The myths and truths of Greek-Russian relations

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In a few days time, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will pay an official visit to Russia at a critical juncture for European security.

Unfortunately, the clouds of war are thickening over the Black Sea.

The gathering of tens of thousands of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine has strained Moscow’s relations with the West, with both sides blaming each other.

There is now a serious possibility of a Russia-Ukraine war that will only have losers.

In such a climate of tension, the Greek side is faced with three myths and three truths.

Myth one: Athens can play a mediating role

This is an ardent desire of several Greek governments that often overestimate their potential. Athens no longer has the diplomatic capital to play a mediating role between the West and Russia.

Deepening relations with the United States may have been a good strategic choice, but our special relationship with Russia has a side effect. In any case, the Kremlin treats us as an integral part of the West.

Myth two: Greece must always identify with the choices of the West

First of all, the West is not a single set of countries. America treats Russia differently compared to how Germany and France treats Russia. Even within the US itself, there are differing views and approaches to relations with Moscow.

In a world of self-help, the national interest takes precedence over all others.

Greek governments have often acted as “King’s most royal” vis-à-vis Russia, without even receiving tangible rewards. We must not forget that Western powers, at times, simply “exchanged” Greek national law with the legitimacy of Turkey.

In the real world, then, there can be no foreign policy of principles and values.

Myth three: The Black Sea is far away and there are no vital national interests

For at least four reasons, the Greek side cannot ignore what is happening in the Black Sea.

First, Athens has a moral obligation to defend the interests of the Greek community (approximately 300,000 people in Russia, Ukraine and Georgia) who are rather pessimistic about their future in the region.

Second, Greek investments in the region amount to hundreds of millions of euros and specific sectors of the economy (eg shipping, tourism) are affected by the situation in the region.

Third, Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council with all that entails for resolving the Cyprus and other regional conflicts (eg Libya, Syria).

Finally, the strengthening of Turkey in the region (eg drone sales in Ukraine).

But in addition to the three myths, there are three truths that need to be pointed out.

First truth: Greek foreign policy towards Russia is alien

Greek-Russian relations have gone through many different phases over the last twenty years.

The Simitis government did not show much interest in improving Greek-Russian relations.

Costas Karamanlis is credited with the significant progress made in bilateral relations in  2004-2009.

Initially, the Tsipras government sought to bring the Russian factor closer to itself in the context of the confrontation with the creditor troika.

However, the deportation of the two Russian diplomats in July 2018 caused a shock in Moscow, because Athens had not foreseen such a move.

In other words, the Greek side has always shown an inability to formulate a stable policy towards Russia.

Second truth: Russia-Turkey convergence of interests poses a threat to Greece

The rapprochement between Turkey and Russia is not as ephemeral as many Western officials would like to hope.

Despite their individual differences, the two countries share the same concerns and the same desires for the creation of a multipolar international system.

It is interesting that the rapid improvement of Russian-Turkish relations coincides with the deterioration of Greek-Russian relations.

Turkey began its invasive policy in Syria and Libya when it felt safe behind it. Without the fear of Russia, Turkey can easily pursue a revisionist policy in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean.

Third truth: The relationship with Russia must be strengthened

In a world where power relations are changing rapidly, our country’s position is becoming more precarious and weak.

Athens has chosen a camp for many decades and this is not going to change in the near future.

A small and medium-sized country, in order to survive, must pursue multidimensional diplomacy.

It is not a luxury for Athens to ignore Moscow even in conditions of increased tension with the US and the EU. The Greek side must now emphasise ‘low policy’ issues, without showing indifference to Russian sensitivities and concerns.

Manos Karagiannis is an Associate Professor in the Department of Defense Studies at King’s College London and in the Department of Balkan, Slavic and Oriental Studies at the University of Macedonia.

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Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor