* Russia sees no big impact on it from Greek crisis
* Putin eyes cracks in EU unity over sanctions
* Russian media see Grexit as all but inevitable
By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW, July 3 Russian President Vladimir Putin
must be finding it hard to contain a wry smile as the European
Union struggles with Greece's debt problems.
Events are playing into his hands by diverting attention
from the conflict in Ukraine and offering him a chance to
exploit differences in the EU which might undermine unity on
sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.
Russia's fragile economy would certainly not escape
unscathed if Greece left the euro zone or the EU, and the crisis
could serve as a worrying lesson for Moscow as it builds its own
political and economic bloc with other former Soviet republics.
But Russia is now one of the few countries Athens might
realistically turn to for money and state-run media are having a
field day, depicting the EU as a discredited and dysfunctional
empire in terminal decline.
"I do think that they're going to use Greece as a tool
against Germany, as a tool against the European Union," Yevgenia
Albats, a prominent Russian commentator and editor of the
independent New Times magazine, told Reuters.
"That's exactly what the Soviets did, that's exactly what
the KGB did during the Cold War, when they were using countries
and governments, especially poor ones, in their war with Western
State media portray Greece's crisis as just the start of the
EU's problems, suggesting Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy
could be next if Greece left the euro zone.
"Grexit", many loyal media outlets suggest, is now all but
News about the crisis on state-controlled news channel
Russia-24 is accompanied by a graphic declaring: "Greece -
almost over." The popular daily Komsomolskaya Pravda this week
ran the headline: "Greek tragedy. Divorce already near."
Far-left politician Eduard Limonov wrote an article for
Izvestia newspaper under the headline "Crumbling empire" that
smacked of a feeling of revenge, nearly a quarter of a century
after the Soviet Union fell apart.
"In short, many countries have reasons to leave the EU but
Greece will be the first to summon up the courage to do so," he
wrote. "Everything is bad, everything is heading towards the
European empire falling apart..."
REASSURING THE PEOPLE
The Kremlin has played down suggestions Russia might bail
out its Orthodox Christian brothers, describing it as a problem
for Athens and its creditors to solve, "not a matter for us."
With a hint of schadenfreude, the Kremlin voiced concern
about "negative consequences" for the EU and the central bank
and the Finance Ministry offered reassurances that the Russian
economy and financial markets would not be badly affected.
Russia has relatively little exposure to Greek banks and
government debt, but a Greek exit from the eurozone would limit
risk appetite worldwide and Russian assets are seen as risky.
Few would rule out entirely the possibility that Putin is
still waiting for the best moment to come to Greece's rescue, or
that Prime Minister Alexei Tsipras might make a last-minute
request for aid after making two visits to Russia this year.
Washington has been lobbying European leaders to do all they
can to support Greece; global markets would be disrupted if
Athens left the euro and Greece could block an extension of EU
sanctions against Russia or make NATO decision-making difficult
if it felt it had little to lose.
Some Russian experts want Greece to give up on its Western
partners, join a Russia-led customs union and sign up for the
Moscow-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, intended to challenge
the economic power of the EU, China and the United States.
"It has one option; leave NATO and then, for company, join
us," said Mikhail Delyagin, a prominent economist.
But Russia's embrace of Greece has so far been less than
fulsome. Both sides said financial aid was not discussed when
Tsipras and Putin met in St Petersburg last month, where the
main outcome was the signing of a memorandum of understanding on
cooperation over building a gas pipeline.
"There are no resources (in our budget to provide money),"
Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak told Reuters at the
Russia has its own economic crisis, worsened by the EU and
U.S. sanctions over Ukraine and a fall in the global price of
oil, its most important export. Bailing out another country
might anger voters facing financial problems themselves.
Moscow did not bail out Cyprus when it faced a debt crisis
in 2013 and a $3-billion loan to Kiev in December 2013, intended
as a sweetener to prevent Ukraine joining mainstream Europe,
backfired when President Viktor Yanukovich was toppled two
months later following street protests.
Russia has other reasons for caution. Holding together a
large political bloc is not proving easy for Brussels and may
not be for Moscow if its Eurasian Economic Union expands beyond
Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.
Russia is already struggling to convince others to adopt one
Some experts say the EU's problems could also cause the
United States to lose faith in Brussels as an economic, security
and political partner, encouraging it to play a more direct role
in Europe, something Moscow would oppose.
"All this strengthens the tendency towards a return to the
standoff of 30 years ago, possibly in the worst form," foreign
policy analyst Fyodor Lyukanov wrote in the government newspaper
In other words, Putin might yet not have the last laugh.
(Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Philippa Fletcher)