Greeks, along with Hungarians and Italians, are less supportive of sanctioning Russia than other nationals of the EU member states and European countries, a YouGov Cambridge survey has shown.
Since President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the West has responded with a slew of sanctions against Russia.
Western institutions like NATO and the EU have largely presented a united front against Russia. However, a looming energy crisis and soaring living costs may test their resolve on sanctioning. This is particularly true in Europe, where many states are dependent on the country for energy.
Greeks hesitant to sanction
Between 24 August and 22 September 2022, YouGov questioned survey participants from 25 countries on their thoughts about the Ukraine War.
Participants were asked if they agreed to maintain sanctions against Russia while the situation in the Ukraine lasts.
Together with Hungary, resistance to utilising that type of punishment was highest in Greece. 31% of Greek and Hungarian respondents disagreed with the sanctioning of Russia. Italy followed, with 25% opposing sanctions.
Greek supporters for the measures outnumbered the opposition at 37%. However, their support for them ranks the second lowest in Europe, behind Hungary.
The Greek position contrasted with other attitudes held in the EU and elsewhere in Europe outside the bloc. Approval, for example, was much higher in France and Germany at 57% and 58%. Opposition in France and Germany was even lower at 14% and 20%.
The endorsement of sanctions was highest in the UK, Denmark, and Sweden, at 73%, 72%, and 71% respectively. Opposition in these countries was between 6% and 10%.
Yet there are other survey’s which show a significant difference among Greeks in their opinion on the issue.
Greeks are divided in their standpoints on the Ukrainian conflict, according to other surveys.
One conducted by Eurostat found that in Europe, Greeks and Cypriots are the least likely to solely blame Russia for the conflict. However, a nationwide quantitative online survey by Public Issue found that 71% of Greeks believed that Greece should condemn the Russian invasion. Only 23% of respondents said that it should not condemn the invasion.
The overall picture from polling data seems to indicate that Greeks are highly sympathetic to the plight of Ukrainians, but hesitant to antagonize Russia.
While a majority of Greeks sympathize more with the Ukrainian side, a sizeable minority supports Russia. For example, a survey conducted in February shortly after the invasion began, found that 20% of Greeks felt closer to Russia compared to 45% who supported Ukraine.
Another poll found that 15% of Greeks supported Russia. whereas 51% supported Ukraine. 34% answered that they supported neither side.
Foreign policy and public opinion
The Greek government has followed suit with other Western nations in supporting Ukraine. It has sent military equipment and supplies, including 40 Soviet-built BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles.
In September, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis denounced the Russian invasion during a speech in New York addressed to the UN General Assembly.
Nevertheless, there seems to be a disconnect between Greek public opinion and foreign policy. According to the Public Issue survey, only 22% of Greeks approved of sending military aid to Ukraine. 67% of respondents thought it was the wrong decision.
Similarly, findings from another poll published in March revealed that 63% of respondents thought that sending war materials to Ukraine could prove dangerous to Greece.
Support for humanitarian aid is much higher. 91% of Greeks agree with sending humanitarian aid according to Public Issue’s findings.
Quantitative findings indicate mixed feelings are held by Greece’s population on the Ukraine issue and how Greece should respond. The hesitancy to support measures like sanctions and the existence of a statistically significant pro-Russian minority can partially be explained by historic Greek-Russian ties.
Over the centuries, Greece and Russia have shared many political, cultural, and religious ties. During the early Medieval period, Byzantine-Greek clergymen and diplomats succeeded in converting the Rus to Christianity. Thus, many Greeks and Russians share the same Orthodox Christian faith to this day.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, many Greeks held the belief that Russia would liberate them from Ottoman rule. During much of the contemporary era, Athens has viewed Moscow as a counterweight against potential Turkish aggression.
In February this year, just six days before Russia commenced its “special military operation in Ukraine”, the Greek and Russian foreign ministers met to reaffirm close ties and bilateral cooperation.
The subsequent invasion largely severed friendly Greco-Russian diplomatic exchanges and relations between the two countries have rapidly deteriorated since. However, pro-Russian sentiments held by segments of the general population that have persisted over centuries are more resistant to change than shifting geostrategic postures by governments.
Another reason for hesitancy regarding sanctions is the potential economic consequences. Greece was hit especially hard in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Now, the Ukraine conflict has the potential to unleash a financial crisis on a similar or worse scale, owing to economic warfare and disruption to energy and food exports.
Greeks are likely to be warier towards any measure which threatens to plunge the economy into another downward spiral than Europeans from countries that have performed better economically in the past two decades.
Public opinion to shape foreign policy?
The Greek government will almost certainly maintain its synchronization with the EU sanctions regime against Russia. Public opposition to sanctions is significant, but still outweighed by a slim margin of support.
Moreover, Athens cannot afford to be an outlier and alienate itself from other members of the EU. Domestic opposition to sanctions would have to be very intense for the government to stomach the political costs it would incur within the bloc by breaking rank on this crucial foreign policy issue.
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