On July 11, Greece said it would expel two Russian diplomats and barred the entry of two others. The formal reason is alleged meddling in an attempt to foment opposition to the “historic” name deal between Athens and Skopje paving the way for Macedonia’s NATO membership. Moscow said it would respond in kind.
Nothing like this ever happened before. The relations between the two countries have traditionally been warm. This year Moscow and Athens mark the 190th anniversary of diplomatic relations and the 25th anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Hellenic Republic. They have signed over 50 treaties and agreements. The Greek people’s positive attitude towards Russia is well known. It had been widely believed that Athens trusted Moscow more than Brussels. Russian ambassador to Athens Andrey Maslov has recently described Greece "as a reliable partner". More than one million Russian tourists are expected to visit Greece this year.
Unlike the majority of other Western countries, Greece rejected the British request to expel Russian diplomats in the wake of London’s claims of Moscow’s involvement in the Skripal poisoning. It’s also among the few NATO members to have Russian weapons in the armed forces’ inventory, including S-300 air defense systems.
The Greek Kathimerini daily’s report offers details on the matter. It’s not so important what exactly happened or if the sources cited are reliable enough to believe them. The information is too scarce anyway for making any conclusions. New Democracy’s shadow Foreign Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos on July 12 criticized the lack of information from the government on the rift between Greece and Russia.
Such things happen from time to time and if the relations are good, the differences can be ironed out behind the scenes without much ado. There is always a hidden agenda behind making such scoops leaked into media. Nothing comes from nothing. And timing is never accidental. Spy scandals never come out of the blue. For instance, the news about the expulsion coincided with the NATO summit in Brussels demonstrating Greece’s solidarity with the allies. It was also the time preparations for a visit of Russian FM Sergey Lavrov to Greece were in full swing. Now it’s not known whether the visit will take place.
Kathimerini says the relationship started to gradually worsen behind the scenes about a couple of years ago. What happened back then? Geoffrey Ross Pyatt assumed office as US Ambassador to Greece. Before the assignment he had served as ambassador to Ukraine in 2013-2016 at the time of Euromaidan – the events the US took active part in. He almost openly contributed into the Russia-Ukraine rift. Now it’s the turn of Greece. The ambassador has already warned Athens about the “malign influence of Russia”. He remains true to himself.
During the two years, Greece has not been opposing the anti-Russia sanctions as vigorously and resolutely as Italy or Hungary. None of the planned energy or other economic projects has come into fruition.
Greece is involved in the EastMed sea gas project along with Cyprus, Italy and Israel. The country is also viewed by the United States as a potential customer for American LNG exports, especially after it modernized its port facilities near Pireaus. Greece plans to build a floating storage terminal for LNG in Alexandroupoli. Economy always shapes foreign policy. Evidently, Greece is not interested in cheap Russian gas coming to Europe via the North Stream pipelines. Neither is the United States.
The scandal may be a straw for Greece to catch at as the heavily indebted nation is balancing on the brink of financial crisis. Athens needs relief deals to restructure the debt. It makes it dependent on the US-controlled IMF and the EU (Germany is the largest lender) to bail it out. Under the circumstances, it cannot be politically independent. As opposition to the austerity measures is growing, the government needs a “meddling scandal” to distract the people from everyday life woes.
President Trump has promised Prime Minister Tsipras large investments into economy. The United States is the sixth-largest foreign investor in that country. Addressing the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce annual New Year’s event in Athens, Geoffrey Pyatt expressed his optimism that 2018 would be a year of recovery for Greece, while all the more US investors are seeking ways to collaborate with Greek enterprises.
The extension of the agreement for the use of the US naval base in Souda Bay, Crete, the only deep-water port in southern Europe and the Mediterranean able to accommodate American aircraft carriers, is a topic for talks. Upgrading of the Greek fleet of F-16 fighters is also on the agenda. The US is ready to make it a relief deal. Its military is reportedly harboring thoughts about developing in Greece a regional alternative to the use of the crucial Incirlik base in Turkey. The relationship between Turkey and the West continues to deteriorate. Greece sees it as a chance to boost its importance for the US in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa.
Propaganda also has a role to play. For instance, Russia is blamed by Western media for harboring nefarious plans to hinder the possible agreement between Cyprus, Greece, Turkey and the UK to reunify the island. It is also accused of meddling in Macedonia. As usual, one story is invented after another to be spread around by Western media outlets.
A day after expelling diplomats, Greece said it wants to turn a page seeking good relations with Moscow. Russia has no desire to seriously deteriorate the relationship but it will retaliate as it always does. It will also keep in mind that the Greek government is playing its own games and Russia is supposed to a part of it. Greece is also used by those it depends on. National sovereignty happened to be too costly for Athens. Normal bilateral relations may be preserved but things like trust and sincerity will be missing. Games change and governments come and go but friendly relations between the peoples remain. The provocation committed by the Greek government cannot change the reality. 63% of Greeks hold a favorable view of Russia. This relationship is too strong to be ruined outside pressure.