The great British historian AJP Taylor once said in my presence that Western politicians tend to think of Russia as a tap they can turn on and off whenever they like.
By that he meant by that Western politicians expect Russia’s help when they need it, but never feel under any obligation to give anything back in return.
Taylor was speaking about the diplomacy that led to the Second World War. However it is starting to look as if the same is true of Greece’s Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras.
Tsipras was elected on a contradictory promise of ending austerity and keeping Greece in the eurozone.
He seems to have trusted in his own powers of persuasion – and the economic logic of his case – to achieve this remarkable feat. I am told by people in Greece who are in a position to know that he had – and has – no Plan B.
Tsipras’s faith in his success seems to have been based on a belief that European demands for austerity were a bluff and that Greece is too important to the euro project and in geopolitical terms for its expulsion from the eurozone to be considered.
This presumably is what lies behind the extraordinary game Tsipras has been playing with Moscow.
In January, immediately following his election, in a move that caused anxious buzzing in European capitals and which must have provoked interest in Moscow, Tsipras met with the Russian ambassador before any others.
His government then made known its concerns about the way in which the extension of EU sanctions against Russian individuals and companies was railroaded through later that month.
He then announced he was going to go to Moscow to meet Putin, and he duly did so in March.
As I have discussed previously (see Grexit Looks Inevitable. But Greece Will Need Moscow’s Help, Russia Insider, 27th April 2015) this visit led to expectations of financial deals and of a major gas pipeline agreement. Gazprom’s chief Alexei Miller went to Athens in April to negotiate it.
In the event nothing happened. Though I am told a deal that came with a $5 billion prepayment was ready for signature on 23rd April 2015, it went unsigned and Miller left Athens empty handed.
Here I should say that the gas pipeline offer the Russians made to Tsipras in April was intended to help Greece. It was not part of an elaborate play by the Russians in pursuit of some great gas pipeline strategy. As this is a complex point, I will discuss it in more detail in another article.
The Russians must have been annoyed to be stood up in this way, but characteristically they said nothing.
What followed must have annoyed them even more.
At the time of his trip to Moscow in March Tsipras led everyone to think he would attend the 9th May Victory Parade in Moscow.
This would have been an important symbolic act. Tsipras would have broken with the rest of the EU, which was boycotting the event.
Such a step would have been very popular in Greece. Attitudes to Russia in Greece are very positive. Most Greeks think of Russia as the fellow Orthodox country that liberated Greece from the Ottomans. Most Greeks – unlike many Europeans and Americans – are also fully aware of Russia’s immense contribution to the defeat of fascism in the Second World War.
Last but not least, many Greeks have family connections with Russia. Many were born there or have lived there. Those Greeks with such connections to Russia tend to view Russia very positively.
Without any clear explanation Tsipras then reversed himself and failed to go – something that provoked much more public criticism of him in Greece than it did in Russia.
Over the last 7 days the same pattern has repeated itself.
On Thursday Tsipras went to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum – making him the only Western leader to do so.
There he met Putin again.
This time a gas deal of sorts was signed. The details however are vague and it looks less generous than the deal the Russians offered in March and April. It did not come with the offer of a $5 billion pre-payment that came with the offer made in April.
Meanwhile, at the same time as Tsipras was flying to St. Petersburg, Tsipras’s representative in Brussels was agreeing to an extension of EU sanctions against Russia (see EU Extends Sanctions Against Russia, Russia Insider, 18th June 2015 ). Tsipras himself tamely agreed to this at the European Council meeting on Monday.
At the same European Council meeting Tsipras capitulated in principle to all the demands the Europeans and the IMF made of him. Reversing what he promised at the time of his election, he agreed to an extension of austerity in return for more bailout money.
He has since found, in the classic scenario of someone being blackmailed, that his concessions were not enough, and have simply led to the blackmailer raising his demands.
The result is that not surprisingly Tsipras now looks like someone who has cut deals with the Russians he is not going to be able to honour (see A New Problem for Athens: How to ‘Unpivot’ From Russia After Capitulating to the EU, Russia Insider, 24th June 2015).
The Russians had almost certainly figured that out for themselves before Tsipras went to St. Petersburg, which is why the deal they offered Tsipras in St. Petersburg was less generous than the one they offered him in April.
This is poor diplomacy by any standard.
If Tsipras’s policy is to play the Russians and the Europeans off against each other, then it is a bad policy.
It has not panicked the Europeans into making concessions. It has made them angry, causing them to increase their demands even more.
As for the Russians, they must be getting increasingly fed up with someone who repeatedly takes them to the Church door – and then at the last moment runs away.
If Tsipras was not prepared to see through his moves to Moscow, then he should not have made them.
He would have been better off in that case going to Washington instead of Moscow. There is also much sympathy for Greece in Washington, and the US, unlike Russia, can put actual pressure on the IMF and EU to cut Greece some slack.
Instead, by making moves to Moscow that he repeatedly fails to see through, Tsipras has lost possible friends in Europe and the US, whilst putting Greece’s traditionally friendly relations with Russia in jeopardy.
Anyone who knows Russia knows the friendly feelings Russians have for Greece.
If a Grexit happens – which is very possible despite Tsipras’s latest concessions – Greece will need Russia’s help (see again Grexit Looks Inevitable. But Greece Will Need Moscow’s Help, Russia Insider, 27th April 2015).
Hopefully what looks like a frankly manipulative policy will not have soured Russian attitudes by then.