Russians Bearing Gifts
What Can Putin Do For Tsipras?

European leaders are publicly unconcerned about Greece’s Alexis Tsipras’ upcoming trip to Moscow. Greece’s financial hole is too deep for Russia to be able to meaningfully intervene in order to change the bargaining dynamic between Athens and Brussels. Go on and indulge in your theatrics, Alexis, they say. The bills are coming due no matter what.

But what could a cash-strapped Vladimir Putin offer Greece on Wednesday? The FT suggests it could be something as simple as lifting Russia’s ban on Greek soft fruits, instituted in retaliation to European sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea. Or it could be something more significant:

“We are ready to consider the issue of a gas price discount for Greece,” [Russia’s Kommersant newspaper] said quoting an unnamed Russian government source.

Russia’s state-controlled producer Gazprom declined to comment. The Energy Ministry also declined to comment.

The source said that in exchange for the discount and some unspecified loans, Russiawould want access to Greek assets. The source did not name any specific assets.

Putin’s strategy is, as usual, polyvalent. The asset sale could give Russia another foothold in Europe for the future, especially if Greece manages to stay in the eurozone. But it’s likely that Russia’s immediate goal in all of this is weakening European solidarity on sanctions, which come up again for review in June. While many were focusing on the recent public row between the Czech president and the U.S. ambassador over the former’s determination to visit Moscow to commemorate Victory Day in May, Putin’s real leverage lies with countries like Greece and Cyprus. Nicosia, which recently signed secret deals with the Kremlin possibly granting Russia both improved basing rights in the Mediterranean and a role in the development of gas reserves off its shores, has been making noises about breaking ranks with the fragile European consensus. Tsipras too was singing from the same hymnal a few days ago. Let’s see if his tune is even louder upon his return from Russia.

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