Threat to Ukraine from the Southwest – the Greek Election

The past week or so has represented an enormous setback for Ukraine on several fronts. From the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from Donetsk airport, to the death of a dozen civilians in Donetsk, to the Russian-backed shelling of Mariupol that killed at least 30, late January has added nothing but grief to a country already traumatized by well over a year of political crisis and war. Nevertheless an event on January 25 may prove the most unfavorable recent development for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and stability.
This time the threat isn’t from the southeast, the direction of Russia’s aggression and ever-more blatant intervention
against Ukraine, but from the southwest. Not only will the political decisions of Moscow and Brussels help determine Ukraine’s future, but the Greek capital of Athens. On January 25, the hardline left and pro-Russian populist party, Syriza, won a landslide election and a plurality of seats in the Greek parliament.
It’s not difficult to understand why Greek voters have placed their trust in a populist political party that has given
the quixotic promises of negotiating new terms for Greek debt and an end to the austerity policies that are blamed by many for all of Greece’s ills. Unemployment still stands at 26 percent, while the number of Greeks in poverty or on the verge of poverty is over 35 percent of the population. This is despite signals that Greece was finally emerging from years of economic stagnation. While the real reasons for Greece’s economic problems are much deeper than austerity policies, efforts to improve the structure of the Greek economic system for long-term growth have certainly deepened the pain for many. A populist party that is likely to reverse Greece’s more positive recent economic trends and will almost certainly prolong the pain for only temporary benefits. But it’s not just Greeks who will feel the hurt from their choice, but the 45 million Ukrainians who are bearing the brunt of a renewed Russian offensive. The election of Syriza to the head of the Greek government puts a pro-Russian and anti-sanction political party to the helm of Athens.
Syriza itself is a ragtag collection of leftists united in opposition to austerity and economic reforms to improve the
long-term viability of the Greek economy, and more hardcore members from Cold War-era communist parties. Much of the Syriza’s roots can be traced to the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), a notoriously Stalinist organization that recently participated in monitoring the sham Russian-controlled elections in Donbas. Syriza’s affable and charismatic young leader, Alexis Tsipras, started his political career in the youth-wing of a leftist coalition between the KKE and other far-left allies. Given the European radical left’s position on the Ukrainian crisis, which supports the Russian position that Euromaidan was a fascist coup orchestrated by NATO and the United States, Syriza’s anti-Ukrainian position shouldn’t come as a particular shock.
As late as May of last year, Syriza refused to recognize the new Ukrainian government and expressed dismay that the EU was turning a blind eye to the “fascists” in the interim government, blaming the West rather than Russia for the crisis. Despite little evidence of systematic threats to ethnic minorities in Ukraine, as supported by the statements of the UN and human rights organizations, Syriza also insisted that the Ukrainian government was allegedly undermining the rights of Ukraine’s 100,000 ethnic Greeks. Syriza officials, including the foreign policy chief of the party, have congratulated the “impressive counter attacks” of Russian-backed militants in Ukraine, and have called for aligning Greek foreign policy closer to Russia and China in order to undermine Western “imperialists.” Tsipras has also called for Ukraine to be a bridge between Russia and the EU, dismissing the right of Ukrainians to chart their own political future toward the EU.  He also has emphasized Greece’s historical and political connections with Russia, stressing the “common struggles of [the Russian and Greek] peoples, common religious convictions, with common political and cultural roots in our history.” In May, Tsipras visited Moscow and consorted with close Putin confidant and chair of the upper house of the Russian parliament,Valentina Matviyenko. In Moscow, Tsipras denounced Ukrainian fascists, European policy on Russia, and recognized Russia as a “strategic partner” of Greece.
Unsurprisingly, Kremlin-controlled media stations have reacted gleefully in response to Syriza’s election victory, emphasizing the party’s pro-Russian credentials and opposition to the EU sanctions policy. Pro-Putin commentators have speculated, half-seriously, that should Greece leave the European Union it should join the Russian-dominated Customs Union. Overnight, Russia has found an ally in a European capital that has been far more outspoken against the sanctions policy than the most Russian-dependent EU states of Hungary, Slovakia, or Cyprus.
The election of Syriza couldn’t have come at a worse time for the EU and Ukraine. The first EU sanctions imposed on Russian and Crimean officials are set to expire in March, and will require re-authorization by the unanimous decision of all EU member states. Later EU sanctions will also require re-approval later this year. If Syriza refuses to go along with the rest of the EU states over the sanctions policy, it would dock the EU sanctions policy and could lead to the more pro-Russian or Russian-dependent EU countries abandoning sanctions altogether. In an environment of further Russian boldness in Ukraine and the proclamations of pro-Russian leaders about the re-ignition of a new offensive against Ukraine aimed at capturing all of the country’s southeast, much of EU leverage against Russia might have been lost overnight. If Syriza’s election victory in Greece is followed by the election victory of their allied leftist Podemos party in Spain and other populist parties in southern Europe, the EU’s resolve to support Ukraine’s territorial inviolability and counter Russia could be put in even greater jeopardy. Considering Putin’s past behavior and enthusiasm at showcasing European weakness, his pressure on Ukraine will almost certainly become bolder.
This is not to say that all is doom and gloom for Ukraine in the wake of the Greek elections. Despite the radical roots
of Alexis Tsipras and his party, Syriza has significantly moderated itself in recent months to re-orientate itself as a leftist, but not necessarily anti-European, political party. Syriza has emphasized that it wants Greece to stay within the Eurozone and has made more conciliatory gestures when it comes to demands to rewrite debt obligations. Those who have met Tsipras in person have remarked that his political positions are more flexible and thoughtful than his firebrand statements.  Unfortunately, Syriza’s right-wing populist coalition party, the Independent Greeks, is also a broadly pro-Russian party opposed to sanctions. Its members have in the past worn the St. George’s ribbon, a Russian military emblem that has become a symbol of Russian ultra-nationalism and irredentism during the course of the Ukrainian conflict.  Kyiv can hope that Syriza’s softened tone and the need for Athens to make deals with the EU and its institutions in order to stay in the union could preserve sufficient pressure against Russia.
Backroom deals may work to save the EU sanctions against Russia. But Syriza’s win is far from a welcome development for Ukraine. The passing of new sanctions against Russia for its behavior will at a minimum be made more difficult. If the populist wave that swept Greece on January 25 is mirrored with the ascendance of populist far-right and far-left parties in other European states over the coming months, Kyiv could very well be left in the cold or at the very least without a united European front.
Chris Dunnett (@ccdunnett), Ukraine Crisis Media Center