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Greece draws in the US — and edges out Russia

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

Nearly 40 years ago, Greek people were marching in the streets against U.S. military bases in the region. Banners declared: “Out with the bases of death!” Across the nation, surveys showed most Greeks felt closer to Russia, a fellow Christian Orthodox nation that had helped the Greeks fight off Ottoman rule in 1821, than they did to the U.S.

Even in the 2000s, Greek-U.S. relations remained frosty. Athens flirted with strengthening its ties to Moscow.

That’s all changed.

In recent years, U.S.-Greece relations have grown much tighter — tighter than ever, officials on both sides proclaim. And much of that cooperation has directly affected Russia.

Greece has granted the U.S. open-ended access to four pivotal military bases, frustrating Russia. It has started receiving U.S. liquefied natural gas at a port near Athens, providing an alternative to Russia. And U.S. corporate giants have been establishing Greece as a regional hub — JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, Pfizer, Amazon, Cisco, Tesla and Deloitte have all made significant moves in the country recently.

This U.S. foothold has become increasingly important as Moscow menaces Ukraine with hoards of troops piled up at the border, pushing Washington and its allies to draw up military response plans. Those plans inevitably flow through Greece.

“This has been a very rewarding period,” said Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Greece, who came to Athens nearly six years ago after a post in Ukraine. “Greece is very much part of the larger and systematic U.S. effort to ensure alignment with our NATO and European allies as we respond to what Russia is threatening to do in Ukraine.”

For those who have tracked the region for decades, the flipped dynamic is astounding.

“It is head-spinning to see the change in U.S.-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 U.S. was at an apex. “The feeling one gets now is that the Greek government can’t get enough of the U.S. presence.”

“For old-timers like me,” added Makovsky, recalling the anti-U.S. slogans of the 1980s, “it’s almost unbelievable.”

An anti-U.S. tradition

Greece has long been suspicious 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 U.S. made based on the junta’s anti-communist stance. 

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

In 1999, violent anti-U.S. protests took place in Athens during U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit. The next day, Clinton apologized for the U.S. support of the junta, acknowledging that it failed in its “obligation to support democracy.” 

At the same time, Greece retained some goodwill toward Russia over the historic connections between the countries.

In the Greek north, the cultural and economic ties with Russia were strong. The city of Alexandroupolis, for instance, has a small Russian community and sister city relations with several Russian cities, including Sosnovy Bor and Saint Petersburg. It even struck a sister city deal with Simferopol in Crimea — after the 2014 Russian annexation. 

Pyatt vividly remembers the reaction he got before traveling for the first time to Alexandroupolis.

“I told a senior Greek journalist, ‘Today, I’m going to Alexandroupolis, what should I know?’ He said, ‘Boy, you’re really going into the Bear’s Den.’”

But some of those Russian connections have curdled in recent years.

In 2018, the Greek foreign ministry expelled two Russian diplomats — and barred two other Russians from the country — after accusing them of fomenting nationalist fervor in opposition to a deal that would smooth North Macedonia’s accession to NATO.

Around the same time, Greece’s frayed relationship with the U.S. was slowly healing.

The process began in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which devastated the Greek economy. As Germany drove European countries — and European creditors — to impose severe austerity measures on Greece, U.S. President Barack Obama openly questioned the wisdom of the strategy.

Surprisingly, perceptions of the U.S. also shifted under Greece’s left-wing Syriza government, in charge from 2015 to 2019. For decades, the Greek left had invested heavily in anti-U.S. rhetoric, but the Syriza party changed direction, openly pursuing closer relations with Washington during both the Obama and Trump administrations. That tactic accelerated under Syriza’s center-right successor.

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

A survey conducted last October and November by Kapa Research shows the U.S. is the most desirable ally for Greeks, winning 62 percent support. Russia came in third at 31 percent.

The warming ties also come amid U.S. frustrations with Turkey over its purchase of Russian-made missile defense systems. Against the backdrop of these tensions, the U.S. has reduced its military footprint in Turkey, leaving it in search of other regional partners. 

“Greece is a very strategically located country and the U.S. has always desired more strategic relations with it,” said Makovsky, now a national security and international policy fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress think tank. “For decades, it was Greece that was reluctant to expand the relationship, but that has now changed.”

And the U.S. was happy to cooperate. 

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

Military bases

It’s not as if the U.S. had no military presence in Greece prior to the last few years.

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

But in 2019, the two sides updated that mutual defense agreement to grant the U.S. access to three additional military spots. And in 2021, the agreement was extended indefinitely, completely restructuring America’s presence in the region.

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

Alexandroupolis, in particular, has quickly become a cornerstone of the U.S. security architecture in the region, much to the Russians’ ire.

“The problem is very simple, more and more NATO and U.S. troops are gathering in your territory,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Greece TV ANT1 in a December interview. “Hundreds, thousands of units of military equipment are transported through Alexandroupolis and so on.” 

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

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

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

Indeed, the increased U.S. military access in Greece has given Washington a critical check on Russia’s naval activities in the region, as well as the ability to rapidly park and transfer American forces to Bulgaria and Romania — two key locations for NATO troops.

Those facts have made the heightened U.S. presence in Greece an indirect part of the standoff between Russia and Western allies over Ukraine. Moscow has refused to remove over 100,000 troops from the Ukrainian border unless NATO and the U.S. meet a number of its demands. Among the demands: Western allies must withdraw their forces from Bulgaria and Romania.

That request — and many others — are considered nonstarters, which has raised the prospect of a conflict erupting within the region. In such a case, Greece’s military sites would serve a crucial role. 

“Alexandroupolis has emerged as a key logistics node, especially for the army in Europe, for moving forces and resources into and out of NATO’s southeastern flank,” said Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador.

Michael Carpenter, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, pointed to bases like Souda Bay and the ability to move energy sources through Greece as critical components in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The future is commerce

The U.S. claims the military moves are just part of the overall vision for places like Alexandroupolis and Greece’s north.

Pyatt said the U.S. is also helping smooth out bureaucratic hurdles for businesses seeking private contracts related to the city’s port, a railway upgrade and a potential new ring road.

“People in Alexandroupolis felt completely forgotten,” he said. “We have given a whole new narrative, which has become very important to the psychology. There’s a whole new economic ecosystem that has grown up there.”

Even then, countering Russia is inevitably part of the equation. Russian business leaders have previously been keen to win those same private contracts the U.S. is now trying to help steer. In the northern city of Thessaloniki, for instance, Greece’s second-largest port was privatized in 2018 by a consortium that included Russian-Greek businessman Ivan Savvides.

Local political leaders welcome the shift, arguing it presages a period of greater economic vitality for the area.

“Alexandroupolis — due to its privileged geographical position, located on the edge of Europe — can become a hub of transport, trade and energy,” 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 fast upgrade, however, may be creating great expectations some analysts worry the U.S. cannot ultimately meet. Just last month, the U.S. pulled support for the EastMed gas pipeline, a €6 billion project that could have brought revenue to Greece, after it got caught up in a dispute over whether the pipeline would route through Turkey.

The lesson: While it makes sense for Greece and the U.S. to be friends now, friendship can always fade.

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