Greek and US military aircraft recently welcomed North Macedonia’s accession to the NATO alliance, flying in the Balkan country’s airspace.
Within the contours of the Skopje Flight Information Region (FIR), four Hellenic Air Force F-16 fighter jets accompanied a pair of American B-1B bombers that were carrying out a long-range strategic Bomber Task Force mission over European countries and in the Black Sea region in the context of advancing alliance interoperability and highlighting the cooperation of NATO members.
The news offered fresh confirmation of Greece’s critical role in the Balkans.
The present government has left behind domestic divisions over the Prespes name deal, which was signed by the previous leftist administration, and rightly takes every opportunity to stress that Greece will fully abide with the agreement. This is seen as a sign of respect for the institutional continuity of the Greek state, but it is also driven by the need to serve the country's geopolitical interests.
Meanwhile, the name deal is still being met with opposition inside North Macedonia. As the country heads to parliamentary elections (the polls were originally scheduled for April 12 but had to be postponed amid concerns over the coronavirus), democracy remains fragile and the mood deeply polarized.
So Greek jets are monitoring North Macedonian airspace in a gesture that has the obvious symbolism, but also substance, as it aims to keep at bay the ambitions of other regional players to expand their influence into Greece’s northern neighbor.
It should be noted here that Turkey and Bulgaria had both sought to undertake the task of policing North Macedonia’s airspace. Turkey had in fact linked the potential of policing the Skopje FIR with the setting up of a Turkish military base in the Balkan state.
The Hellenic Air Force is meanwhile monitoring the airspace of two more Balkan states – Montenegro and Albania. Greece is thereby in a position to project its military might beyond its national borders, always in the context of collective decision-making and the consent of the countries involved in the scheme – and not through exerting any kind of pressure or promoting arbitrary claims.
North Macedonia’s NATO membership will facilitate bilateral defense cooperation between Skopje and Athens. The latter is the Balkan country’s natural partner not only in terms of security but also economic development and trade.
At the same time, it will allow Greece to play a role in the transfiguration and setting of strategic goals by the armed forces of NATO’s latest member – a process that will have obvious repercussions for the region’s geostrategic landscape.