The scheduled visit of the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on 5-6 October to Athens, is expected to give a boost to the ongoing Strategic Dialogue with Greece and the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement.

Anastassios Tsiplacos - Managing Editor

Tectonic shifts are underway in the axis of South Eastern Europe – Mediterranean. Some pose growing threats to American interests and allies, others offer new prospects for stability and prosperity. Washington now seeks to develop a coherent regional strategy that addresses these challenges and capitalizes on these opportunities.

The U.S. and Russia, respectively the world’s largest and second-largest producers of natural gas, are both poised to play a vital role in brokering, and benefiting, from the “Energy Big Game”. The fact that Russia, through Gazprom, steadily increases gas exports to E.U. countries and the Balkans appears to have alarmed the U.S., which is attempting to reverse the status quo and enhance its presence in the European LNG market, putting an end to Moscow’s tactic of using its natural gas exports to exercise economic and political influence in Europe. Additionaly, there is a strong Russian naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, a Russian base at Tartus, aiming to project power and influence into the wider region. Last but not least, there are growing tensions in the Persian Gulf and the preparations of all the stakeholders for a possible confrontation with unforseeable outcome and immense repercussions in the whole region of Middle East.

Facing an unprecedented number of foreign policy flashpoints, the US risks being spread too thin to adequately address the challenges in the region and protect American interests alone. The U.S. needs reliable allies, and for the first time in the region’s history can look primarily to those who share both interests and values. (for more read “Energy Wars: The Security of the New Energy Routes in the South East Mediterranean”).

Greece as a “Frontier State”

Greece lives in a complicated neighborhood vis-a-vis Turkey; but also a complicated neighborhood vis-a-vis the refugee/migaration problem. Greece cannot escape the fact that this crucial issue will continue to pose a monumental challenge. The potential influx of yet more illegal imigrants from Turkey, but also from Africa and the Middle East, and even Turks themselves, looms on the horizon -in case of collapse of the Turkey/EU refugee deal- bringing devastating effects upon Greece and Europe as well. Over recent weeks, Greece has witnessed the largest influx of migrants since the peak of Europe’s refugee crisis in early 2016. Last month, more than 500 migrants arrived at the Aegean island of Lesbos from Turkey with another 400 migrants landing there days later, prompting Greece to increase border patrols. In this complicated region the United States, view Greece as a frontier state and pillar of stability.

You see that in the thriving Greece-Israel relationship, the very successful Greece-Israel-Cyprus Trilateral. The strong ties between Athens, Jerusalem, and Nicosia go well beyond the promotion of open communication links in the field of energy. The deepening of the Greece-Israel relationship is a very important factor here. A new era has arrived with frontier states having more responsibilities to strengthen collective security than before. The coming period will be characterized by challenges all along the periphery lines between the western and the Muslim worlds. The strategic triangle, and especially the close cooperation between Athens and Jerusalem, can help the rest of the western world obstruct jihadists as they attempt to target western states. How do Athens help in this regard?

By establishing a network of flow control of refugees/imigrants now that Turkey seems unable or unwilling to do so. More than 1.5 million people used Greece as the main gateway to enter the EU. Jihadists make use of the continuous flow of refugees/imigrants through the Aegean corridor in order to gain access to the West. For all of these reasons and in order to influence developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Southeastern Europe, the U.S. as well as the E.U. will have to understand that Greece is not just another EU and NATO member-state, but a “frontier state” of the West, and maintain their open support.

Greece as pillar of stability in Eastern Mediterranean

U.S. Ambassador to Athens, Geoffrey Pyatt, has in numerous occasions stated that Washington will play a vital role in the transformation of the energy map in the Eastern Mediterranean and Greece. He has also said that energy issues have been at the forefront of the agenda of Greek-US bilateral ties, adding that the Greece is expected to be a “decisive factor” in transforming the energy landscape in the region. You see that in the thriving Greece-Israel-Cyprus Trilateral, as well as the Trilateral of Greece-Egypt-Cyprus, its participation to the East Med Gas Forum (EMGF), as well as the 1st Ministerial Energy Summit with the pariticipation of the energy ministers of Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the US Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources Frank Fannon (see: “A new emerging alliance in the Eastern Mediterranean”).

