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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

A Defining Period in the Russian-Cypriot Relationship

Article by: Eliott Philippe Alexis Le Gall

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science.

Sandy Beaches and Russian Money in the Eastern Mediterranean

Picture this: a Mediterranean island steeped in history, where azure waters gently caress sun-drenched shores and where the influences of the East and West intersect in a captivating cultural tapestry. Now, imagine cities where you can hear Greek, English, Turkish, Hebrew, Arabic and…Russian. Why Russian, you might ask? From the days of the Soviet Union to the present Russian Federation, Moscow has been a crucial player for and in Cyprus. As a result, it is difficult to walk around Cyprus’s capital of Nicosia without overhearing Russian. Despite decades of partnership, Cyprus is now turning its back on Russia. Thanks to a more convincing Europeanist discourse on the island and to Nicosia’s elites, Cyprus seems to have chosen its camp in the West, rather than the East, over the past two years.

From the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation: The Establishment of “Moscow on the Med”

While the two words “Soviet economy” do not seem to go hand in hand with the words “internationalised market economy”, finance has been the mainstay of the Russian-Cypriot relationship. For example, Cyprus’ Golden Visas programme functioned as a major magnet for oligarchs, while the island’s cost of living and its heliotropic effect attracted the Russian upper class. Major areas of cooperation opened, with even the military having been no exception. The Cypriot National Guard has been historically equipped with Soviet weaponry, but the signing of a military cooperation agreement in 2015 underscored a new era of the relationship. It was one year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea when this agreement granted Russian warships, then engaged in the Syrian civil war, a right of call in Cypriot ports.

February 24th 2022: A Turning Point for the Cypriot Authorities

The annexation of Crimea and the onset of the war in the Donbass did not destabilise the Russian-Cypriot relationship; in fact, one could get quite the opposite impression when Cyprus blocked sanctions against Russia. Nonetheless, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine eight years later was viewed by Nicosia as a reminder of its own past: Turkey’s Operation Attila. In the summer of 1974, this operation led to the forced displacement of 170,000 Greek Cypriots from the north to the south of the island, and 50,000 Turkish Cypriots in the opposite direction. Considered the most profound wound in Cypriot populace history, this memory shapes and can help explain Cyprus’ current position. The Cypriot authorities now associate Russia with war and destruction, such as Turkey in 1974. The former ally is now seen as an aggressor in order for the island nation to be, in the words of Cypriot President Christodoulides, on the “right side of history.”

The Caucasian Nation East of Turkey

Cyprus was the first European nation to officially recognise the Armenian genocide in April 1975. As a contemporary illustration of this solidarity, a member of the Armenian community holds a seat in the Cypriot House of Representatives, symbolising the shared values and historical ties between these two nations. Moreover, in the military sphere, an Armenia-Greece, Armenia-Cyprus and Armenia-Greece-Cyprus cooperation programme was signed in December 2023 in Armenia’s capital Yerevan to formalise existing exercises. In this context, the collapse of the Russian security guarantee for the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023, as well as the departure of Russian military units from the region in April 2024, were seen in Cyprus as further arguments for diverting relations with Moscow.

Russian Influence: Weakened But Alive

Despite Cyprus’s clear political stance towards Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, Cyprus did not become impervious to Russian influence overnight. The investigative report “Cyprus Confidential” in November 2023 showed that the island remained an active deployment ground for networks close to Russian power. The research highlighted the use of the Cypriot financial system by Russian oligarchs to circumvent European sanctions. In addition to these mechanisms, the large Russian diaspora (120,000 Russians live in Cyprus, according to the Russian embassy) plays a significant role in importing and propagating Kremlin ideology throughout the island. Narratives are also disseminated through the Orthodox Church, as the island’s first Russian church played a key role in relaying propaganda, providing a further proxy for influence.

The United States: Emergence of a New Stakeholder

With Russia’s influence fading, other powers are now trying to establish their authority; first and foremost the United States. Washington is aware of the island’s strategic location. But unlike the United Kingdom, it does not have sovereign bases in Cyprus. Yet this has not prevented the US from increasing its military presence, with a growing number of US naval ships ports of call and a significant increase in joint exercises, mainly in the naval and special forces fields. In 2020, the lifting of the US arms embargo on Cyprus that was in effect since 1987 opened up prospects for the American defence apparatus. The US Congress acknowledged that this policy change was all the more crucial for the US at a time of war between Israel and Hamas, with the Republic of Cyprus situated only 250km (about 155mi) from Israel and being a strategic hub in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Cyprus Faces the Crossroads of its History

Amidst the shifts and recalibrations in the Russian-Cypriot relationship over the years, the period spanning from 2022 to 2024 emerged as a defining chapter. Cyprus made a U-turn on Russia and a new chapter is beginning. But it will not erase an age-old tradition of the Mediterranean island: its attractive location. Coveted by Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Genoese, Venetians, Ottomans, and Brits, the thousand-year-old attraction of the island of Aphrodite remains a compelling destination for outside powers to this day.

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