The recent meeting with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras helped the Kremlin address three urgent political needs without giving away much in terms of financial or political capital.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, foreground, and Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the State Duma, lower parliament chamber, in Moscow, Russia, April 9. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves described Tsipras as a “useful idiot,” comparing him with the leftist European politicians who sided with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Photo: AP
Despite the lack of substantive results and the flock of disappointed journalists eager for something more, it is safe nevertheless to categorize the meeting between the leaders of Russia and Greece on April 8 in Moscow as one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic successes.
Russian foreign policy is no doubt going through a lean patch, and what today is described as a success, a few years ago would not have merited attention. However, the meeting with his Greek counterpart undoubtedly helped the Russian leader address some pressing political issues.
First, it demonstrated that Russian foreign policy is operating in “normal” mode. It is business as usual for diplomats, continuing to seek ways to develop economic cooperation with Europe and not neglecting even cultural ties.
Throughout its history one of Russia’s favored means of dealing with a crisis has always been to pretend that none exists. Putin is adept at employing rhetorical tools, and his spin doctors have eagerly adopted the Western fashion for carefully managing appearances, according to which the reality in which we live is largely made up of images purposefully implanted into the mass consciousness.
On that premise, it is a matter of the utmost urgency that the Russian president should convey to both Russian and foreign audiences the idea that the war in Ukraine is over, the all-night negotiations are past, and it is time for everyone to calm down and return to normal life. Sanctions and accusations of “annexing” and “occupying” neighboring lands jar with this new staid view of global reality.
Russia set the scene at the talks in Moscow, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras willingly played along. After all, as the leader of a country on the brink of default, he, like Putin, has to put a brave face on a dire situation.
Second, the reason for the Russian president’s upbeat mood after the meeting in Moscow was that he managed to nettle his Western opponents and even provoke them into making reckless emotional statements. In particular, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves described Tsipras as a “useful idiot,” comparing him with the leftist European politicians who sided with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The fact that EU leaders were completely straight-faced in accusing Greece of endangering European unity is primary evidence that they harbor serious doubts about such unity. Why get so flustered if everyone including Tsipras himself, ended up admitting, not for the first time, that without European loans Greece cannot solve its problems, and that neither in isolation nor in the company of other Russia-friendly European nations can Greece hope to influence the EU’s sanctions policy?
Comparing the statements of EU and Russian representatives on the Moscow meeting between Tsipras and Putin, one might conclude that Russia believes in European unity more than European politicians do. In any event, at the wrap-up press conference Putin cited a long list of convincing arguments to the effect that only cooperation with a united Europe is in the long-term strategic interests of Russia — and on that point it is hard to take issue with him.
Third, another undeniable positive for Russia is that the meeting did not burden the Russian budget, save perhaps for hospitality expenses. Moscow expressed no desire to partake in the rescue of the Greek economy, and Tsipras (if Putin’s statement at the press conference is to be taken at face value) did not even make a request.
That the prospect of Russia buying Greek loyalty was so actively discussed in the Western expert community on the eve of the meeting betrays a complete misunderstanding of why Putin needs allies among the “special” European countries, such as Greece, Hungary and Cyprus, and what means he plans to employ to bring them into his orbit.
Putin surely has not forgotten how many billions of dollars the Soviet Union spent on the upkeep of “socialist countries and people’s democracies” around the world, and what unreliable allies they turned out to be. Today, a new set of international dependents would sound the death knell for Russia’s ailing economy.
When about a month ago rumors began to circulate about an EU ban on the fulfillment of a $12 billion contract between Hungary and Russia on the construction of a nuclear power plant, one got the impression that they were spread not without the Kremlin’s involvement. For Russia, it would certainly be a viable strategy: express willingness to cooperate and take on significant costs, and then be rid of them due to circumstances beyond its control.
Despite Putin’s assurances to the contrary, it should be recognized that partner relations with Hungary, Cyprus, Slovenia, Greece and other European “dissidents” on the issue of sanctions are essentially viewed by Russia not as strategic, but tactical, whose value depends on the prevailing political climate. That does not preclude the possibility of long-term projects, of course, but these countries would be ill-advised to expect multi-billion dollar Russian investments to be forthcoming, much less loans.
It is important to stress once again that, in the current context, the role of Russia’s European friends is less about their ability to influence the EU’s sanctions policy (let us hope that the Kremlin understands full well that the future of sanctions does not depend on the position of Greece or Cyprus), but to support the efforts of Russian diplomacy aimed at persuading European public opinion that the Ukraine crisis is over and the time has come to normalize the dialogue between Russia and Europe.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.