As possible Greek default looms, Alexis Tsipras courts Moscow

Russia won't - and probably can't - bail out Greece. But both countries have longer term interests in common.

REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/Files
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addresses a news conference after meeting European Parliament President Martin Schulz (not pictured) at the EU Parliament in Brussels, Belgium in this February 4, 2015 file photo. Euro zone leaders are expected to gather for an emergency summit to try to avert a Greek default this week.

It's crunch time for Greece. An emergency summit of Eurozone leaders in Brussels Monday will decide whether the heavily-indebted country, run by a left-wing government that refuses to make concessions that cut deeper into living standards, will be granted another financial reprieve or is headed for default and possible exit from the Eurozone.

Amid the drama, many are asking why Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras chose to fly to Russia late last week, where he blamed the European Union for Greece's troubles at a Kremlin-sponsored St. Petersburg economic forum and later held a long private meeting with Vladimir Putin.         

If Mr. Tsipras' plan was to obtain financial aid from Russia ahead of Greece's looming deadline with its European creditors, those hopes were dashed. Mr. Putin emerged from the meeting saying the issue of Russian cash assistance was never even raised.

Putin did, however, get something significant from Tsipras. Greek and Russian energy ministers signed a $2.3 billion deal to complete the on-again-off-again South Stream pipeline, which will bring Russian gas to southern Europe bypassing existing pipelines through Ukraine. The project, capable of delivering 63 billion cubic meters of gas under the Black Sea, seemed dead last year when Bulgaria suspended the deal under EU pressure.  It's now been renamed Turk Stream, because it will make landfall in western Turkey instead of Bulgaria.

But Russia needed an EU member to become the new "gas hub" for distribution to Europe. The deal made on Friday commits Russia to paying the full cost of building the pipeline into Greece and, in return, Greece will own half of the network on its own soil. When it's completed in 2019, the system could bring hundreds of millions of dollars in gas transit fees to Greek government coffers.

No wonder Greek energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis hailed the deal. "The pipeline we are starting today is not against anyone in Europe or anyone else. It is a pipeline for peace and stability in the whole region," Russian news agencies quoted him as saying.

None of this will help Greece now, but Russian experts say that Athens isn't doing much for Russia either. The EU extended its sanctions regime against Moscow until at least the end of this year. A Greek "no" vote might have stopped that, since the EU runs on consensus, but Greece sat on its hands.

The Kremlin is playing a long game with Greece, experts say, which doesn't depend on whether the struggling country remains in the Eurozone or not. Whatever happens this week, Greece is still going to need trade with Russia -- which slumped by 40 percent amid the sanctions war last year -- Russian tourism, and other benefits that might be enhanced by maintaining warmer relations with Moscow.

"Russia couldn't help Greece in its financial negotiations with the Eurozone even if it wanted to," says Sergei Zabelin, an expert with the official Institute of European Studies in Moscow.

This is about long-term bilateral relations, he says. "Greece can obtain advantages for itself in energy and other spheres by courting Russia. So why shouldn't it play this card?"

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