Greece and Turkey are North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members that are geopolitically important to the West. One thing Athens and Ankara have in common is that their domestic challenges have motivated them to look to Beijing and Moscow for help. But if Greece and Turkey become too dependent on China and Russia, Western security may be impaired.
Athens’ internal struggles include the European debt and refugee crises. Greece suffers from over 20 percent unemployment and has to borrow money to pay off loans. While financial resources are slim, Greece has provided shelter for over 57,000 refugees, even after other European countries stopped accepting them. In March of this year, a deal was made between Europe and Ankara aimed at ending the flow of migrants into the continent from Turkey in return for visa-free access for Turkish travelers and potential membership in the European Union.
The attempted coup in Turkey this summer demonstrated the fragility of Ankara’s democracy. Rogue soldiers took possession of tanks and warplanes to overpower the Turkish government, and over 240 people died. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged the state by detaining, suspending, or investigating over 60,000 people in the military, judiciary, civil service and education. Some have even been arrested and fired from their jobs.
Greece and Turkey have looked to the East to manage their domestic challenges. China has made several investments in Athens through its One Belt, One Road Initiative. The China Ocean Shipping Company closed a deal with Greece to own a majority stake of its largest port, Piraeus. China plans to transform the harbor into a key Mediterranean hub by developing a railway from the dock to other parts of Europe, serving as a gateway for Chinese products into Europe. Alibaba, a Chinese online retailer, is also working with Athens to boost electronic trade by increasing accessibility of Greek products to other markets.
Ankara is disappointed with the West’s response to the attempted coup in Turkey and has increased cooperation with Moscow on a variety of fronts. Trading sanctions between Turkey and Russia are being removed with a trade volume goal of $100 billion. The two countries plan to accelerate progress on the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, and the Turkish Stream pipeline project, that will carry Russian gas via the Black Sea and Turkey to southeastern Europe, will be initiated soon to increase future deliveries to Europe. Turkey and Russia will establish a joint military, intelligence and diplomacy mechanism, and both nations have agreed to introduce a cease-fire, provide humanitarian aid and find a political solution in Syria.
While China and Russia are providing Greece and Turkey with much needed support, their involvement could compromise Western security. Athens and Ankara may side with Beijing and Moscow when it comes to NATO security concerns involving China, North Korea and Russia, for example, if they become too dependent on Chinese and Russian assistance. It would take just one country withholding support to prevent an action by NATO that is not in the interest of China or Russia since NATO only takes action when every member agrees.
Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu has already made some worrying remarks about Turkey’s NATO membership. Cavusoglu has publicly justified Turkey’s growing relationship with Russia by stating, “Turkey wanted to cooperate with NATO members up to this point. But the results we got did not satisfy us. Therefore, it is natural to look for other options.” This is concerning because NATO relations with Russia have been strained since Moscow invaded Ukraine and increased its aggressive behavior on the alliance’s eastern flank. A NATO member making such statements suggests that Turkey finds more value in a closer relationship with Russia. Minister Cavusoglu also warned that “if the West loses Turkey one day, it will not be because of Turkey’s relations with Russia, China or the Islamic world, but rather because of themselves.” The West must address Turkey’s concerns to prevent the loss of a geopolitically significant ally.
Russia and China have also increased their bilateral cooperation. Russian and Chinese navies conducted a military exercise in the eastern Mediterranean last year, Joint Sea 2015. In September, Russia and China will take part in Joint Sea 2016 where they will practice land and sea maneuvers in the South China Sea. The drills will improve the strategic partnership of Beijing and Moscow and enhance the capabilities of the two navies to jointly confront maritime security threats. While the South China Sea is far away from the Mediterranean, the rehearsed strategies and tactics could be applied in the Mediterranean as China and Russia seek to protect their interests.
Not only are the locations of Greece and Turkey important to NATO, but both nations host important military facilities critical to mission success. Souda Bay in Crete, Greece, is home to the U.S. Naval Support Activity Souda Bay that provides services for combat readiness and for the security of ships, aircraft, and personnel to extend fighting capability, and the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operations Training Center there educates maritime law enforcement. The NATO Missile Firing Installation on the island is the only place in Europe where missiles can be test fired. In Operation Enduring Freedom, Souda Bay served as a forward logistics site and its air base supported allied aircraft. In addition, the naval base at Souda Bay served as a forward logistics site to support Operation Iraqi Freedom. Permanently basing an aircraft carrier, destroyers and amphibious ships at Souda Bay would counter crises, reinforce allies’ perception of American might, and provide more stability in the region.
Turkey is the only majority Muslim member of NATO, and is home to Incirlik Air Base. Because of the base’s location in southern Turkey, the U.S. is able to conduct high volume missions without the need of extensive refueling compared to planes that come from longer distances. In Iraq, Incirlik Air Base was valuable for U.S. refueling missions and troop movements, and U.S. warplanes used the base during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, Incirlik hosts dozens of B-61 nuclear bombs intended for delivery by aircraft, and is critical to U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Athens and Ankara have looked to Beijing and Moscow to further their interests. While these relationships are embryonic, the West should keep a close watch on such developments. Since Greece and Turkey are NATO members, their decisions to support alliance action could be influenced by China and Russia as they are providing the resources the countries need. The military assets provided by both countries, facilities in Souda Bay and the Incirlik Air Base in particular, are important in addressing future security threats in the region. The West should pay special attention to its relationships with Athens and Ankara so that Greek and Turkish cooperation with NATO is not compromised in the future.