While Greece has been a member of NATO since 1952, anti-Americanism has often run high in Greece. In 1974, Greek leftists assassinated the CIA’s station chief in Athens (after the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-wing think tank still operating in Washington, DC, outed him). During the various conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, popular Greek sentiment often leaned toward the fellow Orthodox communities rather than the Catholic or Muslim communities often supported by NATO members.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the left-wing government of Alexis Tsipras is openly flirting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. For Putin, foreign policy and diplomacy are zero sum games. Flipping Greece, withdrawing it from NATO or, more dangerously, keeping it in NATO as a consensus-busting Trojan horse at a time when political tension if not conflict looms between Putin’s Russia and many European states and NATO members formerly under Soviet tutelage.
Much of the discussion about losing Greece to Russia, however, overlooks some major issues. The United States has exactly one naval facility in the Eastern Mediterranean, and it is on the Greek island of Crete at Souda Bay. It is not unreasonable that a price Russia would demand in exchange for keeping Greece solvent would be the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Crete. After all, Putin previously used financial leverage to force American forces out of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Russia has also been putting the moves on Cyprus, which also finds itself in dire financial straits. Earlier this year, for example, Russian officials floated the idea of a base on Cyprus, a move that would enable it to project power more regularly in the region. While the Russian navy withdrew from the Eastern Mediterranean in 1992 in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, in May 2013, Putin announced a permanent 16-ship Russian Mediterranean task force. A base in Greece or Cyprus would also provide useful backup to the existing Russian base at Tartous, in Syria.
Of course, it’s not simply a matter of grabbing territory wherever it might. The Eastern Mediterranean is becoming increasingly strategic and valuable for energy purposes. Eastern Mediterranean gas is not simply theoretical but is now a fact of life. It also provides the best mechanism, whether through off-shore gas fields or the pipeline terminal in Ceyhan, Turkey, for Europe to bypass the stranglehold Russia has on gas to Europe.
President Obama can talk about a “pivot to Asia,” but increasingly it’s not a simple choice about whether to emphasize defense in the Persian Gulf or Asia: The whole world is in play and adversaries—Russia, China, and Iran—smell the blood of American weakness in the water and prepare to launch a strategic feeding frenzy unseen in half a century, if not more.