Is Russia Flexing its Muscles in the Mediterranean?

The past two years have seen a steady rise in Russia’s willingness to deploy its navy into the Mediterranean. Since returning to the presidency, Russian president Vladimir Putin has stressed the importance of a greater presence in the Mediterranean, which he considers to be “a strategically important region.” In addition to the Kremlin announcing a permanent naval deployment in the area, the Russians are now adding to the escalation with their request for a military base in Cyprus. Earlier reports of Moscow’s growing interest in Cyprus for military purposes appeared in July 2012, following a meeting of the then Cypriot Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, however, vehemently denied any possibility of a permanent Russian naval presence in Cyprus, saying: “There is no way that is going to happen.” But more recent reports suggest that Russia has indeed appealed to the Cypriot government for permission to use the Andreas Papandreous Air Base at Paphos, as well as to set up a naval base at the port of Limassol. With the unstable situation in Syria rendering the future of Russia’s naval base in Tartus uncertain, it is hardly surprising that Russia is looking for other opportunities to maintain its foothold in the region.

Image courtesy of Russia - Vladivostok, © 2007, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Russia – Vladivostok, © 2007, some rights reserved.

Russia and Cyprus have close ties both politically and economically. Citing the political closeness between Moscow and Nicosia, Cypriot Defense Minister Fotis Fotiu said: “Russia supports Cyprus and our close relationship will not only continue, but also deepen,” and that “Russia remains a long-standing supporter of our positions on the national issue,” referring to Russia’s strong support at the UN for the Cypriot position on the Turkish-occupied north of Cyprus. In addition, Cyprus has for decades been a favourite place for Russian businessmen to place money and a top destination for money laundering. Last year, Moscow provided Nicosia with a $3.3 billion loan, and the Cypriot government is currently waiting for Moscow to agree to the extending of the repayment period and the lowering of the interest rate. However, Mr. Fotiu denied that there was a connection between the economic links that Moscow and Nicosia share and a possible Russian military deployment in Cyprus, insisting on “no exchange principle.” But even if he is correct, the Cypriot government clearly is not in the strongest position to turn down Moscow’s request.

According to Russia’s ambassador to Cyprus, Moscow has not raised the issue of a permanent base in Cyprus. Such a request would most likely upset a number of parties including the EU, the US, and Turkey, and could potentially prevent Cyprus from joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace. What is being negotiated instead is an agreement that would allow Russia to use the bases for military purposes without seeking prior permission from the Cypriot government. Yet, the prospect of a Russian base on EU soil has raised raised eyebrows in Brussels, especially after Cyprus has been suspected of allowing itself to be used as a transit point for Russian arms shipment to the Assad regime. Cyprus thus appears to be stuck between a rock and a hard place, as the Americans made it clear that they “strongly disagree” and “would see a positive response from Nicosia in a negative light.” Cyprus finds itself in the middle of a conflict that is most likely going to upset its relations with one of the two sides.

For Cyprus, the potential benefits of the negotiated agreement go beyond financial and economic aspects. Presence of the Russian forces might strengthen Cyprus’s notion of security, especially when it comes to tensions with the highly militarised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Moreover, the Russian Navy might serve as a stabilising factor in Nicosia’s disputes with Ankara over oil and natural gas discoveries in Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone (see our earlier report).

Whilst some commentators ascribe the request for a base in Cyprus to a broader Russian goal of projecting power beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union sphere and, ultimately, gaining control over the energy-rich waters of the Mediterranean Sea, experts on Russia are generally skeptical about such hypotheses. Dr. Allen C. Lynch, professor of Russian politics at the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia, sees the move as mostly symbolic: “Russia’s attempt to reestablish its presence in the Mediterranean is a matter of prestige and maintaining the plausibility that Russia remains a significant world power.” Russian journalist and analyst Alexander Golz shares a similar view of the situation: ”The task of the Mediterranean fleet will be to show its presence.”

During the Soviet period, between 30 and 60 naval vessels of the Soviet 5th Mediterranean squadron were tasked with keeping the US 6th Fleet at bay. In 1992, however, the Russian Mediterranean squadron was disbanded. The current plans bring its revival on a significantly smaller scale, as Russian newspaper Pravda recently reported that the Mediterranean naval task force is expected to include about ten ships taken from the North, Baltic, and Black Sea fleets on a rotational basis. In addition, Alexander Golz points out, however, points out that the Russian Navy lacks modern warships, and adds that “Russia only has one aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov stationed with the Northern Fleet.” Furthermore, Dr. Lynch believes that actual Russian capabilities to project military power further beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union are quite limited. “I would caution against applying a strategic neo-Cold War framework to this situation and ascribing overly ambitious geopolitical aims for Russia’s military beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union,” says Dr. Lynch, further adding that “the post-Soviet territory is where the intensity of Russia’s interests is highest, and where the superiority of Russian capabilities is most pronounced.”

Despite all indications that the Greek Cypriots are trying to walk a diplomatic tightrope, Dr. Lynch finds their approach logical: “It is in Cyprus’s interest to maximise its choices. Influence in politics and diplomacy, like influence in our personal and social lives, is generally the byproduct of how many choices we have compared to the choices others have and the choices that we perceive others have. That’s perfectly logical and that’s how a lot of the non-aligned countries acted during the Cold War, playing one off against the other.” In this sense, the small island in the Mediterranean Sea can now choose to play with those who will offer more. Mr. Fotiu, of course, assured local press that the government would take the “right” decision, “taking into account the country’s national interest.” The issue at stake is clearly of symbolic significance, but the EU and the US might once again find themselves playing against Russia’s economic power. As the recent events in Ukraine show, in this game, Russia often seems to have the upper hand.

Interview with Professor Allen C. Lynch was conducted exclusively for the Foreign Affairs Review. 

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