Is Greece about to cosy up to Russia?

Greece has distanced itself from calls to broaden sanctions against Russia because of the escalating conflict in Ukraine, indicating that it could be looking east to its historical ally Russia for support.

On Tuesday, European Union (EU) leaders issued a joint statement voicing concern over the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, where violence between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukraine military has escalated over recent weeks.


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EU foreign ministers were urged to consider possible new sanctions against Russia, which is seen as responsible for the latest aggression, when they meet at an emergency meeting on Thursday. A final decision on extra sanctions is not expected to be taken until next month when current sanctions, which were imposed in March 2014, hitting the Russian economy hard, expire.

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Following the EU leaders' statement, however, the new Greek government, led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, complained to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, saying that the statement did not have their consent.

The move highlights the gap between Greece's new government – which is led by the radical-left Syriza party – and its European partners, and indicates that their differences could go beyond domestic economic policy and austerity measures.

Tsipras, who heads up the anti-austerity party, wants to pare back the cuts imposed on Greece, despite them being a condition of its 240 billion euro ($272 billion) bailout package. After only one day in power, Tsipras halted the sale of the government's stake in the Port of Piraeus on Tuesday. Privatizing public assets was a part of Greece's bailout program.

In addition, Tsipras' government has called on the so-called troika -- the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund -- to write off a third of the country's debt - something euro zone leaders have refused point-blank to consider.

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Greece's apparent support of Russia has not only entrenched its apparent collision course with European leaders, but shows it could also be looking to cosy up with the country. Russia and Greece have a history of cordial relations and cultural ties, such as their shared Orthodox Christianity.

"Some would also argue that the new Greek government position is just a negotiating ploy in regard to its priority to renegotiate Greece's (bailout) program," Timothy Ash, head of emerging markets at Standard Bank, said in a note Wednesday.

"This might suggest that in exchange for concessions therein, the Greeks may ultimately fall into line with the consensus view within the EU over Ukraine."

He added that the weekend's Greek elections had added "yet another not insubstantial complication" to the crisis between Russia and Ukraine, and "my own discussion with Western government officials suggests they are fully aware of this."

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Dangerous games

But a move to support Russia could be risky for Greece, Ash warned.

He said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other euro zone leaders could be "just totally outraged" by any efforts to use the Ukraine crisis as a "bargaining chip."

Russia has certainly shown that it is open to offering concessions to Greece in return for its support. Earlier this month, Russia's agriculture minister suggested that if Greece left the euro zone, Russia could help the country by lifting a ban on Greek food exports imposed in retaliation for EU sanctions on Russia.

Michael Hewson, chief markets analyst at CMC Markets, told CNBC that Tsipras was playing a shrewd game, trying to give the EU "the impression that he has other options." He stressed that Greece could effectively veto new sanctions against Russia.

"If they lob that grenade into the negotiations on Thursday, that would really ratchet up tensions between Germany and Greece," he said.

For Russia's part, he said it was likely the country would also jump at the opportunity to stir things up in Europe.

"Although (Russia President Vladimir) Putin has problems of his own and would probably not be in a position to help Greece, he wouldn't be averse to stirring the pot and pushing a wedge between Greece and Europe," he told CNBC.

That wedge could become more entrenched if Europe was not "very, very careful" in its dealing with Greece over its debt negotiations, Hewson warned.

"This dogmatic 'no debt restructuring' position from Europe is not helpful. If you want the euro zone to survive, it's got to be less destructive to restructure Greece's debt that to push it out of the euro altogether," he said.

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