Is Russia's Alliance with Greece a Threat to NATO?

Vladimir Putin and Alexis Tsipras.

Beware the Athens-Moscow entente.

A major factor driving Russian interest in Greece is the country’s strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean. The stakes of that location were put under a harsh spotlight as Syrian and Afghan refugees arrived en masse on centrally located Greek islands and the mainland. The islands are also critical for both European and NATO defense operations in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, notably the base in Souda Bay on the island of Crete. The base has played a major role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other multinational operations. Athens’s ongoing economic restructuring has put many of these essential infrastructural assets in limbo, including airports and the Skaramangas shipyard—home to the country’s submarines. A further point of concern is that the shipyard is teetering on the edge, as the government plans to nationalize it and kick out its current owner.

The Greek drift into Russia’s arms raises the specter of Athens serving as a dark horse within NATO or, worse, outright withdraw altogether from the Atlantic Treaty. While that outcome seems extreme at first glance, Syriza’s original forty-point program called for Greece’s exit from NATO, and since at least one Syriza parliamentarian has talked about it. With the Russians flexing their military muscle in Syria and taking an increasingly active approach to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, close ties with Greece would help Moscow’s power projection and undermine the unity of the NATO bloc at a critical juncture.

To counter Russia’s damaging influence over Athens, NATO and the EU need to repair ties with Greece, provide it with favorable terms on debt payments and austerity, and remind it of the benefits of NATO membership. Given its geostrategic importance and the need for it to comply with EU sanctions against Russia, Greek hostility toward Brussels could undermine the bloc’s solidarity and impair efforts to contain Russian aggression. As the EU continues to struggle with a refugee crisis, the conflict in Ukraine, economic turmoil and the rise of the anti-Europe right, a pro-Russian bastion in Greece is the last thing it needs.

Henry Stanek is an independent EU affairs consultant based in Paris.

Image: Vladimir Putin and Alexis Tsipras.