Putin Paranoia: Over‐​Imaginative U.S. and NATO Fear Russian Aggression Aided by Greek Fifth Column

Of all the paranoid fantasies driving U.S. foreign policy, few seem sillier than the specter of Greece joining Moscow to wreck Europe.
July 28, 2015 • Commentary
This article appeared on Forbes on July 28, 2015.

In the midst of bitter bailout negotiations between Greece and Europe, warnings proliferated of a possible Greek Fifth Column. The European Union and even NATO would collapse should Athens turn toward Russia. Of all the paranoid fantasies driving U.S. foreign policy, few seem sillier than the specter of Greece joining Moscow to wreck Europe.

For five years Athens has been arguing with its European neighbors over debts and reform. Over time a Greek exit, or Grexit, from the Euro looked increasingly possible.

However, European elites are committed to an ever‐​stronger political union. Explained German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “If the Euro fails, Europe fails.” To prevent this failure, wealthier European states lent promiscuously to Greece.

That was not a good deal for European peoples. However, the issue doesn’t much concern the U.S. A European economic crisis would be bad for America, but Grexit is not likely to set off such a cataclysm.

Nevertheless, some analysts speculated that Athens might fall out of the European Union and NATO as well as the Eurozone, resulting in geopolitical catastrophe. The perfidious Greeks might switch sides, aiding bloodthirsty Putinistas in breaking apart Europe and crushing Eastern Europe and the Balkans underfoot. Thus, the U.S. should insist that Europe pay off the Greek Judases lest they sacrifice Western civilization to the Russian hordes.

Although the crisis seemingly has abated, the latest bailout is not yet finalized. And no one really believes that Athens will be able to pay its accumulated debt. Another crisis seems inevitable, in which case the specter of a Greek Trojan Horse likely will reemerge.

This fear betrays an overactive imagination. Moscow is no charity. Faced with declining oil prices and Western sanctions, Moscow could ill afford to subsidize the essentially bankrupt Greek economy and would advance credit only if repayment was assured. Russia failed to save Cyprus, whose banks were filled with Russian deposits, two years ago. Germany and other European creditors might offer a bailout as a form of continental solidarity; Moscow has no similar reason to get involved.

Might Russia trade financial aid for geopolitical advantage? “You do not want Europe to have to deal with a Greece that is a member of NATO but which all of a sudden hates the West and is cozying up to Russia,” warned Sebastian Mallaby of the Council on Foreign Relations. This could put the alliance “’in irons,’ which is to say becalmed and not moving effectively forward,” warned James Stavridis, retired admiral and head of the Fletcher School. (He also worried that Athens might do the same in the EU, but it long has dealt with occasionally recalcitrant members.) Greece might be less willing to participate in alliance operations and host NATO forces.

Worse, Athens might leave the transatlantic alliance, give military bases to Russia, and “become a geographical link between Russia and its Balkan vassal, Serbia,” argued Peter Martino of the Gatestone Institute. Marc Chandler of Brown Brothers Harriman warned that “In what promises to be a protracted western confrontation with Russia, the geostrategic assets represented by Greece are irreplaceable.” Robert D. Kaplan of the Center for a New American Security was even more apocalyptic: “Europe will be increasingly vulnerable to Russian aggression if its links to Greece are substantially loosened. Greece is the only part of the Balkans accessible on several seaboards to the Mediterranean, and thus is a crucial gateway to and from the West.”

It sounds like the Cold War redux. In fact, Daniel McGroarty of the Carmot Strategic Group compared today to 1947, when President Harry S. Truman announced an aid program to keep Greece “free from encroaching Soviet Communism.” A new Dark Age threatens to descend upon the globe!

How might this happen? At the very least, worried the Atlantic Council’s Robbie Gramer and Rachel Rizzo, “A deeper relationship between Russia and Greece would severely undermine the transatlantic communitiy’s efforts to present a united front against Putin.” Athens could block increased European sanctions, for instance, and “prove to be a major headache for future Alliance maneuvers to counter revanchist Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.” And that might just be the start.

In fact, this discussion appears to be a grand bluff, a desperate card played by Athens in a losing game. The University of Oxford’s Dimitar Bechev wisely advocated “a deep, calming breath.” Explained Theocharis Grigoriadis of Berlin’s Free University: Tsipras “has no intention of making Greece a Russian satellite. The Russians know that. The Germans know that. It is pure theater, a Greek game, and I’m afraid it looks like a poodle trying to scare a lion.”

To start, Russia poses little threat to Europe. President Vladimir Putin is an unpleasant authoritarian, but he is no Hitler or Stalin. Rather, he has taken Russia back to a pre‐​1914 Great Power, concerned about international respect and border security. While Moscow has violated human rights and international law, the West encouraged Russian misbehavior by ostentatiously flouting the latter’s security concerns—expanding NATO to Russia’s borders, dismantling Russia’s traditional Serbian friend, encouraging the overthrow of the flawed but democratically elected (and modestly pro‐​Russian) president of Ukraine, and pushing U.S.-friendly candidates for office in Kiev.

