Greece between the hammer and the anvil: geopolitical games in the eastern Aegean

The Parliament of Greece in Athens (Credits: Katerina Batsiola (majesticgreece.com), CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report 2785-2598 Volume 13 Issue 4
Author: Laura Pennisi

Since its birth after the 1821 war against the Ottoman Empire, the Modern Greek state has always been linked to the then three major powers: France, the U.K., and Russia, with the U.K. being substituted by the U.S. during the 20th century to contain the Soviet threat. This dependency is still a reality in Greek politics and foreign affairs. Athens remains a bone of contention for those powers fighting for a strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea.

Nowadays, the US-Russian strained relations are reflected in the activities carried out mostly in the northeastern region, Thrace. The city port of Alexandroupoli is the perfect gateway to the Black Sea and the Balkans through Bulgaria. The city, indeed, has been the receiver of major plans to develop the existent infrastructures and transform the city into a transportation and energy hub.

When it comes to Alexandroupoli, Sir Halford Mackinder’s Heartland and Nicholas John Spykman’s Rimland seem to be very clear to both the U.S. and Russia. Access to northeastern Greece, an area directly linked to the Mediterranean Sea acquires indeed enormous relevance as it enables access to Eastern Europe, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and, ultimately, Central Asia. This is due to the proximity to Bulgaria and Turkey and the possibility to extend further the existing infrastructures to potentially turn the area into a major international hub bypassing the Bosporus. The current network points toward this direction as it already counts the EU-approved Bulgaria (IGB) pipeline and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), a continuation of the TANAP, the Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline that transports natural gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz-2 gas field through Turkey.

In the past, Russia tried to influence the region through the Burgas-Alexandroupoli pipeline to transport oil from Bulgaria to Greece. Nevertheless, the project, proposed by Russian and Greek companies in 1993, failed due to Bulgaria’s sudden withdrawal in 2011. Another project, the South Stream gas pipeline was then proposed by the Kremlin, involving anew Athens and Sofia but failed in 2014 since it violated the E.U. Third Energy Package. The major threat for Russia is Greece’s struggle to find oil and gas alternative markets enhanced by the recent discoveries of new sources in the Mediterranean and the popularity of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG). This explains the US-Russian race toward infrastructures like the railway and LNG-related works. Accordingly, Russia tried to acquire the Greek railway company Trainose through the oligarch Vladimir Yakounin, former president of the Russian Railways, to control the routes connecting Romania to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city. The E.U. managed to block the deal in 2015 invoking security issues and welcomed, instead, the new Greek-Bulgarian deal for the extension of the railway and highway network between Alexandroupoli and Burgas. After the expulsion of two Russian diplomats from Athens in 2018 due to the involvement in the Prespa agreement signed between Greece and North Macedonia the same year, Russia had to reduce overt economic activities in the country.

The Kremlin turned therefore to cultural and religious ties to attract the Russian-Greek diaspora communities that resettled in Greece, especially from the Caucasus after the dissolution of the USSR. Strong ties have been developed with Orthodox metropolises in several Greek cities through Kremlin-friendly Orthodox oligarchs promoting the idea of Russia as the only rescuer and viable solution for Greece, in all aspects. Religion became therefore a gateway to the economy by exploiting the reputation gained by the Orthodox oligarchs through their religious-oriented projects like church building activities and football clubs. An example is the diaspora-popular Thessaloniki-based PAOK Football Club owned by the Georgian-Greek oligarch Ivan Savvidis defined by many as Putin’s man in Greece, and whose activities helped greatly the Russian hybrid intervention against the Prespa agreement.

Russian participation in the economy is therefore hidden behind big groups and the oligarchs managing them. Such is the case with the privatisation of the Port Authority of Alexandroupoli with the sale of 67% of its share capital. The subjects admitted to the competition are the American fund Quintana Infrastructure & Development, the American-French joint-venture Cameron Goldair and Cargo-Bolloré Africa Logistics, the joint-venture International Port Investments Alexandroupolis, and, lastly, the Port Authority of Thessaloniki controlled by Ivan Savvidis.

