ALEXANDROUPOLI, Greece — It’s an unlikely geopolitical flashpoint: a concrete pier in a small coastal town, barely used a few years ago and still occupied only by seagulls most of the time.
But the sleepy port of Alexandroupoli in northeastern Greece has played a pivotal role in increasing the US military presence in Eastern Europe, with the Pentagon ferrying huge arsenals through here in what he describes as the effort to contain Russian aggression. The flow has angered not just Russia, but also neighboring Turkey, underscoring how the war in Ukraine is reshaping Europe’s economic and diplomatic relations.
Turkey and Greece are both members of NATO, but there is long-standing animosity between them, including a dispute over Cyprus and territorial disputes in the Mediterranean, and Turkey considers a deeper relationship between Greece and Washington as a potential threat.
The spike in military activity has been welcomed by the Greek government, most of its Balkan neighbors and local residents, who hope the Americans will boost the regional economy and provide security amid rising regional tensions.
“We are a small country,” said Yiannis Kapelas, 53, a cafe owner in Alexandroupoli. “It’s a good thing to have a great country to protect us.”
The imminent sale of the port of Alexandroupoli raises the strategic stakes. Four business groups are competing to buy a majority stake – two include US companies, backed by Washington, and two have ties to Russia.
US military operations in Greece have expanded significantly since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, and senior Russian and Turkish officials have called it a national security threat.
“Against whom were they established? Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in June, referring to US military outposts in Greece. “The answer they give is ‘against Russia.’ We don’t buy it.
While most NATO members have sided emphatically with Ukraine, Erdogan – ever ready to chart a different course – has positioned Turkey as a mediator.
In May, the Greek Foreign Ministry said Turkish warplanes violated the country’s airspace over Alexandroupoli, 11 miles from the Turkish border. The incident puzzled local residents concerned about Turkey’s claims to parts of Greece.
The complex interplay of interests in Alexandroupoli highlights how the war is shifting Europe’s strategic focus to the Black Sea region.
“The Black Sea is back on the global agenda in an unprecedented way,” said Ilian Vassilev, Bulgaria’s former ambassador to Moscow, who now works as a strategic consultant. “Security in the Black Sea is at the heart of the question of how to contain and deal with Russia.”
Greece and Russia share deep historical, economic and cultural ties centered on the common Orthodox Christian religion. Greeks are among the few Europeans who largely want to maintain economic ties with Russia, according to polls. But the war in Ukraine has put a strain on these ties.
The occupation of Ukrainian lands has struck a chord with Greeks, many of whom see parallels between the imperial rhetoric of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the territorial claims of Turkey, whose predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, ruled Greece For centuries. The fate of Ukrainians has also affected Greek families whose ancestors fled Turkish pogroms in the early 20th century.
“We know the pain of refugees,” said Dimosthenis Karavoltsos, a tavern waiter from Alexandroupoli. “There was no question in my mind about which side we should be on.”
Greece’s conservative government was one of the first to send military aid to Ukraine, prompting the Kremlin to put it on a list of “hostile” nations. Fear of Turkey and solidarity with Ukraine have brought Greece closer to Washington and granted the United States expanded military access in several places.
The amount of war material sent from the United States through Alexandroupoli increased almost fourteen times last year – before the war, but as tensions with Russia rose – to reach 3,100 “pieces”, a catch-all term used by the Pentagon to refer to all kinds of equipment, from tanks to ammunition. It has already equaled that figure this year.
US officials say the equipment is intended only for US military units stationed in Eastern and Northern Europe, not Ukraine.
The jump in activity is a dramatic turnaround for a minor port that remained largely inactive for nearly a decade, stranded by a sunken barge that the US Navy retired in 2019.
The city’s languid vibe changes every few months as American warships dock to unload tanks, trucks and artillery. The arrival of hundreds of Americans causes periodic shortages of eggs and cigarettes, and queues outside tattoo parlors.
Between these bursts of activity, few signs indicated the new importance of the city. On the beach promenade by the harbor, couples push buggies and day trippers, mostly from Turkey, take selfies under the town’s lighthouse. Civilian shipping remains minimal due to the lack of large cranes, but the Pentagon is installing heavy equipment to handle more cargo.
“What we’ve done is turn the port into a vibrant military operations center,” said Andre Cameron, who oversees US military logistics at the port. “Nothing like this has been done here before.”
Local officials said they hope the port’s military upgrades will attract investment in other industries, turning Alexandroupoli into a trade hub for neighboring Bulgaria, Romania and even stranded Ukraine.
The growing strategic importance of the port has highlighted the Russian ties of two Greek business groups competing to take it over.
One group is led by Ivan Savvidis, a Russian-Greek oligarch who has served in the Russian parliament and sits on a foreign relations committee that advises Putin. “Greek by birth, Russian by lifestyle, Orthodox by faith,” reads a statement on the Savvidis website, which features a photo of him with Putin.
Savvidis’ bid could be complicated by its ownership of the port of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest, which could breach competition laws. His spokesperson declined to comment.
Another bidder, a subsidiary of a Greek conglomerate, Copelouzos Group, is more complex, pointing to Greece’s shifting economic ties.
Copelouzos is the local partner of Russian gas company Gazprom and, in a joint venture called Prometheus Gas, is Greece’s third-largest natural gas supplier. The Copelouzos Group built – and, until 2016, operated – the airport in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
A diplomatic note on the group’s founder, Dimitrios Copelouzos, written by the US Ambassador to Greece in 2007 and published by WikiLeaks is titled: “Gazprom under another name?
Competitors and critics of Copelouzos say these ties make him vulnerable to pressure from Gazprom, jeopardizing the future of Alexandroupoli’s strategic operations.
“There are significant concerns because the situation with Russia may deteriorate,” said John Charalambakis, owner of BlackSummit Financial Group, a US asset management firm that is vying for control of Alexandroupoli. “The fact that Russia uses energy as a weapon is an important factor.”
Concerns about Copelouzos’ Russian ties are shared by some members of Congress, according to two congressional staffers familiar with the matter. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The Copelouzos group is a private company and does not make its financial performance public, but says its joint venture with Gazprom represents a tiny part of its business portfolio, which covers construction, real estate and energy.
“The group has many cooperations around the world with many companies,” said Ioannis Arapoglou, general manager of the Copelouzos group. Prometheus Gas “is just one of them, and relatively small 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, intended to reduce Balkan dependence on Russian gas by bolstering supplies from the United States.
For his part, Charalambakis, the American businessman, said his interest in the port began in 2018, when Washington’s then-ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, told him that American companies were to begin to compete with Russia and China for influence there.
Washington’s growing attention was underscored on Wednesday, when Sen. Robert Menendez, DN.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, made a surprise visit to Alexandroupoli.
Greece has been steadily privatizing strategic assets since the start of its debt crisis in 2009. The port of Thessaloniki went to Savvidis; the port of Piraeus, the largest in Greece, to a Chinese public company.
Pyatt, who left the post in May, has frequently spoken in favor of both US bids for Alexandroupoli.
The other US bidder, Quintana Infrastructure & Development, declined to comment.
The Copelouzos Group’s shift to US partners reflects Greece’s changing economic reality, as the sanctioned and declining Russian economy offers fewer opportunities.
This pragmatic approach resonates with Alexandroupoli. Local officials and businessmen hope the war in Ukraine and regional tensions will turn the port into an alternative supply route that bypasses the Turkish-held strait to the Black Sea.
“Every crisis creates opportunities,” said Konstantinos Chatzikonstantinou, CEO of Alexandroupoli Port Authority.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.