Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine has prompted new urgency for NATO to shore up its defenses in Europe. A port in the Greek city of Alexandroupoli might play a key role in the alliance’s ability to do just that. ICWA’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation fellow Steven Tagle describes a military transfer at the port late last year and what it may mean for the future of European security.
From the Field is a production of the Institute of Current World Affairs.
ICWA fellow in Greece, 2021-2023
From the Field host and producer
The sound engineer for From the Field is Oleksii Kushnir.
Read the transcript:
Glenn Kates: Steven, welcome to From the Field.
Steven Tagle: Thank you.
Glenn Kates: Steven, you’re based in Alexandroupoli, sort of off of Greece’s beaten path. But I think we’re going to talk today about why it’s so important. Tell me about what you witnessed there in late November.
Steven Tagle: Yeah, sure. So in late November and early December, I spent several days inside the security perimeter at the port of Alexandrupoli to witness the largest transfer of U.S. military equipment through the port to date. So you had this huge 228-meter-long ship, the ARC Independence that docked at the port for a few days. And they transferred within less than two weeks about a thousand pieces of military equipment. It was this highly coordinated effort that builds on both the unique capabilities of the port, but also the really strong relationships that the US forces have developed with Alexandrupoli over the past two years.
Glenn Kates: So, I’m sure you’ve been following from Greece that there is this ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis, can you tell me why something like this is so significant right now?
Steven Tagle: Yeah, sure. So it’s kind of incredible that we’re having this conversation. Just a few hours ago, President Biden approved the deployment of 3,000 additional American troops to Eastern Europe to reassure NATO’s allies and the main point of the Atlantic Resolve exercise is also to show US solidarity with its allies in Eastern Europe after Russia annexed Crimea. Alexandroupoli is really important because it sits very close to the Black Sea and to Eastern Europe. One of the great benefits of the Port of Alexandroupoli is that it allows for these combined operations where a carrier ship can arrive and it can unload material that’s directly connected both to the railway system, but also to the road network. So it’s very easy to get equipment offloaded from a ship and then moved into Eastern Europe through either rail or road.
Glenn Kates: That’s interesting. So describe for me and for someone who would be listening, where is Alexandroupoli? Where is it located and why is it so convenient for something like what you just described?
Steven Tagle: So Alexandroupoli is located in the most northeastern corner of Greece. It’s sort of the arm of mainland Greece that reaches out and borders Turkey and Bulgaria. Because it’s so far from Athens, it’s a part of the country that’s often overlooked. It’s very rural. It’s largely underdeveloped. It has lots of natural resources that are underutilized. But it’s this area that’s really coming into focus because of US-Greece cooperation, energy, connections with the port, privatization that’s underway and also with the increased US military presence there. People are realizing once more, what a strategic position this city holds. Alexandroupoli’s capability as a transportation hub was the reason that the city was founded in the 19th century, and it’s really interesting to me that this is again the reason why it’s coming back into that again, coming back into the international sphere.
Glenn Kates: You know, something you just said struck me. You said people are realizing it’s such an important city once more. What about it now has made people realize that it’s so important. Is it the developing situation in Ukraine? Is it energy or is it sort of all that stuff put together?
Steven Tagle: When the Ottomans were constructing a railway network to connect the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople to Vienna, Alexandroupoli was connected to this main railway line. And when the city was built, the port and the railway spurred the development of the city. So in the early decades of the 20th century, you had the import and export of goods from Thrace through Alexandroupoli, and the infrastructure transformed the city into a vibrant trade and administrative center. There were consulates and banks and shipping agencies, and people from all over the region came to Alexandroupoli to take advantage of these new commercial opportunities. I think that during Greece’s fight for independence and the turbulence of the World Wars and the Cold War, that part of Greece was right on the border of the Iron Curtain, and this really suppressed development in the region. It was seen as sort of the neglected border at the foot of the Iron Curtain. Now I think it’s really coming back into the limelight because of these issues that we we’ve been talking about, because not only is there increased US military cooperation, but there are also a lot of energy projects that are coming online in the region. Talk about those and also the ongoing privatization of the port has drawn global interest.
Glenn Kates: Yeah, I want to actually address all of those subjects a little bit later. But for now, I want to ask you, it seems like one of the goals is to get supplies to Eastern Europe, particularly around the Black Sea. Why not just go through the Bosphorus Strait, like starting in Istanbul? Wouldn’t that be easier?
Steven Tagle: So although it’s a NATO member, Turkey has become a lot less reliable as a partner under President Erdogan. And you see this especially with the purchase, Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, which resulted in US sanctions and Turkey getting kicked out of the F-35 program. So over the past few years, the US military has come to see Alexandroupoli and its connecting road and rail routes to the Black Sea as a faster, cheaper and also safer and more secure alternative for shipments to Eastern Europe and the Black Sea, then through the Bosphorus Strait. Over the past few years, US missions have been testing the capabilities of the port and the capabilities of these railroad and road routes to get material to the Black Sea, and in July 2020, for example, in cooperation with the US military, the port performed the first combined ship to train transfer in its modern history, and it was able to send a shipment of cargo from that cargo terminal in Alexandroupoli to Constanta in Romania on the Black Sea.
Glenn Kates: So when you say ship to train, can you describe how that how that looks? Because I’m trying to picture it and it’s a little bit difficult for me.
Steven Tagle: Sure. So the Port of Alexandroupoli has a couple of different terminals, but the main cargo terminal of port has a railway line that actually goes into the terminal. So you can literally pick up a tank from a ship and plop it onto a train that can be then sent out through the railway network into Eastern Europe or internationally.
