In Moscow, Greece’s Tsipras Hints at Closer Ties with Russia

The Greek prime minister wins little more than symbolic support from Russia.

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and Russian president Vladimir Putin sign agreements in Moscow, April 8
Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and Russian president Vladimir Putin sign agreements in Moscow, April 8 (Greek Prime Minister’s Office)

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras won mostly symbolic support from Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday.

Earlier, his foreign minister had joined counterparts from Hungary, Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey in endorsing plans for the construction of a new Russian gas pipeline into Europe, raising concerns in Brussels that countries close to Russia might deviate from the common energy and sanctions policy that was put in place after the country occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine last year.

Although Tsipras did not suggest Greece could pull out of the sanctions regime, he did reiterate his opposition to the embargo in a joint news conference with Putin, saying, “Greece is a sovereign country with an unquestionable right to implement a multidimensional foreign policy and exploit its geopolitical role.”

Putin said he understood that Greece was forced to go along with the policy and disputed claims that Russia was using its historical relationship with a fellow Christian Orthodox nation to divide Europe.

“I want to assure you that we do not aim to use any internal European Union situations to improve ties with the European bloc as a whole,” the Russian leader said.

Before visiting Moscow on one of his first foreign trips since becoming prime minister in January, Tsipras had told lawmakers in Athens his government could serve as a “bridge” between Moscow and the West. He heralded “a new impetus to the Russian-Greek relations which have very deep roots in history.”

Members of Tsipras’ cabinet have openly suggested they could seek Russian financial support if the rest of Europe will not give Greece debt relief nor relax the conditions of its bailout.

“If there is no deal, and if we see that Germany remains rigid and wants to blow Europe apart, then we will have to go to Plan B,” Panos Kammenos, the defense minister, has said.

Kammenos leads the right-wing Independent Greeks, Tsipras’ coalition partner. It advocates closer relations with Russia and sees Putin as a fellow social conservative who will resist pernicious liberal influences from the West.

No aid offer was made on Wednesday and Putin and Tsipras both denied it was even discussed.

“The Greek side has not addressed us with any requests for aid,” Putin said.

Tsipras added, “Greece is not a beggar going around to countries asking them to solve its economic problem.”

With its international bailout due to expire and negotiations about continued financial support from the rest of European Union hamstrung by Tsipras’ insistence on reversing reform commitments his predecessors made, other European states worry that his radical government might unwittingly engineering a geopolitical realignment that would see Russia gaining access to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Greece has assured its creditors it will be able to make good on its payments at least this month.

Russian support so far amounts to little more than gestures of goodwill. Officials said they were considering proposals to ease a retaliatory ban on European food products that has hit Greek farmers especially hard. Putin also said Russia would be interested in bidding for privatization tenders.

Although Tsipras’ party is principally opposed to privatizations, Greek energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis announced last month that Russian companies would participate in a tender for deep-sea oil and gas exploration.

Greece is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas. That dependence could only increase if it indeed participates in the construction of a new Black Sea pipeline tentatively called “Turkish Stream”. It is meant to replace South Stream, a pipeline that would have run through European Union member state Bulgaria and was canceled by Russia last year as relations between the two sides deteriorated over to the crisis in Ukraine.