Greece attracts the United States – and beats Russia – POLITICO

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ATHENS — It took decades, but Greece finally welcomed the United States — at Russia’s expense.

Nearly 40 years ago, Greeks marched through the streets against US military bases in the region. Banners declared: “Down with the bases of death! Across the country, surveys showed that most Greeks felt closer to Russia, another Orthodox Christian nation that helped Greeks fight Ottoman rule in 1821, than to the United States.

Even in the 2000s, Greek-American relations remained frosty. Athens has flirted with strengthening its ties with Moscow.

It’s all changed.

In recent years, US-Greek relations have grown much closer — closer than ever, officials on both sides proclaim. And much of this cooperation has directly affected Russia.

Greece has granted the United States unrestricted access to four key military bases, frustrating Russia. It began receiving American liquefied natural gas at a port near Athens, providing an alternative to Russia. And US corporate giants have established Greece as a regional hub – JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, Pfizer, Amazon, Cisco, Tesla and Deloitte have all recently made major strides in the country.

This American presence has become increasingly important as Moscow threatens Ukraine with hordes of troops huddled on the border, pushing Washington and its allies to develop military response plans. These plans inevitably go through Greece.

“It’s been a very rewarding time,” said Geoffrey Pyatt, the US ambassador to Greece, who came to Athens nearly six years ago after a posting in Ukraine. “Greece is an integral part of the broader and systematic US effort to ensure alignment with our NATO and European allies as we respond to what Russia threatens to do in Ukraine.”

For those who have followed the region for decades, the reverse dynamic is staggering.

“It’s dizzying to see the change in US-Greek relations over the years,” said Alan Makovsky, who covered southern Europe and the Middle East for the State Department in the 1980s, when Greek antipathy for the United States was at its height. . “The feeling now is that the Greek government can’t get enough of the American presence.”

“For veterans like me,” Makovsky added, recalling the anti-American slogans of the 1980s, “it’s almost unbelievable.”

An anti-American tradition

Greece has long been wary of American influence.

Many Greek adults still remember Washington’s support for the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974 – a judgment the United States made based on the junta’s anti-communist stance.

Many Greeks also resent America for remaining neutral in the ever-present disputes between Greece and neighboring Turkey.

In 1999, violent anti-American demonstrations took place in Athens during the visit of US President Bill Clinton. The next day, Clinton apologized for US support for the junta, acknowledging that it had failed in its “obligation to support democracy”.

At the same time, Greece has retained some goodwill towards Russia over the historical ties between the countries.

In northern Greece, cultural and economic ties with Russia were strong. The city of Alexandroupolis, for example, has a small Russian community and sister city relations with several Russian cities, including Sosnovy Bor and Saint Petersburg. It even has a sister city agreement with Simferopol in Crimea – after the 2014 Russian annexation.

Pyatt vividly remembers the reaction he had before going to Alexandroupolis for the first time.

“I said to a veteran Greek journalist: ‘Today I’m going to Alexandroupolis, what should I know?’ He said, ‘Boy, you’re really going to the bear’s den.’

But some of those Russian relations have crumbled in recent years.

In 2018, the Greek Foreign Ministry expelled two Russian diplomats – and banned two other Russians from leaving the country – after accusing them of fomenting nationalist fervor in opposition to a deal that would facilitate North Macedonia’s membership. to NATO.

Around the same time, Greece’s frayed relationship with the United States was slowly healing.

The process began following the financial crisis of 2008, which devastated the Greek economy. As Germany pushed European countries – and European creditors – to impose harsh austerity measures on Greece, US President Barack Obama openly questioned the wisdom of the strategy.

Surprisingly, the perception of the United States also changed under the leftist Greek government Syriza, in power from 2015 to 2019. For decades, the Greek left had invested heavily in anti-American rhetoric, but the Syriza party changed its mind. leadership, openly pursuing closer relations with Washington during the Obama and Trump administrations. This tactic accelerated under Syriza’s centre-right successor.

“What’s important is that it hasn’t been a Republican thing or a Democrat thing, it’s been bipartisan in the United States, and it’s been endured by two governments in Greece as well,” Pyatt said.

A survey conducted last October and November by Kapa Research shows that the United States is the most desirable ally for the Greeks, with 62% support. Russia came third with 31%.