The “Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019”, introduced by Senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio, will allow the U.S. to fully support this role and the Trilateral partnership of Israel, Greece, and Cyprus through energy and defense cooperation initiatives. The bipartisan legislation also seeks to update U.S. strategy in recognition of consequential changes in the Eastern Mediterranean, including the recent discovery of large natural gas fields, and a deterioration of Turkey’s relationship with the United States and its regional partners. The draft law provided for the first time that the State Secretary must submit a report to the House on the number of violations of the Greek airspace and the EEZ of the Republic of Cyprus.

It also requires the Administration to submit to Congress a strategy on enhanced security and energy cooperation with countries in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as reports on malign activities by Russia, Turkey, Iran and other states in the region. This legislation, that essentially upgrades the geopolitical role of Greece, is seen in Athens as a reflection of Washington’s renewed interest and growing involvement in the region. Considering the high priority given, the Act also suggests that the trilateral alliance between Greece, Israel and Cyprus could serve as vehicle for the new dynamic in the region. The EastMed Act has been submitted to the House of Representatives too and enjoys the inter-party support of some of the most prominent leaders in the respective Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Affairs Committees. This version of the bill is almost identical to that brought to the Senate. This bill also calls for the latest developments in peace talks to resolve the Cyprus problem to be included.

Secretary’s Pompeo participation in Jerusalem’s Trilateral, late March, underlined “…the U.S. support for the trilateral mechanism established by Israel, Greece and Cyprus, noting the importance of increased cooperation; to support energy independence and security; and to defend against external malign influences in the Eastern Mediterranean and the broader Middle East.” Then followed the participation of the US Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources Frank Fannon, to the Athens 1st Ministerial Energy Summit, late July, together with the energy ministers of Greece, Cyprus, and Israel discussing their cooperation in the field of energy, while affirming their shared commitment to promoting peace, security, and prosperity in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

The U.S.-Greece Strategic Dialogue

Greece is back as a foreign policy actor in the region. It has been an ally to the U.S. in promoting Balkan stability and economic development, and supporting the diversification of Europe’s energy supplies. Greece’s geostrategic position also makes it an important ally in engagement and dialogue throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. The U.S. Ambassador to Athens Geoffrey Pyatt, has repeatedly stressed that Greece’s geostrategic location is key to security and stability in the Southeast Europe and Mediterranean.

The United States and Greece launched their annual Strategic Dialogue in December 2018 that focuses on the areas of regional cooperation, defense and security, trade and investment, energy, law enforcement and counterterrorism, and people-to-people ties. Back then, after mr. Pompeo’s first meeting with the Greek ex-Acting Foreign Minister George Katrougalos, he reaffirmed U.S. commitment to deepen bilateral cooperation in key areas for the mutual benefit of both countries.

They discussed about the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, regions where the U.S. has major interest, and they had a constructive dialogue concerning Greece’s ability to assist, together with other regional countries, to sustain the new American “front”. They, also, exchanged thoughts concerning regional energy matters, due to the fact that Greece is becoming an energy hub to the South Eastern Europe. The likely possibility of EastMed’s pipeline construction and the according security issues which will be risen in the Eastern Mediterranean, will place energy routes in the centre of mutual concern between peripheral stakeholders such as Israel, Egypt and Cyprus too. The Secretary underscored Greece’s leadership role and importance as a pillar of stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans and commended Greece’s contributions as a NATO ally. Finally, the two agreed to continue working closely together, to sustain the momentum, in order to promote stability and prosperity in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans. Since last December a lot of water has flowed under the bridge:

