European governments are facing the prospect of a Russian beachhead in the Mediterranean after Cyprus confirmed they have agreed a deal to allow the Russian navy access to Cypriot ports, in the latest agreement struck between the two countries.
Initial reports of a similar deal earlier this month prompted concern among Western experts, as the small island nation is currently home to a British Royal Air Force base which has become crucial in refuelling allied jets participating in air strikes against ISIS.
Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades told press then, that the two countries would sign off on as many as 10 joint projects, but reiterated Russian troops would not be stationed on Cyprus.
Speaking in Moscow today, Anastasiades played down the decision of giving the Russian military access to marine facilities in the EU member state, by claiming that the agreement was simply an “update” of an existing deal between the two sides.
The Cypriot leader also stressed the ports would only be used for “humanitarian purposes”.
“In the updated agreement we have specified the right of Russian military ships to dock in Cypriot ports,” Anastasiades told Russian state news agency Itar-Tass. “This right presupposes entry into ports with humanitarian purposes - to supply and refuelling ships and also for the purposes of saving lives in the possible evacuation of Russian citizens in neighbouring countries.”
Anastasiades did not mention specifically which of the Mediterranean island-nation’s neighbours would require Cyprus’s help to evacuate its citizens.
Despite Anastasiades’s insistence that Russian president Vladimir Putin “has set no conditions” and “made no demands” from Cyprus, European and Western experts have blasted the agreement as a political one.
According to general Chuck Wald, deputy former-U.S. Air Force commander and deputy commander of United States European Command, this new agreement “may seem innocuous... but for Putin it is another piece of the puzzle”.
“It is like what he does in Ukraine. He dictates his own foreign policy and he does these things in a non-splashy way. It is part of his wider scheme that seems innocuous and piecemeal, but he has a lot of patience and nobody is stopping him.”
“It is all part of the bigger picture of regaining the old spheres of influence,” Wald says.
According to Wald the argument that the arrangement between the Russian Navy and Cyprus is for humanitarian purposes does not stand up, having used the same explanation for interfering in the Ukrainian conflict.
“Putin keeps pounding on the word ‘humanitarian’ and that ‘it is all right, because it is humanitarian’ until it becomes subliminal. In the West we all keep with the law and we keep with the facts. Putin has taken advantage of the fact that he doesn’t care what he says.”
“How cynical is it to call what is happening in Ukraine humanitarian protection of Russians in Eastern Ukraine or in Crimea? He has an information campaign that is pretty effective and he can always fall back on the humanitarian aspect,” Wald says.
“This allows Putin to regain access to a Mediterranean port and it also gives him an intelligence presence too because they can observe what the Brits are doing,” Wald adds, in reference to the RAF Akrotiri base on the island.
Former British army officer major general Jonathan Shaw who served in Bosnia, Kosovo, the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan has also been alarmed by the agreement, calling it “deeply worrying”.
“Yes, this rang alarm bells with me too,” Shaw says. “You can see that the Russians are trying to divide and rule in the EU, to weaken the EU’s resolve over sanctions and opposition to Russia’s Ukraine adventures.”
The UK’s RAF base near Akrotiri is key in UK missions to the Middle East as it offers a refuelling stop for jets performing air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
“Intelligence might be our biggest vulnerability,” Shaw says. “The mafia are all over the island anyway, so Russian ships and buildings on the island would make this worse.”
When asked about the agreement, the EU’s Institute for Security Studies said the EU does not comment on individual decisions of its member states.