Greece goes shopping for new defence relationships

Greece goes shopping for new defence relationships
The new Belharra class frigate ordered by Greece. / NAVAL Group
By Gav Don November 21, 2021

Last month Greece signed a pair of new Defence and Security Agreements with the US and the UK, which mark the latest development in a larger Greek diplomatic coup over the course of the year.

The background to these new agreements (and earlier ones with Israel, France, Cyprus and Egypt, on which more in a moment) is naturally Athens’ long exclusive economic zone (EEZ) dispute with Turkey. To recap on that (discussed in detail in this channel here), Greece is trying to establish a claim over the Kastellorizo Triangle and all of the Aegean (both illegal under UNCLOS), while Turkey is trying to establish a claim over most of Cyprus’ EEZ (equally illegal under UNCLOS). Neither party can go to the International Court of Justice to establish the legitimate components of their claims for fear of losing illegitimate ones. That leaves Greece and Turkey contemplating military action, but hampered by a mutual membership of Nato, whose members would be obliged to help whichever side was attacked by the other.


Turkey is becoming semi-detached from Nato

Athens has, however, watched Ankara’s attitude to Nato with apprehension. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s nationalistic tendencies have combined with his feelings about being effectively dumped from EU accession talks and from the F35 fifth generation stealth fighter jet programme to persuade him to behave as if Turkey was no more than semi-attached to Nato. This found tangible expression in Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S400 air defence missile system – hardly Nato-standard equipment – and in Ankara’s belligerent approach to hydrocarbon exploration in waters south of Cyprus, and finally in Ankara’s informal alliance with extremist Sunni forces in Libya in opposition to the secular and West-favoured General Haftar. Ankara has quietly supplied shiploads of weapons and armoured vehicles to Tripoli, and agreed a (literally) Byzantine EEZ division cutting the Mediterranean in two. This latter bizarre plan (again, with no foundation in UNCLOS or customary international law) is designed to give Ankara and Tripoli the controlling hand over possible gas and power exports from Israel and Egypt to the EU.


Egypt a new Facebook Friend

Athens, for once thinking both clearly and ahead, began responding to Ankara’s new unilateralism by seeking a new set of defence agreements to encircle Turkey with an arc of opposition. The first tangible results of the new diplomacy came in April 2021, when Greece and Egypt, with Cyprus in tow as junior partner, signed a Trilateral Military Cooperation Programme. The new agreement falls well short of an alliance – being merely a programme for joint training of the signatories’ forces, but it was followed in June by a Cooperation Agreement between Greece and Egypt. Both parties have been busy. Last month 16 aircraft of the two air forces exercised attack and defence operations from Souda Bay in Crete, while also signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for a 2,000-MW connector to bring cheap Egyptian power to Greece. The Egyptian Air Force visit is, by the way, not the first time Middle Eastern aircraft have been based at Souda. Greece has hosted both Saudi F15s and UAE F16s over the past year.

How cheap is that power? Very. Egypt has already commissioned the first stages of a large (rising to 1,800 MW) solar park at Aswan which reportedly produces power at a cost of around $20 per MWh. Egypt also has a portfolio of modern CCGT gas plant built by Siemens which generates power at only ten dollars above that level. If it were connected to a high-value market Egypt’s solar export potential is quite simply enormous.


And Israel comes to the party

Almost simultaneously with the Egypt deal, Greece signed another co-operation deal, this time with Israel. The core of this deal is the sale of flight training services (simulators, aircraft and aircraft upgrades) by Israeli defence company Elbit to Athens for $1.6bn over 22 years. The deal is not just about flight training. A month beforehand Israel and Greece conducted an anti-submarine warfare exercise off Cyprus, joined by ships from the US and France, and in July this year the two Chiefs of Defence Staff met to explore how the relationship could be deepened.


New French frigates add France to the team

With its Eastern relationships bolstered and actively practising for conflict together Athens has turned west. In September 2021 Athens signed a Defence and Security Strategic Partnership in Paris, alongside a contract for three new frigates from NAVAL Group. The frigate contract is for three 4,500-tonne ships, priced at GBP1.5bn ($2.02bn) per ship. NAVAL seems to be consistently able to add large margins to its warship projects – the UK’s Royal Navy paid a third less per ship for its six air defence destroyers, each twice the size of the Belharras – but the deal also contains a commitment from France to provide defence assistance in the case of an attack by a third party (naturally, Turkey) and an agreement to co-operate in defence and foreign policy. While the new ships are being built the deal adds a loan of two obsolete French navy frigates (commissioned in 1988 and 1990), and some modernisations to four existing Greek Meko-class frigates.

