Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was due to meet Kremlin strongman Vladimir Putin in Moscow Wednesday as part of an eye-catching visit that has fueled EU fears cash-strapped Athens is cozying up to Russia.
Tsipras was set to meet Putin at 1 p.m. while a joint press conference was scheduled for 3.30 p.m. Earlier on Wednesday, the Greek premier took place in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin walls.
The two-day trip comes as Tsipras is battling to unblock a rescue package from the EU and IMF, with some in Brussels warning against any move to barter financial support from Moscow for political backing over the Ukraine crisis.
Sources told Kathimerini ahead of the meeting that the Greek government remains committed to working out a solution to the debt problem with its eurozone partners. Tsipras’s meeting with Putin will not affect ongoing negotiations with the Institutions, the same sources said.
Speaking to Reuters on Wednesday, a Greek government official said that Greece has not asked Russia for money to help cope with its debt and financial problems and wants to resolve them within the European Union.
Analysts say that while the visit might see Moscow lift an embargo on Greek fruit, overall it is more about political grandstanding aimed at pressuring Europe rather than a serious shift in policy.
Tsipras, a former Communist who came to power in January, has made no secret of seeking closer ties to Russia at a time when Moscow is at loggerheads with the European Union over the conflict in Ukraine.
He has travelled to Moscow already last year, prior to his election win, to meet with several officials and lawmakers.
A number of Greek officials have openly broached the prospect of Athens turning to Russia or China for financial assistance if loan talks with the EU end in failure.
Ahead of the trip, Tsipras once again rattled the EU’s already shaky stance over Ukraine by lashing out at Western sanctions against Moscow as “a road to nowhere.”
“We do not agree with sanctions,” Tsipras told Russian state news agency TASS.
“I support the point of view that there is a need for a dialogue and diplomacy, we should sit down at the negotiating table and find the solutions to major problems.”
Both sides have talked up the possibility of closer economic ties between the two Orthodox nations ahead of the visit — set to be followed by another trip to Moscow for Tsipras for WWII victory anniversary commemorations in May.
Prominent among the issues on the agenda is gas after Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis discussed energy exploration and the new Turkish Stream pipeline during a two-day visit last month.
But while both sides make positive noises there appears no chance of Russia — battling an economic crisis of its own — stepping in with major financial aid.
“There is no question of Greece receiving any money to plug its holes,” Russian foreign affairs expert Fyodor Lukyanov told AFP.
Moscow, however, could well decide to revoke a painful embargo on fruit — imposed as part of a wider ban on Western products in response to sanctions over Ukraine — that has bruised Greece’s agricultural sector.
“That does not cost anything but still looks good,” Lukyanov said. For Putin, courting Athens is most likely seen as a way of sowing discord in Europe and Greece might be seen as a Trojan Horse for helping to rock his Western foes.
“It’s not realistic to expect that Greece will veto the sanctions against Russia,” Lyukanov said.
“But it could foment a wave of opinion against the sanctions and that is useful.”
For Tsipras, experts said, the visit to Moscow is far more a warning shot to Europe as the wrangling over the bailout drags on rather than a genuine gambit to throw Athens’ lot in with Russia.
“The Tsipras government seeks to leave ambiguity hanging over its intentions as if to tell the Europeans ‘don’t take us for granted’,” said Greek analyst Constantinos Filis.
But he added that this is merely a “tactic” rather than a true foreign policy shift and cozying up to Moscow is just “an additional card” in the game of brinkmanship.
“Greece needs the EU and Russia needs Greece to remain part of the EU and NATO in terms of the support it can offer against criticism and economic sanctions.”
Thanos Veremis, vice-president of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy says Tsipras visit is mainly directed at the electorate at home.
“It’s designed to show that the government is proactive and prepared to try things out.” [Combined reports]