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Greece’s Independence, and Ukraine’s

Greece’s Independence, and Ukraine’s

Hellenic News
Hellenic News
The copyrights for these articles are owned by HNA. They may not be redistributed without the permission of the owner. The opinions expressed by our authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of HNA and its representatives.

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As March enters, Greeks around the world prepare to celebrate the anniversary of their country’s struggle for independence two centuries ago against the then-largest empire of the world.  It is a celebration particularly meaningful this year, as a neighbor country continues its struggle to preserve its own independence against a war of aggression unparalleled in Europe since 1941—the year that Nazi forces attacked Greece, and, only months later, Russia.

The Nazi war against Greece did not last long, although Greek resistance against the conqueror’s occupation continued until the last German soldier had been forced from Greek soil three years later.  The war between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia would be the deadliest between two nations in history.  It reshaped the map of Europe for half a century until, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight, creating new nations and restoring others not only within Europe but around a wide swath of central Asia.

The most important of those new nations was Ukraine, the heartland from which Russia itself had emerged a millennium earlier and a state which, with its formidable agricultural and energy wealth, was a key to the prosperity of an entire region.  Ukraine had been a part of Russia since 1654, although never reconciled to its subjugation.  It had preserved its own language and culture, and the memory of its forced collectivization in the early 1930s, when between five and six million Ukrainians had been starved to death, was indelibly etched in its national consciousness.  Although over the years many native Russians had settled in parts of the Ukraine, when its inhabitants were offered the choice between union with the Russian Federation and state independence in 1991, 92 per cent chose the latter.  After more than three hundred years, Ukraine had its freedom—almost as long as Greece, conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, had waited to claim its own.

History, however, does not unravel itself so easily.  Greece would struggle with the Ottoman empire and its Turkish successor for more than a century to reclaim an unredeemed patrimony, and for a further quarter century before it regained control of the Dodecanese archipelago from what had been fascist Italy.  Even today its borders are contested, particularly in the Aegean Sea, and Cyprus remains divided after military conquest.

A not dissimilar story plays itself out at the moment with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  That conflict is part of the larger one around the former borders of the Russian empire and its Soviet successor.  The expansion of Russia across most of the Eurasian land mass over hundreds of years is one of the sagas of global history, and the loss of a third of its geographical area and nearly half its population within the two-year period of 1989-91 was not only deeply traumatic for Russia itself but one that sharply altered the balance of world politics.  From being one of the world’s two superpowers, it was suddenly reduced to one which, despite its remaining size, represented barely 3% of the world’s economy.  Much of that fell into the hands of an oligarchic class—essentially the former Communist Party elite privatizing itself—impoverishing the state and catastrophically afflicting the general population.

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On three fronts, too, the security of what remained of Russia was seriously undermined.  To the east was China, a rapidly growing power whose relations with Russia were progressively strained.  To the south, oil interests had intensified the American presence in the Middle East, where Russia had lost its buffer republics and faced internal insurrections on its own territory in Chechnya and Dagestan.  To the west, Russia lost the satellite states of eastern Europe gained after the Second World War as well, leaving its most critical flank exposed politically to the European Union and militarily to NATO.  There could be no assurance that the core territory that remained to it—in Siberia, in the Caucasus, in the Dnieper basin, now partly running through Ukraine—would not be eroded as well.  Even much of its atomic arsenal now belonged to the new Ukrainian state.  As the century ended, there was no certainty that a centralized Russian state would long survive in the new millennium.

This situation was ideal for the rise of an autocrat who could assert control over the oligarchs while assuring their economic dominion; maximize the exploitation of Russia’s natural assets, primarily grain, gas, oil, and rare metals; and concentrate state power in his own hands.  This was Vladimir Putin, the erstwhile KGB operative.  But Putin’s Achilles’ heel was that of all autocrats:  that the more he accomplished, the more was expected of him, not least by himself.  His aspiration would be nothing less than the restoration of Russia’s former power, and, by one means or another, the reclamation of its former sphere of territorial possession and influence.

