U.S. GRAND STRATEGY SHOULD INCLUDE CYPRUS
The defining ideological war of the 21st century is between countries governed by the rule of law, in favor of building and maintaining a rules-based international system, and lawless states that seek to revert to an anarchic world order "where the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." The former is represented by the West, led by the United States and the European Union (EU). The latter include revisionist powers such as Russia and Turkey.
Given its strategic location at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, the Republic of Cyprus has an important role to play in this ideological contest. Whereas Nicosia is 1,000 kilometers from Athens, it is only 250 kilometers from Beirut, 330 kilometers from Damascus, 600 kilometers from Cairo, 1,000 kilometers from Baghdad, and 1,600 kilometers from Tehran. What's more, Cyprus also provides easier access to the Black Sea than Italy or France. Thus, including Cyprus in the U.S.' grand strategy by expanding bilateral and multilateral security agreements would enable Washington to project power on at least three different axes.
Over the years, Cyprus earned the nickname "Moscow on the Med" by courting Russian capital. When landing in Larnaca or Paphos, tourists are greeted in Russian alongside the local Greek and English because of the overwhelming Russian presence. In Limassol, the second largest city in Cyprus, more than 1 out of every 5 people is Russian. Last year, the Central Bank of Russia reported that Cyprus was the top destination for Russian foreign investment—at a whopping $193 billion. To put this colossal figure into perspective, the second and third preferred destinations for Russian foreign investment were the Netherlands at $32 billion, and Austria at $29 billion. The Nicosia-Moscow connection, like Turkey's continued occupation of Cyprus, is a failure of EU and U.S. foreign policy.
In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus and has since established a de-facto state on the northern third of the island. In many ways, Turkey's invasion of Cyprus provided the blueprint for Moscow's recolonization of former Soviet territories. Notably, Russia's annexation of Ukrainian Crimea in 2014 and its subsequent full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. To the dissatisfaction of many Cypriots who rely on Russian capital and tourism to make a living, the government of Cyprus has complied with EU sanctions against Moscow. On the one hand, this drastic change in Cypriot foreign policy has left an enormous vacuum to be filled domestically. On the other hand, it has also provided the U.S. with a strategic opportunity to weaken Russia's influence in the eastern Mediterranean. Naturally, Washington must fill the void left by Russia in Cyprus and solidify Nicosia's pivot away from Moscow.
To include Cyprus in U.S. grand strategy, Washington must continue transitioning from an eastern Mediterranean strategy that accommodates Turkey to one that favours Greece and Cyprus. Historically, American policymakers sought to strike a balance between Greece and Turkey by supporting both NATO partners while ensuring that none of the parties gained a significant military advantage over the other. In recent decades, however, the U.S. has tolerated Turkey's transgressions in the name of strategic necessity. This accommodation, coupled with the U.S.' pivot to Asia and its incremental withdrawal from the Middle East—first, dialing down its involvement in Iraq and Syria and then withdrawing from Afghanistan altogether—has emboldened President Recep Erdogan, fueled his revisionist ideology, and shifted the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean in favor of Turkey.
This strategy has been counterproductive. Whereas Greece and Cyprus have complied with EU sanctions against Russia and have been pillars of stability in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has only become more ambivalent and less reliable as a partner to the West. Whether playing both sides in Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, embarking on foreign adventures in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, purchasing S-400 missile defense systems from Russia, granting safe passage to jihadists, contesting Greece's sovereignty over islands in the Aegean Sea, or illegally occupying 37 percent of Cyprus for 48 years, Turkey's commitment to regional stability and the rules-based international order is questionable at best.
Today, there are indications that American policymakers are modifying their strategy to reflect the geopolitical reality of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East: namely, that Turkey is a revisionist power vying for regional hegemony. Consider that the U.S. has excluded Turkey from the F-35 program while including Greece. In another instance, the U.S. prevented the modernization of Turkey's air force by blocking the sale of F-16s while renewing and extending basing agreements with Greece. Although these are positive developments for the regional balance of power, there is still significant room for improvement.
More must be done to help modernize Cyprus' army. France has taken the lead by selling Nicosia surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles as well as attack helicopters. Just a few days ago, Israel agreed to sell Cyprus its Iron Dome Missile-Defense System. Partially lifting the U.S.' arms embargo against Cyprus to allow the sale of non-lethal military goods was also a step in the right direction, but even a complete end to the arms embargo would fall short of what is needed to restore the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean: Washington's strategic re-engagement with the region.
Nicosia's pivot away from Russia, coupled with the Russian withdrawal from Cyprus and Turkey's ambivalence in the eastern Mediterranean provides the U.S. with the perfect opportunity to re-engage with the neighbourhood. Including Cyprus in U.S. grand strategy would enable it to project power on three different axes while safeguarding the rules-based international order and balancing revisionist powers in the region. It may even hold the key to reunifying Cyprus.
Originally published by Newsweek on August 24, 2022.