NIKOS EVANGELATOS: First of all, Minister, I would like to ask you about the current condition at the Units, the Centers and all the services of the Hellenic Army, with regard to the coronavirus. How is the situation described, what do the reports you receive say?
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: I reckon that due to the good results -the small number of coronavirus cases reported so far in the Armed Forces throughout the country- the measures are working.
Of course, this does not mean that we have reached a point where we can unwind or relax the measures yet. We work almost everyday, in a top-down approach, both the Political and the Military Leadership of the Ministry, all three Services and of course the entire personnel, to ensure security for the Armed Forces personnel. Overall, we had approximately 30 coronavirus cases or maybe a little more than that, and now we have 21. We are somehow satisfied with this number.
We could not possibly fully guarantee that no member of the Armed Forces would get infected, but I believe we did well so far.
NIKOS EVANGELATOS: If I am properly informed, this reserved satisfaction appears to derive from the small degree of dispersion. Let us not forget that the military camps, but also the offices in general, are sites where people work close to each other, and not much could be done from home, since the Country has its needs. It appears no service has been badly hit, since you handled the situation on time…
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Indeed, the first series of measures was taken really early. On 11 March, we announced the first series of measures and others followed, because we had frequent meetings, in order to see where we stand every time and consider further steps to be taken.
From the beginning, there was full communication with services of the Ministry of Health, the Public Health National Organization and our own Healthcare services. We set in order a series of measures, like suspending transfers, spacing out the conscripts, especially in the Units, and having the personnel working in rotation; as you can understand, no service of the Armed Forces could stop functioning.
However, it was less critical for some of these services, compared to others, to function on a daily basis; for instance, the Army History Directorate. Nonetheless, the Units functioned as usual. The personnel’s movements were confined to the extent possible, the cadets in Military Schools stayed indoors, and will continue so a little longer. They will be patient but I believe that it is worth it, since there are zero coronavirus cases there. Not even one! I believe the general result allows optimism.
NIKOS EVANGELATOS: Let me refer now to something else, the things we hear from our Eastern neighbours. Some claim that there may be some kind of ‘biological threat’. I say this with caution: they may attempt to forward refugees-immigrants, who may be coronavirus patients, or make attempts inside the hot spots, as the upheaval we saw on Holy Saturday in the “VIAL” Refugee Camp. Do the Ministry and the government have such signs?
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: The Ministry of National Defence and the General Staffs process all scenarios. All scenarios are on the table, even if Turkey had no intention to launch such a ‘biological weapon’, meaning immigrants infected by the virus. Even then, given the bad health conditions in the spots where immigrants are kept and guarded inside Turkey, as well as Turkey’s overall coronavirus issue, it is possible that patients infected by the virus will try to enter our country.
So, one way or another, we must take measures and give directions to those guarding the Greek land and sea borders.
NIKOS EVANGELATOS: Minister, do you have signs for a coordinated plan?
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: The information we have is rather cloudy. This may be part of a general plan or not. The information may derive from the facts and developments of events.
In any case, one way or another, we speculate that people who are infected by the virus may come to Greece. Therefore, we now have an extra dimension of this issue to consider, a health threat, which did not exist a while ago. That is why we must adjust to this dimension, as I had the chance to explain to my EU counterparts last week, during the video conferences we had.
NIKOS EVANGELATOS: So, Greece sets this officially on the table. We heard and saw it last week..
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Allow me to add that, just like we presented, back in November, the dimension of terrorists or jihadists trying to penetrate refugee and migratory flows towards Europe through Greece, we also added now an extra dimension, of health nature.
NIKOS EVANGELATOS: On the other side, we see Turkey having a hard time with increased coronavirus cases and the financial impact on its rather fragile economy due to the whole situation while, at the same time, sending a research vessel within Cypriot EEZ. We hear opinions that, in the context of Turkey’s agreement, the invalid agreement with Libya, we might soon see some other vessel as well -perhaps south of Crete-, we might hear again about Turkey’s ‘Blue Homeland’, a new wave of provocations. I would like a comment from you, as well as the Greek Government’s and your Ministry’s estimations, regarding their next steps…
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Look, we do not cherish illusions. We knew that Turkey would not stop its planning, it would not stop provoking Greece and the International Law, despite the fact that the coronavirus issue badly affects it domestically.
In any case, we make our plans, we deal with our matters, as they deal with theirs, as I usually say. We maintain our Armed Forces in such status, as to always project their deterrent power. It is a fact that, despite the coronavirus problems, the transgressions, violations and overflights continue, an element of quality upgrade of this provocative behavior. Anyway, once again, we are there, to perform reconnaissance, to intercept and turn away every aircraft entering our airspace..
NIKOS EVANGELATOS: Do you think we might see an escalation?
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: The point I want to make is that the virus and the disease have certainly influenced the function of Turkey’s Armed Forces; the same goes for all countries. Consequently, everybody is obliged to adjust to the new reality. They minimize their activities, they call off exercises, they postpone people’s attendance, especially regarding exercises with many participants.
Other than that, the fact remains that Turkey insists on keeping the same behavior. We would prefer a different one, since we want to have good and not bad neighbourly relations. Since we cannot change this, we try to adjust; besides, the Armed Forces adjusted to this reality a long time ago, by performing its duty, to fully defend our country’s sovereign rights.
NIKOS EVANGELATOS: My last question refers to whether you believe that in the summer we may, for instance, have some movement of a Turkish ship within those limits agreed with a part of Libya, also due to the financial problems that Turkey will face if it resorts to the IMF or elsewhere. That is, will Turkey attempt to transfer the crisis elsewhere, through Greek territory?
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Even in periods of domestic crisis, Turkey has proven that it reacts this way, by transferring -as I have said before- tension towards Greece. So, anything can happen.
It is a fact that the financial impact with regard to the disease and Turkey in general, is currently unpromising. They face big issues with their economy, just like the rest of the world. This, as you know, cannot be overcome without consequences. No one can function as before.
In any case though, we are prepared for all eventualities. Delimitating a so-called Turkish-Libyan EEZ, a false EEZ, as we have called it since last November, certainly serves a purpose. We are waiting -or we waited- to see some movement the closer we get to the summer; we are ready for all eventualities.
I would prefer to only see tourist movement on both sides of the Aegean. We do not know if this is possible or if it is just my wishful thinking, because this kind of movement will be affected by the disease as well, but I wish we could avoid such scenarios. In any case, the Hellenic Armed Forces are ready for all eventualities. We must repeat that; we are concerned, yet we are not afraid.