The challenge facing Athens in 2028 is not the Los Angeles Olympics scheduled for that year; rather, a more foreboding deadline awaits. While the Republic of Turkey towers over the Hellenic Republic in population, land mass, GDP, and size of military manpower; a rough parity in naval, air, and armored vehicle forces exists between the traditional two foes. That rough parity – which hitherto has maintained the peace, could be coming to a crashing end with stealth aircraft Turkey targets for 2025 delivery. A mockup of this TF-X fighter was revealed at the 2019 Paris Air Show. Temel Kotil President and CEO of TAI vowed his plane would be real in 2023 with a first flight in 2024 and in service in 2028. Could a fleet of stealth fighters allow Ankara to achieve air superiority and then destroy any parity Athens enjoys in naval and land armored forces? Caution dictates Athens answer that question with a ‘yes’ and prepare to counter.
CHALLENGES FACED BY GREECE
Greece’s relationship with Turkey is already fraught with challenges: Turkish energy exploration in the Aegean; Islam resurgent under Erdogan; a burgeoning Turkish population (nearly 84 million at present); Erdogan having posed in front of a map showing much of the Aegean as Turkish territory; and Turkish violation of Greek Flight Information Region (FIR) responsibilities. No single Turkish provocation is life threatening for Greece but taken in their totality – include Erdogan’s vocal refutations of the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) – they spell existential danger for Greece. Having taken to dressing Turkish guards in Ottoman uniforms, Erdogan, enjoying great popularity, built the Ak Saray palace said to hold almost 1,000 rooms. While tempting to dismiss such developments as merely anecdotal, as symbols they add up to a more threatening Turkish stance. By themselves they would might not add up to much of a threat except recent Middle East developments seem to serve as a tinder box for a wider conflagration – witness Erdogan’s past provocations of Israel.
Some challenges facing Athens, however, are of Greece’s own making such as an economic crisis fueled by excessive debt that led to a 26 percent shrinking of its economy in per capita terms between 2007 and the start of 2014. A country facing a hostile neighbor such as Turkey allowed itself at its peril an economic debacle such as Greece has experienced.
Greece cannot chance Turkey’s stealth fighter-garnered superiority will not soon arrive. Turkey’s forty-six-year history of aircraft manufacturing began when Turkish Aircraft Industries Corporation was established in 1973. Eleven years later, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) was established to cooperate with F-16 production. While Turkey has an in-depth experience in military production, it probably will rely on outside technical expertise to pull off a domestically designed stealth fighter. That is the big question mark – will Ankara be able to contract with foreign firms to fill technical gaps in designing and manufacturing stealth fighters.
In contrast, Hellenic Aerospace Industry, founded by the Greek state in 1975, has no history of delivering entire aircraft save for co-producing the F-16. By purchasing stealth F-35s from the United States as is now under consideration, Greece may only blunt some of the advantage their TF-X would confer on Turkey.
CHALLENGES FACED BY TURKEY
Even a psychological profile of Erdogan gives cold comfort to anyone seeking an optimistic future for Greek-Turkish relations. Erdogan has never lived abroad, has no advanced educational credentials, and comes from a family with little sophistication. These observations, are not meant to belittle him, rather, they point to an individual with little broad experience or knowledge of the world outside Turkey’s borders. Eventually dictators or dictators in the making will gradually increase their powers, garner a string of successes until they launch a foreign adventure that may or not bring them success.
Erdogan – or another Islamist successor – has been stoking Turkish resentment at what he calls having “lost” the Aegean Islands to Greece under the Treaty of Lausanne. He may feel pressured to deliver the goods for his people in the matter of the contiguous islands. A vast Presidential palace, Ottoman uniforms, and allowing head scarfs in universities will eventually not suffice to slake a thirst for national triumphs Erdogan has stoked. More recent challenges Turkey faces that could make Ankara lash out against Greece include 3.6 million Syrian refugees (while fellow Muslims, they are Arabs, not Turkic people) living within its borders. Feeling threatened by Kurds both within Turkey’s borders and without could spark Ankara to light a military conflagration with Greece in a misguided attempt to curry domestic favor.
THE SEARCH FOR A PROTECTOR – A HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
Finding a foreign protector has been the core challenge and debate in Greece since the founding of the modern Greek state. During the reign of King Otto, Greek political life was shaped by the English, French, and Russian parties. These parties were distinguished by which outside power Greek elites believed Greece should choose as an ally to best suit Greek national interests. Even domestic politics in Greece have been shaped by patron-client paradigm that exists to this day.
