War in Ukraine: what are the stakes for Greece ?

Aris Marghélis

Researcher at the University of Littoral Côte d’Opale (LARJ & TVES) and associate researcher at the Maritime and Oceanic Law Centre (University of Nantes).

Abstract:


The Ukrainian conflict is impacting Greece’s strategic fundamentals. Greece was among the first countries to send arms to Ukraine, besides adopting a very harsh language towards Moscow. It thus seems to be breaking with its traditional position consisting in adhering to EU and NATO policies, while, at the same time, keeping working relations with Russia where possible. Indeed, Greece is trying to use the opportunity offered by the Ukrainian conflict to enhance its position in the regional security architecture in the making, to secure its interests. This move is especially vis-à-vis Turkey, still perceived as a threat, given the apparent benefits of the war in Ukraine for Ankara and NATO’s indulgence towards its designs in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Greece was among the first countries to supply Ukraine with arms: 400 AK-47 assault rifles, rocket launchers and ammunition. It had also agreed with Berlin to deliver Soviet BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles in exchange for the prior acquisition – due to the perceived Turkish threat – of more modern German Marder vehicles. This marks a major milestone, as Greece never sends weapons abroad as a matter of principle[1]. On the other hand, Athens has so far[2] not agreed to Washington’s request to deliver Harpoon anti-ship missiles, which are considered too important for its defense against Turkey. At the same time, Athens has adopted a very tough language towards Moscow, similar to that of Eastern European countries and the United States. This indicates a second break: the move away from a traditional position of unambiguous but not overzealous fulfilment of Greece’s obligations as a member of the EU and NATO, given that – unlike its partners – its primary security problem is Turkey, rather than Russia.

This Greek position on the Ukrainian conflict and the latter’s effects on Greece’s strategic fundamentals should therefore be explained, given that this conflict had immediate consequences in the Eastern Mediterranean.

CHANGING POSITIONS VIS-À-VIS THE ONGOING RECOMPOSITIONS

The announcement of French-Greek-Turkish cooperation for a humanitarian mission in Mariupol is symptomatic of the uncertainty that followed the Russian invasion. The idea was initially a soft-power initiative to display a willingness to cooperate at low cost, in a climate in which being responsible for a resurgence of intra-NATO tensions was to be avoided[3]. However, its implementation was problematic from the beginning and its relevance was quickly undermined by the operational reality on the ground. The ability of France, Greece and their Turkish rival to carry out low-level cooperation together was therefore not tested.

At the same time, the visit of the Greek Prime Minister K. Mitsotakis to Turkey in mid-March 2022 gave the impression of a lasting lull. However, a resumption of tensions quickly followed in the Aegean, indicating that Ankara was not giving ground. Denouncing the escalation, Greece eventually activated its air defense system, a rare move, while placing its armed forces stationed on land border and in the Aegean Sea on heightened alert. Turkey in turn denounced violations of its airspace by the Hellenic air force, with the press loyal to R. T. Erdogan suspecting that Greek pilots had been trained to use Rafales long before they were purchased, and even that they were piloted by French pilots. These reactions came after the signature, at the end of March 2022, of the final agreement for the sale of six additional Rafales to Greece and three Belharra frigates. In late May 2022, Turkey terminated unilaterally its political cooperation with Greece. These developments suggest a continuation of existing positions and a confirmation of the French breakthrough in the Greek-Turkish equation which, besides, seems compatible with the American comeback in the region.

It is in this context of structural changes – thus of uncertainty – that R. T. Erdogan tries, for his part, to accelerate the normalization of his relations with some regional actors: Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Greece’s concerns about the possible end of Turkey’s isolation is therefore not unfounded. However, a return to the previous situation – Athens’ solitude in a “tête-à-tête” with Ankara – now seems to have been overcome[4]. Greece, therefore, seems to be getting closer to its objectives: becoming a reliable player able to counterbalance a disproportionate and potentially destabilizing Turkish regional presence, and most importantly, fulfilling its role as the main energy, the strategic and economic interface between Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.

