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Russia’s Strategy for Europe

Russia, Greece, Turkey, ISIS, Libya, Egypt, Cyprus, Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, the United States of America. These are the major players in what is the most dangerous game of International Power Politics since the Cold War. Each is connected to the other in a showdown that has been brewing since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The dismal management of occupied Iraq and the failure of efforts to rebuild the country and its authority created a power vacuum in the middle of the most dangerous region on Earth. Fast forward to 2011 and the Arab Spring erupts in the aftermath of a major economic recession that triggered American military spending cuts and public pressure to avoid any further foreign commitments. Libya collapses as dictators topple one after the other and NATO intervenes in support of the rebel militias fighting Gaddafi. Around the same time Syria falls apart and Civil War has raged in that country ever since. ISIS rises from the war in Iraq, grows in Syria and has since spread to have affiliates operating in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Yemen, Lebanon, Libya as well as terrorist followers in numerous Western nations. This appears at first to be the isolated, clear, clean-cut narrative that has unfolded over a decade of news reporting. It may very well be only half the story. Connections link it to Russian moves in Europe and their unfolding strategy to the Saudi-Iranian power struggle and the Nuclear Deal Framework achieved by P5+1 negotiators with the European Union.

In Europe, Russian influence and objectives are focused around the Black Sea nations. Historically these have fallen within her sphere of influence, but more importantly for President Putin, they are increasingly dissatisfied with Western influence. Greece in particular has developed acute anxieties regarding the European Union, while Turkey has increasingly distanced itself from NATO and accepted the failure of its E.U. membership bid. Greek concerns have driven renewed interest in Russian alignment and a denunciation of sanctions by the European Union – alongside a refusal to support or renew sanctions in the future. In part this is building off of historical ties to Russia, but more importantly from distaste for Greece’s European partners.

Doubts exist about Russia’s present ability to alleviate the economic crisis in Greece and certainly it could not do so alone. Even in cooperation with China it would not solve all of Greece’s economic woes, although Chinese investors have been keen to capitalize on the opportunity privatization has offered. Regardless events are already proving to be a headache for Brussels. These are now being compounded by growing support for the Russian ‘Turkish Stream’ project.

The ‘Turkish Stream’ is a new gas pipeline project being undertaken by Gazprom at Russian direction to redirect the flow of oil away from Ukraine into Europe and instead south through Turkey and Greece. The project replaces a previous attempt through Bulgaria that was shut down by the European Union. Russia is presenting the pipeline in everyone’s best interest publically while pressuring European governments to not only accept but advocate for the project. Gas flows to Turkey leading up to the announcement of the project were decreased by 30%. They were restored to normal immediately after Russia announced the ‘Turkish Stream’ project. Greece and Hungary also voiced support for the project. Their support is crucial to the project because Russia is unwilling to fully bear the cost of the pipeline itself and instead suggests the European Union should help fund the project. Europe at least recognizes it would be paying to be manipulated in the future. It should be noted that this is not a new development regarding Greece. A previous attempt at this strategy occurred just before 2009m though it collapsed shortly after and enraged Greece’s western allies.

Support from Greece and Hungary is no doubt welcome and could well be used to block future European sanctions on Russia. Of great importance to Russia is the continued development of relations with Turkey. Already, long term plans have been laid out. Both nations have intended to triple their trade levels by 2020 and Russia will be constructing Turkey’s first nuclear power plant in the near future. Important trade deals including a reduction in energy costs have also been agreed upon. Meanwhile Turkey grows increasingly distant from NATO particularly over the handling of Syria and now over military purchases from China and a refusal to integrate its defence apparatus with the organization. Such developments and the estrangement of Erdogan are offering Putin a perfect opportunity to pry rifts in NATO and the European Union.

Each state is attempting to take advantage of the gains Russia is proposing to them but how much of a shift in their policy this reflects is difficult to ascertain. Greece under Tsipras may just be using Russia to blackmail the European Union rather than to change their political alignment. Turkey under Erdogan is distancing itself from NATO for the benefits of Russian courtship and also to allow ISIS to harass the Kurds and al-Assad neither of whom NATO dealt with to their liking. This is despite significant differences between Turkey and Russia over both the Syria and Ukraine crises.

So both Greece and Turkey have some motivation to exaggerate the drift but is there more to the picture that makes clear Russia’s new strategy? One need look only to Cyprus to see the ironic confluence of Greek, Turkish and Russian interests.

Hot on the heels of Russian-Cypriot military drills in October 2014 the Greek Cypriot government has turned to Russia and Turkey to mediate a reunification of the island. The inclusion of Turkey is somewhat unusual given the blow to Cyrpiot-Turkish relations that triggered the exercise. Cyprus had announced the discovery of oil and gas near disputed waters which was followed immediately by the dispatch of a Turkish survey ship looking for drilling sites. Now a year later Russia announces ‘Turkish Stream’, has held drills in cooperation with Cyprus and now has a deal for naval and air access to bases in Cyprus. This would lend credence to continued Russian courtship of Turkey and Greece in resolving the issue specifically by supporting Greek Cyprus against Turkish violations of territory and by including Turkey in the process to support Erdogan domestically.

Turkey, Cyprus and Greece thus form the center of Russian strategy in Europe to rebuild its influence and disrupt the strength and support of the European Union, NATO and ultimately the United States. Renewed and growing ties between the triad at the mouth of the Black Sea and Russia are significant and warrant close scrutiny. For now Russia will be unable to capitalize on their gains but in the coming decade Turkey will become an increasingly independent power from her Western allies and Greece may well harbour a deep resentment of the West for their current crisis. That Russia would be unwilling to exploit these truths and solidify her sphere over Cypriote reunification is overly optimistic although at present its ability to do so may be equally pessimistic. Nonetheless it is clear from analysis that this is the cornerstone of Russian strategy in Europe.

Image License: Some rights reserved by Αλέξης Τσίπρας Πρωθυπουργός της Ελλάδας

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