The Financial Times: How will Russia benefit from Grexit?

15:49, 03 July 2015
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Vladimir Putin’s shadow seems to be chasing Europe and suspicious commentators find it virtually everywhere, and the Greek drama is no exception, Chairman of the non-governmental Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow Fyodor Lukyanov wrote in an article titled "How will Russia benefit from a Grexit?" in his blog at FT.com on July, 3.

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The most watchful analysts even think that Syriza is a creation of the Kremlin designed to ruin the EU from inside, or at least divide and weaken it — using; the bloc’s current difficulties to increase its own influence, “buy” the loyalty of certain EU members and undermine the policy of sanctions, he wrote.

Alexis Tsipras’s visits to Russia (twice in the last eight weeks) are generally viewed as proof of that. But are these fears founded?

As a Russian, I would like to believe that the Kremlin is able to bring its protégés to power in Europe. But, alas, this is not so. The rising left- and right-wing radicalism is a result of the crisis of the European model: the Greek disaster is man-made and entirely the fault of EU elites, from Greece’s admission to the eurozone to the failed remediation efforts of the past several years.

Given the state of relations between Russia and Europe, it would be strange for Moscow not to try to use the disarray in the EU for its own purposes. Clearly, the game is on. Trips to Russia are much more important for Tsipras than for Putin. The Greek premier is raising the bets to secure the best possible terms in his bargaining with the creditors. For an external partner to give money to Athens in the current situation would be throwing it away. Russia has the negative experience of a $3 billion payment in December 2013 to Viktor Yanukovych, then Ukraine’s president; with Yanukovych long gone from Kyiv, Moscow can hardly hope to get the money back.

Nevertheless, it would be strange not to exploit the current situation, and the question is what real interests Russia has in respect to Greece. One is obvious: finding a new route for its gas to reach Europe bypassing Ukraine. Moscow is discussing financial issues with Tsipras only as an advance payment for building the pipeline from Turkey across Greece. It is not clear, though, why this project should be more successful than South Stream, which was blocked by the European Commission. Of course, if Greece secedes from the EU, it will be able to make decisions with no regard for the EU’s competition-boosting Third Energy Package or the energy union Europe is creating. But this is not the most probable scenario for the present or the near future, while contracts for gas transit via Ukraine expire in four years.

Russia has no detailed plans for economic and political expansion to southeastern Europe. Although many in Moscow are considering, jokingly or hopefully, Greece’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union, no one really takes this seriously. No matter what happens in Greece, it has an unbreakable dependence on its western partners, and they will not allow it to make any sharp turns.

True, Greece sees Russia as some kind of alternative. This perception is rooted in the Byzantine past and the Russian empire’s role in the 19th century in liberating the Greeks from the Ottoman yoke. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union offered a real systemic option, and the left-wing forces that had always been strong in Greece, viewed Moscow as a beacon. It is noteworthy that since the time of Stalin the Kremlin was guided by geopolitical, rather than ideological, considerations. And as Greece was included in the zone of western influence after the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, the Soviet Union did not try to fan the flames of communism there.

Moscow remains pragmatic on Europe. A good example is the 2013 Cyprus crisis when the country’s insolvency had a heavy impact on Russian companies and individuals that carried out transactions via Cypriot banks. The Kremlin’s first reaction to the European Commission’s tough demands on Cyprus was extremely negative, but the very next day Putin changed his rhetoric and promised, together with other creditors, to help Nicosia. Moscow is well aware that the eurozone has clear rules, it is controlled by major countries — primarily Germany — and it would be senseless to interfere. So Greece will most likely be treated in the same way, even though its crisis is much bigger and deeper than that of Cyprus.

Not so long ago it was believed that by offering support to Greece Russia was hoping for Athens’ veto on European sanctions, but this is no longer relevant. Greece has more urgent matters on its hands, and decisions on sanctions are made by other countries.

The outcome of the Greek crisis is important to Moscow for two reasons. First, a new round of the crisis in the EU would affect the Russian economy — which remains closely linked to it — and oil prices. Second, the EU is turning into a big arena of uncertainty no matter whether Greece stays or goes.

The continuing transformation of the EU in an unclear direction is part of major changes in greater Eurasia that will continue in the years to come. Other factors include Russia’s turn to the east, China’s Silk Road project, the sliding of the Middle East into chaos and the disintegration of the system of states that was formed in the region in the 20th century. These developments may make the Greek issue look like a trifle.

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