The political landscape of Greek-Russian relations has suddenly darkened. What exactly is the matter? It is almost impossible to cull any accurate information enabling us to clarify the situation and shine a light on recent developments.
Let’s first sweep the picture clean of inaccurate assertions and unfounded claims. Commentators who almost always turn to the anti-Western narrative immediately took to the field. The Greek government, they claim, is trying to earn its credentials vis-à-vis NATO and the US. Although nobody has ever required such a demonstration of allegiance from Athens. Under the present circumstances Greece is not going to win any points with such behaviour. With the agreement at Prespa Lake and Athens yielding to FYROMacedonia's membership in NATO, the Greek government has already earned what it could from like-minded Western European capitals. A breakup with Russia would not have added anything to Athens’ pro-Western arsenal.
At a time when the US is blaming Germany for being friendly with Russia and other European states — namely Austria, Italy, and Hungary, among others — appear to be moving closer to Moscow, what would an anti-Russian gesture by Greece signify? How could Athens expect to capitalize on this? I cannot honestly discern any direct benefit for Greece. Likewise, why would Washington pressure Athens to adapt such a hostile attitude? What would the Americans expect to earn at a time when the US president himself reiterates that in Vladimir Putin he sees a man he can fully understand … and make a deal with…
On the other hand, as far as bilateral relations are concerned, Athens' relationship with Moscow has been seriously wounded — without any clear benefits for Greece. Putin has made it clear how he would react if faced with a repeated challenge: "If you squeeze a spring as far as it will go, it will snap back hard. You must always remember this".
One should not overlook the fact that some months ago a meeting was called off between the Greek and Russian government ministries that had been aimed at fostering economic cooperation between the two countries. The reason given was the unexpected appearance at the meeting of some Crimean politicians — the Russians maintaining however that the Greek side had been forewarned and had not raised any objections at the time! In the end the episode was brushed aside without any major repercussions, at least public ones. But it was an issue nevertheless…
At the last occurrence, culminating in the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Athens there is enough ambivalence as concerns the matter.The main issue being discussed is a possible Russian effort against the Prespa agreement, objecting in order to to nullify FYROM’s future membership in NATO. Two comments must be made here. Only Northern Macedonia can render the agreement invalid at this point, not Greece. Even if the Greek parliament fails to ratify the agreement, the northern Macedonians will automatically become members of the Atlantic alliance. In order for that to happen the government in Skopje merely needs to satisfy the requirements set out by the Prespa agreement and stipulated by NATO. It is ridiculous to think that Russian diplomats are not fully aware of this situation. Why then, as some observers insinuate, should they try to nudge Greece into walking out of the agreement?
As for NATO, it is doubtful that the Russians do not recognize that the attitude of the US and of its president, who recently met with Russian officials and with President Putin himself in Helsinki, poses a greater threat to the cohesion of the alliance than the membership of tiny FYROM. My opinion is that the various reports on the issue are making the matter seem much weightier than it really is. My assessment is that Moscow is much less concerned about it than is generally acknowledged.
There is, however, definitely an issue. Otherwise we would not have reached the point of repatriating diplomats. One should never overlook the fact that great powers are usually burdened by many decision-influencing centres. Sometimes they are working outside of the official process that the governments dictate. Russia can hardly be an exception. Often the tentacles of such decision-making centres reach the state machinery. This has happened in Greece in the past, when a retired Air Force pilot attempted to bomb parts of Albania. We saw it again in the case of a fugitive from Turkey, the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. In the US it is very often the case that various agencies take initiatives without the knowledge of the central government authorities.
With Russia, the issue of Orthodox Christian belief is quite important. Adherence to those principles can potentially prompt actions and moves without the knowledge or approval of a central authority. Unfortunately, I am not privy to specific information. But I believe that my ideas make logical sense. Why should the Kremlin jeopardise a carefully cultivated cordial relationship with Athens just to pursue a dead-end policy on the issue of Skopje? After all, that’s an issue of paramount importance to Greece! And it could not possibly produce any fruitful results…
There are people in northern Greece who have often involved themselves in issues of vital importance to Greece without the slightest official authorisation or coordination with the aims of the Greek state. Some of them refer to Russia as a sister Orthodox power, without having been entrusted with such authority.
On the other hand, one should not overlook the fact that Greece carries a grudge against the Kremlin for having embraced Turkey in recent months, supplying it with missiles and accepting its friendly overtures on the Syrian front, although aware of its diverse inclinations concerning the future of that region.
It is not impossible that such sentiments may have culminated in and led to the recent crisis between the two states.
Notwithstanding the above, there is a wider issue contributing to the current misunderstandings. Russia has always been a puzzle for anyone attempting to do business with her. They find it difficult to comprehend her reactions and behaviour. Almost all are reminded of Winston Churchill's words describing Russia: "It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma". What few people remember is the rest of Churchill's phrase: "But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest".
Some years later he explained: "I am convinced that there is nothing they [the Russians] admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness". No country can expect a positive appraisal if it does nothing but beg and offers little or no policy coordination. These words might adequately explain Russia's attitude towards other countries and its posture towards various global affairs.