It Looks Like Moscow Has a Friend in Athens
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
It Looks Like Moscow Has a Friend in Athens
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
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(AP photo)

The new government in Athens is sending some worrying signals, and they're not all about money. Events this past week beg the question: Has Vladimir Putin made a new friend in a NATO and EU member state? Is Alexis Tsipras, freshly minted as Greece's prime minister, cozying up to Moscow to create leverage in his battle for debt relief?

Though the Syriza-Independent Greeks coalition is new and untested, there are already signs the answer may be yes. One clear indication was when Tsipras chose to meet Russia's ambassador to Greece - it was the prime minister's very first meeting with a foreign envoy. The ambassador personally delivered Russian President Vladimir Putin's congratulatory message to Tsipras on Monday, mere hours after the prime minister was sworn in.

The second sign came the following day, when Tsipras abruptly announced that Greece would not support new EU sanctions against Russia. New sanctions are on the table because Russia and its proxies in Eastern Ukraine have renewed their offensive in the Donbas. 

On Wednesday Tsipras escalated his rhetoric on the theme: Greek media reported that Tsipras is ready to veto a decision on tougher sanctions. Moscow reportedly responded by proposing that Greece could be exempted from Russia's retaliatory embargo of EU products. Today, the European Union's foreign ministers are meeting to hash out a formal proposal on new sanctions. Member state leaders will vote on the proposal in one week, and a veto by a member government would leave the European Union's Russia policy in tatters.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday evening, a photo surfaced showing the incoming Greek foreign minister standing next to Aleksandr Dugin, a neo-fascist Russian ideologue who is said to have Putin's ear. 

All this creates a worrying situation for the European Union and the United States. Putin has for months worked to shatter the unified front that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, U.S. President Barack Obama, and European Council President Donald Tusk have put up against the increasingly jingoistic Moscow. The main worry until now has been that some EU member states would not be as hard-nosed toward Russia as, say, Poland and the Baltic states are. But Merkel, Hollande, Obama, and British Prime Minister David Cameron have carried a firm consensus.

Meanwhile, Tsipras is gearing up for a tough fight in Europe. He has made far-reaching promises to his voters, but as stated in these pages, Tsipras does not have the leverage he needs to force his creditors to cut Greek debt. His ultimate threat -- to leave the Eurozone -- would leave other EU leaders unmoved. The other EU capitals are stonewalling Greece, fully aware that they have the greater arsenal in any negotiation.

So Tsipras is looking for a weapon of his own. Another big country with deep pockets willing step in and refinance Greece's existing loans on the cheap? That could be the weapon Athens seeks. If that country is Russia, the celebratory vodka will flow in Moscow, and the unity of Europe and NATO will fall further into disarray. Merkel will have to tread carefully.

Kaj Leers (1975) is a former financial journalist, election campaign analyst, political communications strategist and spokesman. Specializing on international affairs, Leers writes for RealClearWorld on European political affairs, the European Union, campaign strategy and macro-economics. COuntries in focus: The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom. Follow him on (mostly Dutch, oftentimes in English).