Without Europe's support, you can't blame Greeks reaching out to Moscow
Published 18/06/2015 | 02:30
We can't afford to lose Greece to Russia. The country may not be able to stay in the euro, but it must be given reason to resist Moscow.
In the early hours of March 18, 2013, 22 M-1 Abrams tanks were loaded on to a train in Kaiserslautern, Germany. From there they slowly rolled 400 miles north, to Bremerhaven, were they were shipped back to Charleston, South Carolina.
After a continuous 69-year presence on the Continent, the last American battle tanks in Europe were gone. If there was ever a sign of America's new military priorities, this was it. The Cold War, the tanks' departure declared in no uncertain terms, was over. Conventional land warfare, it signalled, was finished. From now on, fighting was going to be done differently, and elsewhere. Drones and nimble special forces units were the anti-terror spearheads of the future, while a bolstered naval presence in the Pacific emphasised the Obama administration's foreign policy "pivot" from Europe to Asia.
Well, it was a brief holiday. For the assumptions of 2013 were wrong, and now the tanks are coming back. This time they will be spread across six countries in Eastern Europe, along with other heavy kit - enough of it to support a brigade of American troops in Baltic nations which feel particularly threatened by Vladimir Putin's expansionism.
Russia declared the move "the most aggressive step" since the Cold War. But beyond the hyperbole, the reality is clear: the strategic certainties of a couple of years ago have been turned on their head today. In Washington, it has dawned that the ideological victory of the Cold War, which brought peace and democracy to half of our Continent, still needs to be secured and defended. That makes it all the more odd that Europe itself is currently doing everything it can to push Greece out of the door. This is a country whose ancient history provides the cornerstone of what it means to be European. A country which, much more recently, fought valiantly against the Nazis, and then, in the aftermath of that conflict, proved one of the earliest battlegrounds of the Cold War itself.
It was not a battle won easily. Tens of thousands died; half a million were made refugees in four years of fighting. In the decades afterwards the ideological battle persisted. Greece's Marxist terror group, November 17, was disbanded only in 2002, two years after assassinating Stephen Saunders, the British military attache in Athens. To this day, November 17 marks the date of an annual march to the gates of the American embassy in the city - a march which habitually turns violent. Tens of thousands take part.
A communist Greek revolution today may seem a laughable idea. Just as with the Baltic states, we like to imagine that the West's ideological victory in the land of tavernas and so many British summer holidays is irreversible. But it is not. Earlier this year, Russia signed an agreement with Cyprus to give Russian naval vessels access to Cypriot ports. On Greece's islands this year you will hear Russian everywhere.
The West's sphere of influence cannot be taken for granted, neither in Greece nor the Balkan peninsular which it caps. We must not be complacent. And yet if I was Greek - pension slashed, and dictated to by Berlin - I would be sorely tempted to reach out to Moscow too.
Never mind that the perils of having fallen the wrong side of the Iron Curtain are all too clearly exemplified by Greece's neighbours. Greeks themselves would shudder at the idea that their nation is on a par with Albania, say, or Romania. Yet in last year's Legatum think tank Prosperity Index, Greece was ranked 59th in the world. Romania came 60th. Four years into its debt crisis, living standards were collapsing. Today things are worse. The status quo is not working. Russian roubles must be all too appealing.
Of course the Greeks are architects of some -much - of their own downfall. Corruption has been widespread. The time has probably come to draw a line under negotiations to keep it in the euro, which seem only to prolong its agony and entrench bitterness on both sides. Bullying and intransigence must give way to a constructive and realistic plan to parachute Greece out of the single currency, achieve the devaluation the country needs, while keeping ties strong between Athens, London, Paris, Berlin and Washington.
How is this to be achieved?
The answer dates to the 1940s, back at the outset of those 69 years which American battle tanks were to spend in Europe. While the armour was being unloaded in Germany, so was the aid. The Marshall Plan is largely remembered as a giant cash giveaway by the United States. In fact, it was a programme of debt forgiveness and trade integration floating on top of a newly constituted currency - the occupation Deutsche Mark put into circulation by the US Army. Regulations and red tape were pruned, tariffs and trade barriers reduced. The main beneficiary was West Germany.
Greece needs a new Marshall Plan now. It needs the practical, financial leg up that a new, devalued currency and continued participation in the EU's free trade club would bring. But it also needs emotional support - a firm gesture from Europe that we see its future with us. That is not a bail-out. That is strategic self-interest.