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Associate Professor of International Relations (ret.), University of Cyprus, RIAC Expert
Analysts, opinion-makers and civil society in the Republic of Cyprus have been haunted by the spectre of a Russian "betrayal" for some time. But after "Operation Peace Spring", the latest Vladimir Putin — Tayyip Erdogan Sochi agreement, and Ankara's unprecedented chauvinist explosion that is inciting the entire Turkish population, their anxiety has intensified. Predictions of a dramatic extension of Erdogan's neo-Ottoman ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea are premised on Ankara's daily "verbal actions" offending Hellenism; Erdogan's appeals to the "Borders of his heart" that coincide with neo-Ottoman visions; the crude hybrid warfare conducted daily against Cyprus and Greece; and Turkey's persistent military provocations in the aforementioned regions, including constant violations of Greek FIR and airspace and the blatant violation of the International Law of the Sea by the protracted invasion in Cyprus' Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Because of this reasoning, moreover, it is tempting to envisage an admirable Russian initiative. Instead of the current quasi-indifference towards Cyprus' "existential" anxieties, Moscow could effectively mediate so that Erdogan's Ankara should terminate its illegal and unethical aggressiveness against the Republic, a behaviour that is being condemned and punished by the international community. Given that Denmark has just cleared a "major hurdle for Russia's Nord Stream 2" gas pipeline, If only Russia decides to persuade Turkey's leader to accept the application of the universally respected principles and norms of International Law, this would usher in the Eastern Mediterranean an authentic "Peace Spring", to be capitalized, besides Cyprus, by such partners of Russia as Greece, Israel and Egypt, with manifold implications for Moscow's own strategic interests. Manifestly, such initiative will also gain for Moscow enormous international prestige and global admiration for Vladimir Putin. Considering that Erdogan depends on Moscow far more than Russia on Turkey; and that he is (except for Russia) totally isolated, this proposal for the resolution of an “insane” and one-sided conflict cannot be "utopian": instead, it is as "pragmatic idealist" as Moscow's Cyprus policies have been since the 1950s.
Analysts, opinion-makers and civil society in the Republic of Cyprus have been haunted by the spectre of a Russian "betrayal" for some time. But after “Operation Peace Spring”, the latest Vladimir Putin-Tayyip Erdogan Sochi agreement, and Ankara’s unprecedented chauvinist explosion that is inciting the entire Turkish population, their anxiety has intensified. Predictions of a dramatic extension of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea are premised on Ankara’s daily “verbal actions” offending Hellenism; Erdogan’s appeals to the “Borders of his heart” that coincide with neo-Ottoman visions; the crude hybrid warfare conducted daily against Cyprus and Greece; and Turkey’s persistent military provocations in the aforementioned regions, including constant violations of Greek FIR and airspace and the blatant violation of the International Law of the Sea by the protracted invasion in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Contradictory Perceptions of Current Russia-Cyprus Relations
Clearly, the question of a potential “betrayal” by Russia would not arise were it not for the traditionally established “special relationship” between Moscow and Cyprus since the 1950s. Premised on both “pragmatic” (i.e. geopolitical, geostrategic and economic) interests but also such “idealist” dimensions as international legal principles, ethical values, and historical-cultural bonds, the special relationship has included Moscow’s sustained protection of Cypriot interests and needs vis-à-vis the UK and the USA but also Turkey. Writing about these relations for years, I always tended to conclude that the Russia-(-Hellenism)-Cyprus set of relations has been so entrenched that even if the Moscow-Ankara bonding were to expand, the former set of relations could well co-habit with the latter .
Presently, however, Russia-Turkey cooperation has reached such levels that the nature of the Russia-Cyprus-Turkey triangle has become labyrinthine. Thus, whereas in previous years the Cypriots could expect and receive Moscow’s effective support and protection from hostile actors, these days they have not received what they are used to expect. In short, while being deeply disappointed by the political Theatre of the Absurd enacted currently in Washington and affecting Cyprus’ interests, the Greek Cypriots fear that the Russian Federation’s present embrace with Turkey may result in eventual indifference to Turkey’s anti-Hellenic provocations negating thereby the “special nature” of Russia-Cyprus relations.
