In The Media

Europe needs statesmen now, not bankers and bureaucrats

by George Petrolekas

The Globe and Mail
July 9, 2015

With observers of the European Union fearing a political snowball effect from the Greek debt crisis, they should also turn their attention to the geostrategic impact.

In January, pressed to find funds to meet credit demands, Greece sold its fleet of Zubr-class hovercraft to China. They are the largest vessels of their kind in the world, capable of carrying as many as 500 troops or a mix of troops and armoured vehicles.

In one fell swoop, the Chinese Navy gained an amphibious capability that could play out soon in the country’s disputes in the South China Sea – either directly against U.S. interests or the interests of NATO-friendly nations.

If a ‘Grexit’ comes to be, how it unfolds is important. Will it be a managed exit or an acrimonious divorce? How the breakup occurs will influence NATO and how it continues to function amid the spectre of geopolitical strategic shifts.

Barely suppressed old biases will resurface. Swastikas are not uncommon at Greek demonstrations directed against the EU and Germany in particular – reminders of the German occupation – and Greece could easily become obstructionist in both NATO and the EU.

The nightmare scenario is one in which Greece not only lets go of its European institutional anchors but attaches itself to Russia – a nation Greece empathizes with deeply because of religion and history. Russia may be struggling economically, but any aid in that scenario would be warmly received in Greece. EU or, more importantly, NATO initiatives seeking increased sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine would not be supported in a post-exit Greece. Immediately after Syriza’s election, Alexis Tsipras asked how the EU could be considering sanctions when Greece had not been consulted.

In the 66-year history of NATO, the No. 1 source of vetoes has been over Greek-Turkish relations. The alliance cannot use any of its extensive plans and contingency forces unless there is unanimity or consensus. NATO’s new rapid reaction force – deployable within days to counter fears of Russian actions in Eastern Europe – cannot deploy without consensus political approval of the NATO constituent states; it becomes a paper tiger.

If Russia has little cash, the Chinese do. One effect of sanctions against Russia was much deeper co-operation between Russia and China. Restrictions on Russian energy growth westward resulted in a massive energy deal with China and Xi Jinping featured prominently at the Russian Victory Day parade in May.

China’s long-term maritime strategy seeks to secure its energy and trade lines of communication through investments in port facilities – the so-called “string of pearls” – while increasing the reach of its navy from coastal waters all the way to the Suez Canal.

The Mediterranean also features in its vision. The importance of the Mediterranean became obvious to China during the Libyan intervention. Greece became the epicentre of Chinese operations, with the Chinese military attaché in Athens conducting an evacuation of 45,000 Chinese nationals using Greek shipping. With Greece having to sell off assets such as the Port of Piraeus, it makes sense that Chinese investment would be facilitated.

Central to all this is Greece’s strategic position in the Mediterranean. It affects operations in the Ionian Sea to the west and the Aegean to the east. In the south, Crete is a major NATO facility with both naval refuelling and airfields affecting any operation in North Africa. Central Greece is a forward staging area for NATO AWACS.

That geographical position has been vital to many NATO operations – the blockade of former Yugoslav shores, the staging of the NATO ground force to Kosovo, which occurred through Thessaloniki, and the support for the Libyan air and naval campaign from Crete to list but a few.

What happens now depends on whether leaders and statesmen take charge or leave the next chapter to be written by bureaucrats and bankers. This is now far beyond euros and drachmas. That is where statesmen must prevail.

George Petrolekas is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He has served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and has been an adviser to senior NATO commanders.

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