Athens, Greece – The bonds between Greece and Russia run deep.
Greek monks converted the Russians to Orthodox Christianity and gave them their alphabet in the ninth century. Russia’s navy helped secure Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire a thousand years later.
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A mystical belief among some Greeks persists – that Russia will eventually help them reconquer Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, their former imperial capital, which fell to the Turks in 1453.
This background partly explains why Greece is one of the least anti-Russian countries in the Western camp, and why Russia is fighting fiercely for its allegiance.
A Eurobarometer poll on May 6 showed that 53 percent of Greeks support sanctions against Russia, compared with a European Union average of 80 percent.
Just 40 percent of Greeks supported financing weapons purchases for Ukraine, versus 67 percent of Europeans.
A mid-March survey by Politico showed that 60 percent of Greeks found Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “unacceptable”, compared with 88 percent, 86 percent, 82 percent and 78 percent in the Netherlands, Spain, Germany and France respectively.
Emmanuel Karagiannis, a reader in international security at King’s College London, drew parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and its declaration of a Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus there.
“Both Moscow and Ankara have claimed that they seek to protect compatriots who have supposedly suffered by the majority ethnicity. In reality, both Russia and Turkey have weaponised minorities to undermine the sovereignty of independent states for geopolitical and ideological reasons,” Karagiannis told Al Jazeera.
Following this logic, the Greek government has broken with public opinion.
“We took sides. Unequivocally. We stand by Ukraine against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s aggression … He will not succeed,” Greek premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis told a joint session of Congress on May 17 to a standing ovation.
That occasion itself was a high watermark in Greek-United States relations.
Three-fifths of the Greek parliament recently ratified a much-expanded defence agreement with the US, which allows Washington to use the Greek port of Alexandroupolis as a logistics hub for the supply of NATO allies Romania and Bulgaria.
From Alexandroupolis, it is only a 750km drive to the Ukrainian and Moldovan borders, and much weaponry is rumoured to have been shipped to Ukraine via Greece.
Greece was also one of the first Western countries to openly send Ukraine weapons in March.
It was not much – two C-130 transport planes loaded with Kalashnikov rifles, bullets and rocket-propelled grenades intended for Libya, which Greece had confiscated on the high seas as part of an EU weapons embargo.
But Greece’s direct intervention with lethal material was symbolic.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the decision “deeply mistaken” and “criminal”.
Two-thirds of Greek society reportedly agreed with her, and the government did not repeat the move, but its pro-Ukraine policy has not wavered.
Moscow accuses Athens of ‘deconstructing’ bilateral relations
In early April, some 200 Russian diplomats were expelled from European capitals in protest against the apparent war crimes committed in Bucha. Greece expelled 12 – a proportionally high number.
Russia is clearly annoyed.
Zakharova said Greece was actively “deconstructing” bilateral relations.
“The Greek state, which was created with Russia’s help and whose first leader was the Russian foreign minister, is effectively left without diplomatic relations with our country,” she said.
Playing on these historic themes is misleading, said Alexander Kitroeff, a professor of history at Haverford College.
“Russian foreign policy from the 1860s onwards is pan-Slavist, pro-Bulgaria, pro-Serbia – and Serbia and Bulgaria became Greece’s rivals over Macedonia. So in effect, Russia is not on Greece’s side, it’s on the opposite side,” he told Al Jazeera.
But “it’s not so much a question of losing Russian support,” said George Katrougalos, a former foreign minister with the left-wing Syriza party, as not being taken for granted by the allies one is appeasing.
“Even the US … has actually reduced its support for Greek positions,” he told Al Jazeera. “They withdrew support for the East Med [gas pipeline], and even from the East Med Act of 2019 which provided for the US monitoring Turkish violations of Greek airspace.”
The East Med, a pipeline Greece has pledged to build with Cyprus and Israel to transport Israeli and Cypriot gas to the EU market, has been a major irritant to Turkey.
And Turkey has been accused of violating Greek airspace as a way of showing it disputes Greek sovereignty in the east Aegean. Turkey has also recently claimed that Greece has entered its airspace. Greece denies that allegation.
Katrougalos’ wariness of the US is not just a left-wing position.
It permeates Greek society because the administration of former US President Richard Nixon failed to prevent the Cyprus invasion in 1974. Many Greeks believe then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger actively encouraged it.
And NATO, which counts both Greece and Turkey as allies, does little to prevent airspace rows.
“The Russians have nothing to offer Greece in terms of controlling Turkey, and wouldn’t want to if they could,” said Constantinos Filis, who directs the Global Affairs Institute at the American College of Greece. “The red line of the Americans [vis-à-vis Turkey] seems to be the avoidance of war [with Greece]. But that is not enough for Greece. It means Turkey has a wide scope for doing things to Greece it shouldn’t do.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Greeks have come to regard the US and Russia with almost equal suspicion, and are instead Europeanists.
A survey of Greek opinion conducted by the think-tank Dianeosis just after the war in Ukraine broke out asked Greeks to pick a single dependable ally.
Only 6.7 percent picked the US, and just 4.8 percent picked Russia, but 65 percent chose France, with which Greece signed a defensive alliance last year.
Greece, NATO’s top per capita defence spender, is also among the EU’s top supporters of a European army, but the Ukraine war is pushing that prospect further into the future, say experts.
“European defence is a dream for some of us … the Ukraine war taught us that there is no European security without the US and NATO. The [membership bids] by Finland and Sweden underline that,” Filis said.
Katrougalos agrees. “If we want Europe to be independent on the international stage, it will have to show strategic autonomy and European sovereignty … [we want] a Europe that will be an international player with a balancing role,” he said.