THE CYPRIOT ISSUE AND THE UKRAINIAN CONFLICT

Some similarities between the two conflicts

Even if their impact on international security is different, the Ukrainian and Cypriot conflicts share legal and factual similarities: invasion and occupation in name of population protection, secession, and recognition of pseudo-states[5]. In his address to the US Congress, K. Mitsotakis linked these two conflicts, as Greece and Cyprus have a vested interest in seeing the fundamental principle of territorial integrity and independence applied in Cyprus as in Ukraine.

On the opposite, Turkey, despite having expressed itself in favor of Ukraine’s integrity, has a greater interest in managing the territorial and political consequences of military faits accomplis than in seeking to nullify them. This is what is suggested by the diplomatic approach of R. T. Erdogan, initially overplayed by the pro-government press, but which now seems to have run out of steam[6]. The application of this logic in Ukraine would allow Ankara to increase the threshold of acceptability of its interventions (Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Libya) and trivialize expeditionary and expansionist logics as well as  territorial and political restructuration, as to reflect the balance of power. The current juncture is precisely one of a hardening Turkish position over Cyprus. Moving towards a two-state solution and opening the Famagusta[7] area to settlement, Turkey is increasing the militarization of the occupied areas of Cyprus while organizing the political and economic conditions for a de facto annexation.

The energy crisis and Cyprus

The cut-off of Russian gas inevitably raises the thorny issue of the exploitation and transit of natural resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. The pressure for their exploitation – and thus for the settlement or mitigation of regional conflicts – is expected to increase. In this context, it is Cyprus that is most likely to become the receptacle of such pressure, which will be added to the challenges raised by the systematic dismantling of its dense relations with Moscow.

Therefore, more than reflecting a lack of vision, the withdrawal of American support for the East Med gas pipeline – on the eve of a conflict that Washington had foreseen – is first and foremost a desire to organize the Russian-Turkish disconnection. One of the effects of this disconnection is expected to be the increase in the strategic sealing between Russia and Turkey; the closure of Turkish airspace to Russian aircraft bound for Syria is a prime example. In return, it can be expected that the strategic porosity on Turkey’s southern flank will increase. The words of the Deputy Secretary of State V. Nuland that “the Eastern Mediterranean needs energy, whatever the conditions”, and the Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu’s call for the EU to put pressure on Nicosia to accept the solution of a gas pipeline from Israel to Turkey via Cyprus without first resolving the Cyprus problem, clearly show the logic at work. At the same time, Greece, Cyprus and Israel remain in limbo on the East Med.

WHAT ABOUT LIBYA?

With its oil and gas reserves, Libya could play a role in making Russia’s energy isolation project more credible. It is therefore not to be excluded that Turkey might try to regain the initiative in the country. This would allow Turkey to restore an efficient tool for exercising regional pressure. Turkey might be hoping to make its intervention there harder to criticize the basis of its opposition to Russia, also operating in Libya. Such a development would be highly detrimental to Greece, which is seeking to dissolve the 2019 Turkish-Libyan agreement that deprives it of access to the Eastern Mediterranean and large areas South of Crete. Despite its massive rejection by regional actors, this agreement persists and continues to serve Turkey’s regional strategy of undermining the enforcement of conventional law through the accumulation of faits accomplis.

In this respect, none of the concessions that Greece has just granted to launch its hydrocarbon production, in response to the energy crisis, is located in an area directly claimed by Turkey, which shows that Athens does not want an escalation for which it could be considered responsible. However, some of the blocks granted in southwest Crete overlap with the area claimed by the Tripoli government under the 2019 agreement. Moreover, Greece takes very seriously the project – this time supported by Washington – of an electrical interconnection by submarine cable with Egypt, which passes through the same area.

Will Turkey defend “Libyan” interests – which are its own? In the volatile context of Libya, will the Turkish-Libyan agreement be broken, or will it become consensual among the country’s political elite? These are all crucial questions for Athens, which may arise soon.