WWI again saw a split in Greek political culture as its Royalist-Venizelist split echoed the question of which side to take in the Great War. Athens surely does recall Britain and the United States did infiltrate combatants to assist in a guerilla war against Nazi occupation. In a sense the Greek civil war of 1945-1949 similarly was a battle between those who favored an alliance with the West versus those who saw ties with the East (the Soviet Union) as best serving Greek interests. U.S. assistance in the form of military aid (Truman Doctrine) and the Marshall Plan helped turn the tide in Greece in favor of the West and somewhat settled this dispute for a time until many in Greece came to resent Washington for its perceived support of the Junta that took power in 1967..
So, it would seem the path of allying with an outside power is a well-worn path for modern Greece. But not so fast. With the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922, relying on assurances by outside powers – the WWI allies – resulted in a military disaster. A constant in Greek public opinion is its recollection of hung Greek leaders’ of the 1921 debacle. Leaders in Athens understand Greece is unlikely to receive outside help – witness the sinking of the Greek destroyer Elli on August 15 1940 and Greek resistance to Mussolini’s overland invasion met by the famous “OXI” (No!) of Metaxas. No other nation came to Greece’s rescue then nor did any state come to the rescue of the Greeks in Cyprus when Turkey invaded.
If it cannot take a lesson from a wider historical record that small nations must align themselves with stronger protectors, Athens need only take a cue from the Republic of Cyprus – an ethnically Greek state that chose a policy of non-alignment. Many foreign policy analysts may be too young to recall the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which Nicosia saw as its natural home. Results are plain for all to see – an illegal Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus since 1974 that non-aligned Nicosia was hopeless to oppose without a strong military ally. A recent movie propounds the Greek Cypriot point of view but will have little effect in dislodging Turkish troops from the North.
What about NATO? NATO has failed in the past to check Turkish aggressive actions against Greece and reports are that NATO does not take sides in Turkish provocations regarding FIR violations. Greece needs more than NATO membership to assure itself of protection against a resurgent Turkey who also is a NATO member. Witness the US-UK relationship: both are NATO members but the special relationship – a term first used by Winston Churchill in a 1946 speech – does not flow out of the mutual membership. The cornerstone of this relationship is intelligence sharing which marks it as different from just a NATO-based relationship. The United States and Britain have supported each other in many military challenges with boots on the ground.
A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THE U.S.
During the Korean War Greece was the fifth largest contributor of troops to UN Forces in Korea. Is it time for Greece to replicate such support for the United States? How can this be done? Greece – unless it wants to try its luck with the Russians – must try to emulate the relationship the United States shares with the UK. Easier said than done – indeed, its is perhaps impossible to replicate. Seems Athens has little choice than to try, however.
The clock is ticking for Greece with a significant milestone being 2028 when Turkey claims it will have a fleet of stealth aircraft operational. Even were Greece to obtain F-35s – a dicey proposition due to costs – Athens must find a special protector with the United States probably the only suitable candidate to fill this role.
Any special relationship with Washington will come at a price – Greece must send ground troops in support of U.S. actions in conflicts around the world where American ground forces are committed to evince a strong solidary with the United States. And by ground troops, this commentator means fighting men, not just logistical or other technical support. Doubtless an easier path will be sought – naval cooperation and Greek-American lobbying being the low hanging fruit that will deliver little value. There is little chance Greek-American influence can spark this special relationship – the apex of the long arc of Greek-American influence in Washington is likely long past. Other interest groups have since displaced Greek-Americans from the table of public policy.
Though anti-Americanism has beat a retreat in Greece, chances are modest that Athens will overcome Greek public wariness of further entanglement with the United States. Greek public opinion is shaped by schools teaching the debacle of the Greco-Turkish War (1919–1922) and its aftermath; the Dekemvriana Events by which British troops disarmed leftist Greek forces in December 1944 (some of whose members had wished the Greek Civil War had gone the other way); resentments over perceived U.S. backing of the 1967-1974 Junta; further resentments about perceptions of U.S. inaction to counter Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus; and perhaps even resentment that Greece’s economic woes were not of their own making.
Not to be overlooked is the applicability here of the old chestnut – “what have you done for me lately?” and its corollary of a lack of appreciation for the historical record. Yes, Greece was on the allied side in both WWI and WWII, not to mention the Cold War – contrast that with Turkey being on the wrong side so to speak in WWI and being neutral in WWII save for its last few weeks. Yet, U.S. policy makers will ask “what have you done for me lately” as it reflects two foundational pillars of human nature and hence foreign affairs – short memories and fleeting gratitude.
Nicholas Kalis holds a Master’s of International Affairs from what is today Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a JD from Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University