“This could be the start of World War III,” said my Greek interlocutor, referring to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel from Gaza. “You are fighting for us,” he later added.
At first, I didn’t take him seriously. Having lived many years in Israel, I’ve long been used to thinking of Hamas as “our” problem – one that much of the rest of the world didn’t understand. Hamas has been killing Israeli civilians and firing rockets on Israeli cities for years and most of the rest of the world never seemed to car. Why would it be any different this time?
But something is different. Spending much of the first week of the war in Greece, it was patently obvious that people not normally inclined to be pro-Israel were dramatically affected by the stories being reported from Israeli communities along the border with Gaza. At first, it was small things, like the owner of my flat buying me a beer and talking about the wars Greece had been through. Then it was a grocer who gave me a free banana when she heard I had come from Israel. At a vape shop next door to my lodgings, the young owner shook my hand and proudly told me that he stood with Israel.
What is different this time? For one thing, the terrorists made their crimes too relatable to everyday people in the West. I noticed that different people related to different atrocities committed on the same day Hamas – choosing the ones that spoke most to their circumstances as truly horrifying. The greengrocer, a middle aged woman, believed people who raped, killed and paraded the bodies of women through the streets couldn’t possibly have a soul. The young and hip vape shop owner described in detail to my apartment owner how the Hamas terrorist attacked the rave at Re’im. A parent whose Greek son had just finished studying music at Tel Aviv University was worried about his son’s classmates. And a waiter who saw the Israeli flag and shekels pop up as an option when I paid for dinner with my credit card, simply said, “You from Israel? You have problem.”
Everyone with a heart can relate to what happened on Oct. 7 on some level and the attack was too big and too widely covered for most people to ignore.
What’s this talk of a World War?
Okay, so people in Greece, and many places elsewhere, suddenly empathize with Israelis and Israel after it faced the biggest terror attack in its history. Why call it the beginning of a World War? As far as I know, no one in Washington DC or the other major capitals of the West is framing it this way. But this is not the first time I’ve heard it in the Balkans.
Before I heard it in Greece, I heard something similar several years before on two separate trips I made to Serbia. It came from the mouths of both some young Serbs I randomly met as well as much older Serbian officials. The young Serbs pointed to Serbia’s history fighting the Ottoman Empire as sharing something in common with Israel, presumably it’s fight with Muslim Arabs. While the Serbian youth I met didn’t call this a World War, Serb officialdom was less reticent. From at least one government official, I received lectures on Iranian support for Bosnia and Herzegovina since the ‘90s, when it was led by Islamist president Alija Izetbegovic. Then it was mentioned in the context of the 1998-1999 war and subsequent confrontations with what were described as (Muslim) Albanian gangster terrorists in Kosovo. The region of Kosovo and Metohija was even explicitly compared to Jerusalem in its religious and national significance to Serbs – something that was also apparent when reading Serbian national media. The implication was clear: both Serbia and Israel are victims in the Global War on Terror and natural allies.
Who are we fighting and where is Russia?
This talk of a World War, of course, immediately beckons the question: Who are the sides? The people I talked to Greece weren’t entirely clear if it was all Muslims, Islamist terrorists and their allies, or specific countries in the Middle East, like Iran. But two things were clear: the West/Europe needed to be defended from an onslaught and Russia was picking the wrong side. Several times the war in the Ukraine was mentioned as another proof point that a world war was in the making.
Russia is losing the soft power war for minds in Greece, at least with the people I talked to. It is crystal clear to me that whatever issues Greeks have with Brussels, they view themselves as full-fledged Europeans and members of the European Union. In addition, I can’t be certain, but I suspect the break between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church following the 2014 war in the Ukraine has had an impact on Greek views towards Moscow. Not only did the Ukrainian Orthodox Church break away from Moscow’s control, but a schism developed in 2018 between the Greek-controlled Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Moscow Patriarchate, following Constantinople’s decision to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
While Greece is not as religious as it once was, the Greek Orthodox Church still holds significant sway in the country. And the Greek church is no longer in communion with the one in Moscow. That says something.
Russia’s unorthodox divergence
Russia, once the imperial defender of the Orthodox faith, invaded the heavily Orthodox country of Ukraine both in 2014 and 2022, killing co-religionists in two naked war of aggressions. This has undermined Putin’s use of his support of the Orthodox Church as a source of legitimacy, at least outside Russia.
Now, Putin has aligned himself against Israel, claiming that Israel’s siege of Gaza following Hamas’ atrocities resembled the Nazi siege of Leningrad – the city of his birth. While comparing Israel to the Nazis, he buys weapons from Iran to continue his war on the Ukrainians. Days after Hamas’ devastating attack on Israel, which has killed more than 1,300 Israelis, Putin already began calling for a negotiated settlement. This, despite his own history of not negotiating with Islamist Chechen terrorists during attacks in Russia that dealt with much smaller numbers of casualties.
In contrast, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has come out unequivocally on the side of Israel, even though the Jewish State has until now balked at providing Ukraine with weapons – especially the advanced anti-missile defenses being used to protect Israeli skies from Hamas rockets. Zelenskyy has gone as far as openly accusing Russia of supporting Hamas.
It seems as if the Orthodox Christian world is divided on the issue of Hamas-Israel war. On the one hand, are Greece, Serbia and Ukraine and potentially other Orthodox countries and on the other is Russia. While Russia certainly has realpolitik reasons for siding with Iran and its proxies, or at least seeking to protect them, it comes at a cost to its soft power.
Whether other major powers seek to exploit the vacuum left by Russia’s abandonment of its Orthodox principles remains to be seen. But the ramifications may end up being felt in the Balkans. As Russia seeks to expand it’s role in the Middle East by leveraging its relationship with Iran and ties to Hamas, it risks damaging its position in the Balkans.
I wouldn’t call that the beginning of a World War, but it could mean a tectonic shift in the power politics of the Balkans. To some of the peoples of the Balkans that may very well feel like they are caught up in a much bigger event. The point being: the war in the Middle East isn’t just being felt in its own region but will likely have an impact on neighboring regions as well.