How the War in Ukraine Transformed A Quiet Greek Port into a Geopolitical Center

How the War in Ukraine Transformed A Quiet Greek Port into a Geopolitical Center

Situated in the northeastern region of Greece, Alexandroupolis has evolved into a key strategic point for the transit of supplies and weaponry to Ukraine.

In the days since Moscow canceled its participation in the Ukraine grain shipment deal, there has been much proverbial gnashing of teeth in Washington, Brussels, Kyiv, and other capitals. Primarily, the concern is how to proceed with the shipment of vital foodstuffs to developing countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, which are dependent on Ukrainian exports to sustain the diets of their combined populations of hundreds of millions of citizens.

Skilled diplomats have been tasked with bringing together the parties again, to meet Moscow’s conditions for resuming Black Sea exports, and sustaining Ukraine’s battered wartime economy in what may be just the initial phase of a years-long struggle with Russian armed forces. But even so, strategic thought is required now to adapt to the transformed geopolitics of not only the Black Sea region, but throughout southeastern Europe, where NATO and EU borders form the trans-Atlantic frontier with Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus amid perennial shifts in Europe’s fragile security architecture.

One ideal option is centered in the northern Greek Aegean port of Alexandroupolis, whose modest size and economy belie the significant opportunities it offers to resolve the conundrum of maritime supply lines embarking from Odesa and other Ukrainian ports through the Mediterranean Sea to foreign markets.

The Strategic Importance of Alexandroupolis

Located in a relatively underdeveloped region of northern Greece, several miles from the Turkish border and 60 miles north of the Dardanelles Straits that lead into the Black Sea, Alexandroupolis is the starting point for a vertical corridor that leads directly north into Bulgaria and Romania, which shares a 380-mile border with Ukraine.

The overland corridor runs parallel to current Black Sea shipping lanes closed off to Ukrainian exports by the Russian navy, serving as a gateway to southern Europe without having to enter the perilous Black Sea theater, thereby saving precious transportation time and costs and providing a superior alternative in the face of Moscow’s intimidation campaign.

According to the U.S. Defense Department, the port has provided strategic readiness, logistics support, and power projection, enabled by robust synchronization between the United States and Greece.

Washington’s interest began about five years ago, as the Trump administration sought to help Athens develop a pro-Western anchor point to compete with the Chinese-controlled port of Piraeus, acquired by Beijing during the 2008 financial crisis when U.S. and European companies rejected Athens’ pleas to invest in the modernization of that historic port city. The State Department was also concerned about Greece’s major northern port of Thessaloniki, owned by a Greek-Russian businessman with party ties to Vladimir Putin.

Under the most recent Mutual Defense and Cooperation Agreement with Greece, the United States has helped advance plans to upgrade Alexandroupolis into a strategic logistics hub whose expansion plans now include military, energy, and transportation. In the three years prior to the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Pentagon had already transported enormous arsenals, including 117,000 tons of U.S. military equipment, including seventy planes and 165 armored vehicles, all through Alexandroupolis.

In the sixteen months since the start of the conflict, the port has been a critical maritime lifeline for supplying NATO forces on Ukraine’s western border, providing constant resupply of weapons, foodstuffs, and essential humanitarian supplies to provide for the country’s ravaged citizenry, as well as to millions of Ukrainian refugees throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

Alexandroupolis’ existing infrastructure includes a usable 500-yard post space, along with adequate road and rail links north into NATO’s eastern flank. It retains excess spare capacity, unlike Piraeus and Thessaloniki, and has granted priority access to U.S. military forces. U.S. defense secretary Lloyd Austin publicly recognized Greece’s role in enabling “the expansion of U.S. forces in Greece to support the United States and NATO’s objectives for strategic access in the region,” especially in Ukraine.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallender visited the port in February, reportedly followed by CIA director William Burns in June. Their presence marks the growing U.S. interest in the port for both military logistics and strategic energy supplies. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez visited in August 2022, as the Pentagon moved 2,400 light armored vehicles, weapons, and ammunition boxes through the port. At a committee hearing in Washington last week, Menendez called Alexandroupolis “the Souda of the North and a major NATO energy and transshipment hub.” He was comparing the Aegean port to the strategic deep-water port of Souda Bay on the southern Greek island of Crete, which provides operational support to the U.S., NATO, and coalition forces throughout the eastern Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and northern African theaters.

