If Greece is forced to leave the euro, the immediate repercussions for the rest of the European Union could be limited. Greece barely accounts for 1 percent of the European economy while both the bloc as a whole and other heavily-indebted states in its periphery, such as Italy and Portugal, say they are now better prepared for a Greek exit than they were in 2010, when the country received its first bailout.
But in the long term, a Greek withdrawal from the currency union or even the European Union altogether could do serious damage to the strategic position of other European states.
In what may turn out to be a sign of things to come, Greece defied its NATO allies earlier this month to sign a €2 billion gas pipeline deal with Russia. The European Union and the United States had both urged it not to and advised Greece to help build the Southern Gas Corridor instead which is meant to deliver gas from the Caspian Sea region into Europe.
The far-left government that came to power in Athens in January has made an effort to repair Greek-Russian relations. Composed of former communists and illiberal radicals who see in Germany and the United States the embodiment of a neoliberal world order they reject, the administration — if it survives a euro exit — can be expected to look to Russia first as an alternative ally if feels betrayed by the West.
Russia is a major trading partner for Greece. It accounted for 14 percent of the Balkan nation’s imports in 2013 and supplies most of its natural gas.
Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, has suggested that his government can serve as a “bridge” to Moscow at a time of heightened East-West tension over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
In April, he heralded “a new impetus to the Russian-Greek relations which have very deep roots in history.”
But Greek support for a Russian pipeline that would allow Europe’s largest provider of natural gas to bypass Ukraine suggests Tsipras would be less of a neutral arbiter in relations with Russia and more of a Russian proxy.
In a recent report (PDF), the crowdsourced consultancy Wikistrat warns that Greek voters’ desire to “punish” Europe for ejecting it from the euro and likely triggering a deeper economic crisis could justify unorthodox alliances with Russia or even China — which would quickly call the country’s European Union membership into question as well.
The company argues that Greece became a member of the European Economic Community in the early 1980s for geostrategic reasons and that not much in the region has changed since then.
Southeastern Europe is tilting dangerously toward subtle forms of authoritarianism and ethnic tensions are waiting to be revived and exploited and Greece stands out as a relatively liberal democracy. Russia’s expansive tendencies in the Black Sea region and the steady influx of migrants and refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia across the Aegean Sea underscore the rest of Europe’s need to not turn an ally here into an enemy.
Russia’s strategic goals in Greece extend beyond maintaining a monopoly position on its gas market and finding an ally in Europe that can block another round of sanctions the bloc imposed after it seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine last year.
If Russia is to project power into the Mediterranean, it requires Greece’s acquiescence. Even if it improves relations with Turkey — and Russian president Vladimir Putin appears to have found a like-minded leader in that country’s increasingly erratic and anti-Western president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — it could still be blocked by Western powers in the Aegean. Once Greece succumbs to its influence, however, the Mediterranean will be wide open.
Hence Western support for the Greek national government against the communists during the 1946-1949 Civil War. And hence Greece’s NATO membership, something Tsipras and his supporters aren’t so sure about anymore.
The author is a contributing analyst for Wikistrat.