An expert's point of view on a current event.

Playing the Putin Card

What’s behind the Greek prime minister’s dalliance with Moscow?


Greeks have bequeathed much to the vocabulary of politics, from “democracy” to “drama” to “hubris.” Also “Trojan horse.”

Greeks have bequeathed much to the vocabulary of politics, from “democracy” to “drama” to “hubris.” Also “Trojan horse.”

The image of the Trojans succumbing to cunning and deceit haunts diplomats and pundits today as they follow the Greek government’s overtures to Russia. Many fear that the coalition in Athens is edging dangerously close to the Kremlin in pursuit of narrowly defined self-interest. While Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras argues that Western sanctions on Russia are “a road to nowhere,” his flirtation with Moscow raises the specter of the European Union’s common front being sabotaged from within.

First, Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias rushed to dilute the EU’s sanctions, shortly after the January inauguration of a new cabinet dominated by the far-left Syriza. Then, in March, Economy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, traveling to Moscow to negotiate a price cut on gas, went on the record lambasting plans for a European Energy Union as threatening to turn Greece into a “dependent pawn of unilateral energy choices or axes, in the name of the alleged diversity of EU’s energy supplies.” Now Tsipras, alongside Panos Kammenos, the leader of junior coalition partner Independent Greeks, is in Moscow, meeting with President Vladimir Putin.

Tsipras came with his shopping list. Cash-strapped Greece would like Russia to exempt Greek agricultural produce from sanctions on EU imports. (Forty percent of strawberries and 25 percent of peaches on the Russian market come from Greece, and the sanctions imposed last August have hit Greek farmers hard.) Athens also wants a discount on gas deliveries and certainly wouldn’t mind a multibillion-euro loan like the one Cyprus received in December 2011.

Putin, for his part, would like Greece to reconsider Gazprom’s bid to acquire DEPA, Greece’s principal natural gas supplier. (The deal fell through in June 2013 due to opposition from the European Commission.) State-owned Russian Railways, controlled by Putin’s close associate Vladimir Yakunin, is meanwhile eying the Greek train operator TrainOSE. Yakunin, who is on the West’s sanctions list, has recently landed a contract to upgrade Serbia’s railways, underwritten by an $800 million loan from the Kremlin. Russian Railways has also been interested in the port of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, for some time now.

In the end, the visit seems likely to have left neither party completely satisfied. Both leaders vowed to deepen economic cooperation, yet Putin made no concessions for food imports. At a joint press conference on Wednesday after his meeting with the Greek prime minister, Russia’s president called on the EU as a whole to lift sanctions and offered his sympathies to the Greek agriculture sector for falling prey to “someone else’s interests.” Putin touted the nebulous prospect of Greece becoming “an energy hub” and the economic virtues of Turkish Stream, a gas pipeline he unveiled in December 2014 that will connect Russia to the Black Sea, praising Athens’ interest in the project. Yet he made no mention of giving Greece a discount on its gas contract.

Tsipras must have felt frustrated. But even if Putin met Greek expectations, would that make a huge difference? Probably not. A reduced gas bill would benefit Greece marginally, as gas accounts for only 12 percent of the country’s total primary energy supply and roughly one-third already comes from sources other than Russia. A discount of 10 percent, such as that already won by neighboring Turkey, might help the country’s trade balance, but Greece would continue paying a premium over large consumers in Western Europe such as Germany or Italy. And the peaches, strawberries, and seafood in Moscow or St. Petersburg supermarkets are not going to offset losses from the lower number of Russian tourists caused by the faltering ruble. Moreover, Russia, facing an economic crisis of its own, is tight-fisted when it comes to loans. Even before the sanctions took their toll, in 2013, Cyprus heard Putin’s “nyet” when the island asked for a bailout.

Russia won’t get what it wants either. Syriza promised its voters to roll back the privatization demanded by international creditors, not to sell off new assets to Russian oligarchs. In March, Athens was forced to reverse the sale of its majority stake in the port of Piraeus. And Gazprom would run into legal difficulties if it took over DEPA due to EU competition rules — not to mention the political costs. Having already sold a controlling stake in DESFA (the owner of the Greek gas grid) to an Azerbaijani company, Greece is far from enthusiastic about parting with more of the family silverware.