THE PORT OF ALEXANDROUPOLIS

In the 2010s, the Russians attempted to gain influence in Northern Greece, particularly around the port of Alexandroupolis. Through a combination of investments, socio-cultural initiatives and rapprochement with local authorities, Moscow hoped to make this area – which is the interface between the Mediterranean and the Balkans/Black Sea area – inhospitable to American interests. The growing Turkish ambivalence was already serving this purpose, and Greece – weakened by the financial crisis – was the next target: indeed, Greece and Turkey are locking this space, which is the very reason why they joined NATO the same day, in 1952. To counter this attempt, the Greek government, with the support of the very active American ambassador in Athens[8] – and former ambassador to Kyiv during the Maïdan events, J. Pyatt- tried to reverse the trend by transforming this marginal port into Western energy and military hub.

Alexandroupolis is now developing into a hub for liquefied natural gas (LNG) which will flow there by sea, with a transit capacity of 6.1 billion m3 per year. This project, supported by the European Commission and involving Northern Macedonia and Bulgaria, has the full support of the US. In this respect, the turn towards LNG, accelerated by the Ukrainian conflict, is rather good news: for this second-rate port, whose importance increases considerably; for the United States, since the LNG that will transit there will be partly American and will contribute to making the energy disconnection with Russia more credible; for Greek shipowners, who will transport this LNG.

Alexandroupolis also becomes a military nexus through which the US can project forces from the Aegean to Romania, thus bypassing the limitations imposed by the Montreux Convention on the transit of armed forces through the Bosporus and freeing itself from Turkish ambiguity and transactionalism. Yet, the Ukrainian conflict highlights the strategic value of Romania, which could find itself bordering a Russian-controlled zone if Moscow were to dominate the entire Ukrainian coastline[9]. Russia is therefore unhappy with the upgrading of this port, which highlights the chronic ineffectiveness of its diplomacy and soft power in Greece. In this respect, the recent expulsion of 12 Russian diplomats is, according to Greek intelligence, linked to new attempts by Moscow to intrude by manipulating the military, regional media, academics and “leaders” of the anti-vaccine movement.

The rise of the strategic value of this port located near the Turkish border also irritates Ankara, leading to an oversensitive reaction from the pro-government press. On the one hand, it undermines Turkey’s strategic value, which is indeed the key to Ankara’s ability to maintain a low-cost ambivalence that would have been unforgivable to any other NATO member. On the other hand, because a US military presence in the region is seen by Athens as a guarantee of security, based on the assumption that the more Greece plays an important role in the US strategic framework, the less easy prey it is.

IMPLICATIONS IN TERMS OF WEAPONRY

As the Ukrainian conflict marks the return of conventional power as a foreign policy tool in Europe, it also points to the end of Greek exceptionalism, whereby Greece was the only post-Cold War European country to maintain a massive (and expensive) conventional military capability due to the perceived Turkish threat. This is rather good news for Athens, which has joined the call of European States to exclude military spending from the public deficit, despite the reluctance of Berlin and The Hague. Moreover, Greece hopes that the context of unabashed rearmament will discredit the Turkish demand for the demilitarization of the Eastern Aegean islands. This is an existential issue for Athens, as Turkey is now officially and increasingly challenging Greek sovereignty over the islands in question.

However, this phase of Western rearmament could also lead to the lifting of restrictive measures on the sale of military equipment to Turkey, as evidenced by the State Department’s and J. Biden’s favourable opinion on the modernization and sale of F-16V fighters to Turkey. This would be detrimental to Greece, which would see an increasing disparity in the balance of power with Turkey that it has been working so hard to reduce. However, as far as the American equipment is concerned, this would mean overcoming two obstacles: the CAATSA sanctions and a passage through Capitol Hill, which remains difficult. Aware that it is in Congress that the battle will be waged, K. Mitsotakis addressed his members on the implications of arms sales to Turkey.

UKRAINIAN CONFLICT AND THE “HELLENOSPHERE”[10]  

To bolster its strategy, Greece strives to mobilise the three vehicles that amplify the country’s international influence: the maritime world, Orthodoxy and the diaspora. The Ukrainian conflict happens to involve them all.

The maritime world

The turn towards LNG is proving particularly favourable to Greek shipowners who hold nearly a quarter of the world’s LNG transport. In addition, the know-how they possess makes it possible to cultivate regional synergies. They have also increased their share in the transport of Russian oil, as several European companies have stopped their activities due to the Ukrainian conflict[11]. Moreover, the increasing impermeability of the Russian-European borders, likely to slow down the development of the rail vector of the Chinese Silk Roads, could redirect part of the flows towards the Mediterranean and thus benefit the port of Piraeus, the first regional entry point for Chinese products. 