In contrast to the pessimism implied by the anxious perceptions in the Republic of Cyprus, I will try to show that the relations between Nicosia and Moscow, and between Russians and Greek Cypriots, are so deep-rooted that a Russian “betrayal” of Cyprus is all but inconceivable.
A Bird’s-eye View of Moscow-Cyprus Relations
To substantiate these theses, we may begin by recollecting telling moments in Moscow-Nicosia relations that manifest, among other things, how the former extended diplomatic support and political protection to the latter based on the original values and norms of the United Nations. Thus, Moscow, besides supporting the Cyprus-related UN resolutions, took crucial initiatives that regularly defended Nicosia from the frequently hostile intentions and toxic actions of Ankara, Washington and London. Also, countless concrete developments entailed the cultivation of mutual interests and bilateral bonds. Unfortunately, these developments are not widely-known, being obscured by the passage of time and the Russo-phobia propagated by the well-known circles.
Let us recall, then, Moscow’s support for Greece’s campaign to achieve the self-determination of the Cypriots at the United Nations in the early 1950s; Moscow’s decisive protection of the newly-born Republic of Cyprus through Security Council Resolution 186 of 1964; Nikita Khruschev’s powerful warnings against Ankara’s threatened invasion of Cyprus in summer 1964; the Soviet willingness since the start of independence to provide Nicosia military hardware to confront the Turkish threats; diachronic denunciation of all proposals to partition the Island in opposition to Ankara's designs and desires; persistent calls for an international conference towards settling the Cyprus problem according to International Law; unequivocal condemnation of the 1983 unilateral declaration of independence by the secessionist regime created after Turkey's 1974 double invasion; the signing of over 50 Treaties, Protocols and Memoranda of Understanding on various forms of cooperation between Moscow and the Republic since the 1980s and up to today.
More recent tangible proofs of Russian caring for Cypriot interests and needs have included Moscow’s readiness to sell the S-300 missile system and even dispatch naval units to protect the delivery of the missiles ; The April 2004 Russian veto at the Security Council against the UN Secretariat's unethical designs before the referenda regarding the notorious "Annan plan"; the Russian Foreign Ministry's consistent readiness to declare friendship and support whenever Cyprus needed; Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s persistent declarations regarding the special relationship, as based on mutual interests and shared principles and values; Dmitry Medvedev's assurances to the Cypriots, during his 2010 presidential Nicosia visit, that Moscow’s established Cyprus policy will remain steadfast; and strong official Russian Statements in late 2011 clearly supporting Nicosia’s right to explore its EEZ for hydrocarbons, when Turkey had embarked on an earlier round of “gunboat diplomacy”.
President Vladimir Putin’s major recent decisions regarding Cyprus include his backing up Nicosia with a valuable loan of 2.5 billion euros, when the Cypriot economy in 2011 desperately needed it; the 2013 agreement to improve the terms of the loan at considerable benefit to Cyprus and analogous cost to the Russian Federation; his explicit assurances in October 2014 to President Nicos Anastasiades that Moscow condemned Turkey’s illegal provocations in Cyprus’ EEZ and extended its support to the Republic; and renewed multidimensional Russian support to Cyprus, contained in 11 significant agreements signed by the two Presidents during Anastasiades’ 24-27 February 2015 official Moscow visit.
Simultaneously, Nicosia regularly backed Moscow’s positions on various international affairs, to the point of being accused in Brussels of being Russia’s Trojan horse! In addition, one could not miss the constant exchange of enthusiastic verbal actions by the two countries’ statesmen and officials to the effect that their relations are “excellent”, because based on shared interests and “mutual sympathy”. Characteristic have been such statements by all Russian Ambassadors to Cyprus, as recorded throughout my recent book on Russia-Cyprus Relations . But Sergey Lavrov's pronouncements have been mainly distinguished by "pragmatic idealist” formulations. For instance, on the 50th anniversary of the Cyprus-Russia Friendship Association meeting in Nicosia, in November 2011, FM Lavrov’s message read: “Russia is interested in close and fruitful cooperation with Cyprus based on sincere friendship, mutual sympathy and common interests” .
