Moscow in No Hurry to Play the Greek Card

This article originally appeared at Ekspert. Translated from Russian by J. Hawk

The Prime Minister of Greece Alexis Tsipras arrived in Russia on a state visit. This visit made Europe nervous, and it’s being considered in Brussels as a “political spectacle.” However, the negotiations concluded with general declarations—Russia, for a number of reasons, so far has not decided to use the Greek fronde in order to pressure the EU.

It’s no secret that Greece is one of about 10 countries who are against the sanctions war between Europe and Russia. Athens, moreover, is the loudest of critics. For example, Tsipras spoke out against the “flawed vicious circle of sanctions which alienate nations,” and which can “cause a cold war.” However, the Russian leadership needs Tsipras to say these things not only in Athens and Moscow, but also at the summer EU summit, where the decision on the continuation of sanctions will be made. Such decisions are made by consensus, and the voice of Greece is sufficient to prevent their continuation.

The Greek PM made it understood that he is ready to render Moscow such a service, but not free of charge. The negotiations in Moscow concerned the form of payment. Several experts have said that Athens wants its agricultural products (which before the sanctions represented about half of all of Greek exports to Russia, bringing Greece about $300 million annually) to be able to access the Russian market.

“The goal of both countries is the development of and cooperation in the agricultural sector,” hinted the Greek PM. By all accounts, Moscow is ready to take this step. Moreover, the selective sanctions approach would enable Moscow to retain good relations with the business community of “friendly states” and encourage businessmen of non-friendly countries to pressure their political leadership. This is why Putin, in response to Tsipras’ hint, said that “if political will exists, we can always find a solution.”

However, the most important issue for the Greeks are credits. It’s no secret that Tsipras is facing a very difficult dilemma. He won the elections under the slogan of opposition to further austerity measures. But that means conflict with the EU and the end of the Greek credit program. He needs money for at least the payment of salaries and pensions, which amount to several billion dollars even by the most conservative estimates.

Moscow, however, is offering not so much the fish as a fishing rod, in the form of investments in Greek economy. “If we were, for example, to implement a big project that would profit Greece, it means those profits could be used to pay off the credits which we have mentioned today,” Putin clarified. Russia is ready to participate in the privatization of Greek enterprises.

This would accomplish two tasks: acquisition of European assets at minimum prices and a side payment to Greece for its defense of Russia’s interests in the EU (which may well coincide with those of Greece). At the same time, Russia’s leader made it clearly understood that he does not consider either the question of investments nor the matter of allowing access to Russia’s agriculture market a form of bribery. “We are not trying to convince or compel to do this. We are simply open to joint and fruitful work aimed at improving the conditions of our peoples and our economies. If the Greek government under the leadership of Mr. Tsipras believes it would be advantageous to restore and expand the scope of our relations, we can only welcome it,” Putin said.

But there is also another point of view. It suggests that the Greek resistance at the EU summer summit is strategically inconvenient to Russia, and the current discussions concerning “payment” were only a demonstration aimed at encouraging the EU to minimize possible damage to the interests of both Russia and Greece.

Yes, Moscow without a doubt would like the sanctions to be lifted, but only in the form of a collective EU decision. If it will be done through a Greek (or perhaps Hungarian) demarche, in the form of refusing to vote in favor of the extension of sanctions, the result will be not only the end of sanctions, but also a public demonstration of a schism within the EU. Which would de-facto mean the end of EU as a political entity.

Some Russian analysts are hoping for that—they believe that a schism would allow Russia to pit some of its members against others, thus strengthening its position in Europe. This approach has its merits, but only if the Kremlin views the EU as its competitor, for example in the race to dominate the Old world. However, it’s not so, because even a conditional “victory” over the EU would not restore Russia’s control over Eastern Europe.

Rather the opposite—Moscow’s positions in that region would be weakened. If the Russophobic sentiments of the Eastern European elites are balanced within the EU by the Western European countries (which had a wholly acceptable attitude toward Russia until the Ukraine crisis), EU’s disintegration as a centralized structure would mean the place of Brussels would be taken by Washington and London. Then one cannot rule out the formation of some sort of a cordon sanitaire in Eastern Europe, including the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine. And that’s aside from the fact that a public schism within the EU would render moot Moscow’s plans to drive a wedge between Europe and America or to at least weaken transatlantic solidarity.

This is why Russia considers EU in its present form as an important structure, and it should not facilitate British plans to transform the EU into a general all-European forum, akin to the Parliamentary Assembly of Europe. It may be that’s Putin’s understanding of the issue. “We are not about to use anything within the EU to decide the matter of improving relations in a fragmentary manner,” he said in the course of summarizing the results of Tsipras’ visit. “We are in favor of working with the entire unified Europe, working in the open, trusting one another, on the basis of a long-term strategy.”

However, it does not mean that Moscow should not use the possibility of a Greek fronde, thus demonstrating to Berlin and Paris its ability to borrow Greeks for the purpose of splitting Europe’s unity. Such a position may force EU leaders to abandon the unprofitable anti-Russian policies and adopt a more pragmatic approach which would include cooperation with Russia and the development of a set of rules for the post-Soviet space. At the same time, concessions to the Greeks may be exchanged for other, more favorable concessions to Moscow.

For example, for the Greek consent to participate in the Turkish Stream and to take a firm position on this issue in opposition to the European Commission (which is persistently trying to preserve Ukraine as the sole transit path for Russian gas and to prevent the Turkish variant). Vladimir Putin said that “the new route will satisfy Europe’s fuel needs, and will allow Greece to become one of the main energy distribution hubs on the continent and attract large scale investments into Greek economy.” Including hundreds of millions of Euros for gas transit, the same hundreds of millions that could have been paid to the Bulgarians, had they defended their own national interests in a timely manner instead of blocking the South Stream.

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