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On Monday Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with his Greek counterpart Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos to discuss the recent sale of F-35 fighter jets and joint U.S.-Greek cooperation in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean area.
Tensions have risen in recent months between the two NATO countries, with Turkey issuing a series of threats against Greece.
Victoria Coates, former deputy national security adviser for the Middle East and North Africa, said of the meeting, “Greece is a critical partner in the eastern Mediterranean that has been foundational in establishing energy and security coordination in the region. As Turkey takes an increasingly adversarial posture, we will need more cooperation with Greece not less.”
According to the Associated Press Greece and Turkey have strained relations over a slew of issues including competing maritime boundary claims that affect energy exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean. Tensions flared in 2020 over exploratory drilling rights in areas in the Mediterranean Sea where Greece and Cyprus claim their own exclusive economic zone, leading to a naval standoff.
Turkey also claims Greece is violating international agreements by militarizing islands in the Aegean Sea. Athens says it needs to defend the islands — many of which lie close to Turkey’s coast — against a potential attack using Turkey’s large fleet of military landing craft.
In a major military exercise last month, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, according to media reports said, “Once again, we call on Greece to stop equipping the islands that are under civilian status and to act in accordance with international agreements. I’m not kidding, I’m serious. This nation is determined, if it says anything, it will follow it.”
In May Erdoğan said he would stop talking with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, after he accused him of persuading Washington not to sell F-16 fighter jets to the Turks during a trip to the U.S.
During Monday’s press availability, Secretary Austin said, “The defense relationship between the United States and Greece has never been stronger. We especially thank Greece for hosting the U.S. Naval Support Activity at Souda Bay, which is a cornerstone of our defense relationship.”
His Greek counterpart stated, that Greece “reaffirmed the importance of a strong and profound and ever-growing society strategic defense partnership between the United States and Greece” and highlighted the “two updates of the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement in 2019.”
Notably, Minister Panagiotopoulos referenced the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the Greek military: “A new milestone of this strategic partnership is without doubt the procurement of the state of the art F-35 fighter, a major step for our deterrence and even closer interaction, coordination and interoperability between the armed force of Greece and the United States.”
Selling U.S. fighter jets to Turkey has been a contentious subject in recent years as Erdoğan commits Turkish forces to the fight in Syria at the cost of belligerence to U.S. allies and interests. Erdoğan has threatened to block Sweden and Finland’s entry into NATO, waged a limited intervention and raids into Northern Iraq, and, as such, the U.S. House of Representatives recently added new roadblocks on Biden’s plan to sell the F-16 fighter jet to Turkey.
Turkey faced heavy criticism by the Trump administration and lawmakers when it purchased Russian S-400 air missile defense system, which led to U.S. sanctions in 2020. At the time, U.S. officials raised alarm bells that the S-400 deal with Russia could endanger NATO security and jeopardize American-Turkey intelligence sharing.
“The Greek defense minister will likely look for assurances from the U.S. government that it will not make that F-16 sales to Turkey without stronger guarantees from Turkey — including that air-space violations by Turkish jets will not continue,” said Sinan Ciddi, a non-resident senior fellow focusing on Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Without this, Greece is likely to attempt to pressure the Biden administration not to support F-16 sales to Turkey.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.