George Tzogopoulos analyses Tsipras’ visit to Moscow in a ECFR commentary

tzogopoulosphotoAlong with its economic policies, the new Greek government’s foreign policies are also attracting attention. The alleged rapprochement between Greece and Russia has caused alarm in both European and American foreign policy circles: German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, for instance, said in a Reuters interview in February 2015 that Berlin “does not like” this development. Initially, the Greek government was seen as being ready to block new European Union sanctions against Russia. But this did not happen; instead, the country stuck to Brussels’s line. After the extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council on Ukraine of 29 January, High Representative Federica Mogherini stressed the constructive stance taken by the Greek government in forging EU unity.

Greece’s new foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, thinks Greece has been the victim of misrepresentation by the media. He believes that Greece can only accept sanctions if they do not lead to destabilisation. Furthermore, the country is entitled to present its own views at the European level and to negotiate with its partners. That said, it is convenient for the Greek government that Europe currently has little appetite for more sanctions against Russia, because it means that critical decisions can be postponed to a later date. The moment of truth has not yet come. Athens thinks that Moscow is just part of the problem, not the entire problem, and Greece is traditionally sceptical about the efficiency of policies based on sanctions. However, it also expects Russia to respect the Minsk II agreement.

For the future, Kotzias does not exclude the possibility that Greece could veto new sanctions. He explains that sanctions could have economic consequences for Greece, particularly for the country’s agricultural sector. He points out that different countries in the EU have different interests: Greece is one of the states that suffers because of sanctions, while others can afford to be relatively indifferent about sanctions policy, since they have no special economic relations with Moscow. The official Greek position is that a win-win solution is required. Therefore, Athens could exercise its right and impose a veto if its approach is not taken into account.

The most delicate aspect of Greece’s stance on a new round of sanctions, however, is not related to the potential threat to EU unity but to geopolitical developments. Could the country employ a revolutionary tool in its diplomacy by approaching Russia and distancing itself from the Euro-Atlantic orientation? There is lively debate on the issue. Former United States national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, for example, warns that a Moscow-friendly Greece might freeze the capacity of the Euro-Atlantic alliance to react to Russian aggression. Speculation has been further fuelled by the Kremlin’s willingness to consider a hypothetical request from Greece for bilateral financial assistance as well as by the fact that bilateral meetings continue to be held between officials of both countries. In the most remarkable case, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on 8 April in Moscow, one month earlier than had originally been planned.

Some suggest that the Greek government is simply trying to put pressure on its European partners to release the disbursement of the last tranche of the current rescue package. Naturally, Nikos Kotzias rejects this perspective, although whether his rejection is accurate is debatable. In the final analysis, there would be some limits to any Greek-Russian rapprochement and to Moscow’s ability to provide Athens with financial assistance. First, Russia faces serious financial problems, which diminish its liquidity and its ability to provide financial assistance. Secondly, the experience from the crisis in Cyprus suggests that Moscow is unlikely to offer funds under mutually acceptable terms. And thirdly, Greece is not prepared to abandon its foreign policy dogma, which is closely aligned with that of the EU and NATO.

All in all, under the current Syriza government, an improvement of relations between Greece and Russia can be expected. But unilateral actions or shifts on traditional strategies are unlikely. This doctrine will also shape Athens’s final decision on future sanctions in the context of the Ukraine crisis.

This article was first published ον ECFR website.