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Our View: US arms bill all part of president’s risky game

FILE PHOTO: A view shows a new S-400 "Triumph" surface-to-air missile system after its deployment at a military base outside the town of Gvardeysk near Kaliningrad, Russia March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Vitaly Nevar/File Photo

HOW paradoxical that as most opposition parties raved about the submission of the bill to Congress proposing the lifting of the US arms embargo on Cyprus, the government remained circumspect about it. It was, after all, the Anastasiades government that has worked on strengthening relations with the US in recent years, and could have claimed some credit for the bill titled “The Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership act of 2019”.  Apart from lifting the arms embargo, the bill envisages the establishment of a US -Eastern Mediterranean Energy Centre “to facilitate energy co-operation between US, Israel, Greece and Cyprus”.

President Anastasiades’ trilateral diplomacy was apparently bearing fruit, but the government was not too keen to make anything of it publicly, even though the two senators who co-authored the bi-partisan bill – Democrat Robert Menendez and Republican Marco Rubio – said it would “allow the US to fully support the trilateral partnership of Israel, Greece and Cyprus through energy and defence cooperation initiatives.” In the end, it was left to Disy leader Averof Neophytou, who has always argued in favour of closer relations with the West, to publicly praise the bill as of “great political importance” and claim that good relations with the US Senate could lead to a solution of the Cyprus problem.

Diko, in contrast, saw the bill as “an extremely significant and positive development that would contribute to the upgrading of the geostrategic importance of Cyprus”. It “proved the Cyprus Republic had comparative advantages and by exploiting them could acquire its role in the region and strengthen its struggle for vindication”. The Solidarity Party spoke about purchasing US weaponry, a possibility ruled out by Neophytou and foreign minister Nicos Christodoulides who said the lifting of the arms embargo was of “symbolic significance” and was “within the framework of the new approach of the US toward the Cyprus Republic”.

From the communications standpoint, the government was correct in playing down the Menendez-Rubio bill because even though it was bipartisan it was not initiated by the US administration. It was, as Christdoulides said, of “symbolic significance”, even though it was another illustration of the Anastasiades government’s ongoing efforts to strengthen its relations with the US, after decades of anti-US rhetoric and pandering to Russia (and especially the Soviet Union) by previous governments. In his first term, President Anastasiades continued the policy of close relations with the Russian Federation, but since his re-election there has been a noticeable shift towards the US, exemplified by the rigorous enforcement of US sanctions against Russian individuals and bowing to US pressure for the closing of Russian accounts in Cyprus banks. Tens of thousands have been closed down in the last year.

Several factors have influenced this shift, the most important being the involvement of the US oil giant ExxonMobil in the Cypriot EEZ. This involvement, combined with the strengthening of cooperation with the US, the government estimates will allow its energy plans to proceed without any interference from Turkey. Close cooperation with Israel – America’s ally in the region – on energy also supports this political calculation. And now, with US-Turkey relations souring over the supply of the S400 missiles and Moscow and Ankara boosting their ties, the Cyprus government is hoping it will come under the protection of the US, free to pursue its ambitious energy plans undisturbed.

It is a risky game, because in all this alliance-building Cyprus remains the weakest link. It would be the first to be sacrificed if things go wrong or there is a sudden change of priorities among the big players. There is much more at stake in the eastern Mediterranean than Cyprus’ energy plans, with the US, Russia, Israel, Syria, Turkey and Iran all looking to take the upper hand and nobody able to foresee what the consequences will be. It also seems rather simplistic – and certainly ignores history – to believe the US would allow Nato-member Turkey to leave its sphere of influence and align itself with Russia over the dispute about the missiles. Relations between the US and Turkey will eventually be patched up, despite the current grandstanding and hostile rhetoric. As for Russia, its foreign ministry has already issued warnings and thinly veiled threats about Cyprus’ alleged militarisation for the benefit of the US.

Our government is deluding itself if it believes it could influence the situation in the region to Cyprus’ advantage, when much bigger interests are at stake. It is also making an error in thinking that by tying itself to the US chariot, the need to settle the Cyprus problem would cease to exist, which is the impression given by Anastasiades’ hardening stance in relation to resuming the talks. By all means it should continue to pursue its newly discovered Western orientation, but not because it believes this can free it from the need to reach a compromise on the Cyprus problem. None of our new allies would come to our rescue if in a few months or years, Turkey decided to adopt a more aggressive stance towards us.

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