The Ukrainian conflict thus appears to be an opportunity for Greece to make a qualitative and quantitative breakthrough in the maritime domain, at a time when it is trying to revitalise its maritime status and its role in Europe’s energy security, two key elements of its regional strategy.

The Orthodox clergy

Although Slavs, and in particular Russians, constitute the demographic substance of the Orthodox world, the spiritual and institutional “keys” remain mainly in Greek hands. Over the past few years, we have witnessed a reconfiguration of the geopolitics of Orthodoxy in which the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which intimately linked to Greece, plays a pivotal role.

Very close to the United States, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew used his spiritual and institutional power to give the Ukrainian church its independence (autocephaly) in 2018, a controversial decision. He thus ended the Moscow Patriarchate’s centuries-old tutelage over Kyiv, thereby leading to a rupture between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Moscow Patriarchate. Bartholomew’s recent recognition of the Archdiocese of Ohrid (Northern Macedonia), until then entirely dependent on the Serbian Church, confirms this desire to break the “Slavic-Orthodox” tandem, insofar as it is perceived as a vector of Russian influence and participates in the common project of V. Putin and the Russian Patriarch Cyril to cement the “Russian world”. For its part, the Russian Church is now seeking to undermine the power of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The stakes are rather high because on the perpetuation of the Greek spiritual and institutional preeminence in the Orthodox world depends the obstruction of Russian power strategy in its religious dimension – which Washington has perfectly understood – but also Athens’ access to a dense and efficient international network.

The Greek national minority in Ukraine

Founders of Mariupol in 1780 and accounting for a quarter of its 400,000 inhabitants, the Greeks of Ukraine are established precisely in the arch of crisis from Odessa to the Donbass. For Athens, the stakes are twofold: to play a leading role in their protection and, at the same time, to cement its rapprochement with this community – which has long been distant from Greece because of the Iron Curtain – in order to acquire a vector of influence in Ukraine, where Turkish penetration has considerably increased. On the other hand, because they live in an area where Russian influence is historically important, if not dominant, it is not certain that the Greeks of Ukraine as a whole pledge allegiance to Kyiv. In this respect, the Greek communities in Crimea and Donetsk seem to have come to terms with Russian tutelage. The danger of fragmentation of Ukrainian Greeks into “pro-Russian” and “pro-Ukrainian” is therefore real[12]. Moreover, it is difficult to predict what the future geographical distribution of Greeks will be between areas controlled by Kyiv and by Moscow. 

Faced with these uncertainties, Athens’ resolutely pro-Ukrainian stance raises questions: if the territories where the Greeks live end up under Russian control, will the link with this community resist a second iron curtain, at a time when Greece meets all the conditions to be qualified as an unfriendly country by Russia?

WHAT PROSPECTS ?

The Ukrainian conflict confirms the Greek strategy of the last few years: that of moving away from a “Turkish-centric provincialismto position itself more widely as a receptacle, producer and redistributor of security, capable of shaping regional developments through new alliances and a credible military tool. Nevertheless, Greece must increase its vigilance because its revisionist neighbour is entering a phase of uncertainty, and is therefore dangerous, while the Ukrainian conflict has an accelerating and amplifying effect.

The prolongation of the war restricts the space for strategic ambivalence and transactionalism, which gives Ankara its freedom of action. While it can be expected to gradually adapt its strategy to this reality, Turkey must nevertheless work on its re-linkage to the Western strategic framework. Indeed, its transition to “strategic self-sufficiency”, which would have spared it these difficulties, has not been fully completed to date, partly because of French-Hellenic synergy. In addition, the elections scheduled for 2023 require the Turkish president to display some successes. In the absence of a positive record, will he be tempted to take action against Greece or Cyprus[13], an idea that is becoming more and more consensual among the Turkish political elite? He has shown in recent years that he would be capable of doing so and the Ukrainian conflict does not seem to have rendered prohibitive for Ankara the cost of revisionism and the use of force as a means of exercising foreign policy.

