Sunday, 21 June 2015

Greece, the Frontline of Putin's New Cold War

Oxford, 21st June, 2015

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Mail on Sunday)

With all eyes on Athens watching to see if Greece’s left-wing government blinks tomorrow in its stand-off with the EU over its debt mountain, let’s not lose sight of the bigger political picture.

 Greece’s cash crisis is a moment of opportunity for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. As Athens’ EU partners weary of subsidising Greece, energy-rich Russia is eyeing the Balkans as a  strategic route to weakening the links between Europe and Russia. Putin is offering the region the carrot of a lucrative gas pipeline and other incentives to draw countries like Greece and Turkey away from the West.

Manoeuvring for position for any “Grexit” from the Euro is part Russia’s deepening rift with the West over everything from Ukraine to the Middle East. Greece has become one of  the exposed nerves in the New Cold War between Washington and Moscow. Remember Greece’s civil war in 1947 sparked the old Cold War as President Truman took one side and Stalin  the other. Today, Greece is at the heart of renewed East-West rivalry as well as the Eurocrisis.

On Friday,the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, dropped a meeting with the EU’s current President, Poland’s Donald Tusk,  to travel to Russia’s old imperial capital,  St. Petersburg, to meet President Putin instead.

There, in a highly symbolic tribute, Tsipras laid a wreath at the statue of Kapodistrias, the ethnic Greek who acted as Imperial Russia’s foreign minister and did much of the diplomatic spadework which would eventually bring about a pan-European intervention on the side of the Greeks during their war for independence after 1821. Another ethnic Greek, Ypsilantis, an officer in the Imperial Russian army actually ignited Greece’s War for Independence in 1821. He was the forerunner of today’s Russian “volunteers” in the Donbas. Tsipras was paying homage to the idea that Russia not the West has been Greece’s true patron. Putin himself emphasised Russia’s deep ties of culture and religion with neighbours like Ukraine and Balkan countries like Greece.

Of course, Britain has been at odds with Russian imperial ambitions in the region before.The Crimean War was fought to stop them. In 1878, jingoism got its first outing when  London’s music halls echoed to the sentiment “We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do”  before listing what the Russians wouldn’t be allowed to grab in the Balkans. But the current standoff between Moscow-backed rebels in the south-east of Ukraine and the US-supported government in Kiev is why relations between East and West are so tense now.

Ukraine seems to be a reversion to the kind of Cold War proxy conflict between the Kremlin and the West which was normal in the decades before 1989. Then each superpower engaged in a hardly covert struggle for influence backing their local allies from Africa via Vietnam to Afghanistan, and trying to undermine the other side’s allies.

But let’s not be seduced too easily by old Cold War stereotypes. Of course, Vladimir Putin’s much publicised early career in the KGB has been to give him a sinister glamour, at home as well as abroad, but he long abandoned any commitment to Communism.

The old Cold War was a clear rivalry between Communism and Capitalism. Capitalism won hands down – not least in Russia itself. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin  and his close circle of ex-KGB ministers, advisers and cronies have abandoned any allegiance to Marxist ideas. Their Russia is not a socialist state any more. If anything post-Communist Russia has had a more cut-throat capitalist economy than anything seen in the West since well before the First World War.

Putin is often misquoted - or at least incompletely quoted – as promoting nostalgia for the USSR and a desire to restore it when he said that Russian who did not regret the break up of the state and society into which they had been born lacked a heart, but he added – something usually overlooked - that anyone who wanted to recreate the Soviet
Union lacked a brain. His preferred historical models are to be found among people and  policies before the Bolshevik Revolution.

It is to pre-1914 Imperial Russia and its culture and traditions that Putin most often looks for symbols to bolster his politics today. So he has declared the last tsar's reforming prime minister, Stolypin, his political hero, not Stalin. Of course, he  savoured the anniversary of the Red Army’s victory over Hitler in 1945, still the biggest badge of pride for Russians from their tarnished Communist past, but he by the Soviet Communists. Strikingly, even his defence minister, a Russian Buddhist by has committed himself to the country’s Orthodox Christian heritage so despised origin, nonetheless made the sign of the cross in the Orthodox way on the spot where the renegade seminarian, Stalin, had celebrated Hitler's defeat. 

Imperial Russia’s Nicholas I prefigured Putin’s hostility to “People Power” revolutions, seeing the upheavals of his day – Poland in 1831 or Central Europe in 1848 – as the result of liberal machinations promoted from Paris and London as Putin sees Washington's hand behind the crisis in Ukraine.  Nicholas I made an exception in his support for Orthodox Christians in Greece rebelling against the Muslim Sultan.

For many Greeks and Russians being an Orthodox Christian is essential to their national identity. Putin’s emphasis on traditional values puts him at odds with the West, where  tolerance and individual rights are now sacrosanct. Putin’s government has put a lot of  effort into rallying cultural conservatives in the West to Russia’s side as the bastion of family values. Cynical propaganda it may be but it is very different Soviet Communism’s anti-Christian diatribes.

