ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin said after Friday's talks with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras that a prospective Russian natural gas pipeline should help Greece service its debt, but the Kremlin said the question of direct Russian financial aid to Greece was not discussed.
Speaking of the pipeline deal at a meeting with top executives of global news agencies, including The Associated Press, which began nearly three hours behind schedule at around midnight, Putin said he saw no support for the Greeks from the EU.
"If EU wants Greece to pay its debts it should be interested in growing the Greek economy ... helping it pay its debts," he said. "The EU should be applauding us. What's wrong with creating jobs in Greece?"
Greece is struggling to reach a deal with its creditors for new loans that it needs to avoid defaulting on debt payments at the end of the month. Without the bailout, Greece could be headed for bankruptcy or an exit from the 19-nation eurozone.
Tsipras' visit gave rise to speculation that the Greeks may be seeking Russian loans — and ahead of the talks, Putin's spokesman said Russia would consider a loan if the Greeks asked for one.
"We would do this because they are our partners and this is a normal practice between countries who are partners," spokesman Dmitry Peskov told The Associated Press.
But when Tsipras met with Putin at the sidelines of a major economic forum in St.Petersburg, the possibility of a loan wasn't discussed, Peskov told journalists. Instead, they spoke about "the necessity of developing investment cooperation."
Russia and Greece signed a deal Friday to build an extension of a prospective gas pipeline that would carry Russian gas to Europe through Turkey. Russia promised Greece hundreds of millions of dollars in transit payments yearly if it agreed to build the pipeline. Construction of the pipeline is expected to start next year and be completed in 2019.
Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said Russia and Greece would be equal partners in the project, with Russia's half owned by the state bank VEB.
The talks were held after both leaders addressed investors and Russian government officials at Russia's biggest annual economic forum.
Putin said little about Greece, although he slipped in a joke about its predicament.
"When Mr. Tsipras spoke, he said the problem of Greece was not a Greek problem but a European one. Well, that's right. If you owe someone a lot, then it is already not your problem but the problem of the one you owe — and that's an absolutely correct approach," Putin said.
Tsipras said his country strove to be a "bridge of cooperation" with "traditional friends like Russia" and others.
"As you all know, we are now in the middle of a great storm," the Greek leader said. "But we are a seafaring nation that knows how to navigate through storms and is not afraid of heading to new seas and reaching new harbors."
Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich also had said Russia would consider a loan to Greece.
"The most important things for us are investment projects and trade with Greece. If financial support is needed, we will consider this question," he said in an interview on RT television.
Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said during a forum session that Russia has no plans to buy Greek bonds, but is ready support the Greek economy by stimulating investment by Russian companies. He pointed to the gas pipeline as an example.
Tsipras started his day by speaking to Russians of Greek ancestry at a memorial to Ioannis Kapodistrias, the founder of the modern Greek state who lived and worked in Russia as a Greek envoy from 1809 to 1822.
"We are starting a new era in Greek-Russian relations and we consider you who live here to be playing a very important part in this effort," Tsipras said.
"Greece has been waging a brave fight in these past few weeks and months. You are well aware of these types of difficulties and you are now standing on your feet," he added. "This is the key characteristic of the Greek people, to be able to overcome difficulties when right is on their side."
Kate dePury in St. Petersburg, Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Lynn Berry and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed reporting.