And early in 2019, after his Moscow meeting with Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides, Mr Lavrov expressed the very same spirit.
“Cyprus is Russia's important and long-time partner. Our cooperation hinges on long-standing bonds of friendship and mutual sympathy, the spiritual and cultural affinity of our nations. It serves to enhance security and stability in the East Mediterranean region and on the entire European continent. "
Hoping that such evidence suffices to substantiate the “special” status of traditional Russia-Cyprus relations, and before turning to clarify the current ambiguities near the end of 2019, I will revisit more laconically the “Russian-Cypriot Mutual Benefits” that were previously discussed in my May 2019 RIAC essay .
Principal Benefits of Russia-Cyprus Relations
Victimized by the 1974 Turkish invasion and the ongoing illegal occupation of 37 per cent of Cyprus, the Republic's primary benefit has been the sustained sense of political security and diplomatic solidarity that Moscow has provided at the Security Council and bilaterally. Until very recently, Moscow’s verbal and non-verbal actions had rendered Russia the large counterweight to the machinations of London, Washington and Ankara. Second, Cypriot gratitude has mainly resulted from Russia’s defence of the legality of the Republic, contradicting thereby, among other things, Ankara's cynical Realpolitik and crude belligerence . Being an indirect but consistent reminder of Cyprus’ traumatized sovereignty and territorial integrity, Moscow has been Cyprus’ most powerful defender, as against hypocritical Western “creative Cyprus initiatives” aiming essentially at exculpating Turkey. Third, the most palpable “pragmatic benefits” include Russia’s readiness mentioned above to support the Republic's defence, besides strengthening Cyprus' economic platform through serious banking and real estate investments. Fourth, Russian tourists to Cyprus, being second only to the British, have been demonstrating psychological solidarity and cultural and religious affinity, besides being a substantial source of income. Fifth, Cypriot society has been enormously enriched by the active presence of over 50.000 Russians who love Cyprus and consider it their home. And sixth, Cypriots have experienced sincere Russian sympathy and authentic friendship that have strengthened inter-personal relations and increased bilateral political bonding.
Moscow, in turn, could treasure the multiple associations with a grateful and faithful friend and “natural ally” (Dr Nadia Arbatova’s term), enjoying Cyprus’ pro-Russia voice in international fora and primarily in Brussels. Second, Cyprus has been a top channel for massive investments in the Russian Federation. Third, Russian investors not only acquired a strong foothold in Cypriot real estate, banking, and other services but also expanded via Cyprus Russia’s economic presence within the European Union. Fourth, Cyprus became a safe, attractive and exciting tourist destination, for both general and "spiritual" Russian tourism. The relevant figures are quite impressive when we compare the 148.740 Russian arrivals of 2009 to the 334.083 in 2011 and then to the 781.634 in 2016 and 824.494 in 2018. Fifth, Russia’s traditional “pragmatic idealist” treatment of Cyprus has been premised on International Law principles and norms and International Ethical values, strengthening thereby Russia’s “soft power” and international prestige especially needed in Russo-phobic times. Finally, over 50.000 Russian residents describe their life here in glowing colours. As the Editor of Russian weekly, Vestnik Kipra, Ms Natalia Kardash, has put it .
“Cypriots like Russians. Russian people feel very comfortable here. There are many countries with good weather and similar business conditions. But Cyprus –I know it for sure- is the best country in Europe if you take into consideration how people treat Russians here. Many people say that in Cyprus they feel that they live a full life, they learn to enjoy every day.”
Given the above, Russian popularity among Greek Cypriots has been very high - in contrast to the Turkish Cypriots’ views of Russia -  while all "Centrist" political parties, the "communist" AKEL (given the momentum begun during the Soviet period), and leading opinion-makers in the Nicosia media have been supporting most theses of the present essay .
