MUCH HAS been written in the Cyprus press recently about Russia’s request to use the Andreas Papandreou air base in Paphos. This was reportedly the subject of talks in Moscow between the defence ministers of the two countries last May but nothing has been finalised. However the growing uncertainty over the future of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and that of the Russian naval facility at Tartus, which has existed since the Cold War, has given rise to much speculation.
Nobody really knows what is being discussed between Nicosia and Moscow although Russia has been using Limassol port to refuel its warships for some time now. But why would it need the Paphos air-base? Defence minister Fotis Fotiou has said that additional facilities at Cyprus ports would be given to Russian ships, but nothing has been said about the air-base officially. However, a week ago, foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides added to the speculation by telling a Russian radio station that military co-operation agreements could be signed in the coming months.
While any new military agreement with Moscow would be guaranteed strong political and public support, as Russia has always been considered a reliable ally by Cyprus, it could undermine the government’s plans to bolster relations with NATO. On his election, President Anastasiades had declared that Cyprus would apply for membership of Partnership for Peace and maintain better relations with the West than had been the case under his predecessor. But bolstering military co-operation with Russia would be incompatible with seeking closer relations with the West and, ultimately, membership of NATO.
Then again, the government is in a very difficult position after the bailing in of Russian depositors. More importantly, it is still waiting for Moscow to agree to the extending of the repayment period and the lowering of the interest rate on the €2.5bn loan secured by the previous government; several more months would be needed before the new terms were finalised, Moscow has said. Fotiou assured there was no connection between the two issues, insisting there was “no exchange principle”. But even if there is not, Nicosia would not be in a very strong position when discussing military co-operation.
All indications are that the government would now try to walk a diplomatic tightrope, aware that its EU partners would not approve of it strengthening military co-operation with Russia, while recognising that it is no position to turn down Moscow’s requests for additional facilities. At least Fotiou has ruled out giving a permanent base to Russia, which is something.