Russian cold wars: It’s all Greek to me

Timeo danaos et dona ferentes, runs the ancient maxim: Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Today, we might update this to cavete a Graecis navibus navigantes – beware of Greeks sailing ships. Lloyds List has exposed, over the past six months, a fleet of tankers, registered in/owned by Greece and conducting operations in the waters of Athens and Kalamata, assisting Russia in the export and transportation of its oil. This was not specifically illegal until the turn of the year when EU bans on crude and petroleum came into effect, but not only was aiding Russia (well into the war by this point) a highly questionable activity regardless of legality, but it is still going on, rendering Greece something of an ongoing ally to Russia in a time of cold war – and part of Moscow’s ongoing efforts to distract and disrupt.

While the transportation of oil outward to Asia and the Middle East and the switching of ships in Lakonikos to avoid sanctions has been Athens’ greatest boon to Moscow over the past year, it is not the limit. The Greek media has been flooded with disinformation as to the aims and efforts of the EU’s support for Ukraine, to the point where an EU-funded (but nominally independent) anti-propaganda hub has had to be created.

The ruling party New Democracy, facing calls for an early election and finding few willing coalition partners, is likely to be forced to turn to the pro-Russian faction Greek Solution to stay in office – and thus the legally unproven but widely accepted funding of the latter will be, in Putin’s eyes, money well spent. Russian oligarchs, cognisant of the neighbouring Cypriot crackdown on shell firms and money laundering, are simply looking to move their operation back ‘onshore’, with perhaps Ivan Savvidis – an ally of Putin and one of the wealthiest men in either country – pointing the way (albeit that Savvidis cannot be personally linked to any known criminal operation).

Greece has done its part in freezing Russian assets since the start of the war, albeit confirming that there were individuals of such standing or concern that this needed to be done, but notably, an investigation is ongoing into a money laundering operation run through, of all places, the holy community on Mount Athos – speaking perhaps to shared Orthodox religious convictions being exploited for Russia’s greater good. And, following conversations in which Kremlin high-ups were intimately involved, Greece is inaugurating the first direct flight route from Europe to Syria in over a decade, thus putting it out of step with the West and forcing Europe to contend with an issue that for many has long lain dormant.

This is a multifaceted strategy designed with destabilisation and distraction in mind. Destabilisation, because any weakened Europe is a boon to Putin at this time, whether it is the misinformation and propaganda on the socio-political spectrum, or the driving of wedges in the thorny issue of ‘EU unity’ by bringing the Bashir al-Assad question back into the mainstream of debate and targeting one of Europe’s weakest economies for laundering. Distraction, because Putin has accepted (even if grudgingly and internally), that there is no further capability to progress militarily in Ukraine as things stand and so, he needs to ramp up the cold war in Europe rather than focus on the failure of the hot war in Ukraine.

Eastern Europe and the Balkans remain the most fertile ground for this due to the substantial networks of property and person established down in the post-Soviet years, and the holy trinity of weaker economies, compliant regimes, and lax legal oversight. Hence why the city of Veles in Macedonia virtually exists on the disbursement of Russian propaganda, why the oligarchs have been able to spread across Cyprus (and now Greece) with such ease, and why even in the face of war crimes and human rights abuses, there will still be countries – and indeed companies – shrugging off engagement with Russia as ‘just business’.

The challenge for Europe (both at governmental and corporate level) is twofold. Firstly, to continue to tighten sanctions, regulations and laws as applicable to minimise the leeway that the likes of Athens’ oligarchs, the monks of Athos and the vultures within the Greek tanker industry clearly have to enrich themselves at the expense of justice. Secondly, and arguably more importantly, is to recognise that as terrible as the invasion of Ukraine is, it is simply the most recent, and public, expression of Putin’s long-standing war against the West’s values, power and influence.

The tanks will one day withdraw from Kiev, but Russia’s long war will continue to be fought through malignant political influence, cyber-compromises and corporate level economic warfare about which governments and companies are still knowingly ill-equipped to tackle, or unknowingly naïve (rises in the planes-and-tanks defence budget are invariably heralded as the solution to Keeping Britain Safe, rather than investment in cyber defences and greater legal sanctions on just how much Russian parties are allowed to accomplish and own). While one might now beware the Greeks sailing ships, Moscow’s Trojan horse was welcomed in long ago.

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