Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias traveled to Washington October 13-14 to participate in a scheduled session of the US-Greece Strategic Dialogue, where he met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other senior US Government leaders and reviewed ongoing regional concerns. That otherwise routine and unexciting discussion, similar to those that Washington holds with many other countries in the “strategic dialogue” format, was dressed up this year (Round #3) with the signing of a new US-Greece defense agreement, formally amending previous bilateral arrangements and extending the duration by five years, which was designed to further upgrade the outstanding defense cooperation both countries have shared for years.
A separate letter from Secretary of State Blinken, released after the signing, further warmed the bilateral atmosphere as it included language which the Mitsotakis government is now confidently representing as a form of US guarantee of Greece’s sovereignty over the Aegean islands and territorial waters, in accordance with the UN Law of the Sea Convention, something that Turkey aggressively disputes.
Defense relationship already top tier, little to improve
Because the bilateral military-to-military relationship was already outstanding for so long, it was not easy for both sides to find significant areas for improvement and the document signed October 14 should be considered as part of an updating and modernization process, not an actual functional upgrade as some in Athens are portraying it.
The new US-Greece agreement — actually an amendment to the U.S.-Greece Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) — expands on the one signed in Athens two years ago by then-Secretary Mike Pompeo and is said to give the United States increased access to two bases in central Greece and one at Alexandroupolis, near the Greek-Turkish border. None of these would constitute new US deployments, and most of the US presence in the region occurs on a rotational basis, such as use of Greek training facilities in the winter when US bases in northern Europe reduce operations.
Separate and above the operations in northern Greece, the permanent US naval base at Souda Bay Crete is actually the key to the defense relationship and the US and NATO’s force projection capability across the region. The amendments signed in 2019 and this week are intended to assure the US Congress that the long-term nature of the defense relationship will continue uninterrupted so that substantial funding for important base upgrades and other programs may be safely appropriated.
There is some confusion over whether the latest agreement formally provides for the so-called “indefinite” US presence in Greece, as this was claimed to be the case in the 2019 MDCA amendment. It is clear however that the new amendments remove some older restrictions that may have existed on US access, increasing flexibility for both sides.
In a separate Blinken-Dendias meeting the same day, the State Department saw fit to reveal that Blinken had thanked Dendias “for the constructive role Greece has played in supporting regional integration in the Western Balkans,” a signal to the disappointed EU accession candidates of Albania and North Macedonia that last week’s lackluster Brdo EU Summit outcome was something Washington had not forgotten. That same point was also highlighted in a separate joint declaration issued after Blinken met with EU High Representative Josep Borrell on October 14 in a different context.
Over-inflation is normal
Again this year, the Greek side is continuing its standard practice of over-inflating the importance of new bilateral agreements with the US at every possible occasion, sometimes done to assist in the domestic ratification processes but not needed this year in view of the current government’s parliamentary majority. The ratification vote should be scheduled within the next two weeks. And as usual, most opposition parties are working hard to dig up “problems” with the agreement, some noting that it does not provide true security guarantees against Turkey in exchange for Athens’ agreeing to an almost “indefinite presence” of US forces in Greece, which most believed had been approved in the previous agreement signed in October 2019.
For the majority of the Greek population, the updated agreement that FM Dendias just signed will be seen as a vastly improved defensive link to Washington in case of trouble with Turkey, Greece’s primary potential opponent, as well as an American “vote of confidence” in Greece as a trusted ally and pole of regional stability. Greek media sources can only quote local government officials, not the US Pentagon, about the alleged US interest in a longer-term presence since current US strategy currently relies on short-term troop rotations instead of permanent bases. Washington has turned down multiple offers from the Greek side over the years to station units on Aegean islands near Turkey, but Greek officials continue to claim the US has been “highly interested” in such deployments.
Taken together with the Mitsotakis government’s recent and somewhat controversial defense agreement with France, it can be argued that PM Mitsotakis has done more to improve Greece’s alliance network and its military capabilities than any leader in recent decades. That is not an insignificant accomplishment but needs to seen in the context of a potential arms race with Turkey, something neither country can afford. Nor should Russia’s more aggressive naval diplomacy, focusing for now on the waters around Syria, be written off.