Greece on March 25 will celebrate the 200-year anniversary since the beginning of the Greek War of Independence that broke 400 years of Ottoman dominance. Although the first Greek state to emerge after the breaking of the Turkish yoke was a shadow of Greece’s current borders, it set in motion the eventual collapse of the Ottoman Empire just a century later.
Greek revolutionaries revolted without support from the Great Powers of the time as they had expected Russia would quickly back fellow Orthodox Christians against the Muslim Ottomans. Russian Tsar Alexander I not only refused to support the revolt, but had in fact condemned it, unwilling to upset the balance of power prevailing in Europe. As it would turn out though, the unexpected and continued success of the Greek Revolt saw a wave of Philhellenism spread across Europe, with France, Britain and Russia supporting Greek revolutionaries in 1826, five years after the war for independence began.
And it is here we see a reflection of Greece becoming a pawn to Great Powers, and never truly sovereign, as it is frequently called upon to serve foreign agendas to only be quickly forgotten about.
During the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), the British abandoned the Greek Army’s offensive to capture Ankara when it was only tens of kilometers outside of the city, creating a collapse on the front lines just as the Bolsheviks were delivering crucial weapons and ammunition to the now advancing Turkish forces.
In 1944, Soviet leader Josep Stalin surrendered Greece to Winston Churchill in the infamous Percentages Agreement despite huge segments of Greek society wanting their country to become a Soviet-backed socialist state. Stalin and General Georgy Zhukov attributed their final victory over the Germans to Greece’s unexpected long resistance against the Italian Fascist-German Nazi invasion. This exceedingly long resistance bought the Soviets desperately needed time to prepare defenses - but in the end, Churchill allowed Nazi-collaborators to rule Greece and crushed the partisans.
The imposition of a right-wing government ensured that pro-Soviet sentiment was quelled and the accession of Greece into NATO in 1952. In fact, despite joining NATO with Turkey in 1952, the CIA installed a right-wing dictatorship in 1967 which only collapsed after U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger blessed the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus after he gave Athens guarantees that Ankara had no such plans. This was to prevent Cyprus from continuing its pivot towards the Soviet Union.
Following the collapse of the Greek dictatorship and the emergence of patriotic left-wing Andreas Papandreou of PASOK to power, Greece for the first time in decades experienced a sovereign foreign policy that would even see Athens work against NATO during their destruction of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s.
Relations with Russia would prove to be cordial right up until the troika - the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund - imposed brutal economic austerity measures in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial crisis.
Greek political leaders under control of European and international financial institutions became subservient to the foreign policies of Washington and Brussels, and Greece’s relations with non-European Union/NATO countries went on the decline, especially with Russia.
In early July 2018, the then-ruling so-called left-wing SYRIZA government expelled two Russian diplomats and barred the entry of two others, accusing them of bribing state officials, undermining its foreign policy, and interfering in its internal affairs - without providing evidence. Athens accused the Russian Foreign Ministry of “disrespect for a third country and a lack of understanding of today’s world, in which states, regardless of their size, are independent and can exercise an independent, multidimensional and democratic foreign policy.”
In fact, it was Athens that had a lack of understanding of today’s multipolar world as it was serving the interests of Washington that is attempting to maintain the unipolar system.
However, with the financial crisis over and Turkey becoming more emboldened to act unilaterally at the expense of Greece’s security and sovereignty, Athens is finally becoming more assertive in pursuing its own interests, and is once again building or rebuilding relations with non-NATO countries as the Atlantic bloc continues to have a disinterest in ending Turkish hostilities against Greece.
Not only has Greece looked outside of NATO to form new relations, particularly with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and India, but it is also warming up relations with Moscow again. The ruling centre-right New Democracy administration that came into power in the middle of 2019 has emphasized that that it does not view Moscow as an adversary and has made steps to mend relations, beginning with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias meeting his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow in November 2019, heralding a “new chapter” in their bilateral relations.
Dendias, who has formed a professional friendship with Lavrov, said the November 2019 meeting was to “promote our bilateral ties on a wide range of issues based on existing conditions, on the one hand, and to foster closer cooperation and mutual understanding of international and regional issues.” A joint Greece-Russia 2020-2022 Consultations Program was also created during this meeting.
