Never mind ‘Grexit’ – Greece’s worries include foreign affairs

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Thanos Dokos
Thanos Dokos

Greece’s economic survival has for five years overshadowed its foreign policy issues. The public debate is still dominated by ‘Grexit’ and the economic crisis, but, on paper at least, Greek foreign policy appears much more ambitious. The country’s foreign policy community must for the foreseeable future function under the Damoclean sword of an exit from the eurozone, but it nevertheless has to convince its European and NATO partners of its added value in managing common security challenges.

Greece is exploring opportunities for improving relations with both Russia and China. The Syriza government’s contacts with Moscow have been a source of concern in some European capitals and in Washington, but have provoked a lively public debate in Athens. Had relations between Russia and the EU not deteriorated so much over the last 18 months, the prime minister Alexis Tsipras’ trip to Moscow in early April would have been a mere footnote to EU developments. But as well as historical and religious ties, the contemporary links between the two countries are such that Russia supplies 57% of Greece’s natural gas, is an important trade partner and potential investor and gives political support to Cyprus in the UN Security Council. Ukraine, too, is a significant partner, and there is a Greek minority in Ukraine. A diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis with Crimea’s remote but unavoidable similarity to the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus remains a Greek priority.

The speculation that Russia might be an alternative source of funding for Greece is groundless

The view in Greece is that although Russia may a difficult neighbour for Europe, it is an indispensable element in the European security architecture. Athens also sees sanctions as having a high cost for a number of EU countries, Greece included, and as being relatively ineffective in bringing about a change in Russian policies. Unless Russia escalates the situation in Ukraine, Greece and several other EU member states would be opposed to additional sanctions.

It is rather unlikely, though, that Athens alone would break the common European front. Greece believes it is of vital importance that Europe should avoid unnecessary confrontation and rivalry with Russia as that could well consume a significant amount of the EU’s very finite foreign policy and security resources. Athens sees a combined policy of deterrence and engagement, with much emphasis on the latter, as the central element of EU policy vis-à-vis Moscow.

The Greek government is therefore intent on trying to improve bi-lateral relations with Russia while honouring its EU and NATO commitments. Russia’s proposed “Turkish Stream” would replace existing pipelines through Ukraine to bring Russian gas to central Europe through Greece and the Balkans. Athens is not opposed to this idea as its impact on European energy security would be neutral, while it also has obvious economic and political benefits for Greece. The main obstacles are the legal dispute between the European Commission and Gazprom and, of course, the current state of EU-Russia relations.

The view in Greece is that although Russia may a difficult neighbour for Europe, it is an indispensable element in the European security architecture

The speculation that Russia might be an alternative source of funding for Greece is groundless because Russia is unwilling and also incapable of providing the necessary financial assistance. Nor should the idea of Greece’s participation in the BRICS bank be taken seriously. But the likelihood of Greece falling into Russia’s orbit, or any other fundamental shift in its strategic orientation is nil despite Greece’s widespread feelings of bitterness. The hope in Athens is that a balanced development of Greek-Russian relations might allow Greece to become a “bridge” between the West and Russia, contributing quietly to the normalisation of relations and the development of a functional strategic and security partnership.

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