The EastMed pipeline and balancing regional power dynamics

6 min read
21 January, 2022

With surprising timing considering the tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited Moscow in early December.

Despite assurances from the Greek Foreign Ministry that the visit had been prepared in advance, Greece may have begun to feel apprehensive about its ties to Russia after years of warming relations with the US.

Indeed, the crisis in eastern Ukraine may have accelerated the need for action on the part of Athens.

Last week, and shortly before the new US Ambassador to Greece arrives in Athens, the US State Department issued a non-paper stating that Washington no longer supports the EastMed gas pipeline project, a project intended to supply Europe with natural gas from the Mediterranean and thereby decrease dependence on Russian gas.

Outgoing US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, interpreting the document, said there were no political reasons behind it, but rather they were purely economic.

"There are also geopolitical reasons for the American refusal, the most important of which is to prevent the project from becoming a pretext for increased tensions between Turkey and Greece"

However, many observers in Athens saw it as a betrayal by the American side despite the offerings of the conservative Greek government, culminating in the announcement of a joint defence cooperation plan between the two countries with the completion of the construction of a new US base near Alexandroupoli.

Amid these complications on the shores of the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, Athens will have to re-read its relationship with Washington, a NATO ally, and Moscow, a historical and religious ally, and how these relations are impacted by Ankara's escalating role at a regional and international level.

In an interview aired by the Greek TV channel Antenna last month with the Russian president's press secretary, Vladimir Putin's right-hand man Dmitry Peskov said that he rates Greek-Russian relations as a 6 out of 10, pointing to Athens' complete dependence on NATO and Washington.

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The statement came a day before Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' official visit to Moscow and was neither the first nor the last to indicate a negative atmosphere between the two countries despite their long-standing historical ties.

Later in December, an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "America sees new bright spot in Europe: Greece" emphasising the role of Greece and its strong relations with Washington in the face of Russian expansion in the east was reposted by the Greek prime minister's adviser on American and European Affairs on his Twitter account.

Yet despite this exchange of statements and the tense atmosphere in the media, many analysts view Greek-Russian relations today as much better than five years ago.

Athens and Moscow's regional alignments

In Libya, the late November 2019 signing of the memorandum of understanding between Ankara and the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), which allowed Ankara to intervene militarily and redraw the maritime border between Libya and Turkey, angered both Greece and Libyan National Army (LNA) leader General Khalifa Haftar.

A few weeks later, General Haftar visited Athens at the invitation of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. According to Greek Foreign Ministry sources, during this visit Haftar requested the supply of 30 small military vessels from Athens, which were given along with assurances that Athens would support Haftar's control of territory both financially and militarily.

Analysis - Eva
Washington's realistic vision for Greece is as an energy partner and ally in NATO. [Getty]

In return, he pledged to undermine the memorandum signed by the GNA in Tripoli with Ankara.

This Greek move placed Athens and Moscow on the same side and on the same front, while Washington chose to support the other side.

In the war in Nagorno-Karabakh that broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan last year, Athens chose to align itself with Armenia alongside Russia, as was made clear by the visit of Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias to Yerevan during the conflict.

A clear indication of Athens' position on the Syrian conflict, in which Moscow plays an important role in supporting the Assad regime against the Syrian opposition backed by Ankara and Washington, is the repeated affirmation of rejecting a Turkish role in the region and supporting Russia in the so-called fight against terrorism.

In reality, therefore, Athens is on Moscow's side on sensitive issues, even if the Greek government tries to avoid presenting it as a strategy and Washington tries not to take it seriously, something that raises the issue of Greek-US relations of late.

"Athens knows that any emotional reaction to Washington could push Ankara and Washington closer together"

Geopolitical realism

The American non-paper on the EastMed project made sense for many reasons, the first of which is economic.

The project is expensive and will take a long time to complete due to the distance covered, while the quantities of natural gas are not enough to meet the energy needs of the countries of western Europe. Also, the project does not fit into the vision and plan of US President Joe Biden to support clean energy.

However, there are also geopolitical reasons for the American refusal, the most important of which is to prevent the project from becoming a pretext for increased tensions between Turkey and Greece due to its planned route in disputed areas between the two countries.

In the same context, Washington, especially at the present time, does not want to strain its relations with Ankara considering the dangerous atmosphere on the Russian-Ukrainian border. Turkey is an important player if the crisis escalates into an armed conflict.

On another front, the atmosphere is unpredictable in Bosnia and Herzegovina due to the separatist overtures of Moscow-backed Serb leaders. Washington knows that Ankara, which has a significant influence on Bosnian Muslims, will be a useful card in this conflict.

Based on this perception, Washington chose its position on EastMed, which came in parallel with another decision that was issued last week to suspend hydrocarbon explorations of both the American Energy Company and Total, which were scheduled to take place in southern Greece offshore the island of Crete, in areas also disputed with Turkey.

But as outgoing US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt put it in late December, "Greece is arguably the single most important partner for the US in Southeast Europe for energy security and diversification."

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His comment sums up Washington's realistic vision for Greece as an energy partner and ally in NATO, which runs counter to the dreams and illusions of many Greek politicians who expect America to take the side of Athens in any confrontation with Ankara. US lawmakers are more than aware of Turkey's importance as a NATO ally and as an active regional and international power.

Earlier the same month in Moscow, the Russian president’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov was asked if he saw Greece as an enemy. His response was a resounding ‘no’, illustrating how Mitsotakis' visit was an attempt to distance Athens from any consequences of the current conflict in eastern Ukraine and its aftermath on the energy market and maritime navigation.

The withdrawal of Washington's support for the EastMed project will certainly not affect Greek-American relations or any of the recently signed agreements and contracts.

Athens knows that any emotional reaction to US policy could push Ankara and Washington closer together, something the Mitsotakis government hopes won’t happen, especially after the recent Turkey-Emirati rapprochement and the upcoming Turkish-Saudi reconciliation.

Eva J. Koulouriotis is a political analyst specialising in the Middle East.

Follow her on Twitter: @evacool_