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Greece's Russia Stance Could Be a Major Headache for Brussels

  • There is grumbling over EU sanctions in Europe over practical consequences
  • But Greece could actually dump them just on ideological grounds
  • It is assumed Athens is raising this possibility as a bargaining chip, but that's far from certain

Danielle Ryan is our regular contributor. This article also appeared at Journalitico

The Syriza win in Greece has had everyone from Brussels to Mars wondering about a potential ‘Grexit’ from the euro zone, but there hasn’t been quite as much talk about what having Alexis Tsipras in power means for Russia. Until now.

Now that he’s in, the wheels of thought have been turning rather furiously in the anti-Russia, pro-whatever-Washington-wants media circles and the consensus is broadly: Oh, dear.

Greece could now turn into a real troublemaker for the European Union and, by extension, the US — and in more ways than one.

Yesterday, the EU published a document claiming that “all 28″ EU members agree that Russia bears responsibility for the Mariupol attack on Saturday which killed 30 people. The new Greek government however, says it gave no consent for such a statement.

Add to that Syriza’s general unhappiness with Greece’s NATO membership and the fact that its new finance minister is not a fan of old (or new) sanctions, and Brussels could have a big problem.

Because Greece might not be the outlier on Russia for long.

If Athens breaks with the Brussels line, watch out for Hungary and Slovakia to possibly do the same.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has already expressed similar sentiments. It was only November when he admitted that Budapest was under “great pressure” from the US over its friendly relations with Moscow.

Just so we’re on the same page, yes, this is the US that wants to “uphold the principle” that larger nations “can’t bully the small” — but that’s a discussion for another day.

Orban also previously criticized sanctions: “In politics, this is what we call shooting oneself in the foot,” he said, adding that the “entire sanctions policy should be reconsidered”.

He did however also say that they were a “necessary consequence” of Russia’s actions regarding Ukraine.

Back in August, Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico said that sanctions against Russia were “meaningless and counterproductive” — and Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides has used words like “catastrophic” to describe the potential effects of a sanctions war on his country’s economy.

It’s also worth remembering that only weeks ago, French President Francois Hollande dangled the idea of lifting Russia sanctions if progress could be made in Ukraine. France does not want to “push Russia onto its knees,” he told Bild am Sonntag newspaper in December.

There’s no way, of course, that Hollande would break ranks entirely until there was some sort of major game-changer in East Ukraine, which for the moment, still looks unlikely — and despite all the rhetoric, the efforts of Hungary and Slovakia thus far have been paltry.

But Greece is a different story. Greece could jettison the sanctions based on genuinely ideological grounds — and if they do, a small anti-sanctions coalition in the EU could make itself known and ultimately veto any expansion of penalties against Russia — without the unpleasantness of being ‘the only one’.

Unfortunately, even if Greece, Hungary, Slovakia and Cyprus all want to see an end to sanctions, the pressure from Brussels and Washington will be so great that they could still buckle under it and things will remain business as usual for the EU’s Russia policy.

Another possibility is that Greece will use Russia sanctions to trade favors with Angela Merkel. In other words: Give us some class of a debt write-down and we’ll give you your sanctions consensus.

At that point, Germany would have to chose, what’s more important — doing everything it can to prevent a ‘Grexit’ by conceding to some Greek demands in return for a ‘yes’ vote from Greece on more sanctions — or sticking with the hard-line stance on Greece’s debt and letting the chips fall where they may when it comes to sanctions?

This scenario assumes of course that Greece would actually use Russia sanctions as a bartering tool, which is far from certain — especially given that the pro-Russia stance over Ukraine seems to be more about morals than about money.

And at this point, Tsipras seems likely to believe that any deal that arises out of such a trade-off would be more like kicking the can down the road than solving any of Greece’s problems long-term.

Whatever happens, it’s hugely significant that Tsipras’s first meeting with a foreign ambassador since being elected was with Russia’s Andrey Maslov.

There are no really great options here — except maybe for Putin.

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