Russian president Vladimir Putin and Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras have made a pledge to “restart and revive” bilateral relations in a meeting aimed at boosting each other’s political bargaining chips in their confrontations with the EU.
While Mr Tsipras trumpeted his country’s right to engage with Russia despite misgivings from other EU member countries while Moscow was locked in a stand-off with the west, Mr Putin dangled the prospect of Russian investment in cash-strapped Greece but said he had no intention of dividing the EU.
Mr Tsipras’s visit, just a day before Greece was due to make a €450m payment to the International Monetary Fund, and his criticism of EU sanctions against Russia, had triggered speculation that Moscow could help bail out Athens in exchange for support in blocking an extension of anti-Russian sanctions.
But while the Greek prime minister repeated his criticism of sanctions, he also appeared to reassure fellow EU members over fears that Greece could break ranks. He said that while Greece was seeking to build “relations of confidence and trust with the Russian Federation”, it remained an EU member and was “complying with all the commitments we have made to the EU”.
Mr Putin also dismissed the idea that Russia would prop up Athens with cash in its fight with EU creditors. “The Greek side did not ask us for help,” he said.
He also dismissed the notion, advanced by some European officials, of using Greece as a Trojan Horse in the EU. “We are not going to use anything within the EU in order to solve the problem of improving our relations with the EU as a whole,” Mr Putin said. “The best solution for all would be to stop the sanctions war.”
Observers said it was impossible to gauge whether there was a behind the scenes deal. But Russian politicians and analysts acknowledge that finding like-minded allies in Europe is a key foreign policy task for Moscow.
“In fact, it is by far not just Greece, Hungary and the Czech Republic that are opposed to sanctions,” said Alexei Martynov, a political scientist at the International Institute of the Newly Established States in Moscow. “A large number of politicians from other EU states think the same, but they only dare say that in the corridors and not publicly.”
Mr Putin said he and Mr Tsipras had discussed potential projects in energy such as extending the planned ‘Turkish Stream’ gas pipeline from Russia to Turkey into the EU via Greece. Mr Putin said this would allow Russia to grant loans for related projects, and income from such projects could eventually help Greece pay back debt.
Mr Tsipras responded positively to the Russian proposal, saying his country was ready to “build a Greek pipeline for natural gas from the Turkish-Greek border”. Both leaders said this would create chances for further investment and the creation of jobs in Greece. However, they said any detail was yet to be worked out by energy specialists on both sides.
Mr Putin dashed hopes of an exemption for Greece from Russia’s import ban on western agricultural products and foodstuffs. “We cannot make an exception for any country,” he said. However, according to the Russian president, the two governments agreed on joint investments in agro-industry and food production in Russia, which he said would help Greece find its way back into the Russian market.
Mr Tsipras is scheduled to meet Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, and give a speech at Moscow State University on Thursday.
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