  • U.S.- Turkey relations have deteriorated to the lowest imaginable level, over the S-400s issue and the subsequent expulsion of Turkey from Stealth F-35 programme, as well as the buffer-zone in Syria and the increasing threats of the destroy of the Kurdish YPG U.S. allies.
  • The “Eastern Mediterranean Security and Partnership Act of 2019”, concerning the importance of Eastern Mediterranean Partnership for the USA and specifically cooperation issues on partnership between Greece and Cyprus with USA, energy, relations with Israel and US-Turkey relations.
  • East Med Gas Forum (EMGF) member’s intention of upgrading the Forum to the level of an international organisation, the first of its kind in South East Mediterranean, and form a committee with the natural gas industry, which would include the participation of state and private companies from the forum member countries.
  • Turkish “Energy Encirclement” of Cyprus’ EEZ with “Fatih” and “Yavuz” drillships, East and West of the island, the “Barbaross” research vessel at the South, as result of its feeling that there is a concerted effort to encircle (sic) Turkey, and left out of the region’s energy developments and possible gains.
  • E.U. mild sanctions due to Turkey’s violation of Cyprus’ EEZ and it’s continuing threats of escalating its provocation.
  • Growing tensions in the Persian Gulf and the preparations of all the stakeholders for a possible confrontation with unforseeable outcome, however, immense repercussions in the Middle East.

What the U.S. mean of “strategic dialogue” with Greece

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Athens on October 5, and with Foreign Minister Dendias, and Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos later, preparing the 2019 US-Greece Strategic Dialogue, which will focus on defense and security, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean and the Black Sea, and will be held October 7. They will also look into research and business opportunities between the two states. Mr. Pompeo’s statement about Greece’s “leadership role”, back in December, was very important and contained special meaning. Greece cooperates closely with the United States in terms of NATO platforms, the work at Souda Bay, the way in which both states work together on maritime domain awareness and security in the Balkans, the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, at a moment when major geopolitical stakeholders’ competition has returned in these regions, in a way that we have not seen for more than two decades.

The US defence relationship with Greece is based on the 1990 MDCA which will be amended next week, as well as the mainly administrative/legal Comprehensive Technical Agreement (CTA) signed in 2001 by both countries, as well the NATO Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) regulating personnel using the important NATO facilities around Greece, primarily Souda Bay in Crete. It is time now to resume and upgrade the strategic dialogue, to a higher level. The two-and-a-half-month period negotiations, on modernizing the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) between the two NATO allies, have been completed. According to the final draft, which will be formally signed by Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his official visit, there will be no time limit on the defense agreement and it can only be declared null if one of the two sides pulls out.

Meanwhile, a lot of progress is being made, often under the radar, in terms of Greek-American military cooperation. The technical teams from the US and Greece concluded to deepen bilateral cooperation and to continue progress made in key areas, via “flexible” options to further consolidate the presence of American weapons systems in Greece. The four key points are the use of the port at Souda Bay -with the terms of its operation outlined in the final draft- the operational framework of the US presence in a section of the port at Alexandroupoli, not clear if this is a year-round US deployment or seasonal though, and the establishment of high-technology installations on Greek soil and within Greek bases and camps in central Greece. There are also a number of other issues that are still under negotiation, such as the lease of American UAVs by the Hellenic Armed Forces.

The US is willing to invest in Greece’s armed forces infrastructure, making their management and upgrade a matter of national interest not just for Greece, but for the US as well. Therefore anyone who threatens Greek interests will also be threatening American interests, with everything this entails. More specifically:

  • the works at Souda Bay. Crete hosts the Souda Bay naval and air bases where U.S.A. and, generally, NATO forces are accommodated. The Souda Bay port facilities are huge, with the larger installation being Quay K-14 constructed with NATO funds. Its length about 300 m, and width about 100 m, allow an aircraft carrier to berth and it is the only NATO naval base to provide such facilities in the Eastern Mediterranean. The significance of the Souda Bay is bolstered by the fact that U.S. monitoring operations are being executed at large, gathering imagery intelligence (IMINT), telemetry intelligence (TELINT), and signals intelligence (SIGINT). The U.S. Defense Budget for 2019 includes 2 sums of $47,850,000 and $2,220,000 for future infrastructures at the U.S. Suda Bay Base. These sums are a big investment and obviously show its high importance to the U.S. and NATO, as well as their will to extent their presence.
  • discussions between Athens and Washington revolve around the Larissa Air Force Base, where unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), MQ-9 Reaper-type drones, are currently stationed. With the contract for their stay at the Larissa base expiring, two options are beeing examinded: The first concerns the possibility of stationing KC-135 tankers there, which frequently fly out of Incirlik Air Base Turkey, to support U.S. operations in the Middle East. The second, albeit least likely, scenario, suggests the replacement of the MQ-9 Reapers with other UAVs, namely Global Hawk RQ-4.
    Moreover, Greece is in talks with the United States for the purchase or lease of certain units for the surveillance of the broader Balkan region and the Aegean. These are not armed units, however incredibly useful strategic and tactical tools that will give Greek Armed Forces a much better picture of the region.
  • the use of the Stefanovikeio Air Base, Headquarters of the 1st Army Aviation Brigade, in central Greece by US helicopters units is also expected to continue, as well as the establishment of a helicopter training base nearby.
  • the upgrading of Alexandroupoli’s port. Recent geopolitical shifts and volatility in the wider region have elevated the port’s status, attracting interest from Russia and China as well. The Port of Alexandroupoli has a 500 meters long pier for large cargo ships, as well as 50,000 square meters of open space adjacent to the pier. The United States and NATO see the importance of the pier at its full capacity. The US envoy in Athens Goeffry Pyatt, has repeatedly stressed that Alexandroupoli’s port has the potential to become a very important transit hub and with unique logistical connections to the energy infrastructure, the floating regassification plant which will be built offshore, to the Egnatia Highway, to the IGB Pipeline with Bulgaria, and to the rail links that eventually will go all the way up to Varna.

