Russia taking the temperature in Cyprus

Russia taking the temperature in Cyprus

Russia has been hosting a meeting Oct. 31 between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Cypriot counterpart Ioannis Kasoulides, as the island prepares for talks over a possible reunification. The American geopolitical investigating and consulting company Stratfor presents its point of view on the relationship between Russia and Cyprus.

Once again, Russia is paying attention to the Eastern Mediterranean. Moscow is keen to maintain its foothold in the area, which not only affects its position in the Middle East and its balance with NATO but is also a financial haven and energy concern. On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played host to his Cypriot counterpart, Ioannis Kasoulides, in Moscow.

Given what Russia has on its plate at the moment, such a meeting could appear superfluous, but the small island nation is a key part of Russia's strategy for the region. This is the latest in a string of meetings held with Cypriot leaders over recent weeks, including with the head of the opposition party, Andros Kypianou. Moscow is ensuring that it has a good handle on the entirety of the island's political sphere.

Today's meeting focused heavily on next week's reunification summit between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Since 1974, the island has been divided between the internationally recognized Greek republic in the south and the Turkish republic in the north. There have been constant negotiations over the past four decades to resolve the issue, but only since May 2015 have talks under the guidance of the United Nations reached a level this promising. Next week, representatives from the northern and southern governments will meet in Switzerland to discuss the contentious issues of territory and property exchanges — perhaps the most sensitive items on the agenda. Both sides are aware of the economic, financial and political benefits of reunifying the island and are under heavy pressure from the United Nations, European Union, Turkey and Israel to reach an accord — the latter two are equally eager to push along energy talks.

Russia is known for scuttling promising negotiations, however, particularly when talks rise to the level of a U.N.-sponsored solution. In 2004, Russia used its position on the U.N. Security Council to veto a resolution for a settlement, just before Greek Cypriots voted against reunification. Today, Lavrov called on the United Nations not to "impose its vision" of a settlement on Cyprus. Moscow has a serious interest in preserving the status quo. A reunification would free up the island — and other foreign powers — to focus instead on a string of issues concerning Russia.

Cyprus already hosts Greek, Turkish and British troops, and Russia is worried that a reunified country could lean further toward NATO. Cyprus is strategically located within launching distance of several Middle Eastern and North African crises — particularly in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Military aircraft from France, the United Kingdom and the United States frequently fly out of Cyprus to those crises. In the past, Moscow has flirted with the idea of settling its own military base on the island, though such a move would likely be seen as provocation to Turkey and the rest of NATO. Russia is currently moving a naval flotilla, including the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, the cruiser Peter the Great, and several destroyers and supply vessels, into the Eastern Mediterranean toward Syria. The fleet was not only shadowed by British vessels near the English Channel but also denied refueling in Spain. Lavrov confirmed Monday that the Russian ships would not seek to use Cyprus as a military base to launch into Syria. Such a consideration would likely be permanently off the table should the island reunify.

Cyprus also plays a key role in Moscow's natural gas strategy. Israel, Egypt and Cyprus itself have all made significant natural gas discoveries in the past decade. Each could emerge as an important supplier of natural gas to both Turkey and Southeastern Europe over the decade to come, possibly chipping away at the prominence of Russian suppliers. Russian energy behemoth Gazprom is trying to move forward with the TurkStream pipeline, which would carry Russian supplies to Turkey and beyond to Europe. A divided Cyprus is an important long-term spoiler to any competing pipeline heading toward Turkey or Southern Europe from Egypt or Israel, which would likely need to transit Cypriot or Northern Cypriot waters, given that the other option would be to route it through Lebanese or Syrian waters.

This leaves Cyprus in a tough position; caught between the sweeteners Russia has provided in the past — financial incentives, investment, trade, tourism and political connections — and the opportunity for a political settlement that would deeply benefit the island and strengthen its ties with the West. With Moscow also talking to opposition groups in Cyprus, there is a question whether Russia's friendly gestures could turn into internal meddling to impede progress in the reunification talks. In the end, the future trajectory of the small Mediterranean island will have an outsized effect not only on the region but also on the goals and ambitions of larger global powers with a vested interest in Cyprus. 

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