Lavrov then visit Athens on October 26, 2020 where he skipped over the previous difficult years and praised the level of relations between Greece and Russia. In a speech, he would highlight that it was “gratifying that your people remember Russia’s role in the Greek struggle for independence and its development as a sovereign state, and that they honour the memory of the first head of state of independent Greece, the Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire, Ioannis Kapodistrias.”
More importantly from the Greek perspective though, in the context of the Turkish parliament declaring a casus belli (reason for war) on June 8, 1995 if Greece extended its territorial waters in the Aegean to 12 nautical miles (currently six nautical miles), Lavrov emphasized during his visit that Greece has a right to extend its territorial waters.
Quoting the UN Charter Law of the Sea, in which Turkey is only one of 15 countries in the whole world to not sign or ratify, Lavrov highlighted that “Article 3 says that every State has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles” and that the dispute with Turkey “should be solved based on international law.”
Only on Tuesday, Dendias discussed in a long Twitter thread Greece's right to extend its maritime territory to 12 nautical miles. Notably, he highlighted Lavrov’s position, saying:
“I would like to note as extremely important, perhaps on the verge of history, the position of the Russian Foreign Minister during his visit to Athens, when he clearly clarified his country's position regarding the sovereignty of our country.”
Most interestingly is that he made no mention of the U.S. or EU. This of course does not mean that Athens is separating from Washington, in fact the opposite is true as Greek-American military relations are deepening. However, the biggest difference is that the current government, unlike many previous administrations, especially those during the financial crisis, is readjusting Greece’s foreign policy towards the East, rather than solely to the West. By doing this, Greece is now considered the friendliest country in the Europe Union towards China, and one of the friendliest towards Russia.
However, for all its advancements in relations with Moscow, Athens still does not veto the EU’s biyearly sanctions vote against Russia for its unification with Crimea in 2014. Although Athens is building an independent foreign policy that has seen it sign a historic defense pact with the UAE, restore relations with Syria and boost military ties with India, it still does not have full sovereignty to oppose the EU and fears retaliations if it vetoes sanctions against Russia.
It is likely that Moscow understands this reality and has not made it a precondition for improving relations with Athens. The previous SYRIZA government attempted to justify cutting relations with Moscow partially because of Russia’s expanding military ties with Turkey. However, Moscow has always emphasized that its bilateral relations are never aimed against third countries and the new Greek government understands this reality. Greece is also attempting to adopt this same policy and believes it can balance relations between Washington and Moscow.
Although Greece has the ambition of balancing relations, it is likely that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will attempt to push Athens away from Moscow. This will be the first major test for the New Democracy government’s policy of looking East in search of new ties and relations.
Athens will surely face pressure to downgrade its relations with Moscow again, but will unlikely capitulate as Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron and Prince Charles, will attend the bicentenary of the Greek Revolution on March 25. Athens will likely use the historic event as an opportunity to boost relations with Moscow.
Tsar Alexander I initially condemned the Greek Revolt in 1821, but in the end, it was the combined forces of Russia, France and Britain in the 1827 Battle of Navarino that once and for all ended the Ottoman Empire’s attempt to regain territory it lost to the revolutionary Greeks. Athens will likely use the momentum of Russia’s contribution to the Greek War of Independence, which also includes the legacy of Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first head of the newly independent Greek state and once the Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire, to make 2021 a momentous year in boosting ties and relations with Moscow.
As the New Democracy government is taking a mature approach to building relations with Moscow that were destroyed under SYRIZA, Greece could involve Russia more in resolving its many issues with Turkey. This is reflected by the fact that Dendias singled out Russia’s support for Greece’s maritime rights in the Aegean against Turkey’s revisionism. This does not mean that Moscow will downgrade its relations with Ankara for the sake of Greece, but it could mean the involvement of Russia that has reigned in Turkish aggression in Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh to varying degrees of success. This is especially important for Greece as it is at a time when the EU and NATO are completely disinterested in ending Turkish hostilities against fellow member states.
In addition to geopolitical and security concerns, it is likely that there will be a flurry of economic and cultural exchanges between the two countries this year, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic has been overcome.
However, this depends on whether Athens chooses to build on its newfound diplomatic confidence in the likelihood that Biden demands Greece to retract on its relations with Moscow, or whether Greek decisionmakers will regress to old formulas that served NATO-EU interests at the expense of Greek interests.
This article is an extension of another article that first appeared on InfoBRICS.
The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of Greek City Times.