As the cash in Athens begins to run out following the rejection of European Union-led austerity measures Sunday, funding for Greece’s bloated military is also quickly disappearing, inadvertently turning the country into a political pawn in the growing standoff between the Western-led NATO, of which Greece is a member, and Russia.
Just one day after Greece's historic referendum on a new debt relief plan, Russian President Vladimir Putin contacted Greece’s left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to express support for the Greek people, cementing the growing relationship between the two that has been building since Tsipras was elected more than six months ago. For Western leaders looking on, the budding friendship has raised eyebrows and accusations that Moscow is driving a divide-and-conquer strategy aimed at bringing Greece under its sphere of influence and undermining the EU and NATO. Russia, still reeling from EU-led sanctions for its annexation of Crimea last year and continued influence in the east Ukraine war, will likely not be able to help Greece financially.
“There is this new relationship with Moscow and Athens, so there is concern from NATO about how it might evolve in the future,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at Brookings, a Washington-based think tank. “It’s become part of the geopolitical frame around what’s happening in Europe right now.”
While Greece has been a less active member of NATO than its allies since joining in 1952, it has still regularly been one of the highest-spending countries among the 28-member alliance, mostly because of its fear of neighboring Turkey. This year, Greece put aside 2.4 percent of its $238 billion GDP to spend on defense, making it the second-highest NATO spender behind the United States with 3.6 percent of GDP. It has even defied the European trend and its financial collapse by increasing defense spending this year by 0.1 percent, according to NATO.
Around 74 percent of its military spending has been for personal expenses, such as pensions and salaries, a clear example of the country’s bloated public sector, and it's unlikely that Athens will be able to sustain such spending.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday that Greece had “not a matter of weeks but of a few days" to save itself from collapse, suggesting that those high-level military costs will either come down with self-inflicted cuts or just when the country runs out of money.
"Without new money, salaries won't be paid, the health system will stop functioning, the power network and public transport will break down, and they won't be able to import vital goods because nobody can pay," Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, told the Telegraph last week.
Amid the debt crisis, NATO has said it will stick by Greece. “The secretary-general has made clear that Greece is a committed ally, and the Greek government has stressed that they stand by their commitments to NATO and do not make any link between the debt crisis and Greece’s NATO membership,” a NATO official said Monday.
However, while Greece claims that it will meet its NATO commitments, it's unclear whether the economic crisis could affect the operation of its other NATO partners. The United States currently operates a small naval base on the island of Crete, known as Souda Bay, where U.S. forces run many of their North African operations from, including the Special Forces attacks on Tripoli in the aftermath of the U.S. Embassy attacks in 2012. But those operations could be halted if Greece cannot pay the hundreds of locals that help run the base.