NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced the diplomatic opening on the military alliance's website the same day that Turkey announced that Russia plans to conduct live-fire naval exercises this month in the eastern Mediterranean.
Athens has denied the NATO chief's announcement of the start of “technical talks” between Turkey and Greece to ease tension in the eastern Mediterranean, where the allies have been locked in a tense standoff over offshore energy rights.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced the possible diplomatic opening in a statement on the military alliance's website on Thursday night, the same day that Turkey announced that Russia plans to conduct live-fire naval exercises this month in the eastern Mediterranean.
“Greece and Turkey are valued Allies, and NATO is an important platform for consultations on all issues that affect our shared security,” the statement read on Thursday night. “I remain in close touch with all concerned Allies to find a solution to the tensions in the spirit of NATO solidarity.”
However, Greece's Foreign Ministry denied it had agreed to hold NATO-brokered talks with Turkey.
"Published information claiming Greece and Turkey have agreed to hold so-called 'technical talks' on de-escalating tensions in the eastern Mediterranean do not correspond to reality," the ministry said on Friday, confirming what other sources said the day before.
"De-escalation will only take place with the immediate withdrawal of all Turkish vessels from the Greek continental shelf," the ministry added.
Following my discussions with Greek & Turkish leaders, the two Allies have agreed to enter into technical talks at #NATO to establish deconfliction mechanisms and reduce the risk of incidents & accidents in the #EastMed. https://t.co/Kc70MlNPzY— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) September 3, 2020
Efforts to make 'sea of peace'
Turkish Presidential Advisor and Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, US National Security Advisor Robert C O'Brien discussed recent developments on eastern Mediterranean over phone on late Thursday.
Kalin told Turkey doesn't desire an escalation with other countries in the region, rather it supports a model under which all sides could equitably share the region and its resources in a fair way, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has previously proposed, said the statement.
Kalin also underlined that Greece's unilateral and maximalist policy, which has served to escalate tensions and ignored international law, is unacceptable.
"Such approaches must be avoided to find a political solution," statement said.
Stressing Turkey's determination to protect its rights and those of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in the Eastern Mediterranean, all of effort will be made to make the Mediterranean a "sea of peace," Kalin added.
Turkey ready for talks
Ankara said it backed the idea of talks at NATO.
"This initiative is supported by our country," the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement. "We expect Greece to support the NATO secretary general's initiative."
The Turkish statement stressed that the talk s would only focus on avoiding accidents and not resolving the sides' differences over maritime borders and energy exploration rights.
But observers still hope the talks will create an opening for further dialogue in a conflict that threatens to impede Europe's future access to a wealth of natural gas reserves.
Russian exercise after US decision
Turkey announced the Russian exercises in a navigational notice that said they would take place on September 8-22 and September 17-25 in areas of the Mediterranean Sea where Turkish research vessels are doing seismic work for oil and gas exploration.
Greece says the contested area is over its continental shelf.
There was no immediate comment from Moscow on the exercises, which Turkey announced after the United States said it was partially lifting a 33-year-old arms embargo against ethnically divided Cyprus. Like Greece, the Greek Cypriot Administration has been in a dispute with Turkey over drilling rights in the Mediterranean.
It's unclear why NATO-member Turkey announced such drills on Russia's behalf, but the two countries have in recent years significantly strengthened their military, political and economic ties. They are coordinating closely on their military presence in Syria, while Turkey has purchased Russia's advanced S-400 missiles and has broken ground on a Russian-built nuclear power plant on its southern coast.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Erdogan spoke by phone. Germany currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency and has been trying to informally mediate the dispute over drilling in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
A statement from Erdogan’s office said the president wants an arrangement in which resources are shared “fairly” and said that Greece, Greek Cypriots and countries backing the two were the ones escalating tensions.
The Turkish government has reacted angrily to the US move on the Greek Cypriot Administration arms embargo, saying it went against the “spirit of alliance” between Washington and Ankara. It also warned that it would harm efforts to reunify Cyprus, a Mediterranean island nation which is split between Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities.
According to recent media reports, the Greek authorities deployed military elements to the island of Meis, also known as Kastellorizo. Turkey slammed the move, recalling that the island has had a demilitarised status since the 1947 Paris Peace Treaties.
Turkey – the country with the longest coastline on the Mediterranean – has sent out drill ships to explore for energy on its continental shelf, saying that Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) have rights in the region.
Greece has also recently carried out military drills – including with France – meant to intimidate Turkey into stopping energy exploration, and has illegally armed Aegean islands in violation of longstanding peace treaties.
Athens' recent maritime delimitation agreement with Egypt also violates Turkey's continental shelf and maritime rights, sparking further tensions between the two neighbours.
Dialogue for fairly sharing these resources will be a win-win for all sides, say Turkish officials.