There is little doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys watching the European Union tear itself up over the Greek debt crisis. Behind only the U.S. and NATO, the combined European countries are seen by the Russian leader as a force brought together to reduce Russia’s influence in the world.
Watching Europe focus intensely on the financial problems in Athens while his proxies continue to wage what amounts to a civil war in Ukraine can only please the Russian strongman.
But Putin must also know the Greek crisis is a huge missed opportunity.
In speech after speech to the Russian people, Putin has blasted the efforts of the West to hem Russia in. The sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine and recently extended through January of next year are causing serious economic pain in his country, and European unity in imposing them has been a frustration.
Greece, a country that shares both a linguistic connection with Russia via the Cyrillic alphabet and a religious connection through Orthodox Catholicism, offers Putin a convenient wedge to drive into the EU, separating Athens from its fellow members. The trouble is, he is unable to use it.
Greece’s financial crisis makes the country a ripe and appealing target for a tactic that the USSR used extensively during the Cold War: the creation of client states in Eastern Europe.
Facing massive debts, high unemployment, vanishing tax revenue and few prospects for near-term improvement, Greece’s leaders might have been hard-pressed to say “no” to a rescue package from Russia.
Such a deal would create a European state beholden to Moscow that holds seats in the European Parliament and plays a major role in various EU bodies.
The one thing standing in the way: Putin hasn’t got the money.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has twice visited Russia in the past few months and earlier in the year there were abortive efforts to have Greece either join the BRICS association of developing economies or to at least give Athens access to credit from the association’s development bank.
Neither effort panned out and Tsipras, following a symbolic rejection of previous relief proposals from Greece’s EU creditors over the weekend, took a phone call from Putin on Sunday. Under other circumstances, that call might have involved the discussion of a rescue package. But battered by sanctions and, more importantly, by low oil prices, Putin is in no position to offer the kind of relief that would hand him the hammer he needs to drive that wedge into the EU.
Instead, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that Putin and the Russian government hope “our Greek partners reach the necessary compromise with creditors as soon as possible.”
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