Ankara, Turkey – Turkey has announced that Russia will hold live-fire naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean, amid escalating tensions between Turkey and its coastal neighbors Greece and Cyprus over rights to search for energy resources in the region.
The navigational notice issued late Wednesday said the Russian exercises will take place September 8-22 and September 17-25 in areas of the Mediterranean where Turkish seismic research vessels are operating.
There was no immediate comment from Russia 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.
It’s unclear why NATO-member Turkey would announce 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.
Turkey has reacted angrily to the US move that it said went against the “spirit of alliance” between US and Turkey. It also warned that it would harm efforts to reunify Cyprus, which is split between Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities. Turkish officials have also vowed to take steps to guarantee the security of a self-declared Turkish state in the island’s north.
Turkey’s announcement comes at a time of increased friction between Turkey on the one side and Greece and the GCA on the other over offshore energy exploration rights. Warships from Greece and Turkey have been shadowing each other in recent weeks as Turkish survey vessels and drill ships continue to prospect for hydrocarbons in Eastern Mediterranean.
In Greece, Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said the planned Russian exercises were being “monitored by all the countries in the region, as well as our NATO allies and European Union partners.”
The US embargo, imposed in 1987, was designed to prevent an arms race that would hinder UN-facilitated reunification efforts for Cyprus. It was directed against the southern, Greek Cypriot part of the island.
Cyprus split in 1974 when Turkey reacted following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkey is the only nation to recognize a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence and it maintains more than 35,000 troops in northern Cyprus.
US said it was lifting the arms embargo against the GCA for one year – with the option of renewal – to let it procure non-lethal equipment.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Thursday that the lifting of the embargo will lead to a deadlock.
“If you lift the embargo on [Greek Cypriot-administered Cyprus] and try to disrupt the balance in this way, this will bring conflict, not peace. This will create a deadlock, not a solution,” he said.
Akar also took aim at France, which joined Greece and the GCA for military exercises in the region, accusing it of “bullying, making claims and playing the role of a guardian angel.”
Russia maintains a sizable naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean and regularly conducts naval maneuvers there. The announcement of the latest live-fire drill could clearly be a message from Russia that it remains a major regional player whose influence won’t be diminished by US’ embargo move. [AP]