In Ukraine, Greece cast aside years of caution – and angered Greeks – POLITICO

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ATHENS – Greece goes all-in on the West – and the Greeks are chocking with dissatisfaction.

After Russian troops invaded Ukraine in late February, Greece was among the first EU countries to announce it would send weapons to Kyiv to help it repel the invaders. It came a day after Russian airstrikes killed at least 10 ethnic Greeks in Ukraine, members of a historic 18th-century community of 150,000.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis appeared before Parliament and declared that his government was fully committed to this.

“There can be no equal distances,” he said. “Either you are for peace and international law or against it.”

While the supplies – mostly rifles and anti-tank missiles – were hardly enough to change the balance of the war, they were quite symbolic at home. Within days, Mitsotakis had dramatically turned Greece’s longstanding reluctance to get involved in foreign conflicts on its head. And his move stood out in a region where other countries have gone the other way, trying to act as a facilitator rather than an arms supplier.

While the current Greek government has drawn militarily closer to the US and Western allies in recent years, the arms supply zeal still seemed a step too far for some.

Large parts of the population reacted in surprise – given the centuries-old religious, military, economic and cultural ties between the two countries, Russophile feelings remain in parts of Greece. And the political opposition also condemned the approach, arguing it jeopardized Greece’s ability to maintain stable relations with the diverse countries around it.

In a poll released Around 70 percent of Greeks described the decision on Monday as a mistake. In another poll, 63 percent called The decision could prove dangerous for Greece.

The backlash can have an impact. Last week, Greece rejected an informal request from Ukraine for Soviet-era TOR-Μ1 and Osa-AK missile systems, government officials said. An official said no further arms shipments are expected from Greece.

new lesson

Greek society is not used to such direct military interventions abroad.

Even during the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which brought conflict to Greece’s neighborhood, Athens only allowed its country to transfer NATO systems and took a cautious stance on providing direct military assistance.

Similarly, during the war in Afghanistan, the Greek armed forces only helped build infrastructure and distribute humanitarian aid. They have never been involved in front-line operations against the Taliban.

Greek society also has historical ties to Russia, another Orthodox Christian nation that helped Greeks fight Ottoman rule in 1821. More recently, Moscow has been seen as a protector in Greece’s longstanding rivalry with neighboring Turkey.

Mitsotakis met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in December, and Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias was among the last to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, just days before the invasion.

However, the Greek mantra changed during this time.

“Greece”, Mitsotakis explained in the Greek Parliament, “is the last outpost of the West”.

Constantinos Filis, director of the Institute of Global Affairs and professor of international relations at the American College of Greece, described the move as “two possibilities”.

First, Greece has decided “that it cannot rely on the EU and NATO to protect itself from Turkey” – it also needs bilateral military agreements to strengthen its own capacities. Second, he added: “Greece, under the current government, has decided to get more involved and put its hand in the fire, even if its boots are on the ground.”

On the first point, Greece signed a major defense deal last September, which included commitments by Athens to purchase French warships worth at least €3 billion and a mutual defense assistance clause. The conservative Greek government has also renewed a defense deal with the US that gives American forces unlimited access to four key military bases, frustrating Russia.

Elsewhere, it backed Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen’s civil war, sending in Greek soldiers and Patriot missiles last year.

At home, Greece has argued it needs to strengthen its military amid rising tensions with Turkey in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean.

Analysts noted that Greece’s increased willingness to help abroad may help it at home. Not only does it let troops gain experience in conflict, but it also gives Athens more credit for asking others for military help.

Mitsotakis made the same argument after sending arms to Ukraine. Apart from the fact that the decision is “morally just”, it also benefits Greece’s national interests.

“With what moral standing would we ask for similar help if we were in the same position?” he said in a recent interview. “We have another reason to be on the right side of history compared to other European countries,” he added, clearly referencing Greece’s strained relationship with Turkey.

Demolition of the Greek Bridge

Not everyone sees it that way.

Opponents counter that the delivery of military equipment to Kyiv automatically positions Greece directly against Russia, without at the same time securing Western guarantees towards Turkey. Despite the government’s decision, Greece cannot rely on the United States or NATO to counter Turkish aggression. They point to the policy of equality NATO has adopted in several crises between Greece and Turkey, including the most recent one in 2020.

The feeling is widespread. In a poll conducted after the Russian invasion, 71 percent sentenced of the invasion, but 65 percent said Greece should remain completely neutral. And in a POLITICO poll, 60 percent of Greeks agreed that the Russian invasion was unacceptable, the lowest among the six countries polled.

Given this dynamic, the government’s decision “was not taken lightly,” said Emmanuel Karagiannis, an international security expert at King’s College London.

Several factors fueled Greece’s turn to Russia, he said: the EU’s quick response to the Russian invasion, Russian bombings that were killing ethnic Greeks, and a broader desire to signal Turkey that its territorial claims will not be tolerated .

But, he added, “as a result, Russian-Greek relations have hit a new low with unknown consequences for regional security.”

Other Eastern Mediterranean countries have attempted to maintain loyalty to the West while keeping a door open to Russia. Putin has taken advantage of this during his tenure, establishing a larger Russian presence in the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Turkey and Israel have played the role of mediator. Turkey is the only NATO member not to join Western sanctions. Israel also refused. Both have attempted to broker talks between the two sides.

Inside Greece, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the main opposition party Syriza, was quick to condemn the Russian invasion and backed tough sanctions on Moscow and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. But he said that by providing arms, Greece had effectively given up its ability to be part of efforts to bring peace between Ukraine and Russia.

“The subversion of the old doctrine … that Greece has a political homeland in Europe but also wants to play a bridging role with the other political powers, and replacing it with the Cold War mantra that ‘Greece is a Western outpost’ does us no good country,” said George Katrougalos, Syriza MP and former foreign minister.

Katrougalos argued that Greece’s “maximalism” has not brought any advantages over Western allies. He pointed to a recent US decision to withdraw support for the East Med gas pipeline, a €6 billion project that could have brought revenue to Greece, after disputes arose over whether the pipeline would go through Turkey would run.

“Our country benefits when it pursues a multidimensional foreign policy and not when it is taken for granted in non-reciprocal relations,” Katrougalos said.

Several senior retired army officers have also gone on television in Greece to vehemently oppose Greek arms sales to Ukraine. “Harmful, unnecessary and silly,” said one.

Even a senior defense official sent the signal that sending S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Ukraine could “weaken the country’s defense”.

“Greece must pursue a multidimensional foreign policy and act as a bridge between politicians and states,” said Filis, a professor at the American College of Greece. “It cannot close its door on China, Russia and other emerging powers.”

However, with the increasing bipolarity of the global order, such a balancing act only becomes more difficult. In Ukraine, Greece cast aside years of caution - and angered Greeks - POLITICO

Fry Electronics Team

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