New Greek Defense Minister Wants Less Tension With Turkey

FILE - Greek defense chief Evangelos Apostolakis during a NATO meeting in Brussel. (Photo by Eurokinissi/NATO)

ATHENS – Replacing firebrand Panos Kammenos, who had been taunting Turkey, Greece’s new Defense Minister Evangelos Apostolakis – former head of the Armed Forces – said he wants to cool down the simmering tensions and bring better relations.

In an interview with Kathimerini, he said a key is better communication with his counterpart, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, also a former military chief, and after they had already met to discuss how to ratchet down the anxieties built when Turkey kept sending fighter jets and warships to violate Greek airspace and waters.

Kammenos is leader of the tiny, pro-austerity, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) which was a partner in the coalition headed by the Radical Left SYRIZA before he quit in objection to a deal that renamed The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as North Macedonia.

Apostolakis said the aim was to implement the confidence-building measures agreed in 1988 by then Greek foreign minister Karolos Papoulias and Turkey’s Mesut Yilmaz they said are critical “to avert the creation of frequent unnecessary tensions that could lead to a possible accident with uncontrollable consequences,” Apostolakis said.

Despite that tender talk, Turkey has set a major air and sea military operation called Blue Motherland in the Aegean and Mediterranean, parts of which it claims. Apostolakis said that was just part of “regular training activities” and no cause for worry.

Before taking over as defense chief, Apostolakis had been aggressive toward Turkey as well, saying that Greece would  “flatten” any rocky islet that Turkish forces land upon in the Aegean but wouldn’t amplify that now.

Turkey is seeking to buy F-35 fighter jets from the United States that critics said could be used against Greece – with the US wanting a bigger military presence in Greece and cozying up to formerly anti-American Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras.

Greece’s best counter is a plan to upgrade older F-16 US-made fighter jets that are at a distinct disadvantage against F-35’s and to renovate P-3B maritime patrol aircraft, Mirage 2000s and Navy frigates.

Apostolakis said Greece had a “long-standing strategic defense relationship” with the US but “chiefly belongs to the European family” and is examining various European procurement options while also seeking to boost Greece’s domestic defense industry.