Greek Defence Minister proposes new Balkan alliance and US base offers

EPA-EFE/ERIK S. LESSER

US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (L) greets Greek Minister of Defence Panagiotis 'Panos' Kammenos (R) at the Pentagon in Arlington, USA, October 9, 2018.

Defence Minister Kammenos’ proposal undercuts Prespes Agreement


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Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos used a scheduled Washington visit and meetings on October 9 to drop two headline-grabbing proposals. He first proposed the creation of a new Balkan military alliance to combat Russian influence in the region and followed up with a proposed significant expansion of base rights for the US military in Greece.

Coming from a minister who runs a small party that is widely expected to disappear from the Greek parliament in the next elections unless something drastic alters the Greek electoral calculus for this lone ranger, it is hard to imagine that either proposal will advance quickly.

Kammenos’ political future uncertain

The Greek coalition government of SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks (ANEL) party has long faced a deep internal schism over the Name Dispute with ANEL leader and Defence Minister Panos Kammenos remaining staunchly opposed to the Prespes Agreement and sworn to block its ratification if it comes to a vote in the Greek parliament. ANEL is one of the small Greek political parties that polls show is unlikely to garner the three percent of the popular vote required for the threshold to obtain seats in the Greek parliamentary system.

Kammenos proposes a new Balkan alliance

At the State Department, which is focused intently on preventing Kammenos from torpedoing the Prespes Agreement in Athens if it comes for ratification next year, Kammenos met with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Wess Mitchell on Tuesday. At State, Kammenos described his concept for a regional defence alliance that would include Greece, Macedonia/FYROM, Albania, Bulgaria, and later Serbia.

The focus would be to reduce Russian influence in the region while safeguarding regional stability. It is unclear whether Kammenos presented this as an alternative to the Prespes Agreement which would bring Macedonia/FYROM into NATO if implemented or as a simple backup plan.

Greece’s Alternate Foreign Minister Giorgos Katrougalos was reportedly immediately critical of the idea, revealing what many suspect, that there was a lack of coordination within the Greek coalition government before the proposal was floated. The State Department, for its part, did not think this idea was significant enough to mention in its readout:

Offer of “new bases” strains credulity

While not unexpected, due to the number of earlier press reports from both the US and European media on the subject, while in Washington, Kammenos apparently further elaborated on existing semi-proposals for an expanded US military presence in Greece, although this might not actually take the form of new permanent base facilities.

Kammenos met with US Secretary of Defense James Mattis while in Washington on October 9, saying, “I want to affirm that Greece considers the United States a strategic partner and ally…the only one, I dare to say.”

Speaking specifically about the US bases, Kammenos said, “It is very important for Greece that the United States deploy military assets in Greece on a more permanent basis, not only in Souda Bay but also in Larissa, in Volos, in Alexandropoulis.”

NATO has long had facilities close to Larissa – the fourth-largest city in Greece and situated midway up the Greek mainland – but also deployments of any duration to the nearby port city of Volos or to Alexandropoulis near the land border with Turkey would be new. The Greek media, and some politicians, have long speculated that the US was interested in an additional facility on one of the Aegean islands, specifically Karpathos in the Dodecanese island group adjacent to Turkey.

Originating from a minister who runs a small far-right party that is widely expected to do poorly in the next elections unless unexpected events jolt the Greek electoral balance, it is hard to project that either of Kammenos’ proposals will see the light of day.

Greek politicians, however, are not known to walk away from anything that can be seen to bolster their political status in advance of elections, meaning this will likely not be the last time that either of the proposals come up in talks between Athens and Washington.

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