Nikolaos Stelgias

Nikolaos Stelgias

Ukraine pits Greece against Russia

"In the Ukrainian crisis, the Greek government is attempting to squeeze two watermelons under one armpit"

The Russian Empire supported the Greeks in their fight for freedom from the Ottoman Empire two centuries ago. After Greece's independence was declared in the latter half of the 1820s, the Russian contribution to the development of modern Greece remained significant. Greece and Russia, two significant major Orthodox players in the Balkans, have maintained communication and collaboration on several subjects since that time. During Russia's brief communist era, the dialog went on against all odds.

Today, soon after the 100th anniversary of the start of Greece's independence struggle, the Ukrainian crisis separates Athens from Moscow. Greece is supporting Ukraine in a variety of ways as a NATO and European power, which worries Moscow. Russian-Greek ties are at an all-time low because of Greece's escalating military help to Ukraine. According to observers, 2022 ends with the least optimistic prognostications for the future of bilateral ties.

A hostile move

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reiterated her nation's position on the escalation of Greek military help to Ukraine a few days ago. The Russian diplomat stated that Greece's plans to supply the Kiev government with S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems and other Russian or Soviet-style air defense equipment are a hostile move by Moscow.

According to Zakharova, "Greece's government has recently stepped up its rhetoric about its willingness to give Ukraine S-300 PMU1 air defense systems for more US Patriot air defense missile systems to replace them.

In her statement, she underlined that, "We see the provocative intentions on the supply of S-300 air-defense systems and its other modifications made in the Soviet Union or Russia as an openly hostile maneuver intended against Russia." By delivering weapons to the conflict area, the Greek government, in Zakharova's words, "becomes direct partners of Ukrainian neo-Nazis," who "fight a criminal war against the civilian population of Donbass, the Regions of Zaporozhye and Kherson, were many ethnic Greeks live."

Prior to Zakharova's statement Crimea's "deputy prime minister," Georgy Muradov warned Greece that "the transfer by Greece of S-300 missile systems to Ukraine would be a risky step". According to the Russian official, "such a move by Athens would not only be a senseless demonstration of hostility against Russia but also a risky step regarding her own national interests since Russia previously had friendly relations both with Greece and the Republic of Cyprus."

After Greece's Defense Minister Nicos Panayiotopoulos declared Athens was prepared to deliver the S-300 missile systems to Ukraine on the condition that the United States would reply by sending the Patriot missile defense systems to Crete, Moscow warnings towards Athens were intensified. Ignoring these warnings, Panayiotopoulos clarified that, in theory, his country is prepared to provide any air defense system developed in Russia—not just S-300s but also Tor-M1 or Osa-AKM—to Ukraine.

In Athens, the diplomatic sources state the US has been pressuring Greece to give Ukraine more weapons ever since Russia invaded Ukraine. Athens is asked by Washington to send new weapons. In response to this demand, Athens sets conditions, such as the transfer to Greece of modern Western weapons to replace those being sent to Ukraine.

According to the latest information in Athens, Greece has already sent small arms of incompatible calibre with NATO and is ready to send armoured vehicles. On May 31, it was revealed that the Greek government intended to get modern vehicles from Germany besides sending antiquated Soviet armored personnel carriers to Ukraine that the Greek army did not require. It relates to transferring armored infantry vehicles that Greece got in 1992. They are in their 40s to 50s. The Greek government reportedly transported or was about to transfer an "amazing number" of guns and ammunition to Ukraine, according to reports in the Greek media on June 5. The military aid package comprised 122 BMP-1 armored infantry vehicles, 15,000 rounds of 73 mm caliber ammunition, 2,100 rocket launchers, and other armaments.

Greece started transferring BMP-1 armored infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine on October 19. The Ministry of National Defense had already announced that it would send 40 BMP-1s to Ukraine. Greece would give up the equal quantity of German armored vehicles in exchange. Five Greek armored battle vehicles (BMPs) were allegedly destroyed by the Russian military in Donbass a few weeks ago after being turned over to the Ukrainian side, according to the Russian press. Two Western RM-70 fire rocket systems, which Greece had also sent to Ukraine, were also destroyed by the Russian military.

