This Tiny Country in Europe is Crucial to US' National Security Interests, Here's Why
(Marines watch the arrival of the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima in Souda Bay, Greece, on May 27, 2021. A new defense pact between the U.S. and Greece could give U.S. forces access to an additional base at Souda Bay on the island of Crete. ( Kelly M. Agee/U.S. Navy)
“The reaction of Greece to the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine was indeed swift and decisive,” said U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin as Greece both militarizes and increases its defense cooperation with the United States.
Greece, a small, relatively even poor Southern European country in the Mediterranean plays a disproportionally large role in U.S. national security policy regarding threats from both Russia and China as well as functioning as a U.S. and NATO hub supporting Ukraine’s defense.
Greece spent $8.4 billion, accounting for nearly 4% of GDP, on defense in 2022. This makes
Greece the NATO country with the highest defense to GDP spending ratio. At the same time,
under the U.S.-Greece Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA), Washington has
accelerated arms sales to Greece worth $1.5 billion. This includes 1,200 M-117 armored
vehicles, 10 CH-47D heavy-lift cargo helicopters, 60 OH-58D reconnaissance/combat
helicopters, and 83 F-16. The Greek government has also signaled that they are interested in
future purchases of MQ-9 Unmanned Aerial Systems as well as AH-64E Apaches, and they
would like to upgrade their M-270 MLRS and Patriot systems. Additionally, American drones are being launched from the air base in Larissa, which is also being used as a training ground for NATO pilots.
Even more, Greece has suggested that it would like to join the F-35 Joint Strike-Fighter program.
The U.S. has had a naval base in Souda Bay in Crete since 1969 while the MDCA has allowed
the U.S. to conduct training and to maintain troops in Greece since 1990. Under the 2021
amendment to the MDCA, the U.S. has gained access to three more bases: Georgula Barracks in Volos, Litochoro Training Ground, and army barracks in the northeastern port city of Alexandroupoli. From Alexandroupolis, the U.S. has access to the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosphorus Strait which connects with the Black Sea bordering both Ukraine and the Russian Federation. According to U.S. Secretary of defense Lloyd Austin, “that access allows us to continue to provide military assistance to Ukraine and to counter malign actors and exercise, and operate in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea region.” Secretary Austin went on to say that Greece plays a significant role as a NATO and U.S. support hub, “projecting allied presence in a region facing various forms of revisionism.”
(WSJ, U.S. and Greek forces at a base in Stefanovikeio, Greece.)
Greece’s recent militarization and expanded defense cooperation with the United States has not gone unnoticed. Backlash has come fast and from all sides. A Greek opposition-party parliamentarian said that the U.S. had transformed Greece into “a front country of NATO.” Forces outside of Greece are also not happy with the recent military buildup. The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu threatened that unless Greece stopped militarizing the Aegean islands, Ankara will take the necessary steps on the ground and do what is necessary. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey menacingly reminded Athens that the Greek capitol was within reach of Turkish missiles. The Kremlin warned against supplying arms to Ukraine saying that Greece providing Ukraine with Soviet style S-300 and other air defense systems was, “openly hostile to Russia.”
Apart from the pivotal role Greece plays in countering Russia and aiding Ukraine, the country is also relevant to the U.S.-China rivalry. Three years ago, it looked as if Greece was poised to serve as China’s gateway to Europe. China offered a great deal of trade and investment in exchange for Athens agreeing to a strategic partnership. This included a $3 billion investment into the port of Piraeus by the state-owned China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO). Xi Jinping ominously referred to this project as, “the head of the dragon”. Beijing’s intention was for the port to link with the Belt and Road Initiative. This would save one week of sailing time, which costs about $2 million per trip. This would also make Beijing’s products cheaper in Europe while the U.S. warned that Beijing was dragging Greece deeper into its orbit.
In addition to increasing the influence of the Chinese Communist Party in Europe, America was concerned that the port could be outfitted to host vessels of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy. After three years of U.S. urging, the political tide in Greece is clearly turning away from China and towards the United States. In March, a Greek court blocked Chinese expansion of Piraeus Port meaning that it would not be retooled to accommodate Chinese warships. Further evidence of the Greek pivot away from Beijing came about eight months later when a Hellenic court acquitted protesters who hung an anti-China banner from the Acropolis.
Rejecting Chinese investment was an important national security decision, but this will result in less Chinese investment in the future. At the same time, the Greek economy is not doing well, and Greece has dramatically increased it defense spending. The country’s debt stands at 222% of GDP, the highest of any OECD country other than Japan. This year, inflation stood at 12%. Other negative indicators include a 332% increase in the price of natural gas compared to a year earlier. Air transport is up 58.7%, and the price of electricity has increased by 30.5%.
Greece’s role as a NATO hub will most likely increase in importance as the war in Ukraine is
expected to escalate. The NATO foreign ministers issued a joint statement on November 30 pledging increased support for Ukraine. This will result in more U.S. military activity in Greece and a greater flow of material aid and weapons.
(US soldiers fold the blades of a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter at the port of Alexandroupoli in Greece, November 18, 2021. US Army/Staff Sgt. Jennifer Reynolds)
On December 21st , Russia announced that their military would be forming 17 new divisions and a new army corps, which will expand their troop numbers from 1.15 million to 1.5 million. To achieve this goal, Russia will be calling for an additional 350,000 new recruits. Moscow also plans to deploy more hypersonic weapons, including the first hypersonic-weapon equipped war ship set to be commissioned in January. Perhaps most alarmingly, Putin said that he would place particular emphasis on modernizing Russia’s nuclear forces as he identifies nuclear weapons as, “the main guarantee of our sovereignty and territorial integrity, strategic parity and the global balance of forces.”
About The Author
Antonio Graceffo is an economist, who was educated in Europe and China. He works as a China economic analyst and also does national security analysis and has published numerous articles on the impact of the Ukraine war and the war in Burma. Graceffo is a U.S. military veteran, currently studying national security at the American Military University. His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, The South China Morning Post, The Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Lowy Institute China Brief, Modern Diplomacy, War on the Rocks, and many other media and thinktank publications.