Foreign Policy: Erdogan’s belligerence has U.S., Greece expanding ties

The Biden administration just inked a defense cooperation agreement with one NATO ally—Greece—that is trying to bolster its military deterrence against another NATO ally: Turkey.

The renewed and expanded defense protocol the United States and Greece signed on Oct. 14 amends their previously established Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement. Both Washington and Athens are concerned by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly belligerent actions, underscored by his threat Saturday—since watered down—to expel 10 Western ambassadors. For the U.S. side, the deal extends and expands U.S. military access to Greek military bases, providing Washington a hedge against Moscow and Ankara as Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to have Turkey play a spoiler role within the NATO alliance. The Greeks, for their part, hope stronger cooperation with the United States will help them deter Turkey.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias signed the defense deal in Washington following the third round of the U.S.-Greek Strategic Dialogue. The Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement represents a new phase in U.S.-Greek security cooperation. It enables, as Blinken said, “U.S. forces in Greece to train and operate from additional locations.” That will strengthen U.S. military power projection and readiness in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea regions. Initially in effect for five years, the agreement will afterward “remain in force indefinitely” unless either government terminates it, Blinken said.

Similar to Greece’s recent deal with France, the protocol strengthens Athens’s position in light of the Erdogan government’s growing gunboat diplomacy and irredentist rhetoric aimed at revoking borders fixed by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 following a bitter Greco-Turkish war. In all of this, Erdogan is motivated by a toxic mix of Islamist, ultranationalist, and anti-Western ideologies. Erdogan’s embrace of ultranationalist and pro-Russian factions at home for political survival in the aftermath of Turkey’s failed coup attempt in 2016 put Athens and Ankara on a collision course. The Turkish president’s abandonment of conventional Turkish foreign-policy positions and his expansionist maritime claims in the Aegean and elsewhere, developed by a number of pro-Russian officers in the Turkish military, triggered European Union sanctions in 2019 and threats of further sanctions last year.

The deal could also offer Athens a much-needed hedge against Moscow and Beijing. Greece has traditionally been friendly to Russia, not least because of strong cultural and religious ties. But the two countries had a falling out in 2018, when Athens banned four Russian diplomats over attempts by Moscow to bribe Greek officials in order to derail reconciliation talks between Athens and Skopje that paved the way for North Macedonia’s NATO membership. Furthermore, in the wake of its 2010 debt and financial crisis, Greece turned to investments from China, providing Beijing coercive economic leverage to elicit political concessions from Athens. In 2017, the Greek government under then-Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras blocked the EU from condemning China’s human rights record at the United Nations, earning Athens justified criticism. While the current Greek government has reaffirmed Greece’s orientation toward the West, greater U.S. interest—especially investment in strategic infrastructure projects such as ports, shipyards, and cellular networks—could help reduce Athens’s reliance on Chinese capital.

Erdogan’s increasing belligerence is one reason Greece has taken a significant turn toward the United States, NATO, and the EU.

For the United States, the new agreement provides valuable additional basing and training opportunities to help hedge against Russian activities in the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean regions, facilitating greater U.S. military operational agility and flexibility. Increased U.S. military capabilities near the entrance to the Black Sea could present Russian military planners with fresh dilemmas, boosting NATO deterrence.

The agreement provides the U.S. military with access to a base at Alexandroupolis, a port city on the Thracian coast near the Turkish border. That bolsters NATO’s southeastern flank and provides an alternative means to transport military forces to NATO allies Bulgaria and Romania. These ground lines of communication augment the existing sea connection through the Bosphorus and could potentially replace it in a crisis if the United States were deprived of access to the Black Sea by either Turkey or Russia.

The Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement’s extended duration will incentivize additional investment in Alexandroupolis’s port. That, in turn, could increase the port’s capacity and military utility. For Russia, the Black Sea provides a crucial naval pathway to the Mediterranean and beyond. Additional U.S. access to the Black Sea region via Greece—and an enhanced U.S. military presence near the Turkish Straits—will be unwelcome news in Moscow.

It is essential that Washington work with Athens to ensure that U.S. or European companies expand and run the Alexandroupolis port. It should not surprise anyone if Russian or Chinese companies apply for the job. Already, a Chinese state-backed company owns a majority share of the Piraeus Port Authority, the fourth-largest container port in Europe.

While Alexandroupolis is significant, the protocol’s extended duration will also be very valuable in providing U.S. forces more predictable and longer-term access to the naval port and air base at Souda Bay on Crete. That will incentivize Pentagon infrastructure investment there, which in turn could strengthen U.S. power projection in the Eastern Mediterranean, where China and Russia are increasingly coordinating military activities.

Terrorist threats to the Eastern Mediterranean’s expanding offshore energy infrastructure are growing as well. Hamas attempted to target gas installations off the Israeli coast during the Gaza conflict in May. Perhaps that is one reason why Blinken and Dendias’s joint statement reiterated a desire to “bolster cooperation through the 3+1 format (Greece, Cyprus, Israel, plus the United States) on energy issues, economic development, counterterrorism, and the climate crisis and associated humanitarian challenges which recently affected the region.”

The deal also reflects Washington’s concerns about Ankara’s drift toward Moscow. In December 2020, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system as required by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which targets significant transactions with the Russian defense or intelligence sectors. Ankara’s recent threats to purchase a second batch of S-400s in addition to advanced Russian Su-35 and Su-57 combat jets would trigger further sanctions and create a significant new crisis with Ankara for the Biden administration and NATO to manage.

Just like Turkey, Greece used to stand out among NATO members for its strong anti-American sentiment—among both the political elite and the general public. Erdogan’s increasing belligerence and drift away from the West and its values are one reason Athens has taken a significant turn toward the United States, NATO, and the EU while also deepening regional cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. Athens’s shift has offered Washington an attractive way to mitigate the damage associated with Erdogan’s actions while simultaneously hedging against Moscow and Beijing. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department is still trying to maintain its long-term balancing act between Greece and Turkey, which last year drew a sharp rebuke from U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, who is known for his vocal criticism of the Erdogan government. While there is a bipartisan consensus in Washington regarding the problematic nature of Erdogan’s policies, there is a genuine debate whether he is an anomaly or a sign of Turkey’s long-term shift.

In remarks at the joint press conference, Blinken described Greece as a “reliable ally” and a “pillar of stability.” Greece is also becoming more capable militarily, undertaking a major military modernization effort and purchasing lots of U.S.-made military hardware. That builds Greek and NATO military readiness and capability, strengthens the U.S. defense industrial base, and increases the ability of U.S. and Greek forces to operate together.

In fact, Greece now spends a higher percent of its GDP on defense than any other NATO member, according to a report by the alliance. In 2014, Greece spent slightly above NATO’s 2 percent of GDP defense spending guideline. This year, Greece will spend an estimated 3.8 percent of its GDP on defense, the highest share in the alliance. Athens is also spending a significant portion of those expenditures on real military capability, allocating nearly 40 percent of defense spending on equipment. That compares favorably to NATO’s most capable militaries. Athens, however, will need to get military personnel costs under control and spend more on military operations and maintenance if it hopes to employ its new capabilities effectively and maintain readiness.

All things considered, Greece’s search for a hedge against Turkey also offers the United States a unique opportunity to better deter Moscow’s revisionist ambitions and raise the costs for Erdogan’s drift away from the NATO alliance. The defense agreement with Greece is a step in the right direction, but the U.S. Congress will need to monitor its implementation closely.

By Bradley Bowman, the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Aykan Erdemir, the senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Source: Foreign Policy