Greece is in disarray after voters rejected a proposed bailout agreement that would have kept the Greek banking sector afloat and allowed the country to stay on the euro, in exchange for cuts in government spending and rollbacks in public programs.
If Greece can’t reach a deal with its creditors by a Sunday deadline, the country could leave the eurozone. This financial and political uncertainty in Athens — and across Europe in general — plays into Russia’s hands. Russian president Vladimir Putin can use Greece as a lever against the rest of Europe, keepng the continent divided while fostering an alliance with Greece’s deeply Euro-sceptic leaders.
Greece has always been a geopolitical wildcard for the US and its allies. Throughout the Cold War, the US viewed Greece with a certain level of suspicion despite its membership in NATO.
In the Daily Beast, former NSA counterintelligence agent John Schinlder recalled a history of mistrust between the allies. US intelligence was wary of Athens following the 1975 murder of CIA station chief Richard Welch in the Greek capital in 1975, and the 1988 assassination of the US naval attache to Greece Captain Bill Nordeen. In both cases, the US believed that Soviet intelligence may have been involved in the attacks. Now, as the Greek economy falters and European leaders threaten to boot the country from the common currency, there are concerns that Greece may look to Moscow for economic and political relief.
“It’s like the bad old days when we didn’t trust the Greeks and they didn’t trust us,” a former CIA case officer told TDB. “Only now Putin’s in the middle of the game.”
Greece’s anti-austerity Syriza government has proven troublesome for the EU, but could cause problems for NATO as well. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has made his own negative views of NATO clear, while also cozying up to Russian officials. As Schindler notes, “rumours of Russian money and influence calling the shots in Athens — or at least playing at outsized role” is common among those familiar with NATO security.
Tsipras’s antipathy towards the European establishment is clear, and his populist appeal is part of the reason his left-wing party was elected in the first place. They’re also traits that he shares with Russia’s leadership. “The new Greek government is cause for concern, especially because Tsipras has voiced his opposition to NATO membership in the past,” Ian Bremmer told BI in January. “And his early actions … comments regarding sanctions, as well as his meeting with the Russian ambassador to Greece within hours of taking office — demonstrate that he is willing to engage differently with Moscow.”
Since Syriza came to power, Russia has telegraphed its willingness to aid Greece’s suffering economy. After Tsipras and Putin met at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskovsaidthat although no formal plans had been discussed, Russia would be happy to provide Greece with a loan as “they are our partners.” That stands in perhaps deliberate contrast to Greece’s European lenders, whose unwillingness to extend additional credit to the country has brought it to the brink of leaving the euro.
In actuality, Russia is likely not in a financial position to bail out Greece, as the country is still chafing under US and EU sanctions stemming from the Kremlin’s policies in Ukraine. But Russia does not actually need to extend Greece a loan for both Putin and Tsipras to come out ahead. Merely signalling at improved relations between the two countries allows Greece to “pressure the EU with the threat of moving closer to Moscow,” the geopolitical simulation and research firm Wikistrat notes.
A flirtation with Moscow may give Greece a stronger hand in negotiations with the rest of the EU. At the same time, Russia can use Greece to increase tensions within the EU and NATO. It’s a dynamic that will probably get even more fraught, unless a solution to the latest and most intense round of the Greek financial crisis can be reached.
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