Putin offers cooperation with Greece _ but no financial aid
MOSCOW (AP) Russia's President Vladimir Putin offered Wednesday to increase cooperation with Greece on energy and industry but stopped short of extending direct financial aid that might complicate Greece's talks with its European creditors.
After a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Putin dismissed allegations that Moscow is trying to woo Greece in order to split the European Union and weaken its resolve to punish Russia over its actions in Ukraine.
Ahead of the leaders' meeting, there was also speculation that Tsipras might seek aid from Russia to gain a bargaining chip with its European creditors. Greece is in heated negotiations with the creditors, which want it to agree to a list of reforms before they provide it with more rescue loans.
Greece will run out of funds within weeks without more financial aid, and some observers alleged that Tsipras was trying to blackmail the EU by holding out a prospect of a deal with Russia.
But Putin said after the talks that Greece hasn't asked for any aid, though he made it clear that Russia wants to deepen its energy and industrial cooperation with Greece.
He offered to set up agricultural joint ventures with Greece to allow it to resume its foods exports to Russia, which were blocked last year under Russia's ban on Western food in retaliation to the EU sanctions.
Putin said they also discussed a possible Russian investment in energy and other projects.
He suggested extending a prospective gas pipeline to Turkey into Greece, saying that such a move would increase its clout and earn it hundreds of millions of dollars in transit payments. "It will increase Greece's geopolitical status and make it a major transit country," he said.
Putin in December pulled the plug on a gas pipeline project called South Stream that would have run to Bulgaria, citing the EU opposition to the project. Russia announced an intention to build a pipeline to Turkey instead.
Putin also said that Russian companies could be interested in bidding for infrastructure, energy and other assets that Greece could privatize.
Asked if Russia is using Greece as a Trojan horse meant to split Europe's united front on sanctions against Russia, Putin said Moscow is "not trying to convince or coerce anyone to do anything."
Tsipras, likewise, defended Greece's right to develop warmer ties with Russia, saying that "Greece is a sovereign country with a non-negotiable right to pursue a multi-faceted and active foreign policy."
He indicated that his trip should not be interpreted as an affront to the West.
"We fully respect out commitments to all the international institutions," Tsipras said, adding that it doesn't mean that his country should not pursue a foreign policy "to benefit all Greeks."
Tsipras said the heated debate around his Moscow visit makes it look "as if Greece is a debt colony."
"Greece is not a beggar to go around all the countries asking them to help resolve is financial problem," he said. "It's not a Greek problem, it's a European one. And for this European problem, there will be a European solution. "
He reaffirmed his opposition to Western sanctions slapped on Russia last year, and called on the EU to "leave the vicious circle of sanctions behind."
Greek exports to Russia were 357 million euros last year, down 12 percent from a year earlier. Tsipras on Wednesday described the effect from Russia's food embargo as a "sizeable wound" to his country's economy.
A deal to resume Greek food exports could potentially restore millions in profits that Greek farmers used to make on the Russian markets.
Tsipras' government, a coalition of the radical left and nationalist right, was elected in January on promises to repeal the budget-cutting measures imposed as a condition of the bailout. Greece has been dependent on international bailouts worth 240 billion euros ($260 billion) since 2010.
Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece, and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.