring Turkey has led to concerns of open conflict between the two NATO allies.
Ankara is currently facing off against Greece and Cyprus over oil and gas exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece and Turkey have deployed naval and air forces to assert their competing claims in the region.
“The Turkish leadership is unleashing, on a near daily basis, threats of war and makes provocative statements against Greece,” Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said. “We respond with political, diplomatic and operational readiness, determined to do whatever is necessary to protect our sovereign rights.”
Petsas said Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis would be announcing details of plans to upgrade the country’s military, during his annual state of the economy speech on Saturday.
“We are in contact with friendly countries in order to reinforce the equipment of our armed forces,” Petsas said. Last week, Greece raised 2.5 billion euros ($2.96 billion) in a bond auction as the country seeks to increase military spending and raise funds for businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Greek media have reported the purchases may include French-made Rafale fighter jets and at least one French frigate. Petsas said Mitsotakis would be meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday on the sidelines of a meeting in Corsica of European Union Mediterranean countries.
Last Saturday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Greece to enter talks over disputed eastern Mediterranean territorial claims or face the consequences.
“They’re either going to understand the language of politics and diplomacy, or in the field with painful experiences,” he said.
On Monday, a senior NATO official met with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and senior military officials in Ankara, and discussed the standoff as well as a NATO initiative aimed at avoiding the risk of accidents and conflict between the two allies.
A statement from Akar’s office said the Turkish minister conveyed to Gen. Stuart Peach, the chairman of the NATO Military Committee, that Turkey backs the NATO initiative, attaches importance to “dialogue and good neighborly relations” for the resolution of problems but that the country was determined to protect its rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
In Athens, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said Turkey was the only regional country “that threatens its neighbors with war when they want to exercise their legal rights — in blatant violation of the U.N. Charter.”
Speaking after a meeting with visiting Maltese Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo, Dendias said Greece was “always ready to have dialogue with Turkey, but a dialogue based on international law, and on the only pending issue, the delimitation of the continental shelf.”
Turkey, he said, “has a clear choice: dialogue without threats or sanctions.”
Greece and Turkey have come to the brink of war three times since the mid-1970s, including once over exploration rights in the Aegean Sea.
The current dispute escalated when Turkey sent seismic research vessel Oruc Reis, accompanied by warships, to prospect for oil and gas reserves in an area between Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete that Athens claims as its own continental shelf.
Greece sent its own warships to the area and put its armed forces on alert.
Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece and Suzan Frazer in Ankara, Turkey, contributed.