It was once hard to locate the quiet port city of Alexandroupolis on a map. Recently, however, it has grown in strategic importance as Washington strengthens military ties with Greece. This has been to the detriment of America’s longtime ally, Turkey, as the authoritarian President Erdogan is increasingly distrusted by Western leaders.
Alexandroupolis is a crucial entry point for the shipment of military material to Ukraine, as well as a strategic location for the diversification of European energy sources. It is located in the far northeast of the country, 18 miles west of the Turkish border and 30 miles south of Bulgaria.
Over the last three years, the United States and Greece have signed agreements to strengthen their defense cooperation and guarantee “unlimited access” to a series of Hellenic military bases. Among these is a Greek Armed Forces installation in Alexandroupolis. Since this collaboration began, the port has experienced unusually high traffic of military ships, so much so that, when 1,500 Marines from the USS Arlington docked in May, the city’s 57,000 inhabitants faced shortages of some products, such as eggs and tobacco.
“The port can receive ships of up to 650 feet in length. Its proximity to the newly improved road network and its connection to the railways makes it one of the most important ports in Greece,” explains Reserve Lieutenant General Ilias Leontaris. “The US has asked Greece to include Alexandroupolis in the list of areas where the Americans will have a presence, because this port allows them to move forces and materials to Eastern Europe with ease.”
The Americans have made certain improvements to the port aimed at facilitating the loading and unloading of materials. In 2021 alone, the US Armed Forces moved 3,100 “pieces” through it, according to official sources cited by The New York Times. These sources did not specify the type of military material, but assured the Times that it was all destined for US bases in Europe. This year, up until July, more than 2,400 pieces of equipment moved through the port. Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicles – sent by Australia to Ukraine – have also landed in the Alexandroupolis port, according to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini.
Australian-supplied Bushmaster vehicles have been used in the ongoing liberation of Kharkiv region. ‘Australia, thank you!’ a soldier from Ukraine’s 80th Air Assault Brigade yells. Ukrainian forces love these vehicles. 🇦🇺 🦘 🇺🇦 pic.twitter.com/NJNXG1GOVf— Bryce Wilson (@brycewilsonAU) September 11, 2022
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin thanked his Greek counterpart for his support during a meeting at the Pentagon in July: “I would like to underline that the priority access your government has granted our forces in the port of Alexandroupolis has allowed us to continue providing military assistance to Ukraine, countering malign actors and operating in the Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea region.”
The US deployment in Alexandroupolis has not gone unnoticed by Moscow. As early as January, the Kremlin accused Washington of sending weapons to Kyiv through the Greek port. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged Athens to reconsider its alliance with the US by appealing to the “historic ties” between the Greeks and the Russians. The Turkish government has also criticized this military presence, worried that a city so close to its border has become a veritable fortress.
At the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ankara ordered the closure of the straits leading to the Black Sea to Russian and Ukrainian military ships. The Turkish government also refused its NATO partners the ability to send weapons to Ukraine via this passage.
“Alexandroupolis is a gateway to the Balkans and the corridor to Ukraine. As Turkey has become a less reliable ally, it is necessary to have an alternative route that can be activated,” says Harry Theoharis, a former Greek minister and MP for the right-wing New Democracy party. Hence, the port of Alexandroupolis has become a coveted geopolitical object, now that its management is being offered to the highest bidder.
In exchange for successive financial rescue packages that the EU has given Greece over the last decade, Brussels has forced Athens to privatize numerous public assets, including the management of its ports. The largest, in Piraeus, was acquired by Cosco, a Chinese state-owned company. Meanwhile, the port in Thessaloniki was sold to a consortium headed by businessman Ivan Savvidis, a Russian-Greek oligarch and politician, who was a deputy in the State Duma for President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
Dimitris Rapidis – former advisor to Dimitrios Papadimoulis, Vice-President of the European Parliament, of the left-wing SYRIZA Party – has criticized the privatization plan. “It’s a mistake to privatize the large ports, since there are no guarantees for the future of the workers or the safety of the area. The EU has clearly put financial interests above security concerns.”
By the deadline on Thursday, September 22, Greece had received two binding bids for a majority stake in the Alexandroupolis port. One is by Quintana, an American company with interests in the energy sector; the other is by International Port Investments Alexandroupolis, a joint venture led by the Greek construction company GEK Terna, with participation from BlackSummit, a US investment fund. Two other bidders with Russian ties – one owned by Savvidis, the other by the Coupelouzos family, who have a partnership with the Russian energy company Gazprom – were ultimately excluded.
“We are not going to hide that we have the support of the US government,” says John Charalambakis, managing director of BlackSummit Financial Group. EL PAÍS has two sources claiming that American and European political representatives travelled to Greece to exert pressure on the deal.
#Alexandroupoli is gaining strategic importance as a gateway both for energy and defense equipment. This is in the interest of both #NATO Allies and #EU Member States. This was the upshot of my visit of the port today. Lots of thanks for the insights and hospitality! 🇬🇷🇩🇪🇪🇺 https://t.co/hBHEtPmya3 pic.twitter.com/OP9zajsCKk— Ernst Reichel 🔱 (@ReichelErnst) September 14, 2022
“Greece is becoming the energy gateway to the EU. And we intend to use the port of Alexandroupolis and that of Kavala [also recently privatized] to advance the interests of the West in the axes of military security, energy security, food security – Alexandroupolis can export Ukraine’s grain – and commercial security,” Charalambakis affirms.
The recent decision on the port of Alexandroupolis will influence the relationship that Athens has with Washington and Moscow – successive Greek governments have tried to maintain a policy of balance between both powers. This will now surely be tested.