The Greek debt crisis could ultimately pose a national security problem for the U.S. if Athens turns to Russia if it can’t solve its mounting problems with its European Union partners.
The Obama administration is “missing the bigger picture” by not taking a more active role in the Greek debt crisis, which, if not resolved, could both expand Russia’s influence in the region and decrease confidence in both the European Union and NATO, said Henry Nau, who served as a member of the National Security Council under President Reagan.
“This administration is focusing on problems that are far less important than this problem,” he said. “They’re focusing on Cuba, they’re focusing on climate change, they’re focusing tremendously on the possibility of an agreement with Iran.”
The U.S. has stayed largely on the sidelines in the standoff, urging a deal but declining to intervene directly.
President Obama placed phone calls Tuesday urging Greece’s prime minister and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to find a solution that will keep Greece within the eurozone and head off larger questions about the future of the European economy.
“It is in everyone’s interest that Greece and its creditors reach a mutually acceptable agreement,” Mr. Obama told Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, the White House said.
Eurozone officials were meeting Tuesday with Greek leaders to discuss solutions, but Germany, which has taken a tough line against financial concessions sought by Mr. Tsipras, said there was still no basis for talks of a new bailout. The EU had urged Greece to submit fresh plans after its people rejected a draft bailout in a referendum over the weekend.
But Mr. Nau said the Obama administration should be taking a far more forceful role to prevent Russia from taking advantage of the situation, a move that could have long-term consequences for American national security.
And Russia, seeking to reclaim influence and allies in the wake of the sharp break with the West over Ukraine, would love the opportunity to ally itself with a NATO country — with major strategic value — after Western powers have failed.
Providing financial support to Greece could give Russia more access to valuable sea ports in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as a friend in NATO who could block any actions against Russia that must be passed unanimously by the body, said Luke Coffey, the Margaret Thatcher fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
“At the moment we seem to be conceding that influence to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and not recognizing that if that influence broadens, we may be in for further crises and further unraveling of Western confidence,” he said.
Russian press analyses see the same opportunity for Moscow, as Mr. Putin called Mr. Tsipras Monday as the crisis has deepened.
Matthew Bryza, director of the International Center for Defense and Security, told the Russian business daily Vedomosti that recent Greek-Russian contacts are a clear move by both to put pressure on EU leaders.
“Putin, of course, will try to use the current financial problems of Greece,” Mr. Bryza told the newspaper. “But Russia’s own financial weakness is seriously hampering its ability to provide significant assistance to Athens.”
Greece defaulted last week on about $1.7 billion in debt when it failed to make a payment to the International Monetary Fund.
Defiance in Greece
On Sunday the Greek voters were defiant, striking down any measure or economic reform to negotiate with creditors on a repayment plan. Soon Greece’s banks will run out of money, and eurozone leaders — led by Ms. Merkel, whose country holds a majority of Greece’s debt — are trying to work out an interim plan.
If a new deal can’t be struck, Greece would be unable to make a $3.9 billion bond repayment to the European Central Bank on July 20.
“With Russia, there are immediate gains and benefits,” said Mr. Coffey. “Not even completely bailing out Greece’s debt, but just letting it stay alive on life support would earn it a lot of influence in Athens.”
Some have questioned if Russia has the resources to provide any economic aid to Greece, with its suffering economy that will continue to worsen with declining oil prices. But Mr. Nau said that Mr. Putin has invested a lot in the military, basing troops permanently in Eastern Ukraine despite his country’s economic problems, and will likely continue to do so to spread Russia’s influence.
“He’s spending a lot of money to reassert Russia’s image in the region,” said Mr. Nau, who now serves as a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. “He can’t sustain Greece for very long, but he’s going to play in that game, I think, by way of simply undermining the confidence of Greek people in the European Union, which he would like very much to see rolled back or weakened, and also weaken their confidence in NATO.”
Experts say it’s up to the U.S. to prevent Russia from filling that void.
The most important part of the U.S. response should be that Greece continues to see America as an ally that can step in if the conflict grows and prevent Russia from filling that gap, said Daniel Speckhard, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.
The Defense Department said Greece’s current economic struggles and Mr. Putin’s overtures do not change the fact that Washington and Athens remain close allies through NATO.
“Greece’s economic difficulties have not affected our mutual commitment to defense cooperation,” Laura Seal, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “The stability and security of Greece, a NATO ally as well as an EU partner, are important to the United States and the entire transatlantic community.”
Even if Russia doesn’t strip Greece away from the eurozone or European Union, Mr. Putin’s support during this time of crisis could upset the political balance of the European Union and NATO, which both need unanimous agreement when big questions are voted on, Mr. Speckhard said. Having a pro-Russian partner in those organizations could make it difficult, if not impossible, to impose sanctions or other restrictions on Russia.
“What the Russians want is a country inside [the] European Union that is a friend to them [and] who can play a blocking move to the European Union’s efforts to constrain Russia,” he said.
The conflict in Greece is also stealing European countries’ attention away from other issues, like the nuclear negotiations with Iran or Russian-backed violence in Ukraine — something Mr. Speckhard said is a “bad sign” as Russians are consolidating their support positions of pro-Russian separatist forces in the east.
“We need the European Union as a partner,” he said. “The problem is whenever they have a problem like this, it creates a problem for us. They get distracted, and instead of focusing on what we want, they turn to the internal crisis.”
And time is running out for a deal.
“It’s not a matter of weeks anymore. It’s a matter of days,” Ms. Merkel told reporters Tuesday.