Election results in Greece and Turkey create a dilemma for the United States in navigating relations between its two Eastern Mediterranean allies.
The overlapping tenures of Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have been marked by tensions between the United States and Turkey and deepening ties between the United States and Greece.
The reelection of both men reinforces a trend in which American-Greek defense cooperation risks undermining Turkish security.
To avoid a destabilizing balance of power in the region, Washington could slow-walk the sale of F-35s to Greece and use the time to rebuild confidence in Ankara.
Deepening American-Greek ties alarm Turkey
In July 2019, the same month Mitsotakis became prime minister, Turkey received its order of the Russian S-400 air defense system.
Washington’s response signaled that the United States was abandoning its Cold War policy of balancing arms sales between Greece and Turkey. In addition to expelling Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the United States worked closely with Mitsotakis to expand defense ties with Greece.
In 2021, President Joe Biden and Mitsotakis updated the US-Greece Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement allowing American forces to train and operate on Greek military bases.
Turkish officials objected to the presence of American troops at Alexandroupolis base, located in close proximity to Turkey’s borders. The potential for Greek bases to act as a hedge for American bases in Turkey was not lost on Erdogan.
Turkish fears that American-Greece defense cooperation is aimed at Ankara have been fueled by Mitsotakis’ corresponding calls for the United States to limit arms transfers to Turkey. Notable was his May 2022 address to a Joint Session of Congress to this effect, which resulted in a break in dialogue between Mitsotakis and Erdoğan.
American officials and members of Congress have generally sympathized with Athens in its conflicts with Turkey. As part of the 2023 defense budget, the House of Representatives voted to condition F-16 transfers to Turkey on Ankara’s restraint in “repeated unauthorized territorial overflights of Greece.”
Dilemma for Washington
The reelections of both Mitsotakis and Erdoğan put Washington in a bind.
On the one hand, Mitsotakis’ leadership provides a compelling rationale for strengthening American-Greek relations.
In contrast to Turkey, Athens has demonstrated its reliability as an ally in its support for Ukraine and enforcement of sanctions against Russia, its vote to allow Sweden’s entry into NATO and its democratic, Western orientation.
These arguments are persuasive to members of Congress, who are inclined to defer to a Greek lobby in the United States that has exceeded the influence of its Turkish counterpart since the Cold War.
At the same time, Erdoğan’s reelection in the face of criticism from NATO allies has given him a mandate to continue his confrontational policy toward Greece.
Erdoğan’s threats have been aimed not only at drawing support from Turkish nationalists, but also at litigating, as he sees it, the strategic depth Greece is attaining with American support.
While aides to Erdoğan’s opponent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, floated to American media the possibility of Turkey rejoining the F-35 program, Erdogan doubled down on demands for reimbursement related to its contributions to the program.
The case for slowing arms sales
The most significant issue now is the sale of F-35s to Greece.
The leading member of Biden’s Democratic Party on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, has already approved the sale of up to forty state-of-the-art fighter jets to Greece. He has alluded to Turkey’s “belligerent” behavior as a rationale. The top Republican, James Risch, is expected to follow now that the Turkish elections have been called.
American policy on F-35 sales is perceived as a barometer of Washington’s approach to the Greek-Turkish conflict, which provides the United States with an opportunity for recalibration.
A halt in F-35 sales to Greece would signal to Ankara that the United States is mindful of a balance of power in which Turkish defense capabilities are falling behind major powers in the region. Given that Turkey has only fourth-generation fighter jets, F-35s would give Greece air superiority in the Aegean Sea, upending a balance that has deterred military conflict between the two neighbors.
Slowing down the arms sale would have little military impact in the short term. The jets are not due to reach Greece before 2028 at the earliest. However, it would give American officials time to rebuild confidence with the Erdogan Administration.
Biden could explain any delay by citing domestic, rather than Turkish, concerns. The F-35 program is targeted in Washington as an epitome of wasteful military spending.
More generally, the improvement in American-Greek relations under Mitsotakis provides a foundation of trust necessary for both countries to deal with an emboldened leadership in Ankara. With Erdoğan in charge for another five years, a balance of power with Turkey ultimately furthers the American-Greek alliance.