Russia signed an agreement with Cyprus on Wednesday that allows its navy ships regular access to the Mediterranean island nation’s ports.
Both countries downplayed the pact’s significance. Russian president Vladimir Putin told reporters in Moscow the ships that dock at Cyprus would likely be involved in international anti-piracy operations.
“Our friendly ties aren’t aimed against anyone,” he said. “I don’t think it should cause worries anywhere.”
Putin’s Cypriot counterpart, Nicos Anastasiades, insisted the deal only formalized existing procedures.
Russian warships were already allowed to use the port of Limassol for refueling and the Andreas Papandreou air base in support of humanitarian missions.
Yet Wednesday’s announcement came a week after Russia restructured a €2.5 billion loan given to Cyprus in 2011 when the Greek sovereign debt crisis threatened to pull the Greek-speaking part of the island down with it. Russia reduced the interest rate on the loan from 4.5 to 2.5 percent.
The agreement also comes 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.
But Anastasiades had said that good Cypriot-Russian relations are “not subject to change” and expressed doubts about the sanctions, saying, “We want to avoid further deterioration of relations between Russia and the European Union.”
Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, Russia has expanded its influence across the Eastern Mediterranean.
Late last year, it deepened energy relations with Turkey. 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.
The election of the far-left Syriza party to power in Greece could be an opportunity for Russia to strengthen relations with another NATO member state. Syriza’s position on NATO membership is ambiguous but it has picked Russia’s side against the pro-Western government in Kiev.
Cyprus is not a member of NATO. Its former colonial master, Britain, has two military installations on the island which it uses for intelligence gathering and in of support of operations in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.