As NATO allied and partner nations continue their extensive training programs in the region, the port is of significant importance to facilitate the transit of U.S. military goods and equipment between Greece and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe. The recent deployment of just under 800 piece of equipment and roughly 400 Soldiers through the port in support of exercise Saber Guardian 2019 in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania is a perfect example of this.
From a security and economic standpoint, it makes sense to further develop the port to benefit both US-Greek strategic relationship and the latter’s economy. It is not just American LNG that will be able to reach Alexandroupoli by sea. The US sees Alexandroupoli as an alternative to the Bosporus Straits that connect the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. In case of a Black Sea crisis, the port could be used as an alternative route for allied troops, if Turkey were to shut down the Straits, in violation of the Montreux convention and with the tolerance of its Russian allies.

  • the US increased participation in Greek military exercises and expanding their scope. Among these are the “Iniohos” air exercise between NATO allies and partner nations, which Athens and Washington plan to upgrade to a large-scale drill.
  • the developments around the current F-16V GR upgrade program, designed by the US government and F-16 builder Lockheed Martin via FMS. The upgrade program will largely solve the availability problems of HAF’s aircrafts that were expected to increase in the near future, due to the aging of current systems and the reduction of production sources. The cost of the interstate agreement (LOA) to upgrade the F-16s is $1,528 billion, of which $998 million is Lockheed Martin’s contract with the US government, and the remaining $530 million is the cost of services and materials provided by the US Government (USAF). The program is designed to maximize the involvement of the domestic defense industry, which under the agreed parameters will create about 300 new jobs in the Hellenic Aerospace Industries (HAI) alone. The F-16V GR will be able to carry new weapons and sensors, while also ensuring full security in the supply and information of the weapon system.

What will be the future of US-Greek strategic relations?

The strengthening of US-Greek relations has also coincided with Turkey’s aggressive strategic posture. Once a reliable US ally, Turkey under President Erdogan increasingly diverges from, and often directly opposes, American interests. Ankara-Washington relations are faced with a wide range of issues of contention, including ongoing plans to establish a joint safe zone in northern Syria and Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system. Nevertheless, both Greece and the United States have a strong interest in working through their differences with Ankara and seeing to it that Turkey remains anchored in the West, remains part of NATO, continues to move on the path towards European institutions as part of the EuroAtlantic community.

Could, however, Greece be a strategic substitute to Turkey in the region? The question that will soon arise is whether Athens has what it takes to play this part, and what it must seek in return. Maybe it would be useful to contain expectations about this prospect. Those who believe that the United States would turn its back on Turkey and replace it with Greece overnight are mistaken. Such tectonic shifts take a long time to materialize.

Greece, from its part, needs to ask for some form of security guarantees, as well as for American surplus defense equipment from the Pentagon. The US presence in certain sensitive geopolitical locations is a powerful deterrent, but it isn’t enough for a “frontier state” such as Greece. Greek-American relations have reached a point of maturity and the future will continue to bode well on one condition. Both sides to continue to keep their cards on the table. As the Greek saying goes, good accounts make good friends…

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