Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions
Amid the ongoing struggle in eastern Ukraine, it was recently announced that the Russian navy may secure its first naval base in an EU country. Though the announcement was immediately denied by Cypriot defense services, the mere rumor of such a development caused a major international stir. Seen in the context of increased Russian influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, it is easy to understand the concern of Western policy makers.
Cyprus came to hold a prominent place in public discourse following the 2012-2013 economic crisis. At that time, the presence of ‘questionable’ Russian money in Cypriot banks was widely reported. The island was often labeled a haven for dirty money from Russian organized crime. Estimates put the amount of Russian money in Cyprus at around $30 billion, the mass majority of which arrived since the mid-1990s.
According to a report from Russia Insider the hypothetical base would allow the Russian Air Force to use the airbase “Andreas Papandreou," along with the international airport of Paphos in the southwest of the island, approximately (and perhaps conveniently) 50 kilometers from the air base of the British Royal Air Force “Akrotiri."
Cyprus is in the unique position of being in the EU but not NATO. The country’s strategic location in the Eastern Mediterranean, close to the ongoing war in Syria as well as Israeli, Egyptian, and Turkish waterways and airspace, renders it a desirable partner on security issues. That the island state is adjacent to a sizable undeveloped natural gas field further increases Cypriot importance to its neighbors.
Roughly half of Cyprus is currently occupied by Turkey. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was created as a result of Turkey’s 1974 invasion of the island and remains a major source of contention between Athens and Ankara. The status of the self-declared Turkish Republic is yet to be resolved and places Nicosia’s foreign policy opposite that of Ankara.
Should plans to develop the base go forward, it would provide Russia with a network of bases which includes their existing naval facility at Tartus. This base serves as the Russian navy’s primary port of call in the Mediterranean despite personnel withdraws in 2013. A new naval presence in nearby Cyprus would serve to solidify Moscow’s position, especially important given increased economic cooperation with Turkey and recent strengthening of political ties with Greece.
Within days of his election, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was invited to Moscow by Russian President Vladimir Putin. A member of the Syriza party (which is widely regarded as having Russian sympathies), Tsipras had already called for Greece and Cyprus to serve as a "bridge of peace and cooperation between Europe and Russia".
When combined with Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov stating that, he “would not rule out a loan agreement to Greece should the country appeal to Russia for assistance,” there are clear signs of increased ties between the two countries. Syriza’s sympathetic positions may eventually lead to a more overt pro-Russia turn, but for the moment it appears to remain committed to the Euro-Atlantic consensus. The party has nevertheless served as an inspiration to other populist parties across the continent, parties which may take Syriza’s position against sanctions on Russia.
The unexpected cancelation of the South Stream project has provided Greece with a strategic opportunity. As a likely endpoint of the new “Turkish Stream” project, Greece stands as the transit point between Turkey and EU states which were previously supportive of South Stream. Turkey geographic position therefore gives it increased leverage over the project, and influence with its increasingly pro-Russian neighbors Bulgaria and Serbia.
These new economic ties between Greece and Turkey may help to heal old wounds, or at least de-incentivize future hostilities. Improved relations between Athens and Ankara are likely an objective of Moscow’s as both are important to its long-term goal of Eurasian economic integration.
Regardless of whether or not Russian troops find a permanent home in Cyprus, Moscow’s role in the East Mediterranean is undoubtedly on the upswing. Increased ties with Greece and Turkey have the potential to change the regional power dynamic, especially given Russia’s already positive relations with Egypt and Syria.
Acting as a middle-man between Mediterranean nations, Russia has the potential to become a significant regional power outside of its near-abroad.