Beijing Water

Russia’s Grentrance

If Greece leaves the eurozone, Russia will enter it, casting a chill over Europe.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, was published by the National Post on July 3, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras shake hands during a signing ceremony in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 8, 2015.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras shake hands during a signing ceremony in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 8, 2015. Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool/AP Photo.

The world is focused on the immense implications of a Grexit, or an exit of Greece from the European Union. It might also consider the immense implications of a Grentrance, or an entrance into Greece of Russia. A Grexit would almost certainly be followed by a geopolitical reset that would alter the balance of power in Europe and the Middle East.

We in the West think of Greece as the cradle of Western civilization, and being inextricably, unambiguously part of Europe. But ancient Greece is not modern-day Greece, which was rescued in 1821 from centuries of Ottoman domination by a revolutionary movement born in Russia, led by a Russian commander, and financed in part by Russia. Greeks owe Russians a debt of gratitude for their independence almost two centuries ago and a debt of gratitude today, too, because while Greeks are widely ridiculed by their fellow Europeans, they are treated with respect by Russia.

Within 24 hours of Greece’s radical leftist Syriza Party’s election victory in January, Russia’s ambassador became the first foreign official to visit Greece’s new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras. Soon after, Tsipras, his senior ministers and his coalition partner, the leader of the radical right anti-austerity party, Independent Greeks, became Putin’s guests in Moscow, drawing comfort from Putin’s expression of friendship and economic cooperation. The Syriza Party — its full name is Coalition of the Radical Left — has its roots in the former staunchly pro-Russian Greek Communist Party. The Independent Greeks party also has ties with Russia, its leader having formed an institute that worked with a branch of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service.

Unlike the rest of Europe and North America, which overwhelmingly views Russia unfavourably, Greeks overwhelmingly view Russia favourably. According to Pew Research Center, over 60 per cent of Greeks view Russia favourably and just 35 per cent view Russia unfavourably, this despite Putin’s recent moves in Ukraine and his veiled threat to use nuclear weapons. Greece, in fact, broke with the rest of Europe by disagreeing with EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. While Greeks like Russia, they are hostile to the EU, whose demands for austerity have led Greece into depression: Unemployment is at 25 per cent, youth unemployment is at 50 per cent, and GDP is down 25 per cent. Only 23 per cent of Greeks rate the EU favourably. According to the EU’s Eurobarometer, unlike the citizens of most EU countries, most Greeks don’t even consider themselves citizens of the EU.

While Greeks like Russia, they are hostile to the EU, whose demands for austerity have led Greece into depression.

This public sentiment may soon become a legal reality as well: If Greece exits the eurozone, Greece may also need to leave the EU, say some interpretations of EU treaty obligations. Without the EU’s military protection, this beleaguered country of 11 million citizens would then also face a palpable military threat atop its economic ruins: Turkey, Greece’s historic enemy and a claimant to Greek offshore resources, has threatened war if Greece ever attempts to exploit its offshore oil and gas.

Enter Russia, also a historic enemy of Turkey’s, which earlier this year signed a deal with Greek Cyprus giving Russia’s military rights to use Cypriot ports, and which is now negotiating to use Greek ground, sea and air bases, as well as to build its own military base on the Greek mainland. Even prior to the ascent of the Syriza government, Greece had tied its military defences to Russia — it is the only EU country that employs advanced Russian air defence systems, among other Russian weapons systems. Russia has economic prospects to offer Greece, too: In June it signed a deal with Greece to build a pipeline — half owned by each country — that would carry Russian gas to Europe through Greece. Pipeline construction, expected to start next year and be completed in 2019, will create 20,000 jobs and provide Greece with hundreds of millions of dollars in transit payments yearly.

Money relations aside, Russia needs Greece in the Russian sphere to strengthen its presence in the Mediterranean — Syria’s dismemberment cost Russia reliable naval facilities there — and especially to counter what it sees as the West’s incursions in Russia’s historic areas of influence. Ukraine is one example; another is the loss of Kosovo through NATO’s war against Serbia, a country that, like Greece, has spiritual ties with Russia through the Eastern Orthodox Church. The EU’s expansion into the Balkans is another. With Greece secured as an ally, and Russian troops and warships stationed in Greece, the EU and NATO will have less appetite for further advances, and Russia will have more opportunity to enforce any future demands.

A Grexit from the eurozone spells economic anxiety for the EU and the West. A Grentrance of Russia — a Trojan Horse into Europe — spells military anxiety and an unsettling new status quo in what has developed into a slowly emerging Cold War II. Greeks will pay with their pocketbooks whichever path they choose; the rest of Europe and the West may pay differently.

Lawrence Solomon is a policy analyst with Toronto-based Probe International. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.

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