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U.S., NATO fear Greek fifth column to aid Russia

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In the midst of bitter bailout negotiations between Greece and Europe, warnings proliferated of a possible Greek fifth column. The European Union and even NATO would collapse should Athens turn toward Russia. It is one of the stranger paranoid fantasies driving U.S. foreign policy.

For five years Athens has been arguing with its European neighbors over debts and reform. The issue doesn’t much concern the United States. A European economic crisis would be bad for America, but Grexit is not likely to set off such a cataclysm.

Nevertheless, some analysts speculated that Athens might fall out of the European Union and NATO as well as the eurozone, resulting in geopolitical catastrophe. Thus, the U.S. should insist that Europe pay off Greece. Despite an apparent bailout agreement, another crisis seems inevitable, in which case the specter of a Greek Trojan Horse likely will reemerge.

This fear betrays an overactive imagination. “You do not want Europe to have to deal with a Greece that is a member of NATO but which all of a sudden hates the West and is cozying up to Russia,” warned Sebastian Mallaby of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Worse, Athens might leave the trans-Atlantic alliance. Warned Robert D. Kaplan of the Center for a New American Security: “Europe will be increasingly vulnerable to Russian aggression if its links to Greece are substantially loosened.”

It sounds like the Cold War redux.

In fact, this all appears to be a grand bluff. To start, Russia poses little threat to Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin is an unpleasant authoritarian, but he is no Hitler or Stalin. Rather, he has taken Russia back to a pre-1914 Great Power, concerned about international respect and border security.

While Moscow has ignored human rights and international law, so far its aggressive interventions have reflected traditional Russian security concerns and, like NATO’s unprovoked attack on Yugoslavia, have been limited in scope. Nothing suggests that Putin has lost his mind and hopes to rule over territory filled with non-Russians, let alone Europeans.

George Petrolekas of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute noted that the “Aegean islands control approaches to the Bosporus and the island of Crete has long been important as refueling facility for NATO fleets at Souda Bay, and its airfields used to support NATO operations in Libya.”

Useful, yes. Vital, no. After all, the Mediterranean is essentially a NATO lake and the Libya intervention was folly. Despite such fevered speculations, Greece is not geopolitically critical for America.

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev raised another issue, complaining that “Russia uses every opportunity to divide and weaken the European Union.” Beyond a couple of friendly meetings, however, little has come from the supposed Athens-Moscow axis. So far Moscow has provided no financial aid. One suspects that Moscow prefers Greece to remain Europe’s problem.

“There is fundamental value to Europe in having Greece as part of its orbit,” argued James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, but the reverse also is true. Irrespective of the debt negotiations and eurozone membership, Greece will continue to have much at stake with Europe.

Greeks are relatively less enthused about America and more favorable toward Russia, but Washington and Brussels have consistently ignored Athens’ interests when making Balkan policy. Nevertheless, Greece has remained with the West.

Moreover, the Tsipras government did not obstruct continuation of sanctions against Russia in January, shortly after taking power, or in June. Athens has consistently affirmed its participation in Europe.

Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, head of Syriza’s small coalition partner, threatened: “If Europe leaves us in the crisis, we will flood it with immigrants, and it will be even worse for Berlin if in that wave of millions of economic immigrants there will be some jihadists of the Islamic State, too.” However, the Syriza government would not want to open its border to jihadists, especially with the demagogic, far-right Golden Dawn party ready to take political advantage.

Athens has criticized sanctions against Russia. However, Greece is not alone in taking this position. Obviously the penalties have failed to reverse Russian policy in Ukraine. Best would be to use sanctions repeal to negotiate a compromise deal. Such an approach would be entirely consistent with Greece remaining part of the West.

The Greek saga is far from over. The paranoid panic that Greece’s economic problems could destroy Europe’s and America’s geopolitical standing should generate a mix of scorn and laughter.

Washington should calm down, leaving the Greeks and other Europeans alone to solve their problems. Greece subsidized or not, in the eurozone or out, really isn’t America’s business.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington who writes regularly on military non-interventionism. He is the author of several books.