Confronting the Present Labyrinth
Operation Towards Eastern Syria: Repercussions on Turkey — Russia Relations
The merely “material embrace” between Russia and Turkey of the previous decade was confined to “low politics” –such as trade, tourism, and construction. By now, however, their manifold cooperation is exceeding Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 missile system, the Russia-Turkey agreement to build the Akkuyu nuclear plant (close to Cyprus’ shores), and the discussions about co-producing military hardware. The "green light" to Erdogan to invade northern Syria for the third time last month and the October 2019 Sochi agreement demonstrate that the embrace has become, at least currently, “strategic”. Therefore, the implications for Cyprus and Greece are alarming, even before one considers Ankara's military threats and provocations vis-à-vis both countries.
Having covered Erdogan’s “Machiavellian rationality” in two previous essays , I will abstain here from detailing Ankara’s daily – literally – acts of anti-Hellenic intimidation, blackmail, hybrid warfare, frequently performed in genuine delirium. It should suffice to recall, first, that Erdogan’s repeated threat to “open Turkey’s gates so that millions of refugees go to Europe” entails the blatant victimization primarily of Cyprus and Greece; second, that by “Borders of his heart” Erdogan refers directly to his neo-Ottoman dreams that immediately engulf Cyprus and Greece; and third, that Defense Minister Hulusi Akar’s threats about, and maps of, the “Blue Homeland” that cover the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea are palpable military bullying against both countries. It is, therefore, rational to perceive Ankara’s three invasions of Syria, including the (essentially illegal) new “Safety Zone”, as verifying Erdogan’s uncontrolled geopolitical ambitions. Thus, it is a hopeful sign that the international community –from an intimidated European Union to hundreds of US Democratic and Republican Congressmen – has decided, at long last, to start condemning Erdogan's illegal and unethical policies by applying various costs and severe sanctions.
It follows not only that the Greek anxieties in both Cyprus and Greece are fully justified but also that, quite reasonably and rationally, many citizens of both countries do hope that Nicosia and Athens, while retaining their positive relations with the Russian Federation, will expand them and enrich them as their rhetoric frequently suggests .
By implication, equally justified seems the disappointment of Russophile Greeks, watching Moscow stand idly by while Ankara is performing its megalomaniacal behaviour in such illegal and unethical ways against Greece and Cyprus. This is especially so, because Russia’s traditional Cyprus policy, expressed in overwhelmingly consistent statements and actions, has been premised explicitly on the principles and values of International Ethics and the norms of International Law.
To be sure, the “Hellenic” point of view does not ignore that Moscow’s current bonding with Erdogan and Turkey springs from Russo-centric geopolitical and geo-economic calculations. They include the desire to upset US-Turkey relations, to attract Ankara away from its erstwhile NATO commitments, to protect its defence- and energy-related investments in Turkey, and the desire to negate, if possible, the Eastern Mediterranean energy designs associated -among other things- with Cyprus and Greece. Therefore, many Greek analysts and opinion-makers perceive Tayyip Erdogan as using Russia to serve his geopolitical ambitions, being simultaneously an instrument of Moscow's goals, as mentioned above. However, these same Greeks assume that the present Russia-Turkey affair will enjoy somewhat limited duration. The assumption is based on the long History of Russo-Turkish conflicts; their many serious current disagreements; Erdogan’s “idiosyncratic” personality; and the presumed absence of any Russian desire to see Turkey achieve its neo-Ottoman expansionist goals.
On the “Special” Nature of the Russia–Cyprus Relationship
Having thus addressed central aspects of current Russia-Cyprus-Turkey relations, I submit that my answer to this essay’s title is “No”. Russia could not “betray” or abandon Cyprus, first, because Russia’s outstanding statesman, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in his February 2019 statements, proved faithful to the traditional principles and values of the bilateral relationship: “bonds of friendship and mutual sympathy”, the “spiritual and cultural affinity” of the two nations, in tandem with the oft-quoted common interests and the implied values and norms of International Law. Second, because Russia knows that to “betray” Cyprus would contradict the long-established “excellent” relationship, endangering thereby its international credibility. Were Moscow to adopt such cynicism, it would risk “duplicating” Donald Trump's Washington that betrayed the Syrian Kurds crudely, despite their monumental human sacrifice of 11.000 persons in the fight against ISIS. Third of all, because the accumulated mutual benefits of their bilateral relations have been too manifold and too valuable to be sacrificed. Fourth, Russian policymakers will agree that their steadfast support for the Republic has entailed increased Russian prestige and strengthened soft power, mainly because Moscow’s policies have contradicted Washington’s and London’s notorious anti-Cypriot decisions and actions directly, and, until recently, Ankara’s aggressive actions and designs. Finally, Moscow could not “betray” Cyprus, because it cannot possibly disappoint, let alone endanger, the over 50.000 Russians living and thriving in the Republic, besides the hundreds of thousands of Russian tourists visiting Cyprus every year.
Because of this reasoning, moreover, it is tempting to envisage an admirable Russian initiative. Instead of the current quasi-indifference towards Cyprus’ “existential” anxieties, Moscow could effectively mediate so that Erdogan’s Ankara should terminate its illegal and unethical aggressiveness against the Republic, a behaviour that is being condemned and punished by the international community. Given that Denmark has just cleared a “major hurdle for Russia’s Nord Stream 2” gas pipeline, If only Russia decides to persuade Turkey’s leader to accept the application of the universally respected principles and norms of International Law, this would usher in the Eastern Mediterranean an authentic “Peace Spring”, to be capitalized, besides Cyprus, by such partners of Russia as Greece, Israel and Egypt, with manifold implications for Moscow’s own strategic interests. Manifestly, such initiative will also gain for Moscow enormous international prestige and global admiration for Vladimir Putin. Considering that Erdogan depends on Moscow far more than Russia on Turkey; and that he is (except for Russia) totally isolated, this proposal for the resolution of an “insane” and one-sided conflict cannot be “utopian”: instead, it is as “pragmatic idealist” as Moscow’s Cyprus policies have been since the 1950s.
1. See my four essays published by RIAC since June 2017.
2. See Costas Melakopides, Russia-Cyprus Relations: A Pragmatic Idealist Perspective (London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 77-78, for this “revelation” by former Defense Minister and former President of the Cypriot Parliament, Yannakis Omirou. In an article in Nicosia daily, Phileleftheros (October 29 2014), he wrote that, in July 1998, his then Russian counterpart, MoD Marshall Sergeef, expressed Moscow’s readiness “to send two frigates to the port of Limassol” whose anti-air systems would protect the S-300 from Turkey’s threats. The article ended as follows: “This was, and continues to be, Russia’s stance of support toward Cyprus. We must appreciate and honour this stance without resorting to a foreign policy that ignores the real friends, against our national interests” (emphases added).
3. See Russia-Cyprus Relations, esp. Chapter 6, for a host of such statements by Russian politicians and diplomats over the years.
4. “Russia Interested in Close Cooperation with Cyprus –Russian ForMin" ITAR-TASS News Agency, November 9, 2011, emphasis added.
5. See “Contradictory Perceptions of Current Russia-Cyprus Relations”, RIAC, May 13, 2019.
6. Turkey, alone in the world, refuses to recognize the Republic of Cyprus!
7. Natalia Kardash, "Russian Community in Cyprus: Advantages and Challenges", paper presented at the University of Nicosia, November 2 2010.
8. For some revealing Greek Cypriot opinion research, see my RIAC essay, "On the 'Special' Nature of the Russia-Cyprus Relationship", June 20 2017.
9. See Russia-Cyprus Relations, Ch.6, for rich details on the material of this paragraph.
10. Costas Melakopides, “Brief Remarks on President R. T. Erdogan’s and his Allies’ Methodical Use of Logical Fallacies”, RUDN Journal of Political Sciences, 2018, Vol. 20 No3, pp. 376-385, http//journals.rudn.ru/political-science; and my May 8 2018 RIAC essay.
11. To be sure, verbal assurances of Russian support both for the “UN-sponsored” resolution of the Cyprus problem as well as for Cyprus’ sovereign rights in its EEZ were renewed in mid-October 2019 during General Director of the Cypriot Foreign Ministry Ambassador Tasos Tzonis’ meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Alexander Grushko in Moscow. See Cyprus News Agency, “Full Russian support for the sovereign rights of the Republic of Cyprus in its sea zones during Tzionis’ discussions in Moscow”, October 15 2019. Needless to say, the Greeks hope for the translation of “verbal assurances” to useful actions.
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