Athens, Greece – France is completing the sale of 18 Rafale jets to Greece ahead of January, when French defence minister Florence Parly is to visit Athens to sign it.
The sale will make Greece the first European client for the advanced plane, in a deal valued at 2.5bn euros ($3bn).
It is Greece’s first significant defence equipment purchase since 2005, when it bought more than 300 Leopard tanks from Germany, and its first investment in a new combat aircraft since buying French Mirage 2000s in 1989.
Greece’s overall defence spending halved from 7.88bn euros in 2009 to 3.75bn euros in 2018, as an eight-year recession led to budget cuts. Greece is sharply increasing its defence spending by 43 percent this year, to 5.5bn euros ($6.7bn).
The reason is that Greece and Turkey have had their most acrimonious year since 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus in response to a Greek coup attempt, and a war in the Aegean was narrowly averted.
“I think we are at one minute to midnight as far as a conflict with Turkey is concerned,” Kostas Grivas, who teaches geopolitics and weapons systems at the Hellenic Army Academy, told Al Jazeera.
Greece is in such a hurry to acquire the Rafale, it pressed France to deliver the first squadron by May, six months ahead of the original schedule. Its pilots will fly to France for training in the coming weeks.
Last September, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Greece will buy four new frigates and upgrade four existing ones, giving it a blue water navy capable of projecting power beyond the Aegean.
He also announced 15,000 new career positions in the armed forces. Greece is currently in the process of upgrading 85 of its Lockheed Martin F-16s to Viper level, turning them into fourth-generation fighter aircraft.
Tactically, the Rafale allows Greece to strike anywhere within Turkey, having a range of up to 3,700km, twice that of the Mirage and four times that of the F-16. It carries the most advanced European missiles, the Meteor, Mica, Scalp and Exocet.
It also carries a 200km-radius radar capable of tracking 40 targets and engaging eight of them, enabling it to act as a force co-ordinator. Greece believes it can thus increase its deterrent capability against a Turkish first strike.
“Greece has no claims on anybody, but is 100 percent ready to defend its rights,” said Dimitris Kairidis, who teaches international relations at Panteion University in Athens.
East Med crisis
Greece’s complaint against Turkey is that it is prospecting for undersea oil and gas in what Greece considers its Exclusive Economic Zone, a commercial sovereignty conferred by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“We want a constructive dialogue on delimitation of maritime boundaries,” said Kairidis, but Turkey has so far been unwilling to oblige.
The Rafale deal is as much about politics as tactics. Greece and France are currently in talks for a defensive alliance that might include Greece’s buying French-made Belh@rra frigates.
“There will probably be a defence agreement in the coming weeks,” said Angelos Syrigos, who teaches international law at Panteion University.
In fact, Greece already signed one such defence agreement with the United Arab Emirates on November 18.
“[It] says that Greece and the UAE will rush to each other’s aid defensively should they receive an attack, and the terms remain to be filled in,” said Syrigos.
“Greece hasn’t signed a similar agreement with a country that isn’t in NATO or the European Union.”
The agreement was conceived during a standoff between the Greek and Turkish navies that began on July 21, when Turkey announced its exploration plans, and ended on November 30, when it sent its seismic survey ship Oruc Reis back to port, having collected 11,000km of seismic data.
During this period, Syrigos said, “the only country which sent aircraft to Greece was the Emirates. This was something that was really appreciated by the Greek government and the next step was the signing of this strategic relationship.”
Greece is also developing closer defence ties with Egypt and Israel.
Calls to sanction Turkey ignored
Athens is ferreting out such bilateral ties because it has been disappointed in the organisations it has traditionally relied upon for its security. NATO has not called Turkey to order for upsetting another member of the alliance. Nor has the EU, for threatening its sovereign rights.
On October 1, EU leaders overcame Cyprus’s objections to imposing sanctions on Belarus, for violently repressing protests, but not against Turkey, for what Greece and others say was Ankara’s violation of Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
On October 12, Greece demanded sanctions on Turkey for occupying the ghost town of Varosha in Cyprus, against UN Security Council resolutions. The matter was deferred to the December summit, but then deferred again to the March summit.
“The Council decisions were no surprise given the divergent views among EU member states and the consensus-based decision-making system in foreign and security policy issues,” said Ioannis Grigoriadis, who teaches European studies at Bilkent University in Ankara.
He believes that divergence owes to “different interests on key issues in the Mediterranean”.
Failing its demand for sanctions, Greece wrote to Germany, Spain and Italy, asking them to halt arms sales to Turkey, as France halted the sale of two Mistral ships to Russia following its occupation of the Crimea in 2014. Greece’s EU partners did not oblige.
Greece is particularly incensed that Germany will build six type-214 submarines for the Turkish navy. Greece was the first international customer for the cutting-edge submarine in 2009, and helped solve many of its design flaws.
“It teaches us that Europe doesn’t have a Turkey strategy, and in fact, doesn’t know what to do,” said Syrigos.
France is the only major EU military power to have emerged as a strong supporter of Greece and Cyprus.
“France sees that if Turkey wins influence over Greece and Cyprus, then Turkey will become the major power in the East Mediterranean, pushing Egypt and Israel to the sidelines and forcing them into an alliance,” said Grivas. “If it succeeds, the East Mediterranean will become a Turkish lake.”
Three days after the EU refused to sanction Turkey, the United States did.
With veto-proof majorities, Congress banned US technology exports and loans to the Presidency of Turkish Defence Industries, the arm of the defence ministry which oversees procurement contracts and sets policy on defence infrastructure.
The sanctions were not about Greece and Cyprus, but Turkey’s procurement of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles; but many supporters of the sanctions view them as a broader message to Turkey.
“We have witnessed violations of Greek airspace, illegal exploration efforts in Greek and Cypriot waters, an offensive violation of UN Security Council resolutions in Famagusta (Varosha). Without a resolute response this unchecked aggression will only continue,” said Senator Bob Menendez, one of the key sponsors of the sanctions, which have the potential to grow.
“America has presented Turkey with a choice – either to choose the West, to choose NATO, to choose America, or to continue on its rapprochement with Russia, to drift away from the West, and continue on its Eurasian way,” said Kairidis.
He also thinks the US has issued “a signal to the Europeans … to Berlin, basically, to proceed further on the path of containing and reversing Turkey’s current path.”
Turkey has said it will not reverse the purchase of the S-400 missiles.
What to expect in 2021
So what will happen in 2021, with Greece rearming, Turkey straddling alliances with east and west, the US taking a firmer hand and the EU meandering?
Grivas believes Greece will redraw the geopolitical map of the East Mediterranean through a chain of essentially anti-Turkey alliances.
“Israel’s new relationship with Arab nations… permits the creation of a bridge of countries starting in France, passing through Greece and Cyprus, going to Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and reaching India,” he said, calling it “a barrier against the dangerous network Turkey is trying to create with Pakistan and Turkic nations.”
“I wish I were optimistic,” said Kairidis, looking to the year ahead. “Turkey was engaged in three wars in 2020, in Libya, Syria and the Caucasus. It is militarily present in nine countries. It is increasing its military budget.”
Syrigos sees Greece’s best hope in its new bilateral alliances.
As for Turkey, he said: “[US president-elect Jo] Biden will see Turkey via the lens of its relations with Russia. If Erdogan decides to have strong relations with Russia and continues to buy weapons, uses the S400, then the US will impose severe sanctions on Turkey.”
The stage is set for further confrontation.