The Russian Military Has a Tiny New Friend
Cyprus hosted the carrier ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’ twice this year
Here’s a scenario that’s bound to go well. Take one of the most militarized countries on Earth and start adding Russian weapons and money into the mix.
Next? Make it a regular stop for the Kremlin’s warships. Put it all together, and you have an approximate picture of what’s happening on the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
First, Russia’s shambling aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is on its way home after sailing for three months around the Mediterranean. During its journey, it made two stops at the Cypriot port of Limassol.
At the same time, the Republic of Cyprus has walked a fine line, carefully avoiding doing anything that might piss off Russia, which is facing further sanctions after its invasion of Crimea.
“There are very strong economic ties between Cyprus and Russia,” Cypriot foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides said on April 16. “If sanctions are really necessary, then every member state should decide for itself whether to take part.”
If all this seems a little weird, it is. But Cyprus is in a difficult position, being the location of a persistent frozen conflict with the Turkish-backed Republic of Northern Cyprus. Southern Cyprus is also building ties with Russia, whose navy is increasingly active in the eastern Mediterranean.
This means arms sales and access to Cypriot ports and airfields. At the same time, Limassol has become a transit point for illegal Russian arms shipments heading to Syria.
When we refer to Cyprus, we’re of course referring to the Republic of Cyprus, which controls the southern two-thirds of the island of Cyprus.
The Turkish-backed Republic of Northern Cyprus controls the north. Barbed wire and minefields mark the no-man’s-land between the two countries. The Turkish-backed north came into being in 1974. Only Ankara recognizes it.
By contrast, the Republic of Cyprus is considerably larger and wealthier than the north. It’s also a member of the European Union, but not NATO. It has a population around the size of Montana yet it’s one of the top 10 most militarized countries in the world.
The largest share of Russian-made weapons in Cypriot hands is in the form of T-80 tanks. Cyprus bought dozens of the armored vehicles in the 1990s to replace its French-made AMX-30 tanks. In 2010, Cyprus bought 41 more T-80s.
These heavy weapons are considerably tougher than anything in the arsenals of Northern Cyprus, which relies on around 30,000 Turkish troops to augment its meager forces. Greece keeps around 1,000 soldiers in the south and the United Kingdom maintains two air bases.
But Cyprus is more important to Russia as a port. Russian warships have made numerous stops on the island in recent years, including Admiral Kuznetsov and the Russian navy flagship Peter the Great—a heavily armed battlecruiser.
The port visits has also led to rumors Russia is interested in a permanent naval station. But so far the Cypriots have only agreed to allow Russian military aircraft to use the Andreas Papendreou air base for humanitarian and emergency flights, and to allow ships to dock at Limassol.
But the Russian maneuvers are anything but humanitarian.
Cyprus is already used as a transit station for arms heading to supply the forces of Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad. Last year, a Russian cargo ship loaded with tens of tons of ammunition stopped at Limassol in violation of an E.U. arms embargo.
Under the embargo—of which Cyprus is a party—the authorities were supposed to seize the ship and the ammunition, purchased by Syria from Russian defense firm Rosoboronexport. The Cypriot authorities let it go—and on to Syria.
Cyprus also has a reputation for a tax haven—one that’s become increasingly attractive to wealthy Russians. After the European Union’s cascading banking crisis hit Cyprus, Nicosia seized huge sums of this secret money—some of it funneled by the Russian mafia—as part of a bailout deal with leaders of the Eurozone.
“Generally, though, the relations between the Russians and Cypriots are so close that, as far as I can see, no economic problems can undermine them,” Stanislav Osadchiy, Russia’s ambassador to Cyprus, said April 17.
The Russian money also keeps coming, with the financiers converting much of the money into bank shares. Which means Russian oligarchs effectively are major shareholders of Cypriot banks.
That can also play into the Kremlin’s long game.
“Most likely Russian leadership would have preferred a Cyprus exit from the Euro, in which case Russia would have likely stood ready to assist Cyprus and its own Russian interests … and the potential for an alternative naval base in Cyprus which is so close to Syria,” noted Harald Malmgren, a trade analyst who served in the Ford, Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy administrations.