By Angelos Anastasiou
THE object of the 1997-8 ‘Cyprus Missile Crisis’ – the S-300 missiles purchased from Russia by Cyprus but redirected to Crete following a barrage of threats, counter-reactions and finally an agreement shrouded in mystery – were successfully tested on Friday at the site near Chania, Crete, where they were installed.
This was the first test of the missile system conducted by a NATO member. Part of a military exercise of the Greek armed forces, code-named ‘White Eagle 2013’, the test was attended by Greek Defence Minister Demetris Avramopoulos and his Cypriot counterpart Fotis Fotiou.
The missiles wound up in Crete as an Athens-brokered compromise with then-President of the Republic of Cyprus, the late Glafcos Clerides, designed to neutralise Turkish threats for military retaliation should the missiles be deployed in Cyprus. In return, Greece reportedly supplied Cyprus with short-range TOR-M1 missiles and other undisclosed military assets.
In January 1997, Cyprus announced the purchase of the Russian missile system S-300 for an undisclosed amount, with subsequent estimates ranging from €200 to €300 million. Less than a week later came a warning for pre-emptive military action by Turkey.
Cyprus, arguing that the S-300 missiles were a defensive asset, insisted on proceeding with the purchase and went ahead with building the necessary on-the-ground infrastructure to install the missiles (and the accompanying radar system) once delivered. Russia repeatedly and despite Turkish objections maintained that the sale would proceed as normal, going as far as leaking plans to escort the transport vessel with a convoy that would include an aircraft carrier, ostensibly to protect against Turkish aggression.
The missile crisis was a central theme in the run-up to the 1998 Cyprus presidential elections, with Clerides’ campaign arguing that he was the one who purchased the missiles and continued to stand strong against Turkish threats, and that his main opponent for the Presidency Giorgos Iacovou would cave in to pressure to cancel the purchase. Clerides won a narrow second-round re-election.
In November 1998, in a meeting between Clerides and Greece’s then Prime Minister Costas Simitis, it was agreed that the missiles would be transferred to Crete, with Cyprus receiving shorter-range missiles and other military equipment.