After attending the Munich Security Conference on February on 17-19, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken departed for a brief regional mission to Turkey and Greece, scheduled well in advance and leaked to the media. This caused Blinken to miss the historic visit of US President Joe Biden to Kyiv February 20.
This regional tour was Blinken’s first visit to Turkey and Greece since taking office in February 2021.
Turkey visit covers important regional developments
The Turkey segment of the Blinken trip, spanning February 19-20, was by far the most significant stop of his brief diplomatic mission, giving him an opportunity to underscore substantial US support as Turkey struggles with disaster recovery operations after the devastating February 6 earthquake and continuing aftershocks. That support could possibly translate into progress on a number of regional issues where Turkey’s role is central and has been unhelpful up to the present. A number of observers also note that US support for Turkey’s earthquake recovery was presented to the Turkish public as part of a major relief effort that would be continuing after Turkey’s May 14 elections (if held on the current schedule).
Arriving at the Incirlik Airbase close to Adana, Blinken toured the main earthquake zone, Hatay province, by air, and met with US relief teams, and arrived later in Ankara to dedicate the new US Embassy compound as well as meet with Turkish leaders. Blinken announced an additional $100 million in earthquake relief aid for the region, including Syria, on top of the initial pledge of $85 million for the region announced by President Biden, which included search and rescue teams.
It is really all about the jets
In Ankara February 20, Blinken had meetings with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Key items discussed were Ankara’s request for new 40 F-16s as well as 80 upgrade kits for its domestically built F-16 fighters, a deal worth about $20 billion, as well as Turkey’s decision to block or postpone the admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO, which requires unanimous ratification by the NATO countries’ legislatures. Turkey and Hungary remain the last two holdouts.
Blinken reiterated the Biden administration’s plans to announce the F-16 sale to the US Congress, which under US law must approve the sale. Resistance in Congress remains strong due to Turkey’s current problematic position on NATO expansion and continued aggressive patrols with its existing F-16s in the Aegean, sometimes actually overflying Greek islands.
The assumption of most analysts is that ultimately Turkey will approve NATO expansion to include Sweden and Finland, but only if guaranteed that the jet sale will proceed. Unfortunately for Ankara, support for Greece is currently very strong in Washington, especially in the democratically controlled Senate.
In Ankara, Blinken argued the F-16 sale made strategic sense. “This is very important for ongoing NATO interoperability and in the national security of the United States,” he said.
The US retains the leverage needed to force Turkey to ratchet down its Aegean overflights if the sale proceeds but does not demand this outright, but instead presses for the reduction of bilateral tensions in the Aegean through Greek-Turkish dialogue.
The new element in the equation at this point is Washington’s ability to impose new conditionality on Turkey’s surging defense expenditures as a pre-requisite for bilateral earthquake reconstruction support as well as support for Turkey’s reconstruction assistance in international financial institutions. Much will depend on the outcome of Turkey’s spring elections.
Continuing US-Turkey friction over Ankara’s refusal to implement sanctions against Russia did not spill over into public pronouncements related to the visit.
Events elsewhere turned the Greece leg into a sideshow
There are times when the best laid plans for a diplomatic visit come to naught, and Blinken’s February 20-21 Greece stop was unfortunately one of those. In this case it became a simple pro forma introductory visit with the rationale of the fourth annual US-Greece Strategic Dialogue being held this year in Athens, basically a bureaucratic housekeeping assignment designed to review the full range of bilateral relations. Due to the Biden Kyiv and Warsaw visits going on at the same time, all global attention was shifted elsewhere (most likely including Secretary Blinken’s). The exception to this was of course inside Greece, where the pro-government media largely spun the Blinken stopover as irrefutable proof of Greece’s growing global influence. Unfortunately, nobody abroad was listening.
Despite the finely crafted Secretarial remarks and well-honed talking points regarding the outstanding level of bilateral cooperation, Blinken’s Athens stop became essentially a check the box exercise, since attention was necessarily focused elsewhere.
For background, the so-called “Strategic Dialogue” mechanism was established by Washington in order to guarantee that at least once a year key US allies and partners would have high level access to the Secretary of State and other senior US officials to manage growing bilateral relationships. Like all bureaucratic creations, the number of such Strategic Dialogues and Strategic Partnerships has grown steadily.
In Greece however both the US Embassy and Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs attempt, by omission of any mention of other US Strategic Dialogues and/or Partnerships, to portray the US-Greece Strategic Dialogue as a completely unique diplomatic mechanism that exists nowhere else, thereby further elevating the bilateral relationship for the local media. In fact, the US held Strategic Dialogues with Slovenia and Oman in the same week that Secretary Blinken visited Greece.
Alongside the required bureaucratic function at the Strategic Dialogue meeting, Blinken met separately with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitostakis who also hosted a welcome dinner.
Additional separate meetings were held with Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and main opposition leader Alexis Tsipras, a tradition maintained for almost all high-level US visits.
Coordination of efforts on Turkish earthquake relief was high on the agenda during this visit, along with Greece’s emerging role as an energy hub, as were discussions about the removal of existing Russian weapons systems from the Greek arsenal. While understood to be a reliable US ally that is doing practically everything else possible to assist Kyiv, Athens will not make any of its aging Russian S-300 missiles, theoretically used for the air defense of Crete, available to Ukraine without immediate replacements being available.
While in Athens, Blinken also found time to meet with US Embassy staff and dedicate a segment of the almost-complete Chancery building renovation project.
A small subset of Blinken’s traveling delegation made a side trip to temporary US military facilities in Larissa and the Alexandropoulis port, probably indicating that somebody had at least tried to convince the Secretary to stop at one of these strategic points linked to US efforts to provide military support for Ukraine.
Although Blinken’s highly supportive Greek hosts consider the brief visit a major success, some negative commentary was heard that the Secretary of State had reverted to the longstanding US historical pattern of visiting both Greece and Turkey together, something former Secretary Mike Pompeo steadfastly refused to consider while pressing to improve Greece-US relations.