October 1, 2022

ALEXANDROUPOLI, Greece — It is an unlikely geopolitical flash-point: a concrete pier in a bit of coastal metropolis, barely used a number of years in the past and nonetheless occupied solely by sea gulls more often than not.

But the sleepy port of Alexandroupoli in northeastern Greece has taken on a central function in rising the U.S. army presence in Eastern Europe, with the Pentagon transporting huge arsenals by right here in what it describes as the trouble to comprise Russian aggression. That movement has angered not solely Russia but additionally neighboring Turkey, underlining how battle in Ukraine is reshaping Europe’s financial and diplomatic relationships.

Turkey and Greece are each NATO members, however there may be longstanding animosity between them, together with battle over Cyprus and territorial disputes within the Mediterranean, and Ankara sees a deeper relationship between Athens and Washington as a possible risk.

The spike in army exercise has been welcomed by the federal government of Greece, most of its Balkan neighbors and native residents, who hope that Americans will stimulate the regional financial system and supply safety amid rising regional tensions.

“We’re a small country,” stated Yiannis Kapelas, 53, an Alexandroupoli cafe proprietor. “It’s a good thing to have a big country to protect us.”

Raising the strategic stakes is the approaching sale of the Alexandroupoli port. Four teams of firms are competing to purchase a controlling stake — two embody American companies, backed by Washington, and two have ties to Russia.

U.S. army operations in Greece have expanded tremendously since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, and prime officers from Moscow and Ankara have referred to as {that a} nationwide safety risk.

“Against whom were they established?” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey stated in June, referring to the U.S. army outposts in Greece. “The answer they give is ‘against Russia.’ We don’t buy it.”

While most of NATO has sided emphatically with Ukraine, Mr. Erdogan — all the time prepared to chart a distinct course — has positioned Turkey as a mediator.

In May, the Greek Foreign Ministry claimed Turkish fighter jets violated the nation’s air area over Alexandroupoli, simply 11 miles from the Turkish border. The incident unnerved native residents involved with Turkey’s claims to components of Greece.

The advanced interaction of pursuits at Alexandroupoli highlights how the battle is shifting the strategic focus of Europe to the Black Sea area.

“The Black Sea is back on the global agenda in an unprecedented way,” stated Ilian Vassilev, a former Bulgarian ambassador to Moscow who now works as a strategic guide. “Security in the Black Sea is central to the issue of how you contain and deal with Russia.”

Greece and Russia share deep historic, financial and cultural ties centered on the widespread Orthodox Christian faith. Greeks are among the many few Europeans who largely wish to preserve financial ties to Russia, polls present. But the battle in Ukraine has badly strained these bonds.

The occupation of Ukrainian lands has struck a chord amongst Greeks, a lot of whom see parallels between the imperial rhetoric of President Vladimir V. Putin and the territorial claims of Turkey, whose predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, dominated Greece for hundreds of years. The plight of Ukrainians has additionally resonated with Greek households whose ancestors fled Turkish pogroms within the early twentieth century.

“We know about the pain of refugees,” stated Dimosthenis Karavoltsos, an Alexandroupoli taverna waiter. “There was no question in my mind about what side we should be on.”

Greece’s conservative authorities was one of many first to ship army help to Ukraine, prompting the Kremlin to place it on the listing of “unfriendly” nations. Fear of Turkey and solidarity with Ukraine have pushed Athens nearer to Washington, and it has granted the United States expanded army entry in a number of areas.

The quantity of battle matériel moved by the United States by Alexandroupoli jumped almost 14-fold final yr — earlier than the battle, however as tensions with Russia mounted — to three,100 “pieces,” a catchall time period utilized by the Pentagon for all kinds of apparatus from tanks to ammunition. It has already matched that determine this yr.

U.S. officers say the tools is destined solely for American army items stationed in Eastern and Northern Europe, not for Ukraine.

The leap in exercise is a drstic turnaround for a minor port that stood largely idle for nearly a decade, blocked by a sunken barge that the U.S. Navy eliminated in 2019.

The city’s languid temper is reworked each few months when U.S. warships dock to unload tanks, vans and artillery. The arrival of lots of of Americans prompts periodic shortages of eggs and cigarettes, and contours exterior tattoo parlors.

