USA and Russia fight for a key Greek port for Western strategy in Ukraine | International
Until recently, it was rare who outside the borders of Greece or neighboring countries could locate Alexandroupoli on a map. This quiet city houses the port from which to embark for the island of Samothrace in summer. In recent years, however, it has grown in strategic importance as Washington strengthened military ties with Athens to the detriment of its longtime ally Turkey, which is increasingly distrusted by Western leaders. And now that Alexandroupolis has become an entry point for the shipment of military material to Ukraine and a strategic location for the diversification of European energy sources, companies from the United States and those linked to Russia are fighting for control of its port.
In the last three years, the United States and Greece have signed agreements to strengthen their defense cooperation and guarantee “unlimited access” to a series of Hellenic military bases, including one of the Greek Armed Forces in Alexandroupolis, located in the extreme northeast of the country, 30 kilometers west of the border with Turkey and 50 south of the Bulgarian one. Since then, its port has experienced an unusual movement of military ships. So much so that, at times, this town of 57,000 inhabitants has suffered a shortage of some products, such as eggs or tobacco, when in May the USS Arlington with its 1,500 ravenous marines on board.
“It is a port that can receive ships of up to 200 meters in length. Its proximity to the newly improved road network and its connection to the railways makes it one of the most important ports in Greece,” explains Reserve Lieutenant General Ilias Leontaris. “The US asked Greece to include Alexandroupolis in the list of areas where the Americans have a presence, because this port allows them to move forces, materials and means to Eastern Europe with ease,” he adds.
The Americans have made certain improvements to the port aimed at facilitating the loading and unloading of material. In 2021 alone, the US Armed Forces moved 3,100 “pieces” through it, according to official sources cited by New York Times, which did not specify the type of military material, but assured that it was destined exclusively for US bases in Europe. This year, until July, more than 2,400 had moved. The Bushmaster armored personnel carriers, sent by Australia to Ukraine and which have participated in the recent counter-offensive in Kharkov, were also landed in Alexandroupolis, according to the Greek daily. Kathimerini.
Australian-supplied Bushmaster vehicles have been used in the ongoing liberation of Kharkiv region. ‘Australia, thank you!’ a soldier from Ukraine’s 80th Air Assault Brigade yells. Ukrainian forces love these vehicles. 🇦🇺 🦘 🇺🇦 pic.twitter.com/NJNXG1GOVf
— Bryce Wilson (@brycewilsonAU) September 11, 2022
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“I would like to underline that the priority access that your government has granted our forces in the port of Alexandroupolis has allowed us to continue providing military assistance to Ukraine, countering malign actors and operating in the Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea region” , thanked the US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, during the meeting with his Greek counterpart at the Pentagon last July.
The US deployment in Alexandroupolis has not gone unnoticed by Moscow. Already in January, as tensions around Ukraine increased, the Kremlin accused Washington of sending weapons to kyiv through this port; and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged Athens to reconsider its alliance with the US by appealing to the “historic ties” between the Greeks and the Russians. Turkey has also criticized this military presence seeing how a city so close to its border is fortified.
At the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ankara ordered the closure of the straits leading to the Black Sea to Russian and Ukrainian military ships, but also does not allow its NATO partners to use the passage to bring weapons to Ukraine. “Alexandrópolis is a gateway to the Balkans and the corridor to Ukraine. As Turkey has become a less reliable ally, it is necessary to have an alternative route that can be activated in case of need, ”says Harry Theoharis, a former Greek minister and MP for the conservative New Democracy party. Hence, the port of this city has become a coveted geopolitical object, now that its management has been put out to tender.
Privatizations and energy security
In exchange for the successive financial rescues of the past decade, Brussels forced Athens to privatize numerous public assets, including the management of its ports. The largest, the one in Piraeus, was acquired by the Chinese state company Cosco; A German-Greek consortium was formed with the one from Thessaloniki headed by businessman Ivan Savvidis, a Greek born in the Soviet Union, a former deputy in the Duma for President Vladimir Putin’s party and who has an arrest warrant pending for having jumped onto the field during the game of the soccer team he owns in Greece, PAOK, armed with a gun. “It is a mistake to privatize the large ports, since there are no guarantees for the future of the workers or the safety of the area. The EU has clearly put financial interests above security concerns,” criticizes Dim Rapidis, former adviser to the Vice President of the European Parliament Dimitrios Papadimoulis (of the leftist Syriza).
Four conglomerates now opt for the port of Alejandrópolis, whose tender closes this Thursday. One is led by the American company Quintana, of Texan origin and interests in the energy sector; another is led by the Greek construction company GEK Terna and includes the participation of a Belgian port operator, a Hellenic defense company and a US investment fund, Blacksummit; the third is the management company of the port of Thessaloniki, owned by Savvidis; and the latter is run by a company, DAMCO, of the Greek Copelouzos family, whose business group imports Russian gas through its company Promitheas, half of which belongs to the Russian state giant Gazprom (DAMCO itself maintains a joint venture with Promitheas for the construction of a gas pipeline in Greece).
The privatization contest has been postponed several times and the participating companies have started a battle to prove their suitability. “We are not going to hide that we have the support of the US government,” says John Charalambakis, managing director of Blacksummit. Washington “is not happy” with the ties of some companies that opt for control of Alexandroupolis with Moscow, as confirmed to EL PAÍS by two sources linked to the contest and, in fact, US political representatives have traveled to Greece to exert pressure. European diplomats have also recently visited Alexandroupolis.
“Given the importance that the Americans attach to Alexandroupolis, it is clear that they do not want to be in any doubt as to who controls the port. There is too much at stake for Savvidis to keep; the case of Copelouzos would not be so fateful because, although he has relations with Russia, he is a businessman who works for his own commercial interests, ”says Yorgos Christidis, Professor of Politics and specialist in Southeast Europe at the University of Macedonia.
Ioannis Arapoglou, deputy general manager of the Copelouzos group, defends that his company “has no relations with the Russian government” and that relations with Gazprom are based solely on “commercial contracts” such as those it maintains with other European and North American companies. This group is also one of the investors in the floating regasification plant being built off the coast of Alexandroupolis and which will be key to importing liquefied natural gas from the US, Israel, Egypt and Qatar into the EU.
Reduce dependency on gas
Northern Greece has become a crucial location for Europe’s strategy to reduce its dependence on Russian gas. Through this area passes the Trans-Adriatic pipeline, which transports gas from Azerbaijan through Greece, Albania and Italy. This fall, the connection of this pipeline with Bulgaria will come into operation, a country that, before the war in Ukraine, imported 80% of its gas from Russia. And throughout the northern region natural gas reception facilities are being prepared to increase Europe’s resilience to possible supply cuts.
“Greece is becoming the energy gateway to the EU. And we intend to use the port of Alexandroupoli and Kavala [también recién privatizado] to advance the interests of the West in the axes of military security, energy security, food security —Alexandrópolis can serve the export of grain from Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria— and commercial security”, argues Charalambakis: “We are in a moment of redefinition of geopolitics, at a crossroads where geopolitics meets geoeconomics. If you don’t have military power you can’t have economic power, and vice versa.”
The resolution of the port of Alexandroupolis will influence the relations between Washington and Moscow with Athens, whose successive governments have tried to maintain a certain policy of balance between both powers. And it could also have an effect on the design of the strategies of the European Union. “For too long, the European logic followed the German logic that through trade and economics change would be achieved. [en los adversarios]”, affirms the deputy Theoharis: “Now we are paying for those mistakes. So I think the strategic imperatives have to be taken into account.”
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