By Jean Christou
PRESIDENT Nicos Anastasiades on Friday said Cyprus and Russia would continue to cooperate without paying any heed to international reaction to the agreements struck with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
One of the agreements, formalising the use of Cypriot ports by Russian navy ships for anti-terrorism and humanitarian reasons, has caused particular consternation abroad, especially in Britain, which maintains two military bases on the island.
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had strong words for Cyprus on Friday, according to a report from the Cyprus News Agency. It cited FCO sources in London as saying that although the agreement was a matter for Cyprus, when set in the context of the West’s stance on Russia over Ukraine, the move was a cause for concern.
The FCO source said London believed the European Union position on Russia’s actions in Ukraine were clear. “We acknowledge the unity which Cyprus has demonstrated with the EU on this,” said the official.
“In light of the current problems it is not the time to extend a hand of friendship to Russia until it shows willingness to fulfill the Minsk agreement,” he added, referring to the agreement signed in the Belarus capital aimed at a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.
The official reiterated that the British government insisted on Russia demonstrating its commitment to the deal “before we start normalising relations.”
An FCO spokesman said later on Friday that EU unity in the face of Russian aggression was important.
“We have been clear that as long as Russia continues to illegally destabilise a neighbour, it cannot be business as usual. That is why the UK has pushed for tough sanctions and they are working. Now is not the time to ease the pressure on Moscow. We and our EU partners have been clear that there needs to be actions not just words”.
But Anastasiades, who has felt let down by the West’s failure to come out strongly enough against Turkey’s violation of the island’s exclusive economic zone, on Thursday said “many of the friends” showing intense concern for other countries, had remained silent on Turkey’s violations, adopting a policy of double standards.
He said although he recognised the concerns of some countries over his Russia visit, Putin had not asked “for the slightest thing that would put us in a difficult position with our partners, or our partners across the Atlantic”.
On Friday, the last day of his visit, and following a meeting with the Vice-Governor of St Petersburg, Alexander Govorunov, Anastasiades repeated that the agreements signed with Russia on Wednesday were “not directed against anybody”.
“On the contrary, we seek through the strengthening of relations, through the deepening, and even the expansion of our historic and long-standing relations, to create conditions that will allow many areas to have peace and stability,” he said.
However, he added: “We [Russia and Cyprus] will cooperate without paying attention to who is reacting or who may have concerns”. Anastasiades is due back in Cyprus today Saturday.
International media also hyped up the concerns. A least two foreign publications used terms such as ‘Russian military foothold’ and ‘Russian beachhead’ to describe the deal, while some British MPs said they were disappointed.
Tory MP Richard Ottaway, chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee told the Daily Mail the agreement with Cyprus “is going to make renewing sanctions against Russia … much more unlikely.
“Putin is trying to drive a wedge between countries in the EU,” he said.
The paper, which described Russia as having ‘gained a military foothold in Europe’, also quoted a senior British Army officer. “This will be watched closely by London. We know Russia has long coveted a naval base in Cyprus.
This is another sign we are creeping back into a new Cold War,” he was quoted as saying.
Newsweek online said: “European governments are facing the prospect of a Russian beachhead in the Mediterranean” after the Cyprus-Russia deal.
It quoted General Chuck Wald, deputy former-US Air Force commander and deputy commander of United States European Command, as saying the new agreement “may seem innocuous… but for Putin it is another piece of the puzzle”.
“It is like what he does in Ukraine. He dictates his own foreign policy and he does these things in a non-splashy way. It is part of his wider scheme that seems innocuous and piecemeal, but he has a lot of patience and nobody is stopping him. “It is all part of the bigger picture of regaining the old spheres of influence,” Wald said.
He said that statements by both Cypriot and Russian leaders that the agreement was designed only for cooperation on anti-terrorism and on humanitarian activities did not stand up to scrutiny as Putin had used the same “explanation” for interfering in the Ukrainian conflict.
“Putin keeps pounding on the word ‘humanitarian’ and that ‘it is all right, because it is humanitarian’ until it becomes subliminal.” The deal with Cyprus, he said, “allows Putin to regain access to a Mediterranean port and it also gives him an intelligence presence too because they can observe what the Brits are doing,” he added, referring to the RAF base at Akrotiri.
Newsweek also quoted a former British army officer, major general Jonathan Shaw, as saying he was alarmed and found the agreement “deeply worrying”.
“Yes, this rang alarm bells with me too,” Shaw says. “You can see that the Russians are trying to divide and rule in the EU, to weaken the EU’s resolve over sanctions and opposition to Russia’s Ukraine adventures.”
“Intelligence might be our biggest vulnerability,” he added. “The mafia are all over the island anyway, so Russian ships and buildings on the island would make this worse.”
CNBC Standard Bank emerging markets analyst Timothy Ash warned that Cyprus’ “renewed cosy relationship with Russia” could be a “dangerous” and “irritating” card to play with Europe and the US.
“I think the message to Washington DC and Berlin from Putin is clear, we have allies in the heart of the EU, and that we can use these relationships at will to counter any actions you may like to take with respect to Ukraine,” Ash said. He said Russia was using its close ties with Cyprus as a bargaining chip with the international community. “The message will be ‘try more sanctions iterations at your peril, as you might see European unity torn apart as we will play the Hungarian, Cypriot and Greek cards at our pleasure’,” he said.
“For Cyprus, this might prove to be a dangerous card to play. This will irritate the US no end, and might see a less supportive US approach over the future of northern Cyprus,” Ash added.