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When Russia’s leadership thinks seriously, strategically, about Greece, not very much comes to mind, except a faucet. To the Russians, Greece is the tap at the Mediterranean end of a Russian oil pipeline. For President Vladimir Putin and his Security Council, it is far better for Russian economic and regional security, if that tap is turned by Greek hands, not Turkish ones.

This is the big difference between Putin and his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin; and between the current Russian prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, and former prime minister Victor Chernomyrdin.

Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin were silently persuaded and (according to some evidence) bribed to support the Turkish oil pipeline, and drag their feet on implementing the Greek alternative. During President Costis Stephanopoulos’ recent visit to Moscow, the Russians made clear they think differently. They are now impatient to make the technical decisions, build the pipeline and open the tap.

When Greek officials discuss the results of that visit and yesterday’s trip to Moscow by Greek Defence Minister Apostolos Tsochadzopoulos, they exaggerate the importance Greece has in playing the faucet role in front of the Kremlin.

Tsochadzopoulos has been warmly welcomed by his Russian military counterparts before. But these days the Russians are deeply sceptical of him. They do not believe Greece would dare to risk the anger of the United States or Turkey by making a significant purchase of Russian-made arms. They know he cannot resist Washington’s pressure.

Long gone is the perception in Moscow that the Greek government is closer to Russia’s security concerns than other members of the Nato alliance. Indeed, when Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou spoke in Moscow last March of his idea of finding a replacement for Yugoslavia’s President Slobodan Milosevic, the Russian reaction was so negative the idea wasn’t revived when Papandreou returned to Moscow with Stephanopoulos a few days ago.

Instead, Papandreou was told that, whatever mistakes Milosevic may be guilty of, the Kremlin knows the internal situation in the Balkans well enough to judge there is no suitable’alternative. Worse, the Russians told Papandreou that after Milosevic there is likely to be a political vacuum that would be far more unpredictable and more dangerous than for Milosevic to stay on. The message was repeated for Stephanopoulos’ benefit. Russian officials realise that Greece has no bright idea for filling that vacuum.

The big bang in the Balkans that Greece is afraid of is not, however, the same bang that troubles the Russians.

According to Russian strategists, the two most serious security threats they face are wider war in the Caucasus, fuelled by Islamic militants but covertly backed by the United States and its allies; and war in the Far East, as China tries to reintegrate the province of Taiwan, defended by the US Pacific fleet. In Russian and Chinese minds, the two bangs are closely connected. For Russia, the real significance today of last year’s war against Yugoslavia is the readiness of the US and Nato (including the Greek government) to create new borders and destroy old adversaries. The Russians see the new enlarged Albania as an example of what the Chechen secessionists want to carve out of the Russian Caucasus. Although the Kremlin understands that Greeks are also apprehensive of an Islamic rebellion in Greece’s northern border provinces, and Greek officials are careful in their criticism of Russia’s Chechnya policy, the Russians regard the Greek government as far too weak to be useful.

In the Far East, where Putin is planning to meet the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese leaders over the next several weeks, Russia will support and supply President Jiang Zemin’s plans for Taiwan. If the Americans react, as they are planning to do, to reinforce Taiwan’s missile defences, block military supplies for China and erect a “national missile defence” in the US against Chinese attack, Russia will do everything possible to back China and try to persuade the rest of Asia and Europe of the folly of the American stance.

The real significance of the debate over the American missile defence proposal and of Russia’s effort to build international opposition to it is the possibility of war in the Taiwan Strait within three years.

Putin has asked every major European politician he has met recently what their attitude is to the possible big bangs and to Washington’s role in igniting them. He didn’t ask Stephanopoulos or Papandreou. With them, Putin concentrated on getting the plumbing for the oil faucet fixed.

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