The rise of Western empire and the decline of the Ottomans dictated that Russia’s European frontier be the chief focus of its interest.  The world wars of the twentieth century brought Russia to a transformative revolution and then a war of survival, and securing its western borders was thenceforth of paramount concern.  The Russian interest in China was soon blunted by the Sino-Soviet conflict over Communist hegemony, and the disastrous war in Afghanistan that followed initiated the breakup of the Soviet Union itself.  With that collapse, including the loss of its satellite perimeter in Europe, Russia was faced with an expansive military alliance, NATO, that despite American assurances soon pushed up against the borders of Russia itself.  This was its primary security concern, as states formerly within the Soviet orbit or even Soviet territory itself now appeared as forward outposts of American might.  Vladimir Putin would hardly have been the only Russian leader who regarded this as an existential threat.

That brings us in the present moment, with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine posing the greatest threat to the European order since the fall of the Soviet Union.  For Greece, as a state connected with Ukraine through the straits of the Black Sea as well as a member of the European Union and NATO, it complicates an always-hazardous frontier.  Russia has a significant Greek population and trade connection, as well as a common religious tradition with Greece.  A protracted disruption of commerce and travel would have repercussions on important areas of Greek life, and, of course, the return of Ukraine into the Russian orbit would directly affect the security and economy of every neighboring state between the Baltic and the Black Seas.  Not the least concern—indeed, arguably the greatest—has been nuclear security.  Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in 1994 in exchange for security guarantees against threats to its independence and autonomy.  But nuclear energy plants remained, and the largest of them were soon seized by Russian forces after shelling.  This has brought the Ukrainian crisis to an entirely new level, and forced NATO to consider its options for the security of Europe as a whole.  All one can say at this moment is that the world may be facing its most serious threat since the Cuban Missile Crisis sixty years ago.  For Putin to risk a nuclear calamity that could place large areas of Europe including Russia itself at risk suggests a degree of irresponsibility that recalls if not exceeds that of the earlier crisis.

Diplomatically, the most complicated question for Greece pertains to Russo-Turkish relations.  Turkey’s dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been cultivating relations with Russia for some time, particularly as the major power now bordering the Black Sea.  By the Montreux Convention of 1936, access to the Black Sea through the straits connecting it to the Mediterranean has been under Turkey’s control, and may be closed by it in time of war except to allow the ships of combatants to return to their home ports.  There is such a war now, and Russian warships have been deployed on Ukraine’s Black Sea borders.  Under Western pressure, but also for Ankara’s own maritime and trade security, Erdogan has now announced his intention to invoke the Convention against Russia.  As a major carrier in the Black Sea, this too directly affects Greece, economically and militarily.  Nowhere else is the potential threat for Greece to be drawn into the Ukrainian conflict a more direct one.  

Turkey’s issues with Russia also extend south into Syria and the Mediterranean, where Russia has heavily involved itself over the past decade in support of the Syrian dictator Hafez-al Assad.  Turkish security interests there lie principally in the containment of the Kurdish population that has established a significant fighting presence in northern Syria with links to the large and restive Kurdish communities in southern Turkey.  Russia’s own interests were in recovering a presence in the Middle East, from which it had been virtually evicted under the Nixon administration, and its desire for naval and commercial stations on the Mediterranean.  The interests of the two powers were disparate, but their common client the same:  Assad.  Turkey, in particular, had to proceed with caution, since the United States made use of the Kurds as a proxy force against Assad, while covertly seeking to restrain their territorial ambitions.  Given the traditional and strategic interests of other powers, notably the United States, Iran, Israel, and France, as well as the action of anti-Assad rebels and Islamic terrorists, northern Syria may have been the most contested and unstable region in the world over the last ten years—at least until the occupation of Ukraine.  For Turkey, Russia, and the United States, these two conflicted areas, separated by the Turkish land mass itself and the Black Sea, come together as a single potential battleground, albeit with different players and protagonists.  

