The Russian Connection

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov comes visiting Athens, in a move expected to thaw relations between Greece and Russia. Such relations have been quite chilly – or at least placed at the back burner –  ever since, in July 2018 then-Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias sent packing Russian diplomatic personnel from the Athens Embassy due to involvement in a low-intensity intelligence operation having to do with Church matters and the Macedonia issue.

Lavrov’s visit coincides ostensibly with Greece chairing the Council of Europe for the semester underway; both countries are Council members, but Russia is actively engaged in ameliorating its own status, blemished over human rights issues. But everybody has noticed that Russia had been shifting its positions in the tense situation evolving between Greece and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean, a chess-board on which Moscow has been advancing its own positions.

In a Russian Embassy tweet just days ago, reference was made to UNCLOS (to which both Russia and Greece are participants, while Turkey is conspicuously not) as the “cornerstone” of the international status of the seas. According to Russia, UNCLOS ensures to all nations the sovereign right “for territorial waters up to 12 miles while it sets out principles and methods for the delimitation of Exclusive Economic Zones” . The tweet explicitly includes the Mediterranean to such rules.

The Lavrov visit will be closely watched, as will all pronouncements to be issued. But of even higher symbolic-plus importance is a tweet of the Russian Federation Foreign Ministry commemorating the (October 20, 1827) naval battle at Navarino – where a Russian, English and French squadrons defeated the Turkish-Egyptian fleet in the Bay of Navarino. As the tweet concludes “the triumph of the allied fleet became one of the pre-requisites for Greece’s independence”. This benevolent but also heavy-handed reminder, if combined with talk of President Putin joining in for the celebrations of 200 years of Greek Independence in March 2021, gives food for thought to all parties of the current fraught situation at the Near East/East Mediterranean.