By George Gilson

When Alexis Tsipras paid his first official visit to Moscow in 2015, he and Vladimir Putin signed a joint cooperation agreement for 2015-2016, and he was accompanied by three former communist ministers with a special place in their heart for Russia – Nikos Kotzias, Panagiotis Lafazanis and Nadia Valavani.

Putin had said at the time said that the visit could not have come at a better time, as Tsipras dismissed Western sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea as a dead end. Kotzias had laid out what the government still calls a multi-faceted foreign policy in which the strengthening of relations with Moscow was an integral part, and there were vain hopes of loans from Moscow to help Greece stand on its feet.

Three-and-a-half years later, in July, 2018, Athens expelled two Russian diplomats and barred the entry of two others, after it was informed by Western intelligence that Moscow was actively trying to woo Greek local government officials and even bishops to thwart the Greece-FYROM Prespa Agreement, the ante-chamber of Skopje’s Nato membership, which Moscow vehemently opposes.

In the interim, Tsipras forged Greece’s closest relationship with Washington in decades, at a time when the geopolitical threats are heightened, primarily by Ankara.

The Obama administration stepped in at crucial junctures when the prospect of a Grexit seemed very real. US ties with Turkey imploded and ties with Greece developed into what both sides now call a strategic partnership in which the two main pillars are defence (including talk of an expansion of the US military presence with the use of news bases that would complement the invaluable American naval and air base in Souda Bay, Crete) and energy (including diversification to stem Russia’s hegemony in Europe).

Balancing on the East-West tightrope

Now, Tsipras is underlining the need for improved bilateral ties so as to “stably build the basis of the two countries’ cooperation after nearly five years of inertia in their relations”.

“In the ensuing period, it became evident through Greece’s multi-faceted and pro-active foreign policy, and through the building of stable relations of cooperation with the Russian Federation, that Greece can be a member of the European Union and Nato while at the same time being in a position to advance a model of an energetic and multi-faceted foreign policy, availing itself of historic ties and cooperation,” Tsipras said, reminding his host of Greek support when the rest of the EU had turned against Moscow.

The diplomatic row

Asked about the diplomatic row that brought Greek-Russian relations to an unprecedented low point, Putin aggressively denied any intervention in Greek domestic affairs, of which then foreign minister Kotzias had openly accused Moscow.

“Firstly, we initially did not agree, and I would like to emphasize this now, with the basis for the expulsion of our diplomats. I can hardly imagine that any sensible person either in Greece or in Russia could think that Russia was plotting some intrigues against Greece or planning some sort of conspiracy. This is just nonsense, rubbish. If intelligence services have any questions to each other, which is also possible, there are many ways to solve situations of this kind without any theatrical gestures. Hopefully, this page has really been turned. But I must say that this did not really hinder us in working normally and building relationships, including in the economic sphere,” the Russian President declared.

Picking up the gauntlet, Tsipras directly dismissed his host’s contention and replied that as long as he is Prime Minister Greek national interests and sovereignty will be defended decisively.

The PM said he wants to put bilateral ties “on the stable track that we built with effort since 2015” and that this “will always help us transcend whatever difficulties and return to the necessary mutual respect and understanding”.

The Greece-Turkey-Russia triangle

Tsipras said that the issues of developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, the region’s new energy map, Russia’s role, and the ties of Moscow and Athens with Turkey were all discussed in some detail.

“Certainly I shared with President Putin our concerns regarding Turkey’s new weapons procurement programmes, insofar as it insists on retaining the casus belli against Greece,” Tsipras said, referring indirectly to Turkey’s order of Russian S-400 missile systems and directly to Ankara’s threat of war if Athens exercises its right under international law to extend its territorial waters.

Can they push the restart button?

Tsipras’ talks with Putin and Russian PM Dmitri Medvedev were the first step in patching up relations without papering over the geopolitical differences that are rooted in the intense US-Russia competition for influence in the Balkans.

Despite a host of thorny issues, including the battle between the Orthodox Patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople over the Church in Ukraine and Russia’s longstanding push for expansive influence in the monastic colony of Mount Athos, it was clear that both sides are scrambling to find a viable way to press the restart button.

Historical ties

“We believe that Mr Tsipras’ visit comes at a good time. We consider Greece our special partner with whom we are united by age-old bonds of friendship, common chapters of history and spiritual affinity,” Putin declared at a joint press conference after bilateral talks, noting that this year is the 190th anniversary of the beginning of Moscow’s diplomatic relations with the newly established modern Greek state.

The Russian leader focused on the positive (aside from a jibe about the expulsion of the Russian diplomats) including trade and investment. “Last year, bilateral trade grew by 27 percent to nearly $ 4 billion, adding another 11 percent in January-September. Russia’s and Greece’s reciprocal investment exceeds $ 700 million,” Putin noted.

“It is our common opinion that the mixed commission on economic, industrial and scientific and technical cooperation is performing well. It met in Moscow just a few days ago, on December 5-6, just before today’s talks, and was quite instrumental in the preparations for these talks.”

The politics of energy, Russian investment

In the crucial sector of energy, Putin underlined Greek energy dependence on Moscow, but he also referred to prospective Russian investments.

“Of course, energy is an important area of cooperation. For many years, Russia has been reliably supplying Greece with energy resources, providing more than half of the Republic’s gas needs and 10 percent of its oil. At the same time, we are ready to consider the possibility of connecting Greek companies to major infrastructure projects for the delivery of Russian gas to Europe via the southern route,” Putin said.

Asked if the TurkStream pipeline will pass through Greece, Putin left open the possibility.

“We are ready to go forward with major energy infrastructure projects with Greece, which also applies to the possibility of connecting Southern Europe through Greece to TurkStream. We are discussing this with both our Turkish and Greek partners; it is quite likely. There is indeed a pipeline from Greece to Italy. The pipeline was built, but there is no gas there yet. We can think together about how to fill this route with a real product. This is a matter that requires separate consideration, primarily from the point of view of economic feasibility for economic players, including Russian ones. But it is quite possible, we do not rule it out; moreover, we believe that it is quite realistic,” the Russian leader explained.