Between these bursts of exercise, few indicators pointed to town’s new significance. On the seaside promenade close to the port, {couples} push strollers, and day trippers, principally from Turkey, snap selfies below town’s lighthouse. Civilian transport stays minimal due to the dearth of enormous cranes, however the Pentagon is putting in heavy tools to deal with extra cargo.

“What we have done is transform the port into a dynamic military operations hub,” stated Andre Cameron, who oversees U.S. army logistics on the port. “Nothing like it has been done here before.”

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Local officers stated they hoped the army upgrades on the port would entice investments in different industries, turning Alexandroupoli right into a commerce hub for close by Bulgaria, Romania and even blockaded Ukraine.

The port’s rising strategic significance has highlighted the Russian ties of two Greek enterprise teams competing to take it over.

One group is led by Ivan Savvidis, a Russian-Greek oligarch who has served within the Russian Parliament and sits on a international relations committee advising Mr. Putin. “Greek by birth, Russian by lifestyle, Orthodox by faith,” says a press release on Mr. Savvidis’s web site, which incorporates a picture of him with Mr. Putin.

Mr. Savvidis’s bid could also be difficult by his possession of the port of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest, which might run afoul of competitors legal guidelines. His spokesperson declined to remark.

Another bidder, a subsidiary of a Greek conglomerate, Copelouzos Group, is extra advanced, highlighting Greece’s shifting financial ties.

Copelouzos is the native associate of state-owned Russian gasoline firm, Gazprom, and, in a three way partnership referred to as Prometheus Gas, is Greece’s third-largest provider of pure gasoline. Copelouzos Group constructed — and, till 2016, operated — the airport of St. Petersburg.

A diplomatic memo on the group’s founder, Dimitrios Copelouzos, written by the American ambassador to Greece in 2007 and printed by WikiLeaks is titled “Gazprom by any other name?”

Mr. Copelouzos’s opponents and detractors declare that these ties make him weak to stress from Gazprom, compromising the way forward for Alexandroupoli’s strategic operations.

“There are significant concerns because the situation with Russia can deteriorate,” stated John Charalambakis, an proprietor of BlackSummit Financial Group, an American asset administration agency that’s competing for management of Alexandroupoli. “The fact that Russia is using energy as a weapon is an important factor.”

Concerns over Mr. Copelouzos’s Russian ties are shared by some members of the U.S. Congress, in keeping with two congressional employees members aware of the matter. They spoke on situation of anonymity as a result of they weren’t licensed to talk to the information media.

Copelouzos Group is privately held and doesn’t make public its monetary efficiency however says that its three way partnership with Gazprom represents a tiny share of its enterprise portfolio, which spans building, actual property and power.

“The group has many cooperations across the world with many companies,” stated Ioannis Arapoglou, the Copelouzos Group’s basic supervisor. Prometheus Gas “is just one of those, and a relatively small one for the size of the company.”

He famous that the Copelouzos household is investing in a undertaking to construct a liquid pure gasoline terminal close to Alexandroupoli, meant to scale back Balkan reliance on Russian gasoline by bolstering provides from the United States.

For his half, Mr. Charalambakis, the American businessman, says his curiosity within the port started in 2018, when Washington’s ambassador to Greece on the time, Geoffrey Pyatt, advised him American firms wanted to begin competing with Russia and China for affect there.

Washington’s rising consideration was highlighted on Wednesday, when Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, made a shock go to to Alexandroupoli.

Greece has been steadily privatizing strategic belongings since its debt disaster begun in 2009. The Thessaloniki port went to Mr. Savvidis; the port of Piraeus, Greece’s largest, to a Chinese state-owned agency.

Mr. Pyatt, who left the publish in May, has spoken out steadily in assist of the 2 American bids for Alexandroupoli.

The different American bidder, Quintana Infrastructure & Development, declined to remark.

The Copelouzos Group’s shift towards American companions mirrors Greece’s altering financial actuality, because the sanctioned and shrinking Russian financial system provides fewer alternatives.

This pragmatic strategy is echoed in Alexandroupoli. Local officers and businessmen hope the battle in Ukraine and regional tensions will rework the port into another provide route that bypasses the Turkish-controlled straits to the Black Sea.

“Every crisis creates opportunities,” stated Konstantinos Chatzikonstantinou, the chief govt of the Alexandroupoli Port Authority.

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