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Putin Lurks on the Sidelines as Greek Economic Crisis Heads Down to the Wire

Putin Lurks on the Sidelines as Greek Economic Crisis Heads Down to the Wire

The main players in Greece’s increasingly bitter fight with its European creditors are Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has consistently demanded that Athens implement hard-hitting austerity measures if it wants a bailout. But in the background, hoping to exploit a geopolitical opening, waits Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian leader — who spoke with Tsipras by phone Monday — has hinted that he would welcome Athens into his warm embrace if it were to exit the eurozone and perhaps the EU itself. He has talked of building a new Russian natural gas pipeline through Greece that would help Athens service its debt by generating revenue for the Greek government and creating jobs. Moscow and Athens have also considered that Russian firms would participate in the privatization of some Greek industry.

Tsipras has at least tried to reciprocate Putin’s overtures, lashing out at Western sanctions against Russia during an April visit to Moscow in what appeared to be an effort to curry favor with the Russian leader.

To be sure, it’s unclear how far Putin’s dalliance with Tsipras will actually go. Greek leaders say they want to remain within Europe, and even as Putin has flirted with the leaders of the Syriza coalition, Russian officials have consistently said they weren’t considering offering Athens any direct financial assistance. Indeed, when Tsipras travelled to Moscow in April, he left empty-handed and didn’t secure his top objective for his trip: the easing of agricultural sanctions on Greek farmers.

Russia’s promised construction jobs are also far from guaranteed. On Monday, Putin and Tsipras “discussed several matters concerning further development of bilateral cooperation,” likely a reference to the proposed Turkish Stream gas pipeline that would deliver gas to Europe while circumventing Ukraine. The construction of that pipeline, which would pass through Greece, has yet to begin, however, and many analysts are skeptical that it will ever be built.

In the context of Putin’s contest for influence with European powers and the United States, that uncertainty doesn’t particularly matter. For now, the mere appearance of Russian influence in a major European crisis is enough to rattle continental leaders, who have watched with concern as Tsipras traveled to Moscow in search of investment opportunities.

That dynamic speaks to the unpredictable geopolitical consequences of the Greek crisis — which Tsipras has clearly tried to exploit in order to strengthen his negotiating position. The call with Putin on Monday, the Kremlin statement noted, came “on Greece’s initiative.” The fear that a Greek exit could lead the country to fall into Moscow’s orbit in this way functions as a negotiating ploy for Tsipras.

European leaders are well-aware that Greece represents an attractive target for Putin because of its membership in both NATO and the EU. Influence within the military alliance and the sanctions decision-making bodies of the EU would be a great prize for the Russian leader. On that front, Greece has delivered little for Putin, doing nothing to prevent the extension of EU sanctions on Russia.

Indeed, it remains unclear on what basis Greece and Russia would build a strengthened relationship. Greece could certainly provide Russia with an attractive Mediterranean port for its warships. But would a left-leaning government steeped in the tradition of Marxist resistance be able to get in bed with an autocrat to further his military ambitions? Could the cash-strapped Russian treasury provide Greece with the necessary funds to revitalize its economy? With the Russian economy tanking, how eager is the Kremlin to provide a bailout for Athens? So far, Russian officials have said that such a proposal is not on the table.

Despite the lack of concrete proposals, the gambit remains useful for Putin, sowing distrust among the ranks of an EU coalition divided over how to resolve the Greek crisis — and confront Putin in Ukraine.

Photo credit: OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images