ATHENS — Just above a designer clothes shop on a main road in downtown Athens, Ukraine’s crisis has come to Greece. While customers browse expensive dresses and high-heeled shoes below, two floors up volunteers pack boots and thermal underwear into boxes to send to Ukrainian soldiers fighting a war just under 2,000 miles away.
But the Ukrainian Diaspora of Greece Volunteers: from Greece with Love is not so well-loved in Greece, in fact. This is a country whose sympathies very largely lie with Moscow and whose new left-wing government is positively cosy with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Maria,” a volunteer who declines to give her real name, is blunt: “In Greece the media always talks about the conflict as a civil war. There is no mention of Russian involvement whatsoever,” she says. “Nor is there any real mention of the Russian equipment and weapons flowing to the separatists. In fact the only mention of weapons is the discussion of the inevitability of the U.S. supplying weapons and special forces to the Ukrainian army.”
“The vast majority of Ukraine reporting on Greek TV comes from Russia,” adds Anna Zaika, a Ukrainian accountant also involved with the group who has been living in Greece for 10 years. “You’ll see a Greek reporter being interviewed about the Ukraine crisis and he’ll be standing in Red Square—it’s ridiculous.”
“We plan to fight on the information battlefield,” says Elena Getseva, one of the founders of the group. “We have to fight for people to know the truth, so we will work with historians and journalists to publicize facts to counteract these things.”
“Everyone who supports Ukraine is labeled a fascist,” says Zaika. In November, an “anti-fascist” rally was held at Athens University where attendees flew flags of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the separatist organization that now controls the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk and some of its surrounding areas. It’s hard to imagine a similar rally taking place in the UK, France or Germany.
According to the Pew Research Center, while support for Russia has dropped across the world, 61 percent of Greeks hold positive views toward Moscow.
There are several reasons for this. Ties between Russia and Greece are historically strong. The countries are united by the Orthodox religion, historic trading links and key political events. The 1821 revolution against Turkish rule, which led to the formation of the modern Greek state, can trace some of its roots to the large Greek population of the (then) Russian city of Odessa. Greece also flirted with communism early in the 20th century (it took a vicious civil war from 1946 to 1949 to defeat it). These ties live on in the collective memory. Attica TV, a local Athens station, runs Russian lessons for its viewers every week.
Then there are today’s geopolitical factors. “It is not unusual for Greek public opinion to be out of sync with its European partners and the U.S.,” says Thanos Dokos, director at the Greek think tank, the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. “It’s a reaction to many issues” and “is more based on emotions rather than interests.”
Zaika is more blunt. Because of the Eurozone crisis in Greece and the pains of prolonged austerity imposed at the urging of Berlin, “saying ‘Germany’ or ‘Merkel’ is like a curse, so if Merkel is condemning Russia or being pro-Ukrainian this must be a bad thing. The view here is that the USA is trying to ‘put down’ Russia and Ukraine is the battlefield.”
All of this makes fertile ground for Putin to exploit. As the historian Anne Applebaum recently noted, Putin has spent years trying to undermine the E.U. and NATO and to sow divisions among Western powers. In Greece, a “fringe” European nation, he has a receptive audience for this policy.
As Dokos observes, the prevailing view in Greece is that the EuroMaidan Revolution in Ukraine a year ago was the result of Western intervention, and while he believes that anger with Germany and disillusionment with the EU now trumps anti-Americanism, there is no doubt that this strain is still prevalent among certain sections of Greek political society—especially on the left.
The recent victory of the far-left party Syriza that now governs Greece means that the influence of the left is likely to strengthen in Greece—as are relations with Russia. The party has long publicly identified itself with what it perceives to be “anti-imperialist” causes like support for the Palestinians against Israeli and American hegemony.
Moreover, the governing coalition appears to have strong links with Russia. Syriza is in a parliamentary partnership with the hard-right Independent Greeks Party and, according to Christo Grozev, a researcher for the Risk Management Lab at the New Bulgarian University in Sofia, there is evidence of the active engagement between RISS, a Russian think tank that provides “information support” to the Russian government, and both the Independent Greeks and Syriza in the months preceding their election victory. RISS is chaired by Leonid Reshetnikov, an ex-Foreign Intelligence Service (FSB) general fluent in Greek, Bulgarian, and Serbian.
Grozev believes that the RISS is a key factor in Putin’s plans for destabilizing European states, especially in the Balkans. Reshetnikov, he claims, has personally worked in Bulgaria with the leadership of the extreme right-wing ATAKA party, and with the leadership of the extreme left-wing ABV party. This focus on the hard right and left in Bulgaria echoes its links with the Independent Greeks and Syriza prior to them joining together to form the coalition that now governs Greece.
Meanwhile, in France and Britain, demagogic politicians like Nigel Farage of the U.K. Independence Party and Marine Le Pen of the National Front express their admiration for Putin and their loathing of the EU. In the post-financial-crash world, their voices are being heeded like never before.
In a statement on February 25, 2015, American Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, talked of the effectiveness of Russia’s “propaganda machine,” which “attempts to exploit potential sympathetic or aggrieved populations.”
In Greece, the truth of his words is plain to see: Kremlin policy is making ever more advances into Europe’s political consciousness.