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Greece is Putin’s pawn in a plot to divide the EU

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 2 April 2015

Radical leftists like the Greek government under Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and nationalist right-wingers like France’s National Front do not have many things in common. However, they can both hope to be supported by Moscow.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend. This seems to be the guiding principle behind Russia’s dealings with the eurozone. Whatever helps to undermine European unity, create dissent within Europe or make saving the euro harder, there is a good chance that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia might be willing to contribute to it.

This week, just as the Greek government presented yet another list of potential reform promises to its EU partners, the same Greek government made it clear that it seeks closer ties with Russia. Tsipras is about to travel to Moscow next week, and his controversial defence minister Kammenos will follow a week later.

They are not the first prominent Greek politicians to visit Russia. Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis and the ruling Syriza party’s parliamentary group spokesman Thanasis Petrakos are already in the Russian capital to negotiate a rebate for Russian gas exports to Greece and an end to the Russian embargo on Greek agricultural products.

In an interview with Russian news agency TASS, Tsipras waxed lyrical about Greece’s relationship with Russia: “Our countries have a splendid history of fighting together, and we can have a wonderful future too.”

Of course, one could argue that the bilateral Greco-Russian relationship has always been a close one. There are strong cultural, religious and historical ties between Athens and Moscow, and there have been for centuries. Russia was one of Greece’s key allies in its fight for independence in the early 19th century, and both countries adhere to the orthodox Christian faith.

However, such historical or religious sentimentalities are not what is driving contemporary dealings between Tsipras and Putin. The reasons are much more profane: Athens needs cash, and Moscow needs a weakened Europe to pursue its territorial ambitions.

Over the past weeks, the Greek government had to realise that it was unable to split the eurozone. For various reasons, no other European government followed Tsipras in his quest to end eurozone austerity. Instead, even eurozone periphery countries gathered behind Berlin to fend off Greek demands for debt relief and more lenient conditions on its bailout.

Since Greece is running out of time and options to stay solvent, it is now playing the Russian card. Of course, Russia is facing economic difficulties of its own. Falling energy prices and the trade sanctions over Ukraine have hit the Russian economy hard. But it would still be able to help tiny Greece out of its problems — if only to torpedo the EU.

By assisting Greece financially, Russia would gain significant influence over the country, which is not only a member of the EU but of NATO as well. For example, it could use its leverage to bring the EU’s sanctions on Russia to an end. Indeed, in his interview Tsipras already declared that his country could veto an extension of the sanctions. The trade sanctions were “senseless” and part of “an economic war that leads to a dead end”. Putin surely would have appreciated such support from Athens.

But direct influence is not the only thing Russia might want to achieve. The very fact that an EU member engages directly with Russia and in opposition to EU interests is a first-order distraction to EU policy-making. And this is exactly what the Kremlin wants. Rather than presenting a united front against Russia’s policies in Ukraine, such distractions ensure that the EU has enough to do with itself, and less time for criticising and confronting Russia.

Russia’s approaches to Greece are not the first time the Kremlin has sought influence in the EU. Last year, it was reported that the euro-critical French National Front had received money from Russia to assist its operations. There are also persistent rumours about other EU-critical and euro-sceptical parties and movements being targeted for Russian support.

It may seem strange that Russia would be prepared to assist both right-wing and left-wing anti-EU parties. But then again, if Russia’s intention is to weaken the EU it does not really matter which of its opponents it supports. And it is not the only way in which Russia seeks to influence European public opinion.

Moscow’s own TV channel Russia Today has long been seen as a media outlet propagating official Russian views throughout Europe. It is nowadays seen more as a propaganda tool than an ordinary news channel. However, there is no easy way to counter its influence. Banning it from broadcasting in the EU would send just as bad a signal as countering it with the EU’s own propaganda.

In its relationship with Russia, the EU finds itself in a conflict which will be hard to resolve. Russia is only waiting for the EU to show weaknesses or cracks that would then be promptly exploited. Yet if it does not want to lose its own credibility, the EU cannot retaliate with Russia’s own weapons.

In an ideal world, NATO and EU member Greece would realise that seeking Russia’s help was a recipe for strategic chaos in Europe and refrain from engaging with Russia in these ways. But in its ideological opposition to EU austerity and its desperation to avoid a default, Greece does not care who it is dealing with, even if it is Vladimir Putin. And Putin probably cannot believe his luck how easy it is to divide the EU.

The euro crisis has caused considerable economic and financial damage already. We can now see some of the political and security implications of a weakened Europe.

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