The warming ties also come amid US frustrations with Turkey over its purchase of Russian-made missile defense systems. In the context of these tensions, the United States has reduced its military footprint in Turkey, leaving it to seek other regional partners.

“Greece is a very strategically located country and the United States has always wanted a more strategic relationship with it,” said Makovsky, now a national security and international politics researcher at the left-wing think tank Center. for American Progress. “For decades it was Greece that was reluctant to extend the relationship, but that has now changed.”

And the United States was happy to cooperate.

“It would be diplomatic malpractice,” Makovsky added, “for the United States not to prepare for the possibility that Turkey will continue to drift away from the Western alliance.”

military bases

It’s not like the US didn’t have any military presence in Greece until the last few years.

The US Navy has shared use of a naval base in Souda Bay on the island of Crete since the 1950s. And since 1990, a mutual defense agreement has allowed US forces to train and operate on Greek territory.

But in 2019, the two sides updated that mutual defense agreement to grant the United States access to three additional military points. And in 2021, the agreement was extended indefinitely, completely restructuring the American presence in the region.

The new areas are all critical military hubs. There is Alexandroupolis, the northern city, which has a strategically located airport, port and military barracks. Then there is Larisa Air Base, which serves as a fixed stopping place for US Air Force units in Europe. And finally, there is the Stefanolikeio military base, where US and Greek military forces regularly conduct joint exercises.

Alexandroupolis, in particular, quickly became a cornerstone of the US security architecture in the region, much to the chagrin of the Russians.

“The problem is very simple, more and more NATO and US troops are gathering on your territory,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Greek television ANT1 in an interview in March. December. “Hundreds, thousands of units of military equipment are transported through Alexandroupolis and so on.”

He added: “It worries us, you have to understand us.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even raised the issue in a January phone call with his Greek counterpart.

“We trust our Greek friends that they will use their wisdom to make choices that respond to their convictions,” he said later at a press conference.

Indeed, increased US military access to Greece has given Washington critical control over Russia’s naval activities in the region, as well as the ability to station and quickly transfer US forces to Bulgaria and Romania – two locations keys for NATO troops.

These facts made the increased US presence in Greece an indirect part of the standoff between Russia and Western allies over Ukraine. Moscow has refused to withdraw more than 100,000 troops from the Ukrainian border unless NATO and the United States meet a number of its demands. Among the demands: Western allies must withdraw their forces from Bulgaria and Romania.

This request – and many others – is considered non-starter, raising the prospect of conflict in the region. In such a case, Greek military sites would play a crucial role.

“Alexandroupolis has become a key logistical node, particularly for the military in Europe, to move forces and resources to and from NATO’s southeastern flank,” said Pyatt, the US ambassador.

Michael Carpenter, US Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, pointed to bases such as Souda Bay and the ability to move power sources across Greece as elements essential in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The future is business

The United States says military moves are only part of the overall picture for places like Alexandroupolis and northern Greece.

Pyatt said the United States was also helping to smooth out bureaucratic hurdles for companies seeking private contracts related to the city’s port, a railroad upgrade and a potential new ring road.

“The people of Alexandroupolis felt completely forgotten,” he said. “We gave a whole new narrative, which became very important for psychology. There is a whole new economic ecosystem that has developed there.

Even then, countering Russia is inevitably part of the equation. Russian business leaders were previously keen to win those same private contracts that the United States is now trying to help lead. In the northern city of Thessaloniki, for example, Greece’s second-largest port was privatized in 2018 by a consortium including Russian-Greek businessman Ivan Savvides.

Local political leaders hail the change, arguing that it portends a period of greater economic vitality for the region.

“Alexandroupolis – due to its privileged geographical position, located on the periphery of Europe – can become a transport, trade and energy hub,” said Christos Metios, governor of the Greek region of Eastern Macedonia. and Thrace. “It’s not just the base, it’s the energy pipelines, the port, the railway. There is a serious effort to upgrade the infrastructure.

The rapid upgrade, however, may create high expectations that some analysts fear the United States may not ultimately be able to meet. Just last month, the United States withdrew its support for the EastMed gas pipeline, a 6 billion euro project that could have brought revenue to Greece, after becoming embroiled in a dispute over whether the pipeline would pass through Turkey.

The lesson: While it makes sense that Greece and the United States are friends now, friendship can always fade.

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