Francois, the Duc de la Rochfoucauld, came to his famous book of maxims after a career in regular soldiering, and then in warfare between factions of the French court in the mid-17th century. He lost his home, his health, his love, and his fortune, but not his courage or wits. It is for those that he is remembered. Warring is different from posturing, the duke warned: “We are never so ridiculous through qualities we have, as through those we pretend to have.”
When the Turks kill Greek airmen and spy on Greece’s defences, Greek politicians pretend to peace-making with Turkey, deploying their paper missiles as if Greece’s voters cannot tell the difference between the ones that draw blood, and the ones that draw ridicule. This posturing invites the Turkish general staff to dispatch ever more aircraft to challenge and demoralize Greece’s defenders, in the confidence that the latter, and ) their superiors, have lost the will to fight; or will soon enough.
There was a time, almost twenty years ago, when the Turks learned differently, and stayed out of the Aegean for a long time afterwards.
For George Papandreou, the Pasok (Greek socialist party) leader whose idea it was in 1999 to pursue rapprochement with the enemy, his ‘forgetfulness of the lesson his father taught Ankara is even more ridiculous than his call following the May 23 clash near Karpathos.
In that incident, a Turkish spy plane and its escorts were intercepted by a Greek fighter. In circumstances that are not clear, there was an aerial collision, which downed Turkish and Greek fighter planes, and killed the Greek pilot. Papandreou said afterwards that “Turkey must operate “within the framework of good neighbourly relations”. George is not the man his father was, and so his ‘must’ has all the battle force of a drum-boy, compared to an artilleryman. In recent years, there have been dozens of Turkish incursions each year, and more than a dozen Greek pilots have been killed trying to intercept them. And yet it was in 1987 that George’s father, Andreas Papandreou, demonstrated how to win a war with the Turks without sounding either a drum or a cannon, without firing a single shot, or losing a single life. His victory in the Aegean War of that year ought to be a lesson for Greeks today.
What happened was that then, as now, the Turkish military and government in Ankara made all sorts of claims to the Aegean that defied international pacts, air, maritime, and territorial rules, navigation protocols, and the like. In their challenges to Greek sovereignty, it was understood in Athens that the Turks were encouraged by the Reagan Administration in Washington, with one special objective: the Americans had been trying for years to topple Prime Minister Papandreou. They thought that if he were humiliated by a show of Turkish power in the Aegean, and didn’t dare to fight it, he would discredit himself in front of the Greek electorate, and be voted out of office.
Andreas believed that Turkish incursions in the Aegean could be repelled, but only by a show of such force as to demonstrate to Ankara and Washington that, outnumbered and outgunned though the Greeks might be, they would exact such a price in blood that the outcome of the conflict could not be predicted confidently by Greece’s enemies. Accordingly, in secret, Andreas devised his plan of preemptive war. When the Turks dispatched a geological survey vessel into the Aegean to survey the seabed, the Greek seabed, for oil – despite dozens of prior warnings – Andreas moved swiftly. Fighter-bombers were rolled out of their revetments to takeoff position, fully armed, on three-minute warning. Greek tanks started to roll towards the Turkish border. The electricity supply to American intelligence posts in Greece was cut off. And, the biggest surprise of all, Todor Zhivkov, then the ruler of Communist Bulgaria, and member of the Warsaw Pact, started moving his armour and troops towards his frontier with Turkey, according to a personal agreement with Andreas. Never in the short, discreditable history of confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact had two armies of each allied themselves in a common military enterprise. It was a show that multiplied more force than the Turks or the Americans had imagined possible on four fronts. The survey vessel was ordered to turn about, and the Turkish prime minister was flown to Houston for emergency cardiological care.
It was Andreas’s strategy that won that war, and for the two years in which he remained in power, the Turks did not dare to challenge him militarily. The strategy was simple – Andreas believed that the only method that would persuade the Turks to stop their military adventuring against Greece is fear of force. To make that fear palpable, he thought it was also necessary to persuade their masters in Washington that Greeks can say “ohi”, and will kill and die, again, if they must. The last and most famous time a Greek prime minister said “ohi” was when Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, demanded that Athens allow his troops to occupy the country. In the alpine war which followed, the Italians were defeated, and had to call Hitler for rescue; the Germans then occupied Greece for the remainder of World War II.
Today Andreas’s son pretends that the Turks can be dissuaded from attacking Greece if they are offered the reward of accession to the European Union. President Karolos Papoulias, for whom the lesson of 1987 ought to be equally familiar, pontificated after the May 23 fight that “good neighbourly relations are not just a rhetorical turn of phrase or declaration of intent, but concrete acts.” He too imagines that Greece holds the key to accession. In fact, it has been the voters of France and the Netherlands who said “ohi”, before the Greeks dared by rejecting ratification of the proposed amendments to the EU Constitution. If Turkey is to listen seriously to the President of Greece or the Pasok leader, let them learn that after saying “ohi”, Greeks are ready to kill and to die.
Grim though that prescription is, Greeks don’t have the soft choices which the current government in Athens or its Pasok predecessor have offered them. But perhaps a strategic shift is coming, which may once again enable Greece and Cyprus to regain leverage against the Turkish alliance.
Russia has begun to signal that it may soon be ready to deploy a fleet at a new naval base to be constructed at Tartus, on the Mediterranean shore in Syria. Dredging at the port has already commenced, along with a range of dual-purpose developments along the coast to Latakia. Naturally, the return of a powerful Russian naval squadron to the o Mediterranean is intended for cooperative anti-terrorism operations with the NATO powers. Should the naval base eventuate, it would cast a protective shadow, though no longer a red shadow, over Syria, and possibly even Lebanon. On June 7, the Defence Ministry denied it intends to build up Tartus as a naval base. It did not deny that the Russian Navy will return to the Mediterranean, or that Tartus will serve as a supply point.
The return of Russian military power to the Mediterranean is also a return to the balance of power conditions in the region which, not only in the 20th century but earlier, have deterred Turkish expansionism, and sustained Greek freedom. Of course, Greece cannot make the mistake of counting on Russia to defend her from Turkish tactics; the Cretans learned that lesson almost three centuries ago. But the Greeks can count on the Russians to deter the Turks, and also the Americans. It is new world beckoning, but it is also an old one – one which the brief alliance between Andreas Papandreou and Todor Zhivkov foreshadowed in 1987.
* John Helmer, The Russia Journal columnist, was an advisor to Prime Minister Papandreou between 1982 and 1989, and participated in the planning for the Aegean events of 1987.