East Med naval manoeuvres widen to Cyprus as U.S., Germany warn Turkey

(Updates with Greek plans for extending territorial waters, statement from NATO chief)

Greece, Cyprus, France and Italy launched joint military drills south of Cyprus on Wednesday, as rising tensions over disputed hydrocarbon exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean also led the United States and Germany to issue warnings to Turkey.

The drills, dubbed “Eunomia” and scheduled from Aug. 26 until Aug. 28, will include air and sea military exercises. 

The exercises aim “to demonstrate the commitment of the four European Mediterranean countries to the rule of law as part of the policy of de-escalating tensions,” Kathimerini cited Greek Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos as saying. 

Turkey also announced military exercises on Tuesday in a broad area between Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Ankara will not make any concessions and criticised Greece.

"We will take whatever we are entitled to in the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black seas, we will not make any concessions," Daily Sabah reported Erdoğan as saying on Wednesday.

"If it [Greece] wants to pay a price, let them come and face us. If they don't have the courage for it, they should stand out of our way," Erdoğan said, as he referred Greece as being "unworthy of the Byzantine legacy".

On Wednesday Greece also announced plans to extend its territorial waters along its western coastline, AP reported.

The planned extension along Greece’s Italy-facing coastline - from six to 12 nautical miles - would not directly affect the territory at the centre of the dispute with Turkey.

But the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told parliament that the move was part of Greece's abandonment of decades of “passive” foreign policy.

European Union foreign ministers are expected to discuss the crisis in the eastern Mediterranean at an informal meeting in Berlin this week. 

Turkey’s recent actions in the region prompted Phil Reeker, the top U.S. State Department official for Europe, to say that it is undermining the unity of the NATO alliance.

“We have conveyed to Turkey repeatedly that its overflights of Greek territory, its drilling activities in the waters off Cyprus, its signing of a maritime delimitation MOU with Libya, and its stated intent to explore for hydrocarbons on the basis of that MOU are provocative, unhelpful, and raise tensions in the region,” Reeker said in a letter to the American Hellenic Institute (AHI) on behalf of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

On Tuesday, Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for tensions between Turkey and Greece to de-escalate in the eastern Mediterranean, as the two NATO allies come increasingly close to an armed confrontation over energy resources.

“The current situation in the eastern Mediterranean is...playing with fire, and any spark - however small - could lead to a disaster,” Euronews cited Maas as saying after a meeting on Tuesday with his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias.

Maas said Germany and the European Union stood by Greece "in firm solidarity".

"What we now need absolutely and immediately are signals of de-escalation and a readiness for dialogue,” he said.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday called for dialogue to ease tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.

“Turkey and Greece have both been important NATO allies for many years,’’ state-run Anadolu news agency quoted Stoltenberg as saying ahead of the EU defence ministers’ informal meeting in Berlin. “We need to find a way to resolve the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean based on the spirit of allied solidarity.”

Turkey disputes Greece’s claim to exclusive rights in the waters where Turkey's Oruç Reis vessel, along with a naval escort, is surveying for hydrocarbon resources. Greece says the vessel is over its own continental shelf, where it has exclusive rights on potential undersea gas and oil, and has deployed its own warships to shadow the Turkish vessels.

Ankara announced the extension of the Oruç Reis’s mission in the disputed area - originally expected to end on Monday - in a maritime navigational note using the global NAVTEX system, further raising tensions. 

Dendias accused Turkey of continuing to provoke its neighbour and displaying a “neo-Ottoman” ideology on Tuesday. “As we speak, Turkey continues to act illegally, to escalate, to provoke,” he said. “Instead of a de-escalation, we are witnessing new provocations. We are witnessing the attempt to implement expansionist aims against neighbours and allies.”

Maas met with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in Ankara later on Tuesday. After the meeting, Çavuşoğlu said Turkey was prepared to hold talks with Greece.

"We are in favour of negotiations for fair sharing but nobody should lay down preconditions. This cannot happen with preconditions laid down by Greece," he said.

German efforts to bring about an agreement between Greece and Turkey failed in July. Turkey paused seismic surveys in the disputed area while negotiations were ongoing. The Turkish government said those talks failed after Greece signed a partial maritime demarcation agreement with Egypt. Greece's parliament is due to vote on the maritime deal with Egypt on Wednesday.

The concern has been great in Germany that the situation could spiral out of control.

"There has already been one collision between a Greek warship and a Turkish warship, in which the Turkish vessel took some damage," Michael Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies, told CNN - referring to an incident reported in August.

"The danger of miscalculation or further accidents touching off an open clash that no one wants is now dangerously high."