Defense at the heart of Greece’s concerns

“A historic moment.” It is in these terms that the Greek Prime Minister Kyriákos Mitsotákis described at the end of January the agreement signed with France for the acquisition of eighteen Rafale. A contract valued at 2.5 billion euros and hailed as “The implementation of a program to modernize our equipment”.

The Conservative government of New Democracy decided to strike hard in this bicentenary year of Greek independence, making Greece the first European country to acquire these French fighter jets.

“Greece, France, Alliance”

Recalling at will French philhéllènism and the historical, political and cultural ties which unite the two countries, French and Greek leaders register their flourishing military cooperation in the continuation of a proven tradition.

Joint military exercises, joint parliamentary debates and ministerial visits have multiplied over the past year. Guided by the same diplomatic vision and by converging economic interests, the two governments translate into action the establishment of the “Strategic security partnership” dear to Emmanuel Macron.

“We are very happy to feel France close to us. The relationship between the two countries continues a tradition and continues to improve ”, enthuses Nikos Manolakos, member of the majority and member of the Standing Committee on Defense and Foreign Affairs.

“For a decade, the Hellenic armed forces suffered from the financial crisis and the defense budget was significantly reduced.”
Periklis Zorzovilis, President of the Greek Institute for Defense and Security Analysis

These words are echoed by the French ambassador in Greece, Patrick Maisonnave, present on February 4 at the Tanagra air base, north of Athens.

“France has proven to be Greece’s oldest and most loyal ally”, expressed the ambassador at the end of three days of joint air exercises between the two countries, described as “Brothers in arms”. And to conclude: “Greece, France, Alliance!”, taking up a slogan born of the democratic transition in Greece following the dictatorship of colonels (1967-1974).

With the acquisition of eighteen Rafale (six new and twelve used, pilot training, armament and maintenance included) and the opening of negotiations to win several frigates, Greece is giving a boost to the forces aging armies.

“For a decade, the Hellenic Armed Forces (HAF) suffered from the financial crisis and the defense budget was significantly reduced”, explains Periklis Zorzovilis, president of the Greek Institute for Defense and Security Analysis.

Increase military capabilities

With 2.6% of its GDP allocated to defense in 2020, Greece was, proportionally, the second NATO country to invest so much in its army, only ahead of the United States. But these expenses mainly cover needs related to personnel and maintenance of the equipment. “The renewal and improvement of Greek defense capabilities have been delayed, almost stopped”, supports Periklis Zorzovilis.

Change of strategy and priorities for New Democracy. The government of Kyriákos Mitsotákis, elected in July 2019, voted a 57% increase in the defense budget for 2021. It now stands at 5.5 billion euros.

“The crisis served as a pretext for previous governments not to make investments in the armies”, Tance Nikos Manolakos, retired lieutenant-general of the Greek army.

“Our armed forces have not been a priority for ten years, for economic as well as political reasons”, believes the member of the majority who “Salutes the will and the speed of the government on these questions”.

“Unemployment pushes our fellow citizens even more to join the great family of the armed forces.”
Nikos Manolakos, MP for the majority and member of the Standing Committee on Defense and Foreign Affairs

Among the measures voted by the New Democracy, the duration of compulsory military service for men is reduced from nine to twelve months and the Defense Ministry plans to recruit 15,000 soldiers over the next five years.

What revitalize the workforce in free fall for twenty-five years. According to World Bank data, the personnel of the Greek armed forces increased from 213,000 to 148,000 members between 1993 and 2018.

“We are also increasing the reception capacities in military schools, where we can now accommodate 1,335 students per year against 819 previously. And unemployment pushes our fellow citizens even more to join the great family of the armed forces ”, cynically concedes Nikos Manolakos.

Turkey, an eternal threat

“Slowly but surely, Greece is changing its military doctrine: from deterrence through defense to deterrence through punishment”, summarizes Emmanuel Karagiannis, associate professor at King’s College London, specialist in conflict and security.

The renewal and modernization of the Greek army has accelerated in recent months by growing and recurring tensions with Turkey.

