ATHENS – With the memories of American support for a brutal junta rule in Greece fading almost half a century after it ended, an expanded US military presence in the country and investor interest has shifted Greece more toward the US, and away from Russia.
Curiously, that move accelerated under the formerly anti-US then-ruling Radical Left SYRIZA that was in power from 2015-19 when former premier Alexis Tsipras reversed his rhethoric against America to embrace it and approve a military agreement between the countries.
That pro-American attitude has accelerated under the now ruling New Democracy Conservatives of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who also has been trying to lure more big American firms and technology companies.
That has caught Russia unable to keep up with its hopes to gain a bigger business foothold, especially in the northern city of Alexandroupolis near Turkey’s border, a city that has long had pro-Russian sentiment.
In a feature, the site Politico pointed out how there’s been a sea change in favor of the US at the cost of Russia, especially with Greece a key geopolitical ally at a time when there are fears of Russia invading Ukraine.
“Greece is a very strategically located country and the U.S. has always desired more strategic relations with it,” Alan Makovsky, a national security and international policy fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress think tank told the news site.
“For decades, it was Greece that was reluctant to expand the relationship, but that has now changed,” he said, and he should know – he covered Southern Europe and the Middle East for the State Department in the 1980s, when hatred by many Greeks toward the US burned.
Greece also given approval for the US to add military bases, is letting US drones operate from a Larissa airport, and is receiving US liquefied natural gas at a port near Athens, all vexing Russian interests.
“This has been a very rewarding period,” US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt told Politico. He was formerly the US diplomat in Ukraine and well positioned now with the crisis in that country over Russia – and Greece’s role.
“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,” he said.
The changes in attitude and latitude have been dynamic, especially for those in Greece who remember the rabid anti-American sentiment, which has tilted now in favor of the US.
“It is head-spinning to see the change in US.-Greek relations over the years,” added Makovsky. “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.”
USA! USA! USA!
A survey conducted in October-November, 2021 by Kapa Research showE the US was the favored ally for Greeks, with 62 support, double that of Russia at 31 percent, with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a long-running economic and austerity crisis refusing to help bail out Greece.
Pyatt said the sentiment shift and remembers the first time he went to Alexandroupolis where there is a small Russian community and Sister City relations with several Russian cities as well as Simferopol in Crimea, which Russian annexed in 2014 as the international community blinked.
“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.’”
Russia isn’t happy.
“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, 2021 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, who has been close with several Greek counterparts over the years said at the time that, “We trust our Greek friends that they will use their wisdom to make choices that answer their convictions,” a soft diplomatic shot.
Politico said the growing American military presence in Greece has given the US a 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 – which Putin wants removed.
The US Navy has shared the use of a base at Souda Bay on the island of Crete since the 1950’s and since 1990, a mutual defense agreement has allowed American forces to train and operate in Greek territory.
That was updated in 2019, giving the US access to three additional military spots and in 2021, the agreement was extended indefinitely, completely restructuring America’s presence in the region, the report added.
Greece is gaining the advantage in Washington, a role heightened during Pyatt’s six years as Ambassador before he’s due to leave this year, and he said Greeks noticed American interest in becoming closer – which helps keeps Russia at bay.
“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.”