By Sigurd Neubauer
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was warmly received in Washington where he was accorded a rare honor to address a Joint Session of Congress by Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. President Joe Biden also hosted Mitsotakis at the White House where the outstanding bilateral relationship was celebrated.
It is a rare honor for any foreign leader to receive an invitation to address a Joint Session of Congress.
“Mitsotakis’ address before Congress illustrates how important Greece is as a strategic partner for the United States,” says Nick Larigakis, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the American Hellenic Institute. “Greece serves as a pillar of stability of the eastern Mediterranean,” he adds while touting how the Greek-Cypriot-Israeli alliance has transformed the region for the better, including through stronger people-to-people engagements.
In light of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Greece has established itself as a critical U.S. strategic partner within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) where Athens has become indispensable to Washington’s efforts to support Kiev.
“Greece enables a substantial portion of the U.S. Army’s 10th Combat Aviation Brigade to enter the European theater through the port of Thessaloniki and to depart through Alexandropoulis, a port in northern Greece. Alexandroupolis has recently been referred to as the “Souda of the North” by the Chief of the Hellenic National Defense General Staff, Konstantinos Floros because it has become an important staging point for the transiting of equipment to Ukraine and Europe’s eastern flank,” Larigakis explains.
This comes as Turkey has shut down the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits, the chokepoint between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, to military vessels.
While Turkey has provided Ukraine with sophisticated drones, it is the only NATO member not to have imposed sanctions on Russia nor closed its airspace to it. Diplomatically, Turkey has also charted out its own course when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu hosted on March 10 his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts, Sergey Lavrov and Dmytro Kuleba, in Antalya for peace talks.
Due to Moscow’s war against Ukraine, Europe faces an urgent need to divest itself from Russian energy sources.
“Greece is poised to play a fundamental role in Europe’s energy security and independence from Russian energy as it is quickly becoming an energy hub for Europe, and the transit point for the Southern Gas and Eastern Mediterranean Gas Corridors,” Larigakis says.
Greece also plays a pivotal role in the transit of energy from the Caspian region to Europe via the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, operational since 2020.
“Athens is leading the expansion of the Southern Gas Corridor into the Balkans through initiatives such as the Gas Interconnector Greece–Bulgaria (IGB), which is projected to be completed this year. In addition, Greece will have a key role in the emergent Eastern Mediterranean Gas Corridor,” he adds.
Proposed pipeline and interconnector projects, as well as Greece’s existing Liquified National Gas (LNG) terminals, position the country as a gateway for Egyptian, Israeli, and Cypriot energy to Europe.
Whereas the Greek-Cypriot-Israeli-Egyptian alliance in the eastern Mediterranean primarily focus on energy, Athens has in recent years also strengthened its strategic partnerships with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Greece also maintains close and friendly ties with Qatar and Oman, illustrating how Athens has grown closer to the Gulf Cooperation Council.
These dynamics, of course, help explain Turkey’s strategic decision to pursue reconciliation talks with Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
White House visit
On Monday, May 16, Biden hosted Mitsotakis at the White House where the two leaders discussed a range of issues, including energy security, bilateral defense cooperation and direct U.S. investments in Greece, Larigakis reveals.
The Biden-Mitsotaki meeting also covered Ukraine and Greek-Turkish tensions, he adds.
Without mentioning Turkey directly during Mitsotaki’s address before Congress, which took place on May 17, he declared: “I want to be absolutely clear. We will not accept open acts of aggression that violate our sovereignty and our territorial rights. These include overflights over Greek islands, which must stop immediately.” He also criticized – although indirectly – the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus, but without mentioning Turkey itself.
During the White House meeting, Greece’s potential acquisition of the Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35, was discussed as well although Athens has not yet officially applied to join the program.
Prior to Mitsotaki’s White House visit, his Defense Minister, Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, met with U.S. Ambassador to Greece George James Tsunis to discuss the F-35, among other issues.
The chief of the Hellenic National Defense General Staff, General Konstantinos Floros, is set to visit Washington next month where he is expected to discuss the matter further.
Athens’ potential acquisition of the F-35 would enhance interoperability between Greece, Italy and Israel.
While Greece and Turkey are both members of NATO, tensions between the two neighbors escalated following Mitsotakis’ visit to Washington when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused him of having attempted to block U.S. sales of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey during his talks at the White House.
Turkey, for its part, has been suspended from the Joint Striker Program after acquiring Russia’s S-400 anti-missile system which was specifically designed to target the F-35. Greece’s potential acquisition of the F-35 will inevitably increase tensions with Ankara.
In October 2021, the U.S. and Greece signed an extension of an upgraded Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA), which addresses regional security challenges while offering more flexibility to deepen cooperation in the defense sector.
“The MDCA also envisions the continuation and expansion of activities through the port of Alexandroupolis, which will be strengthened by the important infrastructure projects that have started to be implemented in the area and include the modernization of the railway line that will become electric and dual traffic, the connection of the port with the main road axis of Northern Greece, the Egnatia Odos and finally the privatization of the port,” Larigakis says.
He also reveals that Greece spent an estimated 3.59 percent of its GDP on defense expenditures in 2021. “By percentage of GDP, Greece is ahead of every NATO member country, including the U.S,” he adds.
“Pelosi’s April 28 invitation was issued following Biden’s White House invitation,” Larigakis reveals.
For the Biden administration, whose principal foreign policy objectives are anchored in alliance management and protecting democratic values globally, Greece’s role as the birthplace of democracy was naturally celebrated during Mitsotakis’ visit.
“The birth of democracy in ancient Athens brought about an explosion of the creative spirit in Greece that produced the architecture, the art, the drama and the philosophy that have shaped western civilization ever since. The establishment of democracy in the United States has brought about the greatest expansion of human freedom and human progress the world has ever known,” Mitsotaki declared before Congress.
Following Pelosi’s meeting with the Greek Prime Minister, the speaker echoed similar sentiments in a statement on @Twitter, saying: “Greece has been the wellspring of democratic principles for centuries. They were a source of inspiration to the founding of America. Now, the United States and Greece work together as democratic nations.”