Russian President Vladimir Putin has just wrapped up a working visit (May 27-28) to Greece in the context of the votive Greece-Russia Year 2016.
Military guard was at the airport to greet the Russian leader in a welcoming ceremony – an unusual sign of special respect in view it was not an official, but a working visit.
F-16 fighters flew overhead as Vladimir Putin was met by Defense Minister Panos Kammenos.
This is the first time the Russian President visited the country in 10 years. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras visited Moscow for talks with Putin twice last year, in April and June, ahead of his re-election in September. Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos visited Russia in January.
President Putin's trip to Greece is also his first visit to the EU this year. He attended the global climate talks in Paris at the end of 2015. Greece has kept close relations with Moscow even after the EU imposed economic sanctions in the summer of 2014 in response to Crimea becoming part of Russia and the tensions over Ukraine’s crisis.
The visit concluded with signing a number of bilateral agreements, including the Political Declaration for Greek-Russian dialogue on international and regional issues of mutual interest, the Declaration of Partnership for Modernization (on economic cooperation), as well as a number of cooperation agreements at ministerial level.
Mr Putin was accompanied by a delegation of ministers and businessmen whose companies either already operate in, or are interested in Greece. These include Gazprom’s Chairman Alexei Miller, Rosneft’s CEO Igor Sechin, and Russian Railways CEO Oleg Belozerov.
Trade and economy topped the agenda. Russia is one of Greece's main trading partners, but business has been hit by the sanctions and drop in commodity prices. In 2015 trade between the two countries fell by 33.7 percent to about $2.8 billion. Ninety percent of that loss was exports from Russia to Greece. Russian imports from Greece decreased by 54 percent and amounted to $229.4 million. During the visit, Russian President openly expressed his country’s interest in taking part in the potential privatization of Greek rail assets and the port of Thessaloniki, a major gateway into the Balkans. Greece and Russia have made float the idea of Athens participating in a pipeline project that would bring Russian gas into Europe via Greece. «The issue of our energy resources being carried through southern corridors to the countries of the European Union is still on the agenda», Putin noted.
He said that Russia could also help Greece upgrade its transport infrastructure and made a reference to Russian Railways (RZD) which is interested in buying the country's railway operator TRAINOSE and its second biggest port in Thessaloniki. RZD is one of eight companies shortlisted for the acquisition of a 67 percent stake in the port where final bids are expected at the end of September. Russian Rosneft and Greek Hellenic Petroleum SA signed a contract on oil supplies from Russia to Greece. The agreement will bring cooperation with the Greek partners to a new level as it lays the basis for direct contracts with Hellenic Petroleum on supplies of oil and oil products to Greek refineries. The signing ceremony was held after the talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and in their presence.
Vladimir Putin said he hopes that Russian-Greek relations will not depend on time-serving trends in domestic politics and the projects that were agreed on during the visit will be implemented. «I’m pleased to say that in Russia and Greece the question of developing interstate ties has acquired a supra-political nature and is independent of current political trends», Putin said at a meeting with the leader of the country’s largest oppositional conservative party New Democracy Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
The President and Prime Minister exchanged views on current international and regional issues. Mr Putin's visit comes as the EU leaders are to discuss next month whether to renew sanctions on Russia's banking, defense, and energy sectors that expire in July. British Prime Minister David Cameron said on May 27 that the leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) economic powers had agreed that sanctions imposed against Russia must be extended next month. Nevertheless, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on May 27 floated the possibility of a «step-by-step» reduction of EU sanctions against Russia «if there is progress on implementing peace accords on Ukraine».
Russia has imposed countersanctions against the West, including a ban on agricultural produce. Russia said on May 27 it plans to extend its embargo on Western food products by a year and a half. The extension of the embargo, which was due to expire in three months, appears intended to ratchet up pressure on Brussels.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras criticized what he branded a vicious circle of sanctions imposed on Russia. «We have repeatedly said that the vicious circle of militarization, of Cold War rhetoric and of sanctions is not productive. The solution is dialogue», he emphasized.
The Russian President used the occasion to warn the US and NATO to stop setting missile systems near Russia, and added that Moscow feels threatened and is ready to retaliate. Some elements of the US missile shield are being installed in Poland and Romania.
«If yesterday people in these areas of Romania simply didn’t know what it means to be in the crosshairs, then today we will be forced to carry out certain measures to ensure our security», he said, adding that the same will happen in Poland. «We won’t take any action until we see rockets in areas that neighbor us», he stressed.
The Russian President noted that the argument that the project was needed to defend against Iran makes no sense, since an international deal has been reached to curb its nuclear program.
The Greek Premier said, the close ties his country holds with Russia can help promote relations between Russia and the EU, as well as Russia and NATO.
«Everyone recognizes that there cannot exist a future for the European continent with the European Union and Russia at loggerheads», Mr Tsipras said.
«Improving relations with Russia on multiple levels is a strategic choice», Tsipras noted. «Of course … when the disagreements exceed our powers, we can act a positive influence within the EU and NATO».
Particular emphasis during the talks was given to cultural and humanitarian cooperation, including in the context of the reciprocal Year of Greece and Year of Russia, which started in January 2016, and the celebrations in 2016 of 1,000 years of Russian presence on the holy Mount Athos. The Russian President visited the autonomous Orthodox Christian monastic community of Mount Athos, joined by the head of Russia's Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.
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The importance of the visit should be viewed in a broader context. In early May Japan’s Prime Minister visited Russia – a breakthrough in the Russia-G7 relations. The Japanese leader consulted Moscow on major international issues before he hosted the G7 summit on Kashiko Island (Ise-Shima) on May 26-27.
The Greek government held talks with Russia at the top level before the EU summit in late June.
Actually, Russia is always consulted before major meetings of world leaders take place. Despite the restrictive measures imposed under the pressure of the United States, G7 member-states maintain an intensive dialogue with Moscow. The same way, despite the EU leadership’s position, the bloc’s member countries continue to maintain close relations with Russia discussing prospective cooperation in the hope that the restrictive measures will be lifted soon as an obstacle artificially created to serve nobody’s interests. Greece has stated plainly it opposes the sanctions.