How EU weapons sales are stoking an arms race between Greece and Turkey

On January 19, 2022, Greece’s political and military leadership assembled at Tanagra air base, 70 km north of Athens, to celebrate the country’s latest acquisition. The ceremony marked the arrival of the first six of 24 Rafale fighter jets, which are to be delivered by France by 2023. Together with three Belharra frigates, the cost of the purchase exceeds €5 billion. 

The atmosphere was celebratory. “The mastery with which the Hellenic Air Force carried out this first ferry flight is a testimony to the excellence of our cooperation and the strength of our historical relationship with Greece for more than 45 years,” said Éric Trappier from Dassault Aviation, the makers of the jets. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis added, “The new Rafales are ready to take off for a better, more peaceful tomorrow.”

Military unit at the welcome ceremony for Rafale fighter jets | Photo by Thodoris Chondrogiannos

“To tame the beast”

Mitsotakis did not refer to neighbouring Turkey by name in his address. There was no need to. It is an unspoken assumption shared by all those present at the ceremony that Greece’s latest arms buying spree is directly related — once again — to the perceived threat from its neighbour. This, despite the fact that it has been less than a decade since Greece narrowly avoided bankruptcy. 

For policy makers and experts, there is a direct causal link between expensive arms purchases and bankruptcy.

“We are not a big country”, said the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in January. “Yet, we have more heavy tanks than Germany and France together. We have one of the biggest, if not the biggest, air force of Europe. We have more than 250 fighter planes. And we are not the biggest economy in Europe.” 

Why does a country which represents just 0.25% of the world’s GDP spend more on defence than military superpowers?

“Why do we need that?” Dendias pondered. “Because we face a threat.”

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has struck a familiar chord in Athens, which has long warned about the threat of aggression from a stronger neighbour. Greece and Turkey are allies within NATO — yet this hasn’t stopped them from reaching the brink of armed conflict several times in recent years. 

“Since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, relations between Athens and Ankara have gone through several serious crises because of their differences over the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean,” says Spyros Blavoukos, professor of international studies at the Athens University of Economics and Business. “Greece’s joining the EU, its NATO membership, its defence spending, its support for Turkey’s EU accession, all of these actions are part of a strategy which aims to deter aggressive behaviour on the part of Turkey, to tame the beast.”

Since 1995, it has been Turkey’s official position that a decision by Greece to extend its territorial waters in the Aegean Sea to 12 nautical miles under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea would amount to a declaration of war (a casus belli).

As recently as February 2022, just before the Ukraine invasion, Turkey’s foreign minister threatened to dispute the sovereignty of the east Aegean islands unless Greece complies with a Turkish demand to demilitarise the islands.

Greece sees such statements by Turkey as threats emanating from a country that is not scared of confrontation. In the past decade, Turkey has engaged directly in military conflicts in LibyaSyria and Iraq, while it is also alleged to have supported — with the use of Syrian mercenaries and the sale of Turkish-manufactured Bayraktar TB2 drones — Azerbaijan’s military annexation of territories in Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia in 2020.

Following the 1974 Turkish invasion (which was preceded by a Greek coup against the Cypriot government, orchestrated by the junta government in Athens), Turkish forces still illegally occupy a third of Cyprus under the guise of a separate state not recognised by the international community, making northern Cyprus the only occupied territory in the EU.

“Too little Europe”?

“I cannot imagine a military conflict between Turkey and Greece,” says Javier Solana, who served as General Secretary of NATO during the 1996 crisis, in a statement to Investigate Europe. “Greece is part of the EU and Turkey is part of NATO and has close cooperation with the EU. In case we need to ask Turkey to be a security actor, we could do that because Turkey is a member of NATO.”

And yet, Greece and Turkey came close to military conflict in 1987, 1996 and again in 2020. On the latest occasion, the two nearly went to war over an accident, when a Greek and a Turkish warship were involved in a mild collision during a standoff in the eastern Mediterranean. NATO stepped in in 1987 and in 1996, while in 2020, Germany, then holding the rotating presidency of the EU, took on the role of mediator. 

The 1996 crisis found Greek and Turkish soldiers facing off from two adjacent rock islets in the eastern Aegean. The guns that they trained on one another were purchased from the US and the EU. A full-blown war was averted thanks to a last-minute intervention by the US. 

Neither NATO nor the EU, however, were able to lead the countries to a meaningful rapprochement. The next crisis is always a matter of time. 

Viewed from one perspective, Greece is trapped in a vicious circle of defence spending because every EU member state has its own foreign policy. This creates competing interests in their relations with third countries, in this case Turkey. 

“It is utopian to speak of defence cooperation in the EU, and even more so of a military union, without a political union,” notes Blavoukos. 

The incomplete union of the EU creates a challenge for Athens. EU member states adopt a more benign stance towards Turkey and sell arms to the neighbouring country despite the occupation of Cyprus and the active casus belli. In a desperate attempt to maintain an equivalence of strength, Greece purchases arms from the very same countries.

The conflicting imperatives are evident in statements from senior figures with direct involvement in managing the alliances.

A Rafale fighter jet after its arrival in Greece | Photo by Thodoris Chondrogiannos

The double game of allies

In the past 40 years, the US, Germany and France have been the biggest exporters of arms to both Greece and Turkey. Other countries also engage in this double game, including Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, while others, such as Spain, supply weapons exclusively to Turkey.

“The NATO allies know that the two countries don’t have very friendly relations, but they still supply them with weapons, because they need them for the Middle East and the NATO operations in the region.” Siemon Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme told Investigate Europe. “When a crisis breaks out between them, leaders pick up the phone and ask them to cool down. But the supply of weapons goes on: you are feeding a rivalry there.”

