A four-star officer, General Joseph Votel was until recently the US military’s central commander in the Middle East
Turkey’s behavior in the Aegean increases the risk in an area of strategic importance for NATO, which as such should not become an area of conflict. This is the message sent by the former Commander of the US Central Command, responsible for US and allied military operations in the Middle East, the Levant and Central and South Asia, General Joseph Votel, speaking to “K”. He spoke to us from his position now as president and CEO of the organization Business Executives for National Security, a few hours after visiting Alexandroupoli. Votel, a 4-star officer with considerable influence, does not mince his words, acknowledging that the port of Alexandroupoli removes Turkey’s strategic obstacle for NATO. He characterizes Washington’s relationship with Ankara as complicated anyway and believes that the US-Greece cooperation in Alexandroupoli leads their relationship “to a more important and strategic point”. The head of one of the most critical American administrations of recent years met with Greek government officials and in our conversation he stated that he was impressed by the visit to our country, where he also met American soldiers who were preparing to return to the USA via Alexandroupoli. He even shared with us that he will convey to the American government and the American business sector the best of his impressions with an eye toward further strengthening bilateral relations. What he told us about the Ukrainian front and how he commented on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
– You are the president of an organization that “marries” entrepreneurship with national security. What does this mean in the case of Alexandroupolis, which you actually visited in the last few days?
– Our organization’s work is to provide private sector input on US national security challenges. As we face new threats in Europe, we want to make sure the private sector understands what the US government is doing in Alexandroupolis, but also identify ways we can be useful by informing, supporting and leveraging the weight and capabilities of the business sector of USA. Ultimately, we believe that national security is not just the domain of our military or diplomats, but is actually the collective work of the public, private and civil sectors in the US.
– Practically, what is the value of US-Greek cooperation in Alexandroupoli? Would you say it upgrades bilateral relations?
– The value in Alexandroupoli is that the US and Greece share vital security interests that are satisfied, in part, by strong cooperation in this port. Not only does it improve our bilateral cooperation, but more importantly it provides unique capabilities and flexibility for the entire NATO alliance. I would certainly agree that the cooperation in Alexandroupolis takes our long-term relationship to a more important and strategic point.
– Would you say that the growing role and prospects of Alexandroupoli offer solutions that relieve the Western alliance? I will use another wording for the same question: How are US-Turkey relations shaping up as we speak? Is Erdogan’s double game with NATO and Russia something that can “pass” through the filter of American foreign policy?
– I believe that Alexandroupoli provides us with a bypass to overcome Turkish decisions that would limit NATO’s response to the growing Russian threat in Eastern Europe. I think the United States, like other countries, has a complicated relationship with Turkey, and in this case Alexandroupolis removes a strategic obstacle to our national interests and those of NATO. Calculating and considering Turkey’s national security goals and actions is nothing new for US policymakers.
– What is your reading of Turkey’s claims and broader behavior in the Aegean?
– I am not an expert on this subject, but I appreciate that it has the potential to add increased risk and complexity to an area of important security objectives for NATO. I personally believe that it is in our interest and in the interest of NATO that the Aegean does not become an area of conflict between the Treaty allies.
– With your experience as a four-star US military officer, what are your predictions for the Ukraine front and how far do you think Putin can go?
– My experience tells me that this conflict will continue for a long time – even if the Ukrainians are making good progress in their counter-attacks. I cannot predict what Mr. Putin will do, but the decisions and actions of Russian forces to date continue to underscore why we must take this story seriously, remain aligned as a NATO alliance, and ensure that the Ukrainian people will have the resources they need to resist. If we fail to check Mr. Putin in Ukraine, I fear we will end up dealing with him elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
– By the way, you were one of the last commanders of the US military presence in Afghanistan. With the Taliban in the background, do you think the American withdrawal turned out for the best?
– I think a US withdrawal from Afghanistan would be difficult under any circumstances. Unfortunately, I don’t think the way we left made the region any more stable or secure, and it certainly didn’t leave the good Afghan people any better off. They deserve peace and stability, which they are not getting under the Taliban regime.