During the course of the Ukraine war, Alexandroupolis has served as the starting point for scores of rail missions and about 4,500 truckloads into Balkan and Baltic states, delivering more than 2,400 tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters. For the recent annual Defender Europe 23 exercise in eastern Europe, the Pentagon’s local logistics team coordinated the shipment of more than 600 pieces of military equipment and vehicles within just four days—and the Pentagon plans to install heavy equipment to handle even more cargo.

The port’s proven NATO interoperability, readiness, and ability to deploy allied forces has multiplied its strategic value for long-term regional planning. British, French, Italian, and Portuguese forces have all used the port since its ongoing expansion. Cargo ships docking at Alexandroupolis unload directly onto, and load from, four parallel rail systems running through Bulgaria and Romania, reaching Poland in as little as five days.

The newly re-elected government of Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is proceeding with a major port modernization plan that includes improved rail, road, pipeline, and sea-land infrastructure to interconnect central and eastern Europe. In June, U.S. ambassador to Athens George Tsunis convened in the port a meeting of diplomats from western Black Sea countries to explore deepening cooperation and strengthening infrastructure, corridors, and networks that cross and connect Greece with Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova.

In this context, their regional governments are assessing how best to transport Ukrainian grain to Alexandroupolis en route to dependent foreign markets in nearby northern Africa and the Middle East. According to the European Commission, Ukraine accounts for 10 percent of the world’s wheat market, 15 percent of the corn market, 13 percent of the barley market, and a substantial portion of the global sunflower oil sector.

This project is bolstered by a $1.1 billion European Union investment upgrade to add extra track, electrify the entire underutilized rail system, and connect the port to the EU’s Trans-European Transport Network. The first phase involves a 35-million-euro project to deepen the port, purchase cranes, build new warehouses to store as much as 200,000 tons of Ukrainian grain exports per month, and construct a local ring-road bypass.

This will facilitate a substantial, if incomplete, replacement of traditional Black Sea shipping routes for Ukrainian grain exports, as Alexandroupolis is not currently deep enough to handle the largest bulk carriers. It would also enable exporters to avoid expensive war risk insurance premiums currently in place for Black Sea shipping.

An Potential Energy Hub

Concurrently, Europe seeks to accelerate its independence from Russian hydrocarbons. The eastern Mediterranean region can provide abundant liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies from offshore reserves in Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, and potentially Greece that would be shipped to a floating storage and regasification unit under construction just off the coast of Alexandroupolis and set to begin operation by January 2024.

American and Qatari LNG supplies are also expected to be in the mix of up to 5.5 billion cubic meters of annual capacity linked inland via the port to an expanding network of natural gas pipelines delivering LNG through the port into central and western Balkan economies, through North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Serbia, and eventually into Albania, Montenegro, and Croatia along the Adriatic coast. A second future floating terminal southwest of Alexandroupolis is already moving forward.

In addition, expanding the current Trans-Adriatic Pipeline moving Azeri gas through Turkey into northern Greece, expanding the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria pipeline, and potentially reversing the Trans-Balkan pipeline to carry natural gas northward from Greece through Bulgaria, Romania, and possibly Ukraine and Moldova can together transform the regional energy grid of southeastern Europe.

Overall plans for Alexandroupolis include an ambitious expansion plan adding significant dock space, a new cargo terminal, an extra 500-meter pier, and a bypass to the local motorway to connect to the modest 8,470-foot runway airport only three miles away, and especially to the 420-mile Egnatia highway across northern Greece, linking the western Ionian Sea ports to Istanbul in the east.

Ankara has viewed these Greek port developments skeptically, through the prism of Black Sea competition rather than operational complementarity. The vertical axis north of Alexandroupolis will enhance transshipment options beyond the choke points of the Dardanelles and Bosporus Straits controlled by Turkey, and the northern route through Poland into western Ukraine. Such a configuration will become essential when a peace agreement is eventually achieved, and the projected half-trillion dollars of reconstruction materials, equipment, and energy capacity will need to rebuild Ukraine’s battered infrastructure and persuade millions of refugees to return home to a secure post-war environment.