Amidst deepening economic worries at home and concerns about the post-Crimea geopolitical environment, Russian President Putin's visit to Greece was fraught with special significance.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lights a candle as he arrives at the church of the Protaton on Mount Athos, northern Greece, May 28, 2016. Photo: AP
At first glance, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit last week to Greece seemed like a rather routine event. At a press conference after the meeting, Putin and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras exchanged traditional courtesies, named a wide range of issues that were discussed, and speculated about the prospects of future development of mutual relations.
Then the Russian president went to Mount Athos, where he took part in the Millennium Celebrations of the Russian monastic presence on Greek soil.
However, despite the apparent ordinary aspects of these events, this visit came at a time of one of the tensest moments in Putin’s third term as president. And this tension was obviously reflected in the words and actions of the Russian leader.
Currently, Russia finds itself once again, as was the case at the beginning of 2014, at an important strategic crossroads. Back then, against the backdrop of the tumultuous events in Ukraine, Putin decided to start a tough confrontation with the West, Crimea joined Russia, and a wave of separatism spread through the Donbas.
These events, and the reaction to them, created an entirely new strategic context for Russian foreign policy. Today, the time has come to reap the harvest of what was planted in 2014, in terms of the political choices that were made, and determine what to do next.
On the eve of his trip to Greece, Putin participated in a meeting of the Russian Presidential Economic Council, where for the first time, a direct debate arose between supporters of two fundamentally different approaches to Russia’s economic development strategy.
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On one hand, the group of advisers led by former Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin defended a project based on fiscal consolidation and structural reforms, as well as the gradual restoration of relations with the leading global economies through a reduction in geopolitical tensions.
Opponents to Kudrin’s views, who were represented by politician and businessman Boris Titov, called for the construction of a “sovereign model” of the economy, stimulating industrial growth via ruble cash injections, reducing the country’s dependence on Western technologies and other globalization factors.
The debate was held against the background of a deepening economic crisis, which continues to reduce the income levels of Russians.
Along with reflections on possible economic strategies, Putin was forced to conduct tough negotiations with leaders of the United States and Europe on the settlement of the Ukrainian crises. It is obvious that great pressure was being exerted on Moscow to accelerate the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, and on the fate of the Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, sentenced to a long prison term in Russia. Right on the eve of his visit to Greece, Putin announced her pardon and return to Ukraine, in exchange for two Russians being held in prison by that country.
Obviously, the Russian leader is facing a dilemma these days – to stick to the hardliner course, no matter the cost, formulated under the influence of emotions in 2014, or listen to the voice of reason, take into consideration the negative factors and the objective difficulties that Russia has been facing in recent years, and adopt a more flexible policy.
Judging by the strategic choices being made by Putin, and on the basis of the literal announcements made by him, as well as the statements of his press secretary Dmitry Peskov, one can conclude that he entertains no doubts or worries. One way or another, the country will continue building a “sovereign economy,” and so in the realm of foreign policy, no substantial concessions to the West can be expected.
However, those people, who have long been closely following the rhetoric and practical steps taken by the Russian president, know full well that his statements (especially those broadcast through his press secretary and various “leaks”) in no way can be taken as the ultimate truth. Quite often, these statements are mere “stratagems,” designed to mislead his opponents. This was the case with “polite people” in Crimea, with the troops in the Donbas and in Syria, with his confidence in economic underpinnings, with the harassment of independent media, and many other episodes.
At a press conference in Athens, Putin in many ways was recalling the “pre-Crimea period.” General statements were made concerning well-worn topics, such as the construction of natural gas pipelines to Europe and on the issue of new missile defense stations in Romania and Poland. The announced ideas followed the same line as other discussions – Russia would be happy to sell natural gas, but others are interfering with this; Moscow considers that the missile defense system is directed against it.
On the prospects for the lifting of sanctions and counter sanctions, as well as on the normalization of Turkish-Russian relations, Putin also repeated his well-known positions – Russia did not start this, and therefore it is not up to it, but its partners to take the first steps to restore relations.
However, behind the external appearance of continuity of positions and inflexibility of the Russian President’s course, a sign of frustration and fatigue has been detected. On several occasions, Putin indirectly admitted that the policy being pursued by Russia is not bringing the desired results. He agreed that Greece alone is not able to influence the EU’s decision, when it comes to extending the sanctions (in fact, already in 2015, the almost official Russian strategy was to place bets on the division of Europe).
Putin was forced to using direct threats (“the whole world has seen our capabilities,” “Romania will know what it means to be placed under the gun”) in response to the refusal of the Americans and their allies to take into account Russia’s interests when it comes to missile defenses. All this was reminiscent of a last-ditch appeal, with no hope for the continuation of productive diplomacy.
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Putin’s visit to Mount Athos, also against this background, appears to be not just a mere diplomatic photo-op, but also an attempt to turn for assistance to higher powers in a very difficult, almost impossible situation.
Soon after Putin’s return to Russia, media leaks appeared about statements made by the president during the closed-door meeting of the Economic Council. Allegedly, Putin, in response to Kudrin’s proposal to reduce geopolitical tensions, said he would “not trade Russia’s sovereignty” and he was going to defend that sovereignty, not only to the end of his presidential term, but for the rest of his life.
At the same time, it was Putin, who recently appointed Kudrin to lead the group of economic advisers to the President. It is hard to believe, that in appointing his longtime friend to this post, Putin did not know what views he held. It is hardly likely that he made this appointment only to use the liberal Kudrin as a whipping boy and a convenient sparring partner, to show off the unbending patriotism of the president.
Kudrin’s return to Putin’s inner circle, the exchange of Savchenko for two Russians, and the Russian president’s trip to Greece indicate that Putin is seriously engaged in organizing a strategic maneuver, which could bring Russian foreign policy out of its current impasse.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.