Alphen, Netherlands. 8 April. To paraphrase and corrupt my Virgil, “I fear the Greeks, even when they seek gifts”. Today, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will meet with Russia’s President Putin. The talks will apparently focus on energy and on joint infrastructure projects. However, the timing could not be more auspicious. With the seventieth anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany but a month away Athens has provocatively (I would say outrageously) delivered a €341bn ($371bn) bill for more war reparations in addition to those settled by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1961. Moreover, with Greece due to repay €460m ($505m) tomorrow, and negotiations for a further bail-out of €7.2bn ($7.8bn) from fellow Eurozone partners at a very delicate stage, by meeting with Putin Tsipras is playing a dangerous game and clearly indicating to Berlin and Brussels that Athens seeks alternatives. Greece must be careful seeking Russian gifts for President Putin will certainly want something very strategic in return. What will that be?
Most European analysts and commentators are sanguine suggesting that Moscow is itself in no position to offer Greece gifts. Russia’s economy is also weak, they say. That is to entirely miss the point of President Putin’s grand strategy – the application of all Russian national means in pursuit of all-Russian, i.e. Putin’s national interests. It is precisely because Russia’s economy is relatively weak that Moscow has embarked on an expansionist grand strategy.
This was clear to me during my visit to British forces in Cyprus. Moscow approached Nicosia with a proposal for a new Russian air and naval base on the island to counter the British (and American) presence, which includes highly-sensitive listening stations that reach across the Middle East. Indeed, the Russian presence was palpable and very apparent with Russian money clearly influencing EU member Cyprus and its leaders. A couple of weeks ago when I was in Serbia Russia’s presence was also clear and apparent. Indeed, wherever I see a Gazprom sign at an airport it is clear Russia seeks influence.
Russia is a sophisticated state with sophisticated analytical capabilities. In recent months Moscow has undertaken a root and branch reassessment of the strengths and weaknesses of NATO, the EU and the respective European powers. Moscow would not be so crass as to demand of Athens a veto over EU or NATO in return for investment and funding. Rather, Moscow seeks to undermine the strategic unity of effort and purpose upon which both NATO and EU cohesion are built and force European states to treat individually with Moscow rather than collectively.
Furthermore, if one looks at a map of Europe the strategic reason for Russia’s salami-slicing power-politics becomes apparent - an implicit but nevertheless real greater Russian sphere of influence. Critically, Russia is seeking to extend its influence on a line from Cyprus in the Mediterranean, through Greece, Serbia, Hungary and Ukraine, via Belarus into the Baltic States. The chosen method is a mix of co-option, coercion and the maintenance of non-frozen ‘frozen conflicts’ across Central, Southern and Eastern Europe. The aim is to force states across the region to look to Moscow as much as they look to Berlin and Brussels simply by the facts of power and presence and to keep Berlin off-balance.
It is an effective strategy. First, faced with European irresolution such strategy could achieve Moscow’s strategy aims at a relatively low cost. Second, because Moscow is correct in its assessment that Germany, the key European power, is unable and unwilling to play classical power politics. Third, of the other major European powers France is much-reduced and Britain has made itself entirely irrelevant. Fourth, the Eurozone crisis and the community model of European politics implicit in the Euro have been much weakened by the Eurozone crisis with so-called ‘solidarity’ threadbare at best. Fifth, Greece is ripe for the taking. Always somewhat semi-detached from both NATO and the EU Greece could indeed fall into a Russian sphere of influence, something which Moscow has repeatedly sought since at least 1945.
There is no room for complacency in Europe or the wider West about any accommodation between Athens and Moscow at this time of crisis with a Greek government that is both desperate and non-conformist. Sadly, most European commentators have repeatedly misunderstood both the strategy and the outcomes Moscow seeks because so mired are they in the false certainties of the European Project that they cannot bring themselves to believe either Athens or Moscow are capable of action that does not conform with EU conceits. It is like distant relatives who turn up to a genteel family reunion, get drunk, pee in the plant-pot and ruin the party – it simply cannot be happening. It is.
Therefore, Berlin and Brussels must stop seeing the Greek government as a problem child and the Greek debt crisis as a technical matter solely to be resolved within the Eurozone ‘family’. It is that but it is also a systemic struggle about who decides what and how in the EU and what power and influence Russia has over NATO and EU members and by extension over European stability and security.
Beware Greeks seeking gifts, especially those on offer from Russia’s Trojan Horse.