Russia may win politically if a Greek deal falls through

Leaders may have reached a short-term deal, but experts caution that Greece could still abandon the euro if it doesn't abide by the terms of an agreement reached overnight Monday. And that could shift the European political landscape.

Alexis Tsipras, Greece's prime minister (right) and Euclid Tsakalotos, Greece's finance minister, (center) depart after all-night bailout talks in Brussels on July 13, 2015.
Jasper Juinen | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Alexis Tsipras, Greece's prime minister (right) and Euclid Tsakalotos, Greece's finance minister, (center) depart after all-night bailout talks in Brussels on July 13, 2015.

Euro zone leaders agreed to an aid and reform deal with Greece that could pave the way for a bailout of the country. There's still a long way to go: The package must pass a vote by the Greek parliament on Wednesday, and Greece is on the hook for a big, $3.86 billion payment to the European Central Bank on July 20.

Market gurus have long debated the consequences of a so-called "Grexit." The obvious answer is the potential contagion effect—other euro zone nations such as Portugal, Spain or Italy could follow Greece out the door. But peripheral debt yields are trading at levels that suggest that investors think the contagion risk, at this point, anyway, is somewhat low.

If Greece misses that ECB payment on July 20, market analysts say the debt-laden country may have no choice but to leave the euro. Greece would then have to rely on alternative sources of cash—possibly including Russia. It was a point that Jean-Claude Trichet, former governor of the ECB, was alluding to when he told LeMonde, a French newspaper, that "the real risk of a Greek exit is geopolitical."

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The Greek government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has very visibly maintained close ties with Russia throughout its drawn-out negations with euro zone leaders. He was received warmly by Russian President Vladimir Putin at an economic forum in St. Petersburg last month. The two nations also recently announced plans to build a joint gas pipeline.

Closer political cooperation would be inevitable if Greece accepted aid from Russia. For example, Greece is one of the largest military spenders relative to GDP in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an alliance that was originally formed as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.

"Greece is a key strategic asset for NATO, and its army is one of the largest per-capita in Europe. Frankly, I am amazed we are sitting passively by, letting Germans dictate the terms on this," said Boris Schlossberg, managing director of FX Strategy at BK Asset Management.

Political analysts say concerns from the White House have risen recently, with reports of private phone calls taking place between President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And the United States will continue to play a key role behind the scenes as European leaders hash things out.

"Do you want another unstable country when Turkey, Ukraine, Syria and North Africa are in such turmoil? Probably not. Leaders should know they are playing with fire," said Marc Ostwald, strategist at ADM Investor Services.

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A major question, of course, is whether Russia would consider it worth its while to help Greece when it's dealing with its own financial troubles: a slowing economy, volatile oil prices and trade sanctions.

Olga Oliker, director of the Center for Russia and Eurasia at Rand Corp., told CNBC that "identifying and exacerbating tensions within the European union—and especially NATO—fits well with Russia's narrative that the existing order in Europe is not beneficial or sustainable."

A Greek acceptance of support from Russia would give Putin a more prominent seat at the European table and the ability to broaden its influence during a time when sanctions should be limiting its presence.

"Russia wants to use Greece as part of the standoff with Western powers," said Oliker.


"The Russians have consistently denied that Greece has asked for aid, and I think that for now Greeks prefer to deal with Europeans, but if Grexit comes, all bets are off. Greece will be bankrupt, the drachma probably worth 25-35 percent of (the) euro, and they will desperately need capital to get imports." -Boris Schlossberg, managing director, FX Strategy at BK Asset Management

Thierry Wizman, strategist for global interest rates and currencies at Macquarie Group, pointed out that a deal between Russia and Greece could bring Greece closer into Russia's political orbit, and would most likely make Greece a more vocal advocate for Russia within Europe—similar to the role that Hungary plays now.

Greek leaders have suggested throughout recent talks that there is a strong push to stay inside the euro and work with European leaders in reaching a deal, but the country's financial state remains deeply troubled. Greek banks have been closed for many days, and limits have been set on withdrawals. Experts say if banks do not reopen soon and IOUs come into play, Greek leaders will be put in a compromised situation and may have to seek alternative options, including possibly accepting capital from Russia, despite the risks.

"The Russians have consistently denied that Greece has asked for aid, and I think that for now Greeks prefer to deal with Europeans, but if Grexit comes, all bets are off. Greece will be bankrupt, the drachma probably worth 25-35 percent of (the) euro, and they will desperately need capital to get imports," said Schlossberg.