Two hundred years after its war of independence from the Ottoman Empire, Greece sees in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey the cumbersome shadow of a historic enemy and the permanent threat of armed conflict, as expansionist inclinations and imperialists of the Turkish president continue to feed.

“Military threats against the Greek islands and Erdoğan’s call to revise the Lausanne Treaty forced the Mitsotákis government to react.”
Emmanuel Karagiannis, associate professor at King’s College London

The list of bilateral disputes has grown over the years. The Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus, the statutes of ethno-religious minorities, the delimitation of territorial waters and the exclusive economic zone, airspace violations and refugee crisis constitute as many points of friction between the two countries.

“Greece gradually felt threatened by Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions. Military threats against the Greek islands and Erdoğan’s call to revise the Treaty of Lausanne forced the Mitsotákis government to react ”, believes Emmanuel Karagiannis.

An opinion shared by Periklis Zorzovilis, for whom the policy led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan constitutes “An existential threat to Greek sovereignty and its vital interests”.

Change of role on the international scene?

If the member countries of the European Union, apart from France, are struggling to openly show their support for Greece, the Hellenic Republic has been working for several years to seek new allies. In recent months, it has multiplied bilateral military cooperation agreements.

A mutual assistance agreement with the United Arab Emirates, a pilot training contract with Israel, a delimitation of maritime borders with Egypt; so many alliances motivated by a common adversary.

“Jerusalem and Cairo share Greek concerns over Turkish assertion in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara’s support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood infuriated Israel and Egypt. The Greek government has also drawn closer to pro-Western Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which have their own problems with Turkey’s neo-Islamist leadership ”, analyzes Professor Karagiannis.

“Greece can play an important strategic role in the region […] be a pillar of stability. ”
Mike Pompeo, former Secretary of State of the United States

Border of the European Union, located at the crossroads between Western Europe, the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East, Greece occupies a preferential and strategic position. While the Eastern Mediterranean appears to be a theater of constant and growing tensions, the country can become a major player in the region.

“Thanks to its geographical position, Greece could easily deploy military means for collective security in the region”, thinks Emmanuel Karagiannis. He adds: “In this context, Athens is building a new geopolitical identity as a western bulwark in the eastern Mediterranean.”

This is what Mike Pompeo believed during his visit to Athens in September 2020. “Greece can play an important strategic role in the region […] to be a pillar of stability ”, declared the American Secretary of State under the Trump administration. For Mike Pompeo, it was the second trip to Greece in less than a year, a symbol of the strategic importance of this land for the American troops, present from Alexandroupoli (north) to Crete (south).

Already mobilized in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, the Greek army should also participate in the Task Force Takuba, in the Sahel, in the coming months. One more step in its military integration into international institutions.

Contested priorities

In this context, it is difficult for the opposition to make itself heard. Syriza voted against the 2021 budget but abstained on the vote on military spending, aware of the imperatives of investment in this sector.

“There is a real need to strengthen the army and modernize it, without endangering the balance of the public budget and abandoning social policies. We recognize the need, but in a programmed way and without forgetting the other priorities of the country ”, nuance Giórgos Katroúnkalos, opposition MP and member of the Standing Committee on National Defense and Foreign Affairs.

In the midst of a pandemic, and while the health system has suffered particularly from austerity measures for ten years, the preponderance of the army over other sectors is contested by the left.

“We criticize the government’s neoliberal policy which abandons health and education”, summarizes the former Minister of Foreign Affairs under Syriza. The health budget has been cut by 15% for 2021, as Greece struggles to stem the second wave of Covid-19.

For former Prime Minister Aléxis Tsípras, the tone is much harsher. “In a changing world that understands the importance of social protection and the public health system, the government of New Democracy is leading us into bankruptcy as in 2010”, declared the leader of the opposition from the rostrum of Parliament.

Greece’s GDP, estimated at 340 billion dollars in 2019, is expected to experience a decrease estimated between 9 and 10% for the year 2020 according to estimates by the OECD and the European Commission.

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