(An edited version of this article appeared in the Mail on Sunday)
With all eyes on
Athens watching to see if ’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
Manoeuvring for position for any “Grexit” from the Euro is part
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 .
Remember Moscow ’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. Greece
On Friday,the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, dropped a meeting with the EU’s current President,
Donald Tusk, to
travel to Russia’s old
imperial capital, , to
meet President Putin instead. St. Petersburg
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
in 1821. He was the forerunner of today’s Russian “volunteers” in
the Independence Donbas. Tsipras was paying homage to the
idea that Russia not the
West has been ’s
true patron. Putin himself emphasised Greece Russia’s deep ties of culture and religion with
neighbours like Ukraine and
Balkan countries like .
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 Britain ’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 London Ukraine and the US-supported government in is why relations
between East and West are so tense now. Kiev
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
itself. Since the collapse
of the Russia Soviet Union, Putin and his close
circle of ex-KGB ministers, advisers and cronies have abandoned any allegiance
to Marxist ideas. Their
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. Russia
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
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.
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 . Nicholas I made an exception in his support
for Orthodox Christians in Ukraine
rebelling against the Muslim Sultan. Greece
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
side as the bastion of family values.
Cynical propaganda it may be but it is very different Soviet Communism’s
anti-Christian diatribes. Russia
Russia’s the thousand-year old ties with the
Greek Orthodox Church which brought Christianity first to Ukraine then itself. In 1947, Greek
Christians were anti-Communist and so anti-Moscow. Not any more. Russia
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.
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
the EU and NATO. Moscow
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
over for a while it sorts out an orderly return to the drachma. Athens
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.
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 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 '
ability to block its allies when it chooses to. Athens
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
coat-tails. Now sanctions on Washington hit European businesses
hard. Particularly in rural Russia Greece
and the ex-Communist states of the new
EU members, losing agricultural sales to has bee a body-blow.
But big German and Italian manufacturers have taken heavy hits too. Russia
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
are the losses of valuable exports to their vast eastern neighbour. Ukraine is least
able to afford such losses. Greece
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
Newly-elected governments here in Russia Britain
want to cut back the rights of migrant workers flooding west from Denmark Poland and the Baltic
States which see themselves as the frontline of the New Cold
War. In Warsaw, plans in to change migrants’ rights to benefits are seen as a
stab in the back of NATO’s eastern allies. London
Greeks demand solidarity from NATO allies in cash. As that dries up,
could be the first domino to
could follow as its own political and economic crisis is pushing President Erdogan eastwards. Turkey
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,