Cyprus denied on Monday it was prepared to lease two military bases to Russia. Such an arrangement would have undermined a decades-old Western strategy of blocking Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“There is no question of Russian air or naval military bases on the soil of Cyprus,” the foreign minister, Ioannis Kasoulides, told the Cyprus News Agency.
Earlier, the Russian state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported that Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades would make the offer to lease two bases on a visit to Moscow later this month.
Anastasiades had said, “Cyprus and Russia have traditionally had good relations and this is not subject to change.”
According to Kasoulides, the president was only referring to the renewal of existing agreements under which Russia supplies some military equipment to Cyprus.
Russian warships can also use the port of Limassol for refueling and the Andreas Papandreou air base for humanitarian missions.
The conflicting reports about Cyprus’ intentions come at a time of deteriorating East-West relations. As a member of the European Union, Cyprus supports economic sanctions against Russia that were imposed after its occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine last year.
However, Cyprus has raised reservations about the embargo that leaders are expected to extend when they meet in Brussels later this week.
“We want to avoid further deterioration of relations between Russia and the European Union,” Anastasiades said.
Two years ago, when Greece’s financial crisis threatened to drag Cyprus down with it, the island refused to be drawn into Russia’s orbit. Marianna Zoupa reported for the Atlantic Sentinel at the time that it turned down a Russian loan offer, calculating that the potential rewards of a closer relationship with Moscow did not outweigh the risks of turning its back on Europe.
Zoupa pointed out that Cyprus’ proximity to Russia and a range of tax privileges had made it a suitable location for Russian companies and oligarchs to park billions of dollars. But President Vladimir Putin’s interest in bailing out Cyprus extended beyond protecting a Russian money laundering paradise. More important for him, Zoupa argued, “would have been the personal prestige of helping to avert a global financial crisis and outwitting European leaders to secure Cyprus as a geopolitical prize and client state.”
Establishing military bases on the territory of a European Union state would be a huge strategic gain for Russia which is currently locked in a trade war with the bloc. Russia responded to the sanctions by banning certain agricultural imports from Eastern European countries and reducing natural gas flows to Poland and Slovakia.
The crisis was triggered when Russia tried to stop the former Soviet republic Ukraine from entering into an association agreement with the European Union.
Russia has expanded its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean since.
Late last year, it deepened energy relations with Turkey. Vladimir Putin promised the NATO country a 6 percent discount on natural gas imports and said gas deliveries to Europe would be diverted through Turkey — bypassing Ukraine — after canceling the South Stream pipeline that was supposed to run through the Balkans.
Since annexing the Crimea, Russia has also supported a separatist insurgency in the southeast of Ukraine and strengthened security ties with the breakaway Georgian territory of Abkhazia, consolidating its position around the Black Sea.
If Russia is to project power beyond the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, it needs not only better relations with Turkey but the acquiescence of Greece which could still block its navy in the Aegean Sea.
Luckily, Greek voters elected a government that is sympathetic to Putin’s Russia last month. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ far-left Syriza party opposed the European association treaty with Ukraine and advocates closer relations with Russia in order to balance against a supposedly German-dominated Europe.
Syriza’s position on Greek NATO membership is ambiguous. The party claims to aspire to a “refoundation of Europe away from artificial divisions and Cold War alliances such as NATO.”
As long as Greece is in the Western military alliance, though, it could hardly allow Russian troops on its territory. Cyprus, which is not a NATO ally, can.
The United Kingdom is currently the only foreign power with military bases on Cyprus which it uses for intelligence gathering and to support operations in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
The island of Cyprus has been divided into a Greek and Turkish part since 1974 when the Turkish military launched an invasion after a short-lived Greek Cypriot coup engineered by the military junta then in power in Athens.
Turkey still keeps some 30,000 troops in the north while a buffer zones that separates the two sides is monitored by the United Nations.