Glenn Kates: Steven, you mentioned the privatization of the port, and I know from what you wrote, there’s currently bidding for a concession to operate the port. I think you said there are two US bidders, a French bidder and a Greek-Russian bidder. I have two questions for you on that. First of all, what does it mean when you talk about a concession? And second of all, how important strategically is ownership of the port for the US or in another case, for another bidder?
Steven Tagle: OK, so let me take them one at a time. First of all, the tender for the concession is for the winner of the concession to have a controlling stake in the Alexandroupoli Port Authority for the next 42 years. And that process is entering its final stretch now, and it’s expected that binding offers will be submitted by April or May. So, I think this port concession has very important geopolitical implications, and that’s why the US has devoted so much time and resources to the port. For example, in 2019, the US military put up $2.3 million to dislodge the sunken dredger ship the Olga from the Port basin, and removing this wreck from the port enabled the US and NATO to use the pier’s full capacity to support large vessels. And, of course, that also increased the commercial value of the port. If a US bidder won the port, it would allow the US to create these synergies between economic, energy and military interests in Alexandroupoli. And over the past five years, you’re seeing a real alignment of interests between the US and Greece. And I think that if the US won the concession for the port, it would just bring this cooperation to the next level.
Glenn Kates: You mentioned that there are Chinese and Russian owned ports in Piraeus and Thessaloniki. Can you talk about the strategic importance of those ports?
Steven Tagle: Sure. So another reason that it would be important for the US to win the concession for Alexandroupoli is because it can help the US check its rivals growing influence in the eastern Mediterranean. Chinese and Russian interests already control the ports of Greece’s two major cities, like you said, and this is Athens in Piraeus and Thessaloniki. In 2019, near the height of Greece’s financial crisis, the Chinese state-owned company COSCO bought a 51 percent stake in the Piraeus port, and in October this grew to 67 percent. So this was a crucial opportunity that the United States missed to prevent China from gaining a foothold in southern Europe. So now Piraeus this major shipping hub serves as a gateway to the European Union for Beijing’s Belt and Road Infrastructure Initiative. And, similarly, in northern Greece, you have the Kremlin-linked business owner, Ivan Savvidis, who owns a stake in the Port of Thessaloniki. And Thessaloniki is seen as a gateway to the Balkans, a sort of commercial gateway to a market of 30 million people. So winning the concession for Alexandroupoli could also help the US check Russia’s growing influence in the Balkans.
Glenn Kates: Can you tell me a little bit about how Greeks feel about NATO activity in Greece?
Steven Tagle: Yes, for the most part, Greeks in Alexandroupoli have been very welcoming of the increased US and NATO’s military presence in the city. I think that they see these developments as providing extra security and stability in the region. And local businesses here also see economic opportunities where they increase traffic through the port and through the city, especially after a tense two years in Greek-Turkish relations. Many of the residents that I spoke with believe that the US presence in their city would help stabilize the region and check future Turkish provocations.
Glenn Kates: I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about those tensions between Greece and Turkey. What’s causing it?
Steven Tagle: Sure, a lot of the tensions between between Greece and Turkey over the past two years have to do with Turkey’s growing unreliability as a partner, as a NATO ally, under President Erdogan. Although the two countries are ostensibly NATO allies, in 2020, Erdogan pushed thousands of Afghan, Iranian, Bangladeshi and Syrian migrants toward Greece’s land border at Evros in February 2020, and at the same time, you had large numbers of Turkish fighter jets flying into Greek airspace over Evros and islands like Lesbos and Chios. And then in the summer and fall of 2020, Turkey also sent the survey vessel Oruc Reis into the waters where both countries claim jurisdiction, and this created a very tense summer in the Aegean in 2020.
Glenn Kates: In your reporting, you mentioned decades of anti-Americanism in Greece being replaced by what you call a mutually beneficial strategic relationship. What do you think’s changed? I guess maybe you just answered the question. Maybe is, is it completely related to Greece’s own relations with Turkey or does it go beyond that?
Steven Tagle: It goes beyond that. Historically US support for Greece’s military dictatorship from 1967-1974 and its position of equal distance during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 are two main reasons for anti-Americanism that until recently prevailed in Greece, especially on the political left. However, during the Greek debt crisis in 2015 and 2016, the Obama administration worked to keep Greece in the eurozone, and this paved the way for a new era in bilateral relations between our countries. At that point, the left-wing Syriza government was in power and they were to strengthen ties with Washington. And this created a bipartisan consensus in Greece toward working with the Americans. And this made it easier for the center-right New Democracy government to pursue policies like updating the US-Greece Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement when it took office in 2019.
Glenn Kates: Has any of this increased NATO’s involvement in Greece, the warming of relations between the Athens and Washington? Has any of this caused tension with either Russia or China?
Steven Tagle: So I haven’t heard anything from China on Alexandroupoli. But last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed Moscow’s dismay at the increased US presence. He said that while he understands that Greece is a member of NATO and the European Union, he has concerns about NATO’s transferring equipment to Europe, and this was a concern that the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov voiced as well in December.
Glenn Kates: That was Steven Tagle and this has been From the Field, a podcast of the Institute of Current World Affairs. I’m the host, Glenn Kates. Sound Engineering by Oleksii Kushnir. Subscribe and download wherever you get your podcasts, and if you enjoyed what you just heard, please give us a rating. You can really help us grow.
Top photo: Contractors for US operations in Alexandroupoli, Greece