The France deal is a significant step beyond normal Nato obligations under Article 5 of the Nato treaty (the mutual defence clause), since it takes military assistance outside Nato’s decision-making structure, in which Turkey and any friends of Turkey might succeed in “throwing smoke”. Ankara may now have to calculate that if it moves from jostling to violence in the Eastern Mediterranean it might to see the large and effective French Navy helping Greece.


But is Greece a small pawn in a bigger French play?

Or it might not. France has no dog in the Eastern Mediterranean fight. It is more than possible that the “military assistance” clause was a price Paris was willing to pay to win the very considerable financial margin built into the frigate deal (at least GBP3bn ($4.03bn) of clear profit). It may also be the case that Paris is using its deal with Athens as a catalyst towards the creation of a European Defence Force, under French leadership naturally. If either is true Athens may find that military assistance is less forthcoming than it expects. Only a few weeks ago a French-owned (but Malta registered) survey ship, Nautical Geo, was hustled off-task in waters east of Crete by the Turkish Navy while she was mapping the possible route for an East Med gas pipeline.

Another question worth begging is to ask why Athens did not seek a similar or better agreement with the United Kingdom. A partial answer is that it has, with the signing in London last month of a new UK-Greece Strategic Bilateral Framework. No details have been announced, probably because there are none to announce, since the Agreement appears to be simply an agreement to agree various matters in the future. However, Athens probably felt it was better to have some sort of symbolic signing to signify the UK’s strategic friendship with Greece to Ankara than to have nothing at all. At least the memorandum signifies that Athens does not wish to isolate the UK post-Brexit. The latter is hardly surprising, given the wide antipathy among Greeks towards the European Union. The memorandum might well be seen in Athens as much as a flip-off to the European Commission as to Ankara.


30-year US defence deal extended and enlarged

To round off his global deal-shopping spree Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias visited Washington in mid-October to sign a five-year update of the 30-year-old US/Greece Mutual Defence Co-operation Agreement. The update adds four new US base locations in Greece, whose centre of gravity is aimed more at reinforcing Bulgaria and Romania and facing off Russia than at deterring the use of force by Turkey. At least one veteran Greek politician also drew attention to this ambiguity: ex-foreign minister Nikos Kotzias went on the record a week later to warn Greece that it risks being dragged into a US/Russia conflict because US assets aimed at Russia would be operating from Greek territory. Mr Kotzias pulled no punches, saying: “are the Americans creating bases to strike the Turks alongside (Greece), or to prevent Turkey from inflicting insidious blows? No, they mean Russia.".

Significantly, the MDCA extension had little to say about naval co-operation or the protection of Greek EEZ claims against Turkey, and it seems questionable that the US Navy would use force to, for example, protect European or US drillships working off Cyprus, or to force Turkey’s survey ships Oruc Reis or Yavuz off-task in contested waters.


But, so far, hands across the sea but no warships on the sea

While Athens has now successfully assembled a powerful coalition of friends to oppose Turkey’s plans for its Blue Homeland EEZ border plan, the question remains of how far that coalition will go to help Greece enforce its own EEZ wishes. If Ankara fires first, then the decision will be easier than if Athens does. The acid test (which may never arrive) is likely to be a situation in which one side or the other uses armed force at sea to board, or damage, hydrocarbon exploration ships operated by the other in contested waters. In the handful of precedent cases Greece, Cyprus and its friends have given way to Turkish pressure at sea. There is no case we know of in which survey or drill ships operated by the new allies have been given a robust naval escort. Without sight of the Rules of Engagement now in force within ships and aircraft of the new allied states it is not possible to predict the outcome of the next stage of geopolitical “shoving”. Ankara might well be pausing to consider just how much “shoving” it can afford to use, but until its opponents protect their activities with a close escort of warships the new defence deals will amount to just so much paper.

Gav Don is a commentator and analyst specialising in energy and defence issues. He is the former owner of Newsbase, now a sister publication of bne IntelliNews.