Cyprus has emerged in media reports as the "unknown European country" that negotiated to buy Israeli Merkava tanks, fueling persistent rumors that dozens of the island’s Russian T-80 were set aside for Ukraine in a so-called swap deal.
Sources both in Cyprus and Israel confirmed the two nations have held talks about old Merkava tanks being sold to the island, according to a report by Haaretz this week.
Last week Yair Kulas, Israeli defense ministry’s export coordination head, reportedly said his country was in “negotiations with two countries, including one in Europe, regarding the sale of older Merkava tanks that are no longer in use by the Israeli army.”
The comments were picked up by several websites and social media accounts that argued the “unknown country” was none other than the Republic of Cyprus, which had a US arms embargo recently lifted by the Biden administration.
Greek Cypriot officials have confirmed talks with their Israeli counterparts but declined to provide details on any deals.
Last week rumors intensified after the National Guard shut down a portion of a highway 'due to the need of transferring heavy military vehicles'
Rumors of a swap deal, where Nicosia would get equivalent or better armaments from a third country in exchange of indirectly transferring Russian tanks to Kiev, were left unanswered this week when Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides failed to deny arrangements for Soviet-made tanks ending up in Ukraine.
But rumors gained more traction after Dana Levi, a Twitter user with thousands of followers, claimed this week that Merkava tanks went to Cyