Behind Greece-Russia Relations: An Axis of Necessity or Trojan Horse Politics?

Ahmed Ghoneim Europe, World Politics

putin syriza

Tsipras visiting Putin in the Kremlin in April 2015

Greece’s energy Minister announced last week that his country will be signing a document on political support for Gazprom’s Turkish Stream project at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June. Greece will invest $2 billion in the construction of this controversial project.

However the growing understanding between Greece and Russia should not be taken as unusual and indeed Athens-Moscow axis appears the only logical step for Greece’s growing woes.

Fighting Giants with the Help of a ‘Friend’

The near collapse of the Greek economy and calls for harsh EU austerity measures from Brussels has increasingly alienated Greece and the continued economic difficulties have damaged the EU’s image domestically. The stability and unity in the European Union has been shaken, notably by the unforeseen rise of SYRIZA caused by the failings of both major parties in Greece (PASOK and New Democracy) and who campaigned on an anti-austerity message. The victory subsequently led to a political tug of war with  the revival of historic feuds dating back to the Second World War via Greece’s demands for reparations from Germany as well as widespread speculation over a Greek exit from the EU. Simultaneously the outbreak of violence in the Ukraine, long considered ‘Russia’s backyard’, has revitalized memories of t as the Cold War as the West comes into direct confrontation with its former Soviet arch-rival.

EU negotiations continue, with Greece trying to ensure a ‘better deal’ before the June bailout deadline to fulfil electoral promises. Meanwhile Russia, aggravated by US-led sanctions, is seeking out new partners to embolden its BRICS alliance with its vast energy infrastructure.

The Dilemma

However, the question is whether this relationship is rooted in pragmatism or rather a shared anti-western vision propagated by both countries’ political leadership, particularly as the relationship has implications concerning the European Union, Russia’s energy ambitions and, most of all, the future of SYRIZA and more than 10 million Greeks.

As the mainstream media is polarized between both sides of the argument; the reality is that the Athens-Moscow Axis is not a publicity stunt amongst friends, and not a clear-cut alternative to EU membership either. Instead it is rather a bit of both.

Indeed speaking to the International Interest, a prominent young member of the Greek diaspora working for a mega-construction and development conglomerate, Panos Efstathiou, reaffirmed that  “Greece needs to seek out new opportunities like the South Stream pipeline to be able to renegotiate and respond to EU-centric austerity. However, the ruling party should also be wary of our inescapable debt and not attempt to completely alienate other major European and Western partners.”

The relationship is indeed economically sound when considering Greece’s need for alternative sources of funding and partnerships in the long term. The objective of becoming a prominent energy transit state via the controversial South Stream Pipeline would also mean that the country would be able to hold tightly onto a vital bargaining chip to reposition itself in the EU.

On the other side there are some unrealistic hopes that Russia could in the short term sweep Greece under its wing. As Efstathiou explained, “the country is still deeply embedded with the EU and with NATO, ultimately prohibiting the Greece from achieving drastic change, at least for now. Moreover, the availability of other options such as the ‘EU lobbied’ Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), in addition to the unknown future of East Mediterranean gas exploration headed by Cyprus and Israel – with the inclusion of Turkey and Egypt – challenges the idea of a definite or binding venture between Athens and Moscow”.

Orthodox Brothers

Nevertheless, taking a deeper look into the two nations’ common religious and historic links, coupled with a matching political elite headed by Prime Minister Tsipras and President Vladimir Putin, the potential for increasing co-operation reflected in the latest BRICS bank invitation given to Greece, is indeed possible. The EU will have to provide Greece with better energy-related incentives and provide SYRIZA with some political credit domestically if it is to prevent Greece entering the Russian sphere of influence.

The opaque and, at times exaggerated, nature of Greece-Russia coverage does point at the distinct need to investigate the validity and applicability of potential energy deals, maritime ‘war games’ around the Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and the possibility as to whether Greece signals the beginning of a new Russo-centric block in Europe.

Leaving no space for overzealous speculation, the outcome of the June bailout, SYRIZA’s internal politics and security tensions in the East Mediterranean and Ukraine will inevitably determine the transformation of words into action amongst these two ‘Orthodox brothers’.

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Political and Security Risk Analyst at a London-based risk management firm that works extensively with NGO’s, Developmental agencies, multinational corporations and humanitarians worldwide. Ghoneim’s work has focused more widely on the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa regions with a particular focus on Greece, Egypt and Syria. He has also produced numerous reports and analyses on the Sahel and West Africa regions covering developments in Nigeria, the Lake Chad basin, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. Ahmed is also engaged in grassroots initiatives in the UK and abroad, he is currently Head of Communications for Ramadan Tent Project an award winning charity whose patron is renowned writer and professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford Dr Tareq Ramadan. Ghoneim is also a regular contributor to international media outlets which have included MEED, BBC Arabic, The Arab Weekly, The International Interest and the European Interagency Security Forum. Fluent in English, Arabic, Greek and French; Ahmed has completed his undergraduate degree in Sociology at the University of Surrey and an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS University of London).