By Nathan Morley
RUSSIA appears to be inching closer to gaining a long-coveted military foothold in Cyprus, as the future of their naval port in Syria looks increasingly shaky.
The past fortnight has seen a surge in diplomatic activity between Nicosia and Moscow over Russian requests for military use of the Andreas Papandreou airbase in Paphos and Limassol port.
As it stands, a Russian presence in the region is only made possible by the survival of the Assad government, with Moscow last night rebutting reports of a withdrawal of their personnel from the naval base at Tartus.
The statement appears to confirm the widely-held belief that Moscow will do all it can to hold on to its only foothold in the Mediterranean, but also casts the spotlight on urgent moves by Moscow to re-locate some military units to Cyprus should President Bashar Al Assad fall.
On Monday Defence Minister Fotis Fotiou confirmed that recent defence talks with Moscow had centred on a request by Moscow for the use of sea and air facilities on the island. Russia has been using Limassol port for refueling and supplies its naval vessels for over a year.
Some analysts say it is an opportune time for Russia to use the velvet glove of diplomacy to gain a military foothold in Cyprus – after the fallout to Russian depositors from the March bailout soured relations, followed by Russian reluctance to restructure Moscow’s €2.5bn loan to Nicosia.
However, Fotiou categorically rejected the suggestion that military and financial moves were connected, saying it is no different than services other countries provide for foreign armed forces.
“I want to make clear that there is no discussion about a permanent base in Cyprus for Russia, and to make it clear, I repeat, no ‘exchange’ principle,” Fotiou said.
There are currently no indications what the proper uses and limits of any Russian military force using Cyprus would be.
James Ker-Lindsay, a senior research fellow on the politics of south east Europe at the London School of Economics says that even if there is no reason to believe that a permanent Russian military base is going to be established in Cyprus, recent discussions between Nicosia and Moscow will nevertheless raise a number of serious questions amongst the island’s EU partners.
“For a start, just before the elections President Anastasiades was calling for a closer relationship between Cyprus and NATO; first as a member of Partnership for Peace and then, eventually, full membership. Have those ambitions now been dropped?” Ker-Lindsay told the Sunday Mail.
Fotiou for the moment has been able to put an orderly gloss on the events by insisting that there is no dilemma and that such a move would be ‘natural’ because of historical ties between the countries.
“Russia supports Cyprus and our close relationship will not only continue, but also to deepen. Facilities in our ports will be given to the Russians just as they are given in other countries. It is the same as the United States, which uses such port facilities in European countries such as France and Germany and in Israel,” Fotiou said.
The prospect of a Russian base on EU soil has indeed raised eyebrows in Brussels, with Nicosia having already been suspected of allowing itself to be used as a transit point for Russian arms shipments to the Assad regime. Last year, a Russian-operated arms ship reached Syria after stopping in Limassol, in violation of an EU arms embargo.
“Whatever the underlying reasons, it is certain that many in the EU will feel deeply uncomfortable about the thought of closer defence and security ties between Cyprus and Russia,” says James Ker-Lindsay.
“Another obvious question is whether closer defence co-operation with Russia could in some way be linked to the energy issue? Turkey has even making a lot of threatening noises recently. Many will wonder if this is an attempt by Nicosia to try to lessen the danger of any military action by Ankara against Cyprus.”
On Monday, Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides told Russian State Radio that Nicosia and Moscow would discuss the specifics soon, adding that the possibility of military cooperation agreements could be signed within the coming months.
“This is certainly connected to Tartus,” Margarete Klein of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
“Even if the Russian government assumes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will retain power, it could change in the future.”
Since the start of the Syrian conflict, Russian warships have made a point of calling regularly at Limassol port. Last week three warships docked, and Fotiou paid a much publicised personal visit to the destroyer Admiral Panteleyev in May.
With the situation in Syria becoming increasingly fragile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has described the Mediterranean as a “strategic region” in which Russia has its own interests. Last month he also announced the restoration of a permanent presence for the Russian fleet in the region, although the actual location of their base is yet to be announced.
Pravda reports that the Russian Mediterranean naval task force is expected to include about 10 ships taken from the North, Baltic and Black Sea fleets on a rotational basis.
The Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu is expected to visit Cyprus soon for more talks with Fotiou. In their last face-to-face meeting in May, the two men agreed to ‘update’ a Defence Cooperation Agreement and sign another agreement to facilitate Russian citizens in the case of emergency evacuation from Syria.