In need hardly be said that what affects Turkey affects Greece, both by land and sea.  Erdogan has sought friendship with Russia as a powerful neighbor, a trading partner, an ally in Syria, and not least as a counterweight to NATO, of which it is nominally a part.  He shares a common ambition with Putin, namely to assert himself on a world stage in which he feels himself to have been denied his proper place.  Of course, Russia and Turkey are not readily compared.  Russia still spans eleven time zones as the largest territorial expanse on earth; Turkey is little larger than Texas (or Ukraine).  It is a former superpower that still supplies the world, particularly Europe, with much of its grain and energy.  But its political and geographical ambitions have greatly shrunken, and its one-time rivalry with America in Asia, Africa, and the Americas have been largely replaced by those of China.  Despite interests in Central Asia, the Arctic, and Outer Space, Putin’s overriding obsession remains his desire to restore Russia to its former predominance in eastern Europe.

Turkey’s imperial eminence as the center of the Ottoman empire has of course long been gone, if not entirely forgotten.  It has certainly come to occupy the mind of Recep Erdogan, who increasingly envisions Turkey as the central pivot in a revived Islamic world.  Erdogan’s rise, like Putin’s, has been a gradual one, with civil institutions and controls eroded and power finally concentrated in his hands alone.  Putin now faces international sanctions that, if maintained and extended, will adversely affect an economy whose living standards for most are among the lowest in the developed world.  Erdogan’s monetary policies of recent years, meanwhile, have severely depressed the Turkish economy in recent years.  Inflation has soared, and, as in Russia, the national currency has been in virtual free-fall.  As for Turkey’s prime asset, its geographical position astride two continents, it is under present circumstances as much a liability as an asset, squeezed as it is between proximity to Russia and the chaotic conditions of northern Syria.  Putin’s political crisis is obvious, but Erdogan’s own threatens his regime too from several directions.  Western pressure is forcing him to distance himself from Putin, but a military confrontation with Russia in the Black Sea or one in Syria would be fraught with peril.  The former would be a crisis for the entire eastern Mediterranean, particularly Greece, whose interests in the Aegean are on high alert.  

A last aspect of the Ukrainian situation is the flood of refugees coming from the country.  They have so far been directly largely to camps hastily erected in Poland and other border states, but their numbers could rise into the millions if the conflict continues—or with its resolution.  Refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East have strained inter-European relations for the past decade, with Greece among the most severely impacted.  Complicated by the long-lasting financial crisis of the past decade and the effects, economic as well as demographic, of the Covid pandemic, the fallout from Ukraine will leave no country in Europe unscathed, but is certain to affect Greece in many and unpredictable ways.  Even this, though, may be only a beginning.  The refugee crises generated by political collapse are only a harbinger of those to come from climate change, which already afflicts much of the Middle East.  These have scarcely begun to be envisioned, much less coped with.

As Greece prepares to celebrate its own independence, then, it faces a particularly perilous world.  But, if it can do little to shape immediate events except to protect itself as best it can, its symbolic kinship with the Ukrainian people is perhaps greater than anyone else’s.  Twenty-five hundred years ago, Greece fought twice for its freedom against the greatest empire of its time, and won.  Two hundred years ago, it did so again, to rise from nearly four centuries of conquest and subjugation.  Eighty years ago, it stood alone on the battlement of Europe to defy the greatest evil the world had ever known.  Now, it stands with Ukraine.  The determination and heroism Ukraine’s people display today is that which has shone from Greece throughout its history.  The torch of Greece is lit anew wherever people fight to be free.     


The copyrights for these articles are owned by the Hellenic News of America. They may not be redistributed without the permission of the owner. The opinions expressed by our authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Hellenic News of America and its representatives.

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