Crisis in Greek-Russian relations

For Andrey Maslov, the Russian ambassador to Greece, the aforementioned developments show that "the Greek side has almost entirely ruined bilateral relations between Moscow and Athens, with even cultural cooperation blocked." Greece's role in the conflict in Ukraine has hampered collaboration between Russia and Greece in a variety of areas and worsened bilateral ties.

While initially opposing the imposition of a price ceiling for Russian oil, Greece and Cyprus, another Orthodox European nation in the area with close ties to Moscow and Athens, eventually came around to the linked EU plan. The concept of a price ceiling on Russian energy as an alternative to a total embargo was not immediately embraced by Greece. According to analysts, this was caused by factors like the situation of Greek shipowners, who would incur significant losses if they could not transport Russian oil, for example. The Greek government ultimately sided with Brussels, though. Nicosia has also done the same.

Before the aforementioned development, there was a significant decline in Russian tourists visiting Greece. For comparison, the number of visits even during the first half of the 2020 pandemic reached 19,000, while in 2019 and previous years, the number of Russian visitors visiting Greece was in the hundreds of thousands, roughly 700–800,000. Even more so, 2013 set a record with 1.3 million Russian visitors to Greece. Naturally, the situation has changed since then. And as if that wasn't enough, the Russian Foreign Ministry reported in August that there had been incidents of hostility and discrimination against Russians in Greece.

There are further areas of the bilateral relations that have suffered. A typical example is the Greek fur industry, where, according to Russian media, most consumers (less than 90%) were Russians before the conflict in Ukraine. This sector of the economy is now devastated. The war's inflationary impact on the Greek economy has also skyrocketed fuel prices, which has had a knock-on effect on plane fares. Since the beginning of the year, Greek shipping companies have already raised the cost of ferry tickets multiple times.

What do Greek analysts fear?

Greek analysts are concerned about the deterioration of relations between Greece and Russia. Analysts complain about Greece's position between the West and Russia in the wake of rumors that Russia is working to improve its relations with the Turkish Cypriots --although being publicly rejected by Moscow-- continue to provoke unrest in Athens.

Thodoris Lapanaitis is of the opinion "regarding the Ukrainian crisis, the Greek government is attempting to squeeze two watermelons under one armpit. Greece was effectively placed between the US and Russia because of the Ukrainian crisis, which also seriously jeopardized relations between Athens and Moscow."

The expert claims that Greece is spreading the de-escalation message to all parties, not just Russia, as the diplomatic sources claim. The challenge is whether Greece can maintain its "commitments" to the West while also maintaining an open line of contact with Russia when the situation hits its nadir. And as Greece steps up its support for Ukraine, a crisis in relations between Greece and Russia won't be far off. Lapanitis reminds us that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently signaled his displeasure over the subject of the (placement of US forces in the port of) Alexandroupolis, showing that the Americans are using the port of Alexandroupolis to endanger Russia's security. "I know that Greece is a part of the EU and NATO. But it is also clear that Greece does not want to continue down the route of harsher anti-Russian sanctions; in fact, it is not happy with the current state of affairs between the West and the Russian Federation. We have faith in our Greek friends to act wisely and make decisions that are consistent with their beliefs." the Russian diplomat said.

Regardless of Moscow's reaction, US spy aircrafts, such as the USAF "RC-135V" type, continue to depart from Souda every day for the Black Sea and Crimea in order to gather information on the operations of the Russian Armed Forces in the area. According to a recent report, NATO ships are now more frequently seen in the Aegean Sea, where they monitor Russian warships as they go from the Red Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean via the Straits to the Black Sea. The US Department of Defense is also currently trying to charter enormous transport ships to transport weapons to the Balkans via Alexandroupolis.

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