Putin emphasises Russia’s the thousand-year old ties with the Greek Orthodox  Church which brought Christianity first to Ukraine then Russia itself. In 1947, Greek Christians were anti-Communist and so anti-Moscow. Not any more.

As in the early nineteenth century, Graeco-Russian solidarity is based on religion which was very different from British sympathy for the Greeks then which was a liberal cause.

Britain’s most famous contribution to Greek independence was Lord Byron’s quixotic  sacrifice of his own life fighting to revive the glories of  ancient pagan Athens. Byron was no friend of Christianity, Orthodox or Anglican. Imperial Russia backed the Orthodox Christians who actually lived in modern Greece. Today Putin plays up his role as a born-again Orthodox Christian to Greeks, though let’s remember George Bush liked that in him too. (Another Western born-again Christian, Tony Blair made the pilgrimage to Putin in St. Petersburg on the same day as Tsipras but whether as acolyte or to spy out any weaknesses in the Russian government for his rival patrons in Kiev has yet to be revealed.)

But Putin backs up appeals to cultural solidarity with incentives in hard cash.

If Putin  dreams of a revived Orthodox Christian alliance reaching deep into Europe’s backyard in the Balkans, this is because he calculates that Greece is where Moscow could split the EU and NATO.

Russia’s vast energy resources are the tool to prize apart NATO states from America. Already, Russia has signed an agreement to build a gas pipeline to Turkey. On Friday, Tsipras added Greece’s signature to the project. Both Turkey and Greece are attracted by a gas pipeline supplying them with energy at a favourable price and giving them a share in the profits of transporting it further West, ultimately to energy-hungry Italy, the big prize at the heart of the West from Russia's point of view. No-one needs reminding that Greece could do with a few billion euros in transit fees, whether there is a Grexit or not.

Tsipras may calculate that he can use the Russian bogey to frighten Brussels into  continuing the bail-out, but if the Germans refuse to pay up, Russia can at least tide Athens over for a while it sorts out an orderly  return to the drachma.

Putin has not, however, got limitless resources to play with. Oil and gas prices are well below where the Kremlin needs them to have the tens of billions to throw around which would really buy friends and influence throughout the Balkans if the West plays tough.  
Brussels and Washington see the Russian-sponsored pipeline as a Trojan Horse. They have  already twisted Bulgaria’s arm not to participate in Putin’s project. Orthodox Bulgaria had had the reputation as the most pro-Russian country  in the region so its backing away from Putin’s embrace shows the limits of cultural traditions in the Balkans. In neighbouring Macedonia, street protests against the government where only quietened when the prime minister said his country would not join Russia's pipeline project without the consent of Brussels

But Greece has had a long history since 1945 as the most truculent member of both NATO and then the EU, so it could prove a tough nut for Western pressure to crack. Greece's obstinate refusal to acknowledge "Macedonia" as its neighbour's name and therefore the  country's candidacy to either the EU or NATO is just one symptom of Athens' ability to block its allies when it chooses to.

Today’s Russia does not have the resources of the West but nor is it the basket-case  which the Soviet Union had become by the 1980s. Putin is playing on the economic realities which make the New Cold War so different from the past. During the Cold War  alliance with Washington was the high road to prosperity for Western Europe. After 1948, America’s Marshall Plan helped lift post-war Europe out of misery. Communism’s inability to match the West’s economic boom from the 1950s sealed its unpopularity in Eastern  Europe and Soviet Russia itself. 

But today the White House is asking its European allies to make economic sacrifices to counter the Kremlin.  

For four decades, Western Europe had a free-ride on Washington’s coat-tails. Now  sanctions on Russia hit European businesses hard. Particularly in rural Greece and the ex-Communist states of the new EU members, losing agricultural sales to Russia has bee a  body-blow. But big German and Italian manufacturers have taken heavy hits too.

Putin plays up the argument that President Obama is setting the anti-Russian sanctions policy but the price is paid by austerity-hit Europeans. Gnawing away at European support for sanctions on Russia over Ukraine are the losses of valuable exports to their vast eastern neighbour. Greece is least able to afford such losses.

Putin is able to sit out the sanctions because ordinary Russians blame the West rather than him for growing hardship. That is a very different state of affairs than the cynical attitude towards the Kremlin in the last years of Communism.  He hopes to chip away at EU solidarity. Let’s face it, there are a lot of divisions inside the EU and not just over Russia. Newly-elected governments here in Britain and in Denmark want to cut back the rights of migrant workers flooding west from Poland and the Baltic States which see themselves as the frontline of the New Cold War.  In Warsaw, plans in London to change migrants’ rights to benefits are seen as a stab in the back of NATO’s eastern allies.

Greeks demand solidarity from NATO allies in cash. As that dries up, Greece could be the first domino to fall. Turkey could follow as its own political and economic crisis is pushing President Erdogan eastwards.

Nothing in history is every exactly a repetition of past patterns. The New Cold War has different dynamics from the one before 1989, but, by jingo, it seems that traditional British fears of Imperial Russia’s dream of dominating the region could have life in them yet.

Mark Almond is Director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford (CRIOx).