After 2020: Germany with Turkey, France with Greece

Germany and France’s stance with respect to Greek-Turkish relations reveals how competition between European arms exporters creates tension on the doorstep of Europe.

In July 2021, Turkey took delivery of the Piri Reis, the first of six submarines purchased from Germany, in a move that, according to the Economist, “[gave] Turkey an edge over Greece”, and “[could] make the Mediterranean less stable”. 

In November of the same year, defence manufacturer Hensoldt, which is 25.1% owned by the German stateadmitted that one of its targeting systems had found its way to Baykar, the Turkish manufacturer of Bayraktar drones, via a subsidiary in South Africa. A few months earlier, in December 2020, Germany had rejected Greek calls for an arms embargo on Turkey as “strategically incorrect”.

“German assistance to Turkey’s combat drone programme is the best example of how EU allies are pushing Greece to arm by selling weapons to Turkey”, a source from within the Greek arms industry told Investigate Europe. “With German assistance, Turkey has developed combat drones which have already been deployed in Ukraine, but also in Nagorno-Karabakh,” he says. “Having been left behind in the combat drone race, the Greek defence industry is now building four drones, and Greece will have to spend hundreds of millions of euros trying to equal its neighbour’s advantage.”

In September 2021, it was France’s turn to support Greece, with the signing of a clause on mutual defence assistance. This agreement, which had been pursued by Greek diplomacy for years, states that France will come to the aid of Greece if it is attacked by another country, including — nominally at least — Turkey. French protection came at a stiff price. The mutual defence assistance clause was accompanied by the purchase of the 24 Rafale fighter jets and a minimum of three Belharra frigates, while Greece’s defence minister has hinted that the total number of fighter jets could reach 40.

There is a strong argument to be made that Greece has turned to bilateral defence agreements because the EU’s architecture lacks a robust mutual defence mechanism between its member states. According to article 42 of the EU Treaty, if a member state is subjected to an armed attack on its soil, other member states must provide help and assistance with all the means at their disposal.

That provision is incomplete, according to Katarina Engberg, a senior advisor at the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies (SIEPS). “The shortcoming of the EU clause is that it is not very advanced in terms of scenario planning.” says Engberg. “Unlike NATO, which has specific planning, and of course resources dedicated to protecting territorial integrity, because the Americans are in NATO.” 

Asked how the awkward competition between German submarines and French frigates might be reconciled, Green MEP Hannah Neumann has suggested that there should be “common rules so that the export policies of one member state do not directly contradict those of another”. “This must be the rationale when we discuss a common European strategic and defence union,” adds Neumann.

A vicious cycle of arms spending, bankruptcy and corruption

At the depths of a pandemic-induced recession in 2021, Greece spent 3.8% of GDP on defence, the biggest spend among NATO members relative to the size of its economy, exceeding even the United States’ 3.5%. 

Last year was not an exception. Thanks to their arms race, Greece and Turkey are regularly among the top defence spenders globally, with defence budgets sometimes double those of G7 economies.

In the years between 2004-2008, Greece was among the five largest arms buyers in the world in absolute terms, along with China, India, the UAE and North Korea. Purchasing equipment including fighter jets from the US and France, submarines and Leopard tanks (which Germany sold concurrently to Turkey), Greece’s miniscule economy racked up 4% of the sum of global arms imports in absolute terms — 31% of which came from Germany, 24% from France and 24% from the US. Greece’s outsize defence spending resulted in huge deficits which contributed to its near-bankruptcy and bailout in 2012. 

Defence spending has repeatedly led the country to bankruptcy. “In all wars and all bankruptcies in Greece’s history as a modern state, there is a vicious spiral,” says Giorgos Dertilis, a professor of modern Greek history, in his book, Seven Wars, Four Civil Wars, Seven Bankruptcies (1821-2016). “A difficult economic recovery sooner or later leads to a succession of arming and indebtedness, which leads to the next bankruptcy and the next war, or both,” he adds.

There is also a strong link between defence spending and corruption. In the most recent example, Greece’s defence minister between 1996-2001, Akis Tsochatzopoulos, received a lengthy jail sentence for taking bribes linked to the purchase of Russian and German arms.

“I haven’t looked at every arms sale that Greece has done, but I’ve looked at a lot of them and I’ve yet to come across one that doesn’t involve corruption,” says arms trade expert Andrew Feinstein. “If you look at what Greece is paying, particularly to Germany, for its equipment, there are different levels of premiums built in. Greece’s arms deals are part of what keeps the Greek political system dead.”

Regarding the most recent deal between Greece and France, Feinstein notes, “The biggest red flag, which is like a red parachute, rather than a flag, is the fact that Greece is buying the Rafale, because it’s not a first class jet [a more explicit term was used]. The only other people who buy the Rafale are India and Egypt. And you’ve got to ask yourself, why are you not going for jets that are technically much better?”

Signs of a rapprochement in the shadow of Ukraine

After Ukraine was attacked by Moscow, Greece sent Kiev military equipment including ammunition and Kalashnikov rifles.

“With what moral standing and stature would we ask for similar help if we were in the same situation?” the Greek prime minister asked by way of justifying his decision, showing that Athens can’t exclude the possibility of ending up in a similar situation to Ukraine in the future. 

Days later, on March 13, the Greek prime minister and the Turkish president met in Istanbul, after several months of frosty relations, in an attempt to de-escalate tensions between two NATO members in light of the Ukraine invasion. 

Just a few days later, the US government extended the approval of “a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Government of Greece” of warships for an estimated cost of several billion dollars; at the same time, the US government and Turkey are in talks over the saleof US-made fighter jets to Ankara. 

This article is a collaboration between Investigate Europe and its Greek partner Reporters United.