Is Putin Trying to Pry Greece Out of the European Union?
Policy + Politics

Is Putin Trying to Pry Greece Out of the European Union?

As finance ministers from across Europe held emergency meetings in Brussels in an effort to keep a newly assertive Greece in the currency union, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeated an offer from Moscow to provide Greece with the funding it needs to ease punishing austerity programs and rebuild its economy. 

Greece was forced to accept several rounds of sharp cuts in public spending as a condition of receiving a massive bailout package from other EU member nations beginning in 2010. The austerity measures were deeply unpopular with the Greek public, and resulted last month in the election of a new, leftist government that came to power on a promise to push back against European powers, primarily Germany, demanding that the country stick to the terms of its deal despite the fact that it has not resulted in any meaningful economic recovery. 

Related: The Greece-EU Standoff Is Getting ‘Berserk’ 

Now, the new government is trying to make good on its campaign promise by demanding that its European Union creditors ease their requirements by allowing Greece to spend more on public services, and change the terms of repayment to make the country’s debt service less onerous. 

For their part, Greece’s creditors are somewhere between dubious and dismissive. The current bailout package expires at the end of the month, and the next tranche of loans to Greece is dependent on a deal being struck. 

The fight could pose an existential threat to the European currency union, because one of the potential endgames for Greece is abandoning the Euro – a move that would allow the country to take on debt in a currency it controls. The concern is not that the loss of Greece would be economically devastating to the Eurozone, but that if the markets began to see Eurozone nations’ commitment to the Euro as contingent on domestic politics the whole enterprise could collapse. 

Senior officials in Greece have repeatedly claimed that the country has other options for finding financing. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said that if Greece demands changes to the financing deal, “It’s over.” He said the other EU nations “can’t negotiate about something new.” 

Related: Ukraine Tensions Hit Boiling Point as Obama Confronts Putin 

Such talk has angered Greek leaders, who see Germany, in particular, as being unnecessarily tied to continued austerity programs. Several have held out the prospect of turning to other sources for funding. 

After bailing out Greece twice, Germany and other European countries like Finland and the Netherlands are also angry. Instead of showing good faith in asking for debt forgiveness, Tsipras has promised to rehire 12,000 public-sector workers, raise wages and essentially disregard many of the reforms that might get Greece another free pass. 

“We want a deal. But if there is no deal, and if we see that Germany remains rigid and wants to blow Europe apart, then we will have to go to Plan B,” said Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, who also heads Independent Greeks, a political party that is part of the governing coalition assembled by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. “We have other ways of finding money. It could be the United States at best, it could be Russia, it could be China or other countries.” 

Nikos Chountis, Greece's deputy foreign minister, has said that both Russia and China have made offers of financial assistance. Russia has also moved to strengthen political and economic ties with Athens. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government has, on multiple occasions, held out the offer of financing to Greece. In late January, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said the Kremlin was open to considering a financial aid package for Greece. 

Related: How the U.S. Can Stop Putin’s Ukraine Push 

Last week, Tspiras discussed bolstering ties with Russia in a phone call with Putin, according to a statement released by his office. “The Russian president and the prime minister emphasized the need for substantial improvement of the cooperation between Greece and Russia — countries with deep and historic ties — especially in the sectors of economy, energy, tourism, culture and transport," said a statement from Tspiras’s office, also noting that Putin had invited Tspiras to visit Moscow in May. 

Then Wednesday, as the EU finance ministers were trying to hammer out a deal with Greece, Lavrov, Russian’s foreign minister, again raised the issue of Russia riding to the rescue of the Greek people in a joint press conference with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias. 

He said they also discussed further cooperation on the issue of energy. “We discussed energy cooperation, considering Athens’ interest in the plans of building a gas pipeline from Russia to Turkey and to the Greek border," Lavrov said. “We believe this project has good prospects.” 

Related: If the U.S. Arms Ukraine, Russia Vows Retaliation 

Lavrov also threw in some praise for the Greek government’s initial resistance to an EU plan to extend economic sanctions against Russia over its continued aggression in eastern Ukraine. “We appreciate the stance of the Greek government, which understands the complete counter-productivity of attempts to speak this language with Russia,” he said. 

Adding to the tension of the moment was the fact that on Wednesday, Putin, as well as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Francois Hollande were meeting in Minsk, Belarus, in an effort to come to a deal to stop the fighting in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists are fighting to create an autonomous region aligned with Moscow. 

Late Wednesday, the finance minsters discussing the future of Greece’s financial relationship with the EU had not announced a deal. One of the most likely outcomes appeared to be a statement of principles that would allow the talks to continue next week. 

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