So with little possibility of a real deal with Putin, maybe Tsipras hoped that his visit would spook Brussels into softening its line on Greece. Not likely. It is far from clear that Germany and the rest of the eurozone creditor countries would soften out of fear that the Syriza-led government will embrace the Russian bear even more tightly. Greece is not in a strong bargaining position: It faces a repayment to the tune of 480 million euros to the International Monetary Fund due this week. The clock is ticking on the Syriza-led government. It needs to ink a deal on a fresh rescue package in late June, after nail-biting negotiations over a four-month extension of the current one at the end of February. Greece’s rescue package expires just as the EU has to take a decision on whether to continue the sanctions against Russia beyond the original July 2015 deadline. It makes little sense for Athens to fight a war on two fronts, both in the eurozone and with those member states that take a hawkish line on Moscow.

So why play the Russian card? It could be that Tsipras is fully aware that he will incur no penalty for reaching out to Putin, so he might as well try it and see how it goes. And there are symbolic points to be scored. At a time when the Greek prime minister needs to strike a balance between pre-election promises and compromises made thereafter, Tsipras has a reservoir to tap: Domestic opinion in Greece, from the radical left to the far right, is largely favorable to Russia. According to a 2014 poll, 52 percent of Greeks view Russian leadership in global affairs as desirable. And 49 percent of Greeks disapprove of EU aid to Ukraine.

Such attitudes can be explained by looking at the long-standing connections between Greece and Russia. Greece is one of the four Orthodox-majority members of the EU. Tsipras, who famously became the first Greek leader to refuse to take his oath before the archbishop of Athens, nonetheless made time in his Moscow meetings for a visit with Kirill, Patriarch of All Russia.

History plays a role, too. The former Russian Foreign Minister Ioannis Kapodistrias became the first head of state of Greece in 1827, and Czar Nicholas I played a key role in securing the country’s independence in 1830.* The Greek Revolution against the Ottomans was originally conceived by émigrés in the Russian port city of Odessa. Later on, Russia fought alongside Greece in World War I. And Greek communists led the resistance against the Nazi occupation; had it not been for the decisive U.S. intervention in the Greek Civil War (1946 to 1949), the country could have easily ended up with the Soviets. More recently, populist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou vigorously pursued rapprochement with the Warsaw Pact in the 1980s as a way to put pressure on then-archenemy Turkey, formally a fellow member of NATO.

Tsipras’s posing with Putin may also win him points at home with the many Greeks who oppose the United States. Anti-Americanism is deeply ingrained in Greek political culture. In the 2014 poll, only 31 percent of Greeks said they want the United States to lead in world affairs. As elsewhere in the Balkans, the grudge against the West fuels sympathy for Putin’s perceived challenge to U.S. hegemony. It is a view shared by anti-imperialists on the left and right-wing nationalists alike.

Indeed, the prime minister’s trip to Moscow is a fantastic opportunity to posture in the name of national interests and dignity. Martin Schulz, the speaker of the European Parliament, warned Athens against diverging from a common stance on Russia. Tsipras responded with a tweet from Moscow: “‪#Greece is a sovereign state w/right to pursue nuanced foreign policy in line w/geopolitical role as European Mediterranean & Balkan country.”

In a parallel rhetorical gesture, Athens made headlines last week by demanding 280 billion euros in reparations from Germany for the Nazi occupation that lasted from 1941 to 1944. Unlike other EU leaders, Tsipras will most likely be at Moscow’s Red Square on May 9 for the 70th anniversary of the Nazi surrender to the Soviet Union. He is still doing his best to keep traumatic memories from World War II — a time, notably, when Russia came to Greece’s rescue — alive in the collective psyche.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin must surely enjoy Tsipras courting his friendship. This gives the Russian president an opportunity to preach the virtues of sovereign foreign policy and to show that isolation and sanctions won’t make him change his course. The Greek leader was, no doubt, hoping for more than what he actually got. But at the end of the day, symbolism matters a lot in politics, to use once more two words of Greek origin.

*Correction, April 9, 2015: Czar Nicholas I ruled Russia in 1830 and supported Greek independence. An earlier version of this article said it was Czar Alexander. Return to reading.


Dimitar Bechev is Research Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Senior Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is the author of Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe (Yale University Press, 2017).

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