In Digest, Russia

By Shaun Walker, The Guardian, April 8, 2015

The Greek prime minister has called on Europe to end its sanctions against Russia during a visit to Moscow, warning that they could lead to a “new cold war”.

Alexis Tsipras and Vladimir Putin meet in Moscow on April 8, 2015

Alexis Tsipras and Vladimir Putin meet in Moscow on April 8, 2015

Alexis Tsipras also rebuked other European leaders who had criticised his two-day visit to the Russian capital, after meeting Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on Wednesday.

Brussels is nervous that the new Greek government is breaking European unity over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and Tsipras’s words in the Kremlin would have been music to Putin’s ears. However, fears that the Russian president might seek to build closer economic ties with Greece by offering a loan – a possibility floated in a Russian newspaper report this week – or by lifting a ban on Greek food imports, proved unfounded.

Tsipras, speaking at a press conference alongside Putin after their talks, expressed his opposition to the sanctions imposed by the EU and US on Russia over its intervention in Ukraine.

“The counter-sanctions imposed by Russia have inflicted pain on the Greek economy. But we know the retaliations were a response to sanctions [against Russia], the logic of which we do not entirely share,” he said.

“We openly disapproved of the sanctions. It is not an efficient solution. We think it could bring about a new cold war between Russia and the West.

“To get out of this profound crisis we need to leave behind this vicious cycle of sanctions,” he said.

Tsipras also emphasised that Greece is a “sovereign country with an irrevocable right to conduct a multi-faceted foreign policy”.

Putin said he welcomed the Greek position, while Tsipras said it was “springtime for Russian-Greek relations”.

But, for all the warm words, there did not appear to be any major new agreements between the two countries. The meeting in the Kremlin came a day before cash-strapped Greece is scheduled to make a €458m (£333m) payment to the International Monetary Fund.

A Greek government official told Reuters on Wednesday that Tsipras would not seek funds in his meeting with the Russian president. “We have not asked for financial aid. We want to solve our issues of debt … within the eurozone,” the official said.

Putin said after the meeting that Tsipras had not asked for any help. A Russian government source told Kommersant newspaper this week that Moscow was ready to offer Athens new loans but only if there were “reciprocal moves” whereby Greece sold Russia particular assets. The source did not specify which assets Russia was interested in, though Moscow has often suggested buying up energy or rail infrastructure in return for lines of credit or reduced gas prices.

The counter-sanctions imposed by Russia have inflicted pain on the Greek economy.

With falling oil prices and western sanctions combining to put Moscow in a difficult economic situation, the prospect of large financial aid being extended to Greece was always unlikely. There was also no major announcement over Greek support for the “Turkish stream” gas pipeline project, though both leaders said there was much potential for cooperation in extending the pipeline to Greece.

More surprisingly, Putin said Russia would not lift a ban on food imports from Greece, imposed on all EU countries as a reciprocal measure for their sanctions against Russia.

Greece was particularly hard hit, as 40% of its total exports went to Russia. Tsipras described the ban on foodstuffs as a “sizeable wound” to Greece’s economy.

Earlier in the day, Russia’s finance minister had said Russia was prepared to discuss the issue of making an exception for Greece. Putin, however, appeared to dash these hopes. The Russian president said he understood Greece had “been forced” to vote for sanctions against Russia by the EU, but said nevertheless, Russia could not make “exceptions for individual countries”. He did suggest the two nations could build “partnerships” in the agricultural sector, though it was unclear what this would mean in practice.

“The best way to solve these problems is to end the whole sanctions war against us, and our reciprocal measures,” said Putin.

When asked by one Greek journalist if Russia wanted to use Greece as a “Trojan horse” to split the EU, Putin smiled.

“The question would be valid if I was the one going to Athens,” said the Russian president. “We are not forcing anyone to do anything.”

There is little doubt, however, that Moscow sees a potential ally in Tsipras on a continent where it has few of them. The wooing of the new Greek government is part of a strategy to undermine the consensus in Europe that Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine require a tough, sustained response. Already, Moscow has reached out to European far-right groups, which includes giving a €9m loan to France’s Front National.

Tsipras has stated his distaste for sanctions on many occasions, and his Syriza party has made no secret of its sympathy for Moscow, while a leaked correspondence has suggested ties between top Syriza figures, including the Greek foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, and Alexander Dugin, a Russian neo-fascist thinker who advocates the philosophy of “Eurasianism” and has backed Russia going further in Ukraine.

Analysts suggested it was unlikely that the Greeks would go as far as vetoing EU sanctions against Russia, but were instead playing both sides with the Moscow visit, warning Europe that Greece’s support cannot be taken for granted.

Tsipras’s coalition of the radical left and nationalist right took office in January. Since then, relations with the EU, and particularly Germany, have been strained. Greece has been surviving on international bailouts since 2010, with a major repayment to the IMF due on Thursday. The Greek government said this week it was owed €279bn by Germany in reparations for the Nazi occupation during the second world war, an issue Berlin said was legally resolved years ago and dismissed as “dumb”.

Tsipras is likely to be back in Moscow next month for the Kremlin’s lavish celebrations to mark 70 years since the end of the war in Europe. Many European leaders are to snub the event owing to Russia’s current policies in Ukraine, leaving the possibility of Putin sharing the podium with mainly autocratic leaders from around the world, including North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has said she will not come to Moscow for the parade, but will visit a day later to lay a wreath for the war dead.

Read also:
Greek reactions to Tsipras’ visit to Moscow, Deutsche Welle, April 10, 2015


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