  • andreas_1988

    Whilst the loss of Greece from the EU and/or NATO may not have much of an immediate geopolitical impact, a few factors make it a very dangerous move.
    1) The American and European mentalities, thought-processes and global perceptions that would be required in order to let Greece go so easily, would be one ones of indifference and not caring. With that attitude, there is nothing stopping other countries that come up with financial difficulties from falling out of love with Europe and NATO. And let’s be frank, the Eurozone as it stands has a fundamentally flawed structure, and without fixing its flaws, it won’t be long before other countries do come into financial difficulties. When the next global recession hits, the Eurozone structural flaws would be highlighted once again, with weaker countries hitting massive financial difficulties. Europe can’t rely on Grexit being so disastrous for Greece that it would scare every other EZ country out of even contemplating regaining a national currency. Many economists suggest that Greece would be better off outside of the Euro! Some solidarity by the US, in pushing for the Eurozone to cut Greece some slack, would go a long way in both immediate financial relief for Greece, as well as gains in loyalty.
    2) Greece leaving the EU and NATO might only be an inconvenience to NATO, but an isolated Greece joining a Russian led block, and hosting military bases for Russia, would be an absolute disaster for NATO, effectively locking it out of large swathes of the eastern mediterranean and considerable access to the middle east. EU/NATO can’t rely on Turkey and a couple of British bases in Cyprus to make up for the loss. Firstly, Turkey is having its own political crisis at the moment, and the West is having doubts about its commitments to NATO. Secondly, Turkish NATO strength and British strength in Cyprus is drastically bolstered by having the unrestricted access to the entirety of the mediterranean. Some anti-aircraft systems and naval bases in Crete would be a massive problem for both Turkey and Britain. And then there’s Israel and Egypt. The chew Greece up and her out attitude would make Israel and Egypt far more cautious about its dealings with NATO and the EU, and would push them to taking far more independent foreign policy decisions, adding to further instability in the near east. There’s a very good reason why America and Britain bombed Greece and supported the Royalists against the communists after the second world war. A communist Greece would have severely weakened NATOs strength. And that was when Cyprus was entirely British and Turkey firmly in the NATO camp. The same rules apply today – there may not be a risk of Greece becoming communist, but the risk of Greece favouring Russia in its foreign policy would severely weaken western strength against a growing Russia. Sure, Russia isn’t likely to invade Europe. As you said, Putin is no Hitler or Stalin, but it’s the 21st century, and wars are asymmetrical these days and fought by proxy. Greece in the Russian camp weakens the west, and strengthens Russia, altering the status quo, increasing instability.
    #3) Perhaps the only reason there hasn’t been a war between Greece and Turkey over the last 40 years (if you count 1974 as a war between Greece and Turkey, which, btw, it really wasn’t), is because both countries are in NATO. There has recently been a massive increase in Turkish fighter jet incursions into airspace claimed by Greece, resulting in many aerial dogfights. Sure, no weapons have been fired, they are dogfights that haven’t turned hot, but they are armed dogfights. The possibility of oil and gas being found in Greek territorial waters could only increase instability between Greece and Turkey. Greece outside of the EU and NATO with such instabilities would almost certainly result in one of those dogfights turning hot, and who knows what would happen after that. Sure, Turkey has a much larger military than Greece, and sustained conflict between Greece and Turkey would likely result in Turkey winning. But Greek military strength isn’t designed or intended to beat Turkey. It is designed to make the losses on Turkey so severe and so destructive, that Turkey would think again about going in an all out war with Greece. A war with Greece would weaken Turkey so much that the PKK would have a field-day, especially if there was some Russian meddling, and Turkey would quite possibly lose its south east to a new Kurdish state. Then Turkey really wouldn’t be a very useful state to NATO. So, Greece needs to remain in NATO, to prevent escalating conflict with Turkey. They come close to conflict even within NATO. What happens if oil/gas is discovered? What happens if its discovered with Greece outside of NATO?
    4) Conflict or instability in Greece would be a major problem to the balkans in general. It really has not been long since bombing raids were being flown over former Yugoslavia. One of the things keeping the peace in the region is the promise of eventual EU integration. A Greece that has been chewed up and spat out will make many of the remaining non-EU balkan countries very sceptical about joining. A Greece which has typically been a bastion of stability in a trouble Balkans and middle east, within Russia’s arms, would be very bad for Balkan and middle eastern stability. There is very little appetite in the west for massive military involvement in either of the two regions, and it’s best that there is stability and no war, than instability and war.

    Europe really can’t look after itself just yet. America has been holding Europe’s hand since the second world war, and still is. America is desperate for Britain to remain in the EU, in part because it needs Britain to bash some French and German heads together to ensure that Europe can start handling its own affairs. But with Britain threatening to leave the EU, and European unity in question, Europe and Greece, really is America’s problem.

    This really is quite a short sighted article.