Moreover, this privatisation runs parallel with another major EU-approved project, the floating LNG terminal southwest of Alexandroupoli developed by the Greek company Gastrade. The station will have a delivery capacity of 5.5 billion cubic meters per year and will be connected to the Greek natural gas network, to the Greek-Bulgarian interconnector and the recently signed Greek-Macedonian one. These projects aim to turn Greece into a bridge between Europe and Asia, also considering that the regasified LNG will be transported to countries like North Macedonia, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Moldova, and Ukraine. Furthermore, the U.S. is among the world’s main LNG suppliers, which implies that further American success in this area could prove detrimental to Russian traditional hydrocarbons supplies.

Access to these markets translates into security matters like consolidation over the Mediterranean Sea, and access to the Balkans and the Black Sea, claimed equally by the U.S. and Russia, should Turkey block the Dardanelles. The United States is playing the security card with Greece highlighting the danger represented by Turkey due, among others, to territorial waters disputes in the eastern Aegean Sea. In this framework should be placed the US-NATO “Defender Europe 2021”, an operation started in May 2021 in the Alexandroupoli Port to practice plans for a possible war against Russia in the Balkans exploiting also roads, and railways. The several bilateral agreements recently signed by Greece between September and October 2021 with the U.S., the U.K., and France, to enhance military cooperation in the region do not come, therefore, as a surprise. These events created a gap between Russia and Greece, a country that has always considered the Russian factor in her politics, as in the case of the previous coalition government Syriza-Anel which considered the Kremlin a viable alternative to the E.U.

Nevertheless, weakened Russian capability in the area may be deliberately achieved by the Kremlin. Accordingly, symbolic diplomacy in the region based more on financial promises, supposed friendships, and local elites’ cultivation for fragmented political gains can be the real objective. The Kremlin may also aim to create fractures among the regional players (e.g., Greece and Turkey) to destabilise further the region (and appear in some cases as deus ex machina). Additionally, the enhanced U.S. presence contributes to creating a peculiar geopolitical scenario where Turkey, a key NATO ally, is gradually excluded but whose strategic position should not be neglected, especially when it comes to countering Russia. Turkey is a key player in Russian hydrocarbons transportation to Europe and goods movement through the Black Sea (which explains as well Russian interests in the Alexandroupoli-Burgas region). As a NATO member, Ankara hinders Moscow’s influence in the Black Sea and Central Asia, through strengthened cooperation with Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. The improved economic relations between Turkey and Ukraine, participation in the Crimea Forum launched in August in Kyiv, and the Pan Turkic movement strongly promoted by Ankara are proofs of this process (Turkey and pan-Turkism in Central Asia: challenges for Russia and China). Russia must also consider Ukraine’s strategic position vis-à-vis pipelines as the North-Stream 2 is still far from solving the problem of bypassing Ukraine, demonstrated by the new transit contract signed between Russia and Ukraine in 2019 due to the Danish government’s delays concerning territorial waters permissions, and the U.S. Senate voting to sanction the companies involved in the project.

New and existing gas projects implemented in Southern Europe also put Russia in front of another reality: the need for Europe to find alternative markets and sources. Recent discussions between Greece and Saudi Arabia for future energy plans involving the Gulf countries, and the very recent deal signed between Athens and Cairo for the transportation of green energy through a submarine pipeline, are turning the spotlight on Greece as the future green energy hub. Until then though, Greece must deal with a complex geopolitical situation in the Mediterranean where Turkey’s relevance should not be underestimated (Geostrategy and military competition in the Mediterranean Sea). Currently, the enhanced enmity between Athens and Ankara, due to the long-lasting territorial waters disputes in the eastern Aegean Sea gives the U.S. breeding ground to promote its guardian role, and occasions to Russia to create more fractures. Greece should opt for a softer balancing between the US-NATO shield, Russia, on which is still hydrocarbons dependent, and Turkey. The latter’s importance stems from two main considerations. Firstly, despite Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems and subsequent U.S. sanctions, Turkish activities in the Black Sea as a NATO member are valuable for both the U.S. and Greece for countering Russian expansion in the area. Accordingly, recent cooperation with Ukraine is seen as an attempt to soften relations with the U.S. Secondly, Turkey’s geographical position provides Greece with an irreplaceable corridor to the Caucasus and Central Asia, a key area where Athens should apply more long-sighted and independent economic policies.

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