THESSALONIKI — As Greece and Turkey are set to talk seas boundaries for the Aegean and East Mediterranean, the United States has again reiterated its support for Athens at the same time President Donald Trump says Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is his friend and “a hell of a leader.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in Greece for talks with Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitostakis in a bid to reduce the tension with Turkey, said through a statement that Greece "is a critical partner with which the United States shares key strategic goals.”
The US considers Greece "a pillar of stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Western Balkans and a vital partner in bolstering security and prosperity in the region," the State Department document said.
That is another repeat of the same constant line that US rolls out, reiterated as well by US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt. The State Department added that, “We are committed to supporting Greece’s security, prosperity, and continued democracy," in carefully worded diplomatic language designed to say little and offend neither side.
After meeting Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city and major port on Sept. 28, the two side released a joint statement without talking to reporters, commonly done to avoid being asked tough questions.
The boilerplate statement repeated platitudes that the two countries are committed to boosting their bilateral relationship and tighten cooperation in a range of areas including defense and security, energy and trade.
That comes amid remaining anxiety about talks scheduled in Ankara – not Greece – over who has rights to the seas around Greek islands near Turkey's coast after Turkey, for now, pulled back the energy research vessel the Oruc Reis and warships from near the island of Kastellorizo.
Greece had sent naval ships there to shadow the Turkish ships and both sides conducted naval exercises, raising fears there could be a conflict over Turkey's plans to drill for oil and gas in or near
The European Union, which has been reluctant to confront Erdogan for fear he will unlesh on the block through Greece more refugees and migrants who went to his country fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands, is set for a showdown with him Oct. 1-2.
Mitsotakis has demanded meaningful sanctions if the talks don't produce an agreement but Germany, home to 2.774 million people of Turkish heritage, isn't supporting him.
And the US, while tweeting and handing out press releases backing Greece has also supported Turkey's claims that Greek waters are “disputed,” allowing Washington to play both sides against the middle at the same time.
Hours before his trip, Pompeo had a discussion on de-escalating the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg who until recently had refused to get involved although Greece and Turkey are both members of the defense alliance.
Tweeting afterward, Pompeo said he was “pleased” to discuss the issue with Stoltenberg and to “reiterate the importance of NATO Alliance unity,” as diplomats always say they are pleased with their meetings even if nothing is accomplished.
While willing to talk, Greece is building up its arsenal, planning to buy 18 French-made Rafale fighter jets and four multi-purpose frigates while older warplanes and fighting vessels will be upgraded, said Mitsotakis.
That's a 6.8-billion euro ($7.92 billion) plan that will also add new anti-tank weapons, torpedoes and missiles, recruiting 15,000 troops and adding more security to its cyber attack defenses which are also targets.
“The measures will be a great boost to our armed forces,” Retired Vice-Admiral Vasilios Martzoukos, who commanded destroyers and frigates while in service, told the British newspaper The Guardian. “And it will help act as a deterrent. The other side has to be convinced that you have the power, that you will use your armed forces if necessary,” he said.
Erdogan, who said a maritime deal Turkey signed with Libya dividing the seas – unrecognized by another country – gives Turkey the right to drill off Greek islands also has countered Mitsotakis' move with similar plans to add more weapons.
Turkey also bought S-400 missile defense systems from Russia, an ideological enemy of NATO, which could undermine the defense alliance and Erdogan is pressing the US to sell F-35 fighter jets that could be used against Greece.
Pompeo is the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Greece’s second-largest city of Thessaloniki. Security was tight in the port city, with the venue of Pompeo's meeting with Dendias changing from the originally planned location, a local ministry, to a hotel for security reasons, authorities said.
About the time Pompeo was due to fly to Crete, about 1,500 people gathered in Thessaloniki's center for two separate demonstrations to protest his visit, carrying signs reading “The hawk of war is not welcome in our country,” and “The murderers of the peoples are not welcome.” The protests were organized by left-wing groups and the Communist Party.
During his visit to Thessaloniki, Pompeo signed a bilateral science and technology agreement, and hosted energy sector business leaders for a discussion to highlight energy diversification and infrastructure projects in Greece.
He also joined members of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community to commemorate Yom Kippur at the local Jewish Museum, as police cordoned off a large section of the city center. No date has yet been set for the start of the Greek-Turkish exploratory talks.
(Material from AP was used in this report)