Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Mount Athos to Hiroshima

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Greece this week coincided with the G7 Summit in the Japanese city of Hiroshima, with still-unfolding implications  writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Russian President Vladimir Putin issued strongly-worded warnings to Poland and Romania during a visit to NATO member state Greece this week, where he raised the issue of NATO missiles being deployed in these countries. “At the moment the interceptor missiles have a range of 500 km, but soon this will go up to 1,000 km, and worse than that they can be rearmed with 2,400 km offensive missiles. However, we have the capability to respond,” Putin thundered.

In his strongest reaction to date on a missile programme the United States maintains is designed as protection against Iran, Putin saw the installation of the missiles as an affront to Russian sovereignty. Not only do the American missiles pose a military threat to Russia, they may also be regarded as a threat to its national interests.

The cultural ties that bind Greece and Russia together are tremendous. And the world was reminded of these this week when Putin joined the celebrations at the Monastery of St Panteleimon to mark 1,000 years of the presence of Russian monks at Mount Athos. Both Greece and Russia are Orthodox Christian nations, and Mount Athos is sacred to both, shaping their respective cultural and national identities.

Meanwhile, Russia has been giving warnings to the two former Eastern Bloc nations of Poland and Romania. The first is Roman Catholic, and the second, like Russia, is Eastern Orthodox. This week’s visit was Putin’s second to Mount Athos, the first being in 2005 when he was the first Russian head of state to visit the Monastery of St . This week, Putin was accompanied by patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Greece’s left-wing Syriza government is keen to develop closer economic, cultural and political relations with Russia. “For us, strengthening this relationship is a strategic choice for Greece,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said. But walking the tightrope of closer relations with Russia while also being a full member of NATO involves accomplishing some difficult feats.

First, Tsipras must persuade his NATO allies to tread gently when it comes to Russia. Second, he must try to help settle the security issues concerning Ukraine and find common ground and areas of cooperation with Putin.

There is perhaps also a kind of bravado in Tsipras’s efforts to inch closer to Russia. Speaking in 2013 to the Valdai Discussion Club, an international forum of Russia experts, Putin came up with the idea that Russia was a “civilisational state” whose limits lay outside the country’s political borders and would naturally include Eastern Orthodox areas. 

Russia could not afford to be complacent about American missiles next to its borders, Putin stressed in Greece. The timing of Putin’s visit when Western leaders were meeting in the city of Hiroshima in Japan for a G7 meeting is also intriguing, as Japan’s engagement with the Kremlin has previously miffed some of its Western allies.

The G7 is an informal bloc of industrialised Western-style democracies that includes the US, Canada, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Japan. The aggregate GDP of G7 member states makes up nearly 50 per cent of the global economy.

Russia belonged to the G8 Forum, as it was then called, from 1998 until 2014, but its membership was suspended in 2014 following its acquisition of the Crimea. Indeed, Russia held the G8 presidency for the first time in 2006 and once again in 2014, this time for barely four months.

“We overcame all the difficulties that arose due to changes in the issuance of Schengen visas and strengthened the work of our consulates in Russia by attracting dozens of new employees. We are ready to meet the high demand of Russian nationals for travel to Greece. At the same time, I have already mentioned at European level that it is necessary that dialogue is launched on easing the visa regime for Russian citizens,” Tsipras said this week.

The EU has shown itself willing to loosen its policy on Russia in the past, but this is Putin’s first visit to a member state since the Crimea crisis. Nevertheless, there is probably enough momentum in the Russian economy to ride out such criticisms, and the likelihood of a serious Russian economic slowdown presaging a full-blown recession seems slim.

Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev has also bluntly described Moscow’s relationship with the G7 as a “new Cold War,” meaning that this week’s events in Hiroshima and at Mount Athos dovetail in an unpredictable manner.

The leaders of the G7 met in Hiroshima, the first city on Earth to have been subjected to a nuclear bomb. To date, the US is the only country in the world to have used a nuclear weapon against another state, and this week representatives of the G7 nations stood in a moment of a silence to honour the victims. The G7 also threatened to intensify sanctions against Russia because of its “illegal annexation” of the Crimea.

Nevertheless, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, currently chair of the G7, declared in a speech in January this year that he would like to see Russia join the fold once again. “We need the constructive engagement of Russia and believe appropriate dialogue with Russia and appropriate dialogue with President Putin is very important,” Abe stated.

His comments are being seen as part of the Abe Doctrine, a foreign policy vision that also overlooks the long-running territorial dispute between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands in the Sea of Okhotsk, used by the Russians as a nuclear-equipped submarine base aimed at the US Pacific coast if need be.

The rapprochement between Moscow and Tokyo had earlier seen the attendance of Abe as a guest of honour at the opening of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. US President Barack Obama had urged Abe to call off his visit, but Abe disregarded the entreaty, much to the consternation of Washington.

For Japan, warm relations with Russia remain desirable, even if to many in the West the curious relationship between Japan and Russia in spite of the Kuril Islands dispute creates a logical puzzle. Russia also remains a member of the G20 group of nations, which includes emerging economic powers such as China, Brazil, India, Mexico and South Africa.

“If the G7 wants to continue playing a major role in the world, it should take an attitude of seeking truth from the facts to handle the issues the international community is most concerned with at the moment,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said this week as the G7 meeting was taking place in Japan.

Washington warns that Japan should be wary of being seen to reward a regime with a human rights record that has shown little signs of improvement, such as that of Russia. But Japan has paid scant attention to Washington’s preaching, and Greece, too, has not jumped at Washington’s command.


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