Turkey has long aspired – including through military threat – to a reshaping of its relations with Greece, which would allow it to enshrine a balance of power that it believes has shifted in its favour over the past decades. It could well perceive the current context of structural reorganization of international relations as an opportunity to finally achieve this objective. Moreover, it would dismantle Greece’s attempt to extricate itself from its position of eternal strategic hostage to Turkey, an attempt whose success is a sine qua non condition for the successful implementation of Greece’s regional strategy. It is precisely this dangerous situation and the choices it implies that the Greek Chief of Staff wanted to describe when he said that “we would rather be at the table than on the menu”[14]. Hence the strategy of curbing this Turkish mechanism by strengthening and diversifying the Greek “security portfolio”, to which the Greek-French partnership belongs fully, but which has not yet been achieved in terms of rearmament.

The modalities of a Turkish-Western reconnection are therefore the central issue for Athens and Nicosia, which do not wish to become the bargaining chip of this reconnection in the name of strategic necessity. From this point of view, we can expect Greece to continue strengthening its security to neutralize Turkish strategic harassment and to discredit the postulate of “East Mediterranean exceptionalism”, supported by Turkey, which demands the application of alternative rules to the detriment of conventional law. Otherwise, the perpetuation of Turkish ambiguity is probably preferable for Athens: its zealousness on the Ukrainian issue will allow it to contrast with Ankara and remain the “safe bet” in the region, in order to collect “geopolitical dividends” and secure its borders.

Thus, if one could expect that the complexity and the overlap of the stakes raised by the Ukrainian conflict would give rise to the most balanced position possible, it is precisely these stakes that have pushed Athens to fully embrace the American dialectic on the Ukrainian conflict, hoping to make this crisis the occasion for a qualitative geopolitical gain. The choice seems, at first sight, relevant, since the role of energy, strategic and economic interface between Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean implies becoming the hub of European and American interests in the region, which is not an easy task. Indeed, the Ukrainian conflict has increased the strategic convergence between Europe and the United States, has diminished Germany, traditionally close to Ankara, and has not led to a “strategic re-domestication” of Turkey that would have restored it as the centerpiece of the Western strategic apparatus in the region. Against the backdrop of the energy crisis, Athens perceived this situation as a rare opportunity to push its agenda, Given the above, its posture on the Ukrainian conflict could not have been different.

However, this ambitious choice will be tested by three major unknowns. First, is the nature of future Russian-Western relations, which will determine the cost to Greece of moving away from its traditional position towards Russia. Second, Turkey’s choices between now and the elections scheduled for 2023 and the situation that will emerge from them. Finally, the question of who, between the Turks and the West, will end up having the upper hand in defining the modalities of the reorganization of their strategic relationship.


[1] With the exception of Patriot missile  sent to Saudi Arabia.

[2] As of the beginning of June 2022.

[3] The Greek Defence Minister’s statement that “this is not the best time to talk against Turkey in NATO” is quite symptomatic of the mood in the Alliance at the beginning of the conflict.

[4] The fact that every step of rapprochement of these states with Turkey is systematically preceded or followed by steps towards Greece and/or Cyprus shows that the Abraham Accords are working.

[5] In this respect, the fact that V. Zelenski made no reference to the Turkish occupation during his address to the Cypriot Parliament caused great irritation.

[6] As of the beginning of June 2022.

[7] Both actions are contrary to Security Council resolutions. K. Mitsotakis also reiterated to J. Biden that a two-state solution was unacceptable.

[8]Whose mandate, which has just come to an end, saw the transformation of Greece into a real American military corridor towards the Balkans and the Black Sea.

[9] According to the situation in late June 2022.

[10] Term used by G. Prévélakis, professor at the Sorbonne and representative of Greece at the OECD.

[11] Hence Greece’s opposition to the EU ban on the transport of Russian oil by ships flying a European flag.

[12] In this respect, V. Zelenski’s choice to present two members of the Azov battalion, allegedly of Greek origin, before the Greek parliament is not without significance and has given rise to strong criticism.

[13] In particular by annexing the occupied part of Cyprus.

[14] At the Delphi Economic Forum on 8 April 2022.

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