Russia and Cyprus have close ties both economically and politically. In a recent interview by the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, Cypriot Parliament Speaker Yiannakis Omirou expressed his gratitude to the Russian government for its solidarity with Cyprus over the past five decades, particularly “the support that Russia has been giving within the framework of the UN Security Council in the light of threats on the part of Turkey.”
Meanwhile, Cyprus has stood by Russia even on sensitive issues — for example, during the recent annual vote on the UN Resolution regarding the status of refugees and internally displaced people from Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region. The main elements of this resolution include: the recognition of the right of all refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes, respect of the property rights of those persons, the prohibition of forced demographic changes, etc. These elements match Greek Cypriot demands vis-à-vis its own refugee/internally displaced persons (IDP) issue in the context of the decades-old Cyprus problem, yet Cyprus abstained — pure realpolitik!
Since returning to the presidency, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stressed the importance of a strong military, including Russia seeking a greater presence in the Mediterranean. Russia has been strengthening its presence, establishing a floating Mediterranean naval flotilla — consisting of some 16 warships — for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In June Putin stated, “This is a strategically important region, and we have tasks to carry out there to provide for the national security of the Russian Federation.” It is speculated this deployment is partially meant to deter any NATO move towards Syria.
With the future of Russia’s Tartus naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coastline looking uncertain (Moscow recently evacuated all personnel), Russia is looking for other opportunities to maintain and strengthen its foothold in the Middle East. Therefore, increased speculation over a possible military presence on Cyprus is not surprising.
According Russia’s ambassador to Cyprus, Moscow has not raised the issue of a permanent base on Cyprus. This is just as well because even with the cozy ties it would be highly controversial and unlikely to happen. Not least, it would upset a number of parties including the EU, the US and Turkey, creating further waves in all these relationships. It could stop Cyprus from joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program. Cyprus is currently the only EU member not part of this program, although President Nikos Anastadiades had indicated an interest.
What is being discussed is an agreement that would allow Russia to use Limassol port for its navy (comparable to the agreement that Germany has that allows Berlin to dock warships and carry out land exercises) and Andreas Papandreou Air Base at Paphos for its military aircraft (presently only France has such permission). Foreign and defense ministers have met to discuss details.
Russia has been docking on and off at Limassol for a while and not only at Limassol. Russian warships have docked in Malta, Greece and for the first time ever (in May), in Israel. However, regarding Cyprus, the current system means that Russia has to ask permission in advance. With an official agreement this would no longer be necessary. Still, this deal would set a precedent as currently no EU member state allows Russia to use its military bases or ports for logistical or other reasons.
No doubt the fees Cyprus would receive would come in useful, and it may make the Greek Cypriots feel more secure, particularly related to Turkey in terms of its massive military presence in the north (around 40,000 soldiers) and Ankara’s negative rhetoric and naval maneuvers related to Greek Cypriot oil and gas exploration projects.
While a deal may still create some concern in the West, it seems set to go through; the precise details of the agreement will be crucial because as the saying goes the “devil is in the detail.” It will need to be extremely tight and clear concerning what Russia can or cannot do. Cyprus definitely will not want to find itself in a position where Russia has used it to launch any type of threatening military activity.
(This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman on 21 July)