So far Moscow’s aggressive interventions, though unjustified, have reflected traditional Russian security concerns and, like NATO’s unprovoked attack on Yugoslavia, have been limited in scope. Nothing suggests that Putin has lost his mind and hopes to rule over territory filled with Europeans. And for good reason: the U.S. and Europe far outrange Russia in military power, with or without Greece.

Kaplan contended that Greece’s departure from the Eurozone and subsequent economic problems “could reduce it to a semi‐​failed state that, along with the dismemberment and weakening of Ukraine, will seriously weaken Europe’s geopolitical position vis‐​à‐​vis Russia.” How?

Ukraine is deep within the old Soviet Empire and only at the periphery of “New Europe”; Kiev’s orientation never has mattered much for the continent’s security. Even if Moscow formally severed the Donbass from the rest of Ukraine there would be little impact on Europe and America,

Greece is located well within “New Europe.” Even if “semi‐​failed” Greece turned toward Moscow, what would Russia gain? Fiercely independent Athens wouldn’t invite a Russian occupation, let alone offer Moscow a base for attacking the rest of Europe. Greece might be a “gateway” to the continent, as Kaplan intoned, but that is different from being a “gateway” to Russian aggression.

Martino worried that “Greece could also serve as a base for the Russians to strengthen their position in the Balkans,” but there are no ethnic Russians appealing for Moscow’s protection in that region. Even fellow Slavs, such as in Serbia, have indicated no interest in submitting to Russia. Kaplan worried that Balkan states with “weak institutions and fragile economies” would see Russia as “momentarily ascendant.” Really? Russia’s economy remains poor and underdeveloped. Its military only has beaten up weak neighbors; Moscow proved unable to save Serbia from NATO in 1999. If nearby Europe cannot compete with Russia in the Balkans without Greece, the problem is Europe, not Greece.

Finally, there are Greek naval bases. George Petrolekas of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute noted that the “Aegean islands control approaches to the Bosporus and the island of Crete has long been important as refueling facility for NATO fleets at Souda Bay, and its airfields used to support NATO operations in Libya.” Useful, yes. Vital, no. After all, the Med is essentially a NATO lake and the Libya intervention was folly.

Kaplan called for European and American aid to Athens to keep “Russian warships away from Greek ports.” Doing so might be desirable, but is hardly necessary. What, exactly, would the far weaker Russian fleet do after visiting Greece? Assault the Dalmatian Coast, occupy Dubrovnik, seize Venice, and occupy Gibraltar in the name of Emperor Putin?

Petrolekas warned that “beyond Russia, there is China. China’s naval expansion seeks a foothold in the Mediterranean.” Unfortunately, Beijing is not so foolish to disperse its limited forces, weakening the fleet available to promote the government’s core interests in the Asia‐​Pacific. Washington could only hope for such an outcome.

Despite such fevered speculations, Greece is not geopolitically critical for America. Martino argued that Greece is “a hugely important strategic country, which borders on an increasingly unstable part of the world.” Actually, NATO member Turkey is the real front line. Italy is as exposed as Greece to the chaos generated by the succession of Middle Eastern wars.

Syriza’s Rena Dourou was even more florid: “Greece is at a crossroads, between Europe, the Balkans, the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East—between the West and the East. It is at the junction of important geostrategic interests. It is situated in an area where the established interests of the great powers are pitted against those of the rising regional powers, against the backdrop of a reemergence of blind religious fundamentalism, in the form of the Islamic State—a serious menace to universal human rights and a threat to the principles and values of rationalism.” Actually, many of these claims also apply to Central Asia and North Africa. Nor is it obvious how Greece, even as an economically healthy member of the Eurozone, could address great power competition, religious fundamentalism, rationalism, universal human rights, and so much more.

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev raised another issue, complaining that “Russia uses every opportunity to divide and weaken the European Union.” Imagine a vast Fifth Column across Europe. But Moscow has gained little from its efforts. In Hungary authoritarian‐​populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban aped Putin in criticizing liberal democracy and denounced EU sanctions against Russia. But other than negotiating a $10.8 billion nuclear energy deal with Moscow, he has delivered few meaningful benefits to Moscow.

Russia has built ties with some ugly opposition parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, but few are close to power. Several other governments have questioned sanctions, but they are mostly left-wing—Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico, as well as the Czech Republic’s largely ceremonial President Milos Zeman. None of them have done much for Russia.

Nor has the Tsipras government. In fact, beyond a couple of friendly meetings little has come from the supposed Athens‐​Moscow axis. One suspects that Moscow prefers Greece to remain Europe’s problem. While Russia might welcome a Greek exit from NATO, Athens does not much contribute to the alliance’s anti‐​Moscow activities.

So far Moscow has provided no financial aid, not even something symbolic, like the relatively small loan to Cyprus in 2011. There are few commercial deals. Total bilateral trade came to about $10 billion in 2013, and has dropped dramatically since then. Moscow has neither offered a discount on natural gas nor an exemption from Russia’s counter‐​sanctions. The “Turkish Stream” natural gas pipeline would be an economic positive for Greece, but remains only a plan. Greece is negotiating to buy more Russian S-300 missiles, but Athens has used that system for years. Moscow has investment objectives, but most are frustrated by Syriza’s opposition to privatization.

“There is fundamental value to Europe in having Greece as part of its orbit,” argued Stavridis, but the reverse also is true. Irrespective of the debt negotiations and Eurozone membership, Greece will continue to have much at stake with Europe.

Indeed, charges of imminent Greek perfidy are hard to credit. Kaplan complained that “Greece, in terms of its politics and culture, is not fully anchored in the West.” That’s true, but it still seems a bit much for him to treat Greece “as the child of Byzantine and Ottoman despotism.” Greeks are relatively less enthused about America and more favorable toward Russia, but Washington and Brussels have consistently ignored Athens’ interests when making Balkan policy. Nevertheless, Greece has remained with the West even through the turbulent years of Andreas Papandreou’s premiership.

Moreover, so far the Tsipras government has made no significant policy changes. It did not obstruct continuation of sanctions against Russia in January, shortly after taking power, or in June. Perhaps Athens believes Russia had offered insufficient benefits to act as Russia’s agent in the EU. More likely, most Greeks continue to look west for economic opportunity.

Indeed, Athens has consistently affirmed its participation in Europe. When meeting Putin Tsipras noted that Greece was “complying with all the commitments we have made to the EU.” The main threat against Europe came from Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, head of Syriza’s small coalition partner. In February he suggested interest in getting “funding from another source.” But Deputy Foreign Minister Nikos Chountis emphasized that no requests had been made. Kammenos’ comment sounded like a negotiating ploy.

The latter similarly proposed: “If Europe leaves us in the crisis, we will flood it with immigrants, and it will be even worse for Berlin if in that wave of millions of economic immigrants there will be some jihadists of the Islamic State, too.” However, nations rarely consciously commit policy suicide. The Syriza government would not want to open its border to jihadists, especially with the demagogic, far‐​right Golden Dawn party ready to take political advantage.

Moreover, Kammenos affirmed Athens’ commitment to NATO: “We will continue our cooperation on a political level and also on a military level.” But even a less cooperative Greece wouldn’t matter much: no one expects Greek troops to confront Russian forces in the Balkans or Baltic. The country is one of the few NATO members to spend at least two percent of GDP on the military, but that mostly reflects fear of Turkey—and a shrinking GDP. If Athens attempted to be truly disruptive the U.S., the only member of NATO which really matters, especially in shaping military policy toward Russia, could bypass the alliance as it has done so often before.

The Syriza government has criticized sanctions against Russia. Explained Tsipras: “We don’t think that this is a fruitful decision. It’s practically an economic war.” However, Greece is not alone in taking this position. Obviously the penalties have failed to reverse Russian policy in Ukraine. The latter matters far more to Moscow than it does to Europe or America. Thus, Russia always will be willing to invest more resources and take greater risks. Best would be to use possible sanctions repeal to negotiate a deal, admittedly imperfect, that everyone can live with: recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty, enactment of regional autonomy, guarantee of Ukrainian neutrality. Such an approach would be entirely consistent with Greece remaining part of the West.

Athens can hardly be faulted for desiring to pursue a foreign policy reflecting its interest. After meeting Putin in Moscow Tsipras insisted that “Greece is a sovereign state with an indisputable right to its own foreign policy.” He’s correct. The Greek premier urged “a new spring in ties between our countries,” which would benefit both.

If Greece’s partners in both the EU and NATO really believe Athens to be hopelessly faithless, with its vote up for bid, they should defenestrate the potential traitor rather than attempt to outbid the Russians. After all, perfidious Hellas might choose to defect at the most critical moment, defeating allied plans.

The Greek saga is far from over. Whether or not Athens remains in the Eurozone, it almost certainly will remain in the EU and NATO. There is no evidence that Athens’ turn to the Dark Side was ever plausible, let alone imminent. Commented Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, on the prospect of a Moscow‐​Athens axis: “For Greece, it is a dream. For Europe, where it is exaggerated, and the U.S. it, frankly speaking, is something bordering on paranoia. And for Russia, it is nothing. There is nothing there.”

While Greece likely will push a more independent foreign policy, it will do so along with several other nations. And in doing so it might help promote a compromise settlement with Russia, the only likely enduring solution.

Alas, Washington’s brief moment of untrammeled global dominance apparently has created impossible expectations of allied nations, from which any deviation is seen as peddling treason and risking catastrophe. In fact, the paranoid panic that Greece’s economic problems could destroy Europe’s and America’s geopolitical standing should generate a mix of scorn and laughter.

Athens does not possess the keys to the Western kingdom and would not likely turn them over to Vladimir Putin if it did. Washington should calm down, leaving the Greeks and other Europeans alone to solve their problems. Greece subsidized or not, in the Eurozone or out, really isn’t America’s business.

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