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Tsipras Goes Hat in Hand to Moscow, Walks Away Disappointed

How Athens is trying to use brinksmanship with Moscow to extract concessions from its European creditors.

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With Moscow facing increasing isolation by the European Union over its actions in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has in recent weeks pursued a canny strategy of attempting to undermine European solidarity against Moscow by picking at the weak points in his opponents’ armor. In February, he offered Hungary a generous gas deal. Russian fighter jets regularly test Baltic and Scandinavian air defenses. In France, Russian banks are financing the political campaigns of the National Front, the right-wing upstart with a distinctly anti-EU point of view and links to the Kremlin.

So when Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrived in Moscow on Wednesday for talks with Putin, the meeting seemed of a part with Putin’s efforts to weaken the coalition of European states whose sanctions regime have helped deal a harsh blow to the Russian economy. Ahead of the meeting, Austrian Finance Minister Hans Jörg Schelling warned Tsipras “against getting closer” to Moscow and said that “we are in the middle of final negotiations for financing for Greece, and I don’t believe that a good game is being played here.”

For their part, Greek officials had insisted that they didn’t go to Moscow with the intention of getting financing from Moscow and bypassing their European creditors, but given the outcome of Wednesday’s talks, Tsipras and his lieutenants will probably be leaving Moscow disappointed. In response to EU sanctions, Moscow had instituted a ban on the importation of European produce and Tsipras had hoped to secure an exemption for Greece. He didn’t get it. “We cannot make an exception for one country in the European Union,” Putin said.

As for possible financing from Moscow, Putin said it wasn’t even on the table. (Given the state of the Russian economy, it was probably no more than a dream, anyway.) “The Greek side has not addressed us with any requests for aid,” Putin said. “We discussed cooperation in various sectors of the economy, including the possibility of developing major energy projects.”

That energy project is the Turkish Stream pipeline, a proposal to deliver gas that replaced the South Stream project after it was quashed by the EU. Hungary and Greece have expressed support for Turkish Stream, but there appeared to be no concrete progress on the issue during the Wednesday talks in Moscow.

Despite the lack of progress, Tsipras still worked to keep himself in Putin’s good graces, lashing out at Western sanctions against Russia. “Greece is a sovereign state with an indisputable right to its own foreign policy,” Tsipras said after the meeting with Putin. “To get out of this profound crisis we need to leave behind this vicious cycle of sanctions.”

This flirtation with Moscow comes at a difficult time for Tsipras, and it’s difficult to view it as anything other than part of his negotiating strategy toward his creditors. On Thursday, Greece faces a deadline to pay the International Monetary Fund about $485 million, money that Athens has pledged to pony up.

Amid this brinksmanship over debt repayment and Syriza’s demands that the conditions of those loans be eased, Athens’ relationship with Moscow is a powerful card for Tsipras to play. On Wednesday, Putin signaled that he expects Tsipras to do more before Athens will gain concrete support from Russia. So far, Greece has only delayed — and has not prevented — the imposition of additional EU sanctions on Russia.

So the ball is now in Tsipras’s court: How far will he go to do Putin’s bidding to undermine EU sanctions?

EPA/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO / POOL

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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