One of the amendments to the US bipartisan bill on lifting the US arms embargo on Cyprus approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came as a bit of a surprise yesterday. Washington wants Cyprus to deny docking facilities to Russian military vessels for refuelling and servicing, a long-time arrangement between Nicosia and Moscow that was sealed in writing more than four years ago at the highest level.
The original US bill, the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019, which was always less about Cyprus and more about countering Russia’s influence in the region, had merely asked that the US administration submit to Congress a strategy on enhanced security and energy cooperation with countries in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as reports on “malign activities by Russia and other countries in the region”.
Washington it seems then decided to raise the stakes before sending the bill to the Senate for final approval and is now quite specific about what it wants. The impression now is that the US is asking Nicosia to pick a side.
After waiting all day, the government spokesman finally put out a brief written statement in the evening saying precisely nothing. He took the standard line that this all means US has clearly recognised “the importance assigned to our country, which reflects the upgraded relations between Cyprus and the USA”.
With regard to the facilities offered to Russia at the island’s ports, he fudged the issue stating only that Cyprus offers “humanitarian” assistance through these facilities. There was no indication of whether Cyprus had already withdrawn from the 2015 written agreement with Russia or whether it had taken steps to do so.
President Nicos Anastasiades took a firmer stance a few hours later, calling the amendment unfortunate and saying it affected the independence and sovereignty of the Republic.
Did the government not realise that the bill was not really about the arms embargo in the first place when it was lauding the initial draft as an upgrading of relations with the US these past months? Now it’s time to pay the piper, who has made his terms quite clear. There is also no guarantee the US Senate will be satisfied with the “humanitarian assistance” explanation when it comes to passing the bill.
In a small concession to Nicosia the bill does provide a third amendment that creates a separate chapter for Turkish violations of Cyprus’ EEZ and the obligation of the Secretaries of State and Defence to submit reports to Congress on this, which also means precisely nothing in a practical sense.
Cyprus has become caught up in the US-Russia struggle for influence in the region, stuck between two permanent members of the UN Security Council, both of whom it needs. Now it must decide which it needs more, or as one analyst put it, can Nicosia continue to play both sides as deftly as it has up until now?