Europe News

Greece, Ukraine and Russia: History lessons

The two biggest geopolitical flashpoints of the year so far, and potentially of the decade, involve one of the oldest stories of all: creditors chasing their due.

As Greece's new leadership embarks on a European tour to try and negotiate compromises on its debt to the so-called troika (made up of the International Monetary Fund, European Commission and European Central Bank), and Russia threatens to call in a $3-billion bond it used to help bail out struggling Ukraine, it might be time for European leaders to take a leaf from their history books.

Read MoreCrunchtime: Greece takes pleas to a hostile Europe

First World War

Germany is perceived to be the most hard-line of Greece's European creditors when it comes to renegotiations over the country's 300-billion-euro-plus debt pile – unsurprisingly, given that Germany is both the biggest contributor to the euro zone's part of the bailout and its own reputation for fiscal caution.

Yet Germany has both suffered from large external debt and benefited from forgiveness before. The reparations it was saddled with after the First World War resulted in hyperinflation and near-economic disaster, which contributed to rising support for the Nazi Party.

The national flag of Greece and the flag of the European Union fly above a government building in Athens.
Getty Images

"As the Greek finance minister meets Chancellor Merkel today it might help her to recall how much of Germany's 1933-1945 external debt the country ended up paying back (close to none, which obviously helped the German economic miracle hugely)," Rabobank analysts pointed out in a research note Wednesday.

Read MoreGreek austerity sparks sharp rise in suicides

Russia and Cuba

After Greece, fear of contagion elsewhere

Meanwhile in Russia, President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that Ukraine needed to repay a $3 billion loan, made while his ally Viktor Yanukovych was still Ukraine's President, because Russia needs it to fight its own economic crisis.

If Ukraine, with its economy already on the brink of disaster, is forced to repay its Russian debts earlier than the planned December 2015, it could push the country into default.

Yet Russia hasn't had a problem with debt forgiveness for neighbours and trading partners in the past. Just in July, it wrote off $32 billion of Cuba's outstanding debt.