×

Power play: Why is Greece flirting with the Russians?

Fear is running amok yet again that the cash-strapped Greek government will default on its loans to its European partners and the International Monetary Fund. While its fate is still unknown, one thing has become clear this week: Greeks are scrambling to find assistance from wherever they can find it—its own government's coffers, and even with overtures to Washington and Moscow.

A signal of how dire the situation is: The far-left government passed an edict Monday requiring public agencies to turn over idle reserves to the Greek central bank to help plug fiscal gaps. In addition, come Friday, the euro zone's finance ministers are likely to throw a tantrum once again when they meet in Riga, as Greece has yet to come up with a list of acceptable economic reforms.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras attend a joint press conference at the Kremlin on April 8, 2015 in Moscow, Russia.
Sasha Mordovets | Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras attend a joint press conference at the Kremlin on April 8, 2015 in Moscow, Russia.

In the midst of this financial cobweb, the Greeks are playing proverbial footsie with the Russians. On the heels of a much ballyhooed meeting in Moscow between Russia's President Vladimir Putin and the Greek Prime Minister Alexi Tsipras two weeks ago, the chief executive of Russia's gas giant, Gazprom, Alexei Miller, traveled to Athens on Tuesday to discuss, as the Greek energy minister's office put it, matters of "energy cooperation."

At the same time, Greece's Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias traveled to Washington to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday, a meeting that both sides characterized as friendly. A coincidence? Maybe. But it's hardly unlikely that the meeting was pure happenstance.

Thanks to press reports in Greece and Germany, rumors are abuzz that Russia is going to extend a helping hand to Greece by offering up a $5-billion-dollar advance payment of a pipeline project, called the Turkish Stream, that would carry Russian gas from the Black Sea to Europe via Greece, Turkey, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary.

Foreign Minister Kotzias told CNBC that the pipeline came up in his meeting with Secretary Kerry—and explained that he assured the secretary that the issue was an economic one and not a political one. "We had a friendly discussion to find solutions to many problems," he said. He declined to elaborate on details.

Russia's Trojan Horse

The presumed Russian cash advance, of course, would give Greece a much-needed cash infusion. If only a handout were that easy—and news of it were true. The Russians have denied that any deal has been reached—and even the Greek energy minister would not comment on the subject of advance payments when asked to do so by the Greek press. No details about the pipeline deal have been forthcoming. As of yet, nothing has been signed.

"In practical matters, Tsipras achieved almost nothing with his visit to Moscow," said George Tzogopoulos, Greek expert and author of books including "The Greek Crisis in the Media."

Read MoreCan Greece's rebel leader rescue the nation from default?

Yet the rounds of meetings, and particularly their timing, have fanned the flames of a controversy that has hung like a cloud over the new Greek government's handling of its financial crisis so far: Is the Syriza-led government trying to play the Russia card to ease the pressure from its European creditors? Why is Greece flirting with Russia, anyway—and what could it mean for its relations with Europe, NATO and even the United States?

In an exclusive phone interview with CNBC after his meeting with Secretary Kerry, Greek Foreign Minister Kotzias dismissed the idea that Greece was doing anything wrong by pursuing diplomatic relations with Russia.

"I have to wonder why, when other countries go to Russia, no one mentions it. But when Greece goes, we're the devil," he said in a phone conversation.

"We have normal diplomatic relations like everybody else," he added. "Why is everybody pointing fingers at us? We are just doing what is normal. I do not like these two standards."

Indeed, he has a point. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi visited the Kremlin in March. Even Angela Merkel admitted as much when asked about Tsipras' visit to Moscow earlier this month. "We were also in Moscow, and we're still members of the European Union and stand unified," she told reporters.

Greek-Russian trade ties

Nonetheless, as talk of a pipeline deal with the Russians swirls about, the string of events this week makes it hard not to question what is happening behind the scenes. Is Russia possibly taking advantage of its historically friendly relations with Greece—and Greece's tough financial situation—to create a lever of support against Europe's Russian sanctions? The sanctions are set to expire in July, around the same time that another round of Greek loan payments are due. The timing has probably not been lost on anyone involved.

"Putin is certainly trying to cultivate the impression that Greece is one of the countries that might be friendly to the Russians," said political science professor Alexander Cooley of Barnard College.

Read MoreGreece balks: What's next?

Tsipras is playing up his Russian ties, too, especially to his constituents, who voted him in on campaign pledges that he would stand up to the European austerity measures. Many analysts argue that Tsipras visited the Kremlin for domestic consumption to demonstrate that Greece does not have to rely only on its European partners. "By showing that the government has other options, Tsipras is playing to his base," said professor Cooley.

The leftist prime minister's perceived tilt toward Russia is not that surprising. For starters, Tsipras and many in his far-left party have roots in the Greek communist party, the KKE, which has traditionally strong ties with the Kremlin. Secondly, Russia is Greece's largest trading partner.

Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias deliver brief remarks to reporters in the Treaty Room at the State Department headquarters April 20, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Getty Images
Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias deliver brief remarks to reporters in the Treaty Room at the State Department headquarters April 20, 2015 in Washington, DC.
"It is the wrong time for the Greek government to believe, with all the problems that it has, that it could be a catalyst in the formation of a new EU-Russia relationship." -Nikos Meletis, diplomatic correspondent, Ethnos

But some analysts think it's a doomed strategy. "It is the wrong time for the Greek government to believe, with all the problems that it has, that it could be a catalyst in the formation of a new EU-Russia relationship," said Nikos Meletis, diplomatic correspondent for Ethnos, an Athenian newspaper. "The government has miscalculated and overestimated its role at a moment when everyone sees Greece, because it has run out of money, as a kind of Trojan horse for Putin."

The reality is that the Russians can't help the Greeks in the short term, anyway, even if they wanted too. Russia has its own economic troubles. The desire to help financially may not be there, either—when Cyprus approached Russia for help in 2013 during its own banking crisis, for example, Russia did not come forward with any assistance.

Read MoreRussia may give Greece prepayments of profits from future gas pipeline project

The only bright spot, according to analyst Tzogopoulos: Tsipras' Kremlin visit provided encouragement to Russian companies to participate in privatization bids for Greek assets down the road.

Even Foreign Minister Kotzias in his comments to CNBC acknowledged that the Russians weren't going to solve Greece's severe short-term financial troubles. The talks with Gazprom, he argued, and the possibility of the company sharing its profits with Greece down the road are only part of a solution to Greece's long-term development. "This is not part of a solution to the debt crisis," he said. "Russia cannot give us a solution to our problem."

That solution, argued Kotzias, lies in the hands of Europe—and he is optimistic that a solution will be found through compromise.

In essence, then, no matter how much Tsipras and his party leaders would like to play the international geopolitical poker game to their own domestic advantage, indeed even their own political survival, Europe has the stronger hand.

Even a deal with Russia over a gas pipeline, if indeed it ever gets finalized, ultimately will need the approval of the European Union. Said analyst Tzogopoulos: "The EU has the last word." In the latest chapter of the Greek financial saga, it most certainly appears that way.

—By Dody Tsiantar, special to CNBC.com

Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that George Tzogopoulos is a Greek expert and author.