ALEXANDROUPOLI – Few ships had used it but Greece’s northern port city of Alexandroupoli, 11 miles from the Turkish border, has suddenly become a hub-bub of activity, with the United States using it as a staging area for arms after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, creating a geopolitical chessboard.
It seems like an unlikely spot for diplomatic showdowns, said The New York Times in a feature by Niki Kitsantonis and Anatoly Kurmanaev about how it’s turned into a face-off between competing interests and countries, and businesses with ties to the US and Russia vying for control.
There’s a bear in the ointment though.
The port is going to be sold and bidders for a controlling stake, similar to the Chinese company COSCO running Greece’s biggest port of Piraeus adjacent to Athens, are four groups of companies – two from the US and two tied to Russia.
In the growing Cool War between the US and Russia, Greece has become a nexus at the same time that relations between Greece and Russia have been strained over Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ backing Ukraine and sending arms and equipment there before pulling back.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, already furious that Mitsotakis in an address to the US Congress asked lawmakers to veto President Joe Biden’s plan to sell more F-16s to Turkey, spun further out of control over Alexandroupoli as part of a growing American military presence in Greece.
“Against whom were they established?” Erdogan said of US military posts in Greece that could see more under a renewed miltary co-operation pact between Athens and Washington as relations tightened.
“The answer they give is ‘against Russia.’ We don’t buy it,” said Erdogan but his always volatile nature has further demonstrated the intensity of the tug ‘o war over who will control the port, and if Greece would be left out.
Adding to the brouhaha is that Turkey rejected European Union sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine and bought Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems that could be used against Greece in a conflict and undermine NATO.
The port has suddenly appeared on the radar screen in Moscow, Ankara and Washington, especially after US Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, made a surprise visit there, underscoring its importance.
The US sent 14 times more war goods through the port in 2021 – before the invasion of Ukraine – but that has seen even more pouring through, some 3,100 pieces including ammunition and tanks, the report said.
The US said it’s not destined for Ukraine but American military units stationed in Eastern and Northern Europe but that matters little to Russia or companies tied to Moscow who want a big piece of the port.
“What we have done is transform the port into a dynamic military operations hub,” said Andre Cameron, who oversees U.S. military logistics at the port. “Nothing like it has been done here before.”
That’s not been lost on the companies who want to run it.
They include a group run by billionaire Russian-Greek businessman Ivan Savvidis, who already runs Greece’s second-largest port in Thessaloniki and has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Savvidis is a player in Greece, so much so that there’s been a warrant for his arrest out since March of 2018 for carrying a gun onto the playing field of a soccer match involving the team he owns PAOK, but not executed.
His spokesperson wouldn’t comment to the Times, the paper said.
Another bidder is Greece’s Copelouzos Group, which is a partner with the state-owned Russian gas company Gazprom that was exempted from EU sanctions because the 27-member bloc, including Greece, is dependent on Russian supplies, amid fears they could be curtailed this winter.
Copelouzos’s competitors and critics said the company is susceptible the kind of crushing blackmail type of pressure that Putin can bring and would compromise its role if awarded the control of Alexandroupoli.
“There are significant concerns because the situation with Russia can deteriorate,” John Charalambakis, an owner of BlackSummit Financial Group, an American asset management firm that’s also bidding said.
“The fact that Russia is using energy as a weapon is an important factor,” he told the paper and that already has emerged with the EU and Greece trying to pare back usage of electricity and looking for alternatives to Russian energy.
The paper, citing unnamed Congressional staff sources, said there’s worry on Capitol Hill in Washington about Putin behind the scenes putting his hand on the port’s operation, citing the bidders with Russian links.
“The group has many cooperations across the world with many companies,” said Ioannis Arapoglou, the Copelouzos Group’s General Manager, adding that its partnership with Gazprom “is just one of those, and a relatively small one for the size of the company.”
He noted that the Copelouzos family is investing in a project to build a liquid natural gas terminal near Alexandroupoli, aimed at reducing Balkan countries reliance on Russian gas by bringing in more supplies from the US.
Local officials and businessmen said they hope the invasion of Ukraine and regional tensions will turn the port into an alternate supply route getting around the Turkish-controlled straits to the Black Sea.
Konstantinos Chatzikonstantinou, the chief executive of the Alexandroupoli Port Authority told the paper: “Every crisis creates opportunities.”