With the accession of Nikos Dendias as Greece’s top diplomat in mid-2019, it appeared that strengthening economic and cultural ties with Russia had become a top priority for the country’s new and revamped foreign policy. This culminated in several high-level meetings between Greek and Russian officials, including five meetings between Dendias and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, the last being as recently as February 18 – just days before the Kremlin launched what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Although significant advancements were made in strengthening economic ties, coordinating cultural events, dealing with disasters and boosting tourism, it all came crashing down when Athens harshly rejected Moscow’s claims regarding Ukraine and categorically described the “special military operation” as an “invasion.”
From the Greek perspective, events in Ukraine are seen as unacceptable as it further complicates efforts to resolve the Cyprus Issue – Turkey’s illegal and continuous occupation of northern Cyprus since 1974. This concern exists because of Moscow’s unilateral decision to recognise the independence of the two Donbass republics last month in a similar manner in which Ankara recognised the de facto “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.”
Although the Russian Ambassador to Greece Sergey Maslov hinted that Moscow would refuse to recognise the so-called “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” so long as Greece continues to not recognise Kosovo’s independence, alarm bells are still ringing in Athens.
It has been well reported that the New Democracy Party in Greece has an ideological split between a pro-American faction and a pro-French faction, i.e. Pro-Atlanticist forces and those who seek more “European strategic autonomy.” Although this split is officially denied by the ruling party, more hints of this divide was evident when Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos, without the presence or input of Dendias, decided to send weapons to Ukraine.
It is well established that Mitsotakis and Panagiotopoulos belong to the pro-American camp within the party, whilst Dendias holds a more pragmatic position. Although it is only speculation, it can suggest that the decision to send weapons to Ukraine, despite the massive change it brings to Greek foreign policy, was purposefully made without the input of Dendias who would have offered alternative perspectives on the repercussions of this action.
Although it is not for certain what exactly Greece sent, reports suggest that it is mostly Soviet-era made weapons that will not change the course of the war. However, the issue is not whether these weapons will change the course of the war, but rather the issue is the intent of the Greek government – to blindly follow the demands of NATO and Washington.
This is problematic as Greece has unique circumstances to consider that the majority of other NATO and EU members do not, such as the fact that up to 150,000 Greeks in the Mariupol region have been living and suffering under the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion since 2014. Although liberal Greeks and the pro-government media celebrated with enthusiasm that Greek weapons were being sent to Ukraine, none considered that they could end up in the hands of the Azov Battalion, who just days before Russia launched its “deNazification” of Ukraine, killed an ethnic Greek and shot another two for only speaking Russian.
More concerning than the celebration of weapons being sent is the whitewashing of the Azov Battalion in Greek media. In one instance, Greek media interviewed an Azov Battalion fighter, and even added a photo of an officer of the unit wearing a patch of the Black Sun (German: Schwarze Sonne) – a Nazi symbol, something the outlet either ignored or was ignorant about.
More disturbingly was the nature of the interview, which attempted to whitewash the Azov Battalion’s extremism whilst regurgitating false claims that Greeks have joined their ranks.
When Greeks from Mariupol are actually interviewed, they reveal a different reality, with one even saying that he would be shot at and killed by the Azov Battalion if he attempted to leave the city. The Athens-based interviewer of course quickly changed the subject after this unexpected revelation.
Days later, with the sudden realisation that they had been whitewashing the Azov Battalion, the next narrative from Greek media was that the extremist group “has nothing to do with the [Ukrainian] Army or government.” This of course omits that the Azov Battalion are an official unit of the Republican Guard, which is under the direct control of Ukraine’s Interior Ministry.
It demonstrates that the Greek establishment are embarked on a campaign of propaganda rather than truth seeking. This is an especially disgusting act considering up to 150,000 Greeks live in the Mariupol area, yet Greek media cannot do quick research to see that the Azov Battalion are well integrated into the Ukrainian state.
None-the-less, the rash decision by Athens to send weapons to Ukraine is not reflective of the Greek people. Although a recent poll found that 51% of Greeks are in favour of Ukraine, 54% of respondents believe Greece should not have sent military equipment and 53% believe it is better for Greece to be neutral.
Although Ambassador Maslov believes that cultural and people-to-people ties will be restored in time, the truth is that Greece and Russia will never develop a strategic partnership, especially as Athens has proven in deed that it will blindly follow NATO’s demands, even if it is to the detriment of the Greeks of Crimea and Mariupol who have lived in the region for over 2,500 years.
In this context, Greeks and Greece are in the midst of an ideological struggle as liberals attempt to dominate the narrative over Ukraine, even to the point of whitewashing neo-Nazis that target Mariupol’s autocephalous Greek community. Meanwhile, those who highlight the plight of Mariupol’s Greeks and the repercussions that sanctions will have on the average Greek citizen are cheaply and lazily labelled as Russian propagandists or puppets.