Greece will be presented with diverse geopolitical threats and opportunities in 2024. To say that the world stage last year was eventful would be an understatement, so there is little doubt that the course of foreign affairs will again be uncertain this year.
Greece’s geostrategically valuable position at the heart of the Eastern Mediterranean is potentially a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Athens is well-placed to exploit international trade networks and energy agreements. On the other hand, it is more exposed to political instability on the fringes of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
To protect its national interests, the Greek government will need to enhance its strengths whilst minimizing its weaknesses. This will mean a continued emphasis on economic recovery, forward-facing diplomacy with regional and international partners, and a sensible approach to conflict resolution, and, if necessary, deterrence with neighboring Turkey.
The world stage in the 2020s
Before we dive in to examine Greece’s geopolitical situation, it is worth taking a broader view of the world stage as a whole.
At the end of the Cold War, there was a general sense in the West that the state of international relations would be characterized increasingly by stability, peace, and the rules-based international order of the United States.
This sentiment was famously encapsulated in 1989 by Francis Fukuyama’s claim that the “end of history” had occurred and that Western liberal democracy would be universally accepted as the “final form of human government.”
Evidently, this forecast was way off the mark. Great power competition has returned, this time between the United States and China. Meanwhile, a conventional war is being fought on the European continent in Ukraine, and the Israel-Gaza conflict threatens to drastically destabilize the Middle East.
What does this mean for Greece? Athens is not a powerful enough player to significantly alter the course of global affairs by itself. However, this does not offer Greece the luxury to simply sit on the sidelines whilst history plays out.
Greece will have to navigate an increasingly unstable and competitive geopolitical environment with finesse and care. As a NATO member, for example, the country cannot afford to ignore the war between Ukraine and Russia on the alliance’s eastern flank, even if the conflict is not immediately relevant to Athens.
The geopolitical environment in the Eastern Mediterranean: Greece’s backyard
“Since the mid-2000s, the Eastern Mediterranean basin—made up of Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Turkey—has emerged as a key arena in which global geopolitical trends play out,” explains a recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Due to its geostrategic importance, the region has attracted the attention of major external actors. The United States maintains a military presence in the region, including a NATO base on Crete and regular visits by U.S. Navy (USN) vessels. Russia likewise has bases with access to the Eastern Mediterranean, such as its naval facility in Tartus, Syria.
— USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) (@Warship_78) December 22, 2023
The region is the site of several conflicts, both active and frozen. For Greece, the most relevant is the frozen conflict in Cyprus between the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus in the south, and the Turkish-backed occupied portion in the north. The island remains divided. Serious fighting has not occurred since the Turkish invasion in 1974, but a sudden occurrence of hostilities remains a relatively unlikely yet distinct possibility.
Meanwhile, irregular or conventional conflicts that occur further afield in the Middle East or North Africa threaten to burden Greece with large flows of migrants and refugees that enter the country across the Eastern Mediterranean or via the land border with Turkey.
Relationship with Turkey: détente or deterioration?
The most pressing defense and security concern for Greece remains Turkey. In addition to the Cyprus conflict, Athens and Ankara have locked horns in the Aegean over the demarcation of territorial waters, delineation of national airspace, establishment of exclusive economic zones (EEZ), and use of the continental shelf.
Although it remains unlikely that the Aegean dispute would lead to an outright conflict, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly threatened Greece in recent years. Consequently, Greece’s territorial integrity and sovereignty over its island and maritime territories remain at the top of the national defense agenda.
Over the past year, however, the strained relations between Athens and Ankara have seen a notable improvement, primarily attributed to a significant shift in dynamics that transpired last February during the devastating earthquakes in parts of Turkey.
This unexpected turn of events, often referred to as “earthquake diplomacy,” has successfully rekindled a dialogue between the leaders of both nations, allowing for renewed discourse. In December last year, the leaders of both countries even signed a joint declaration pledging to maintain good and friendly neighborly relations.
Greek diplomats should encourage this rapprochement to continue as far as possible to de-escalate tensions in the region. The case should be made that better relations between Greece and Turkey favor the geopolitical interests of both countries.
Nevertheless, Greece must be ready to deter potential Turkish aggression if the current positive trend in relations doesn’t result in lasting reconciliation. Effective deterrence hinges on a credible military, given Turkey’s challenges to Greek sovereignty. Strategic diplomacy should also play a role.
When appropriate, Athens should pursue dispute resolution with Ankara in a multilateral context, capitalizing on its EU membership to amplify its influence. This approach succeeded in 2019 when Greece and Cyprus, as EU members, secured European Council support in downgrading relations with Turkey over territorial disputes.
Energy in the Eastern Mediterranean
The recent discoveries of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean have elevated Greece’s significance, leading to discussions among leaders from Greece, Israel, and the Republic of Cyprus. Talks have been focused on exploring collaboration in the energy sector.
Last September, heads of the three countries issued a joint statement saying, “We agreed that the energy sector, and in particular, natural gas, electricity, and renewable energy, is a solid foundation for cooperation in the region.”
The EuroAsia Interconnector, supported by the European Union, aims to establish a subsea cable connecting Israel and Cyprus to Greece so as to provide an initial capacity of 1,000 megawatts by the end of the decade.
Additionally, Greece is in negotiations with Egypt for the construction of the GREGY Interconnector, a roughly 232 mile (1,373 km) undersea cable that, upon completion in seven to eight years, is projected to supply Europe with 3,000 megawatts. Recognized as a Project of Common Interest by the European Commission, the GREGY Interconnector is eligible for public funds, further solidifying Athens as a key node in Europe’s energy infrastructure if the project comes to fruition.
These projects offer Greece the opportunity to enhance its geopolitical weight, energy security, and economic prosperity, but there is a threat that they will falter before they are even underway. Other actors, such as Turkey, in the region may attempt to block the completion of a pipeline via diplomatic maneuvering. Alternatively, conflicts such as the Israel-Gaza war may delay progress.
Regional leadership in the Balkans
To augment its influence, Greece can actively engage in Balkan regional politics, leveraging historical ties for a stabilizing role. Amid the instability, Greece may see an opportunity to guide the ascension process of five Balkan countries—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia—which are currently EU candidates.
With its economy on firmer ground, Athens can pursue a pivotal role in fostering economic cooperation, infrastructure development, energy security, cultural exchanges, and reform support.
Practically, Greece may facilitate dialogue and multilateralism, exemplified by the informal dinner in late August last year, during which Balkan leaders, alongside President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, issued a joint declaration on the Ukraine conflict. By fostering regional cooperation, Greece could position itself as the go-to mediator for Balkan issues, emphasizing diplomacy and soft power. Careful management of disputes with neighbors such as North Macedonia and Albania is crucial to ensuring the success of these outreach efforts.
Five outcomes of our talks with Prime Minister @KMitsotakis.
1. Greece joined the aviation coalition: it will train our pilots to fly F-16s. Greece is also preparing a new military aid package for Ukraine.
2. I proposed ways for Greece to assist us in securing Ukraine’s new… pic.twitter.com/saayynoA5I
— Volodymyr Zelenskyy / Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) August 21, 2023