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Politics

Russia’s Ukraine Invasion Put Greece on World Stage, Divided Greeks

ATHENS – Initially applauded for expressing “full solidarity” with Ukraine and sending small arms to help its people fend off a Russian invasion, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis suddenly finds himself under fire for going too far.

The New Democracy leader told Parliament when the invasion began that he was standing by Ukraine – and ethnic Greeks there, 10 of whom were killed in the early stages and scores of thousands still trapped in the besieged city of Mariupol.

In breaking with a history of Greek government being reluctant to be involved in foreign wars, his was among the first off the bloc to offer more than tweets of support, shipping arms and backing European Union sanctions – even if still buying Russian oil and gas and letting shipping continue between the countries.

But most Greeks don’t agree with what he did, and not just the major rival SYRIZA, which came to power in 2015 on a promise to take Greece out of NATO and not send troops to Afghanistan but reneged on both promises.

Still, with most of the EU fiddling about what to do, NATO saying it won’t get involved, the United States not supporting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s request for a No-Fly zone over his country, Greece was an outlier.

In a feature on the ambivalence if not outright opposition to Mitsotakis’ tough stance, the site POLITICO noted that a just-released survey found that 70 percent of Greeks said his hard line against Russia, a close Orthodox country, was a mistake.

In another survey, 63 percent said the decision may prove dangerous for Greece, especially if, as expected, Russian President Vladimir Putin may see most or all of his demands met in return for ending the war – and target those against him.

That would be Greece, which relies on Russian oil and gas and  has tried to keep tight relations with Putin, a volatile character who had rejected SYRIZA overtures for a bailout, leaving the Leftists to embarrassedly turn to international lenders.

Even Mitsotakis is apparently feeling a big sheepish and trying to mediate his opposition to Putin’s War, his government turning down Ukraine’s request teo send

Soviet-era TOR-Μ1 and Osa-AK missile systems, saying enough was enough.

The war has seen his government tilt even further toward the United States, with which it renewed a military defense cooperation agreement and said would allow a greater US military presence in the country, including more bases.

SIDING WITH PEACE

When he first talked to lawmakers, the site noted, he stood up boldly and said his government was all-in on the side of Ukraine and that, “There can be no equal distances. You are either with peace and international law or against them.”

Turns out most are against them and in Putin’s camp with the same kind of fervor still seen among former US President Donald Trump’s near-religious fervor zealots who believe he can do no wrong.

What Mitsotakis did was take Greece out of a neutral act and balancing role to get involved in international intrigue, a path many Greeks don’t want, especially with the country having a hard-core sector of Russian sympathizers.

The EU sanctions that bar Russian airlines will also cost Greece Russian tourists and Mitsotakis’ government got into open undiplomatic spat with the Russian Embassy, neither side backing off and with worries hard feelings will remain.

The feature by Nektaria Stamouli pointed out that many Greeks were caught by surprise but his initial decision to jump into the battle with both feet as Russian sentiments remain in parts of Greece.

And there are centuries of religious, military, economic and cultural ties between the two countries, with SYRIZA also seizing the chance to snipe again from the sidelines and attack him – while supporting his call to back Ukraine, up to a point.

Unlike the EU, which during the war has fumbled over a response and limited sanctions, likely in anticipation of hoping a post-war Putin won’t take some kind of political revenge, Mitsotakis wasn’t timid about taking on the Russian leader.

“Greek society also has historical ties to Russia, a fellow Christian Orthodox nation that helped the Greeks fight off Ottoman rule in 1821. More recently, Moscow has been viewed as a protector in Greece’s long-running rivalry with neighbor Turkey,” the story noted.

Mitsotakis met with Putin in December, 2021 and Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias was among the last to meetRussian foreign chief Sergei Lavrov days before the invasion but no reports he asked him to help save ethnic Greeks in Mariupol.

“Greece,” Mitsotakis declared in the Greek Parliament, “is the last outpost of the West,” sidelining its relationship with Russia – and Putin – and leading to wonder if it marked a bigger shift in Greece’s role on the world stage.

That’s as it still tries to recover from a near-decade long economic and austerity crisis that required 326 billion euros ($358.75 billion) in three international bailouts after generations of wild overspending and runaway patronage.

Constantinos Filis, Director of the Institute of Global Affairs and a professor of international relations at the American College of Greece, described the shift as “two choices,” to POLITICO.

TAKING A STAND

First, he said, Greece decided “it cannot depend on the EU and NATO to secure itself from Turkey” – it also needs bilateral military deals to boost its own capacity. Second, he added, “Greece under the current government has decided to get more deeply involved and put its hand in the fire, even with boots on the ground.”

Turkey – which started now-stalled EU accession talks in 2005 – opposes EU sanctions but isn’t, like Serbia which allowed Russian airlines, taking any heat for it and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has emerged as an unlikely peace broker.

While defying the EU he wants to join, sending drones to help Ukraine fight Russian forces, he’s also bought Russian-made S-400 missile systems that undermine NATO and could be used against Greece, but it drawing applause for trying to mediate a settlement to the war, leaving Greece out of the equation.

When he authorized sending arms to Ukraine, Mitsotakis said he thought it would help Greece’s national interests although most Greeks feel otherwise now, even more as the war continues.

“With what moral standing would we ask for similar assistance if we found ourselves in the same position?” he told the site in an interview.

“We have an additional reason, compared to other European countries, to be on the right side of history,” he added, making a clear reference to Greece’s tense relationship with Turkey.

But there’s belief in Greece that NATO – which has refused to intervene over Turkey sending fighter jets and warships into Greek airspace and waters and plans to drill for oil and gas off Greek islands – would leave Greece on its own in a conflict.

In a poll conducted after Russia’s invasion, 71 percent condemned the invasion, but 65 percent said Greece should remain completely neutral. And in a POLITICO poll, 60 percent said Russian invasion was unacceptable, the lowest figure among the six countries polled.

After giving support to the decision to support Ukraine, SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, trailing Mitsotakis’ party in polls up to 14 percent, said that shouldn’t have included sending weapons, his party having strong Communist ties.

George Katrougalos, Syriza MP and a former foreign minister, told the site that, “The subversion of the old doctrine … that Greece has a political home in Europe but also wants to have a bridge role with the other political powers, and its replacement with the Cold War mantra that ‘Greece is a Western outpost,’ does not benefit our country.”

Several retired senior army officers have also gone on TV in Greece to vehemently oppose the Greek arms shipments to Ukraine. “Harmful, unnecessary and silly,” said one.

Added Filis: “Greece has to follow a multidimensional foreign policy, act as a bridge between politicians and state. It cannot close its door to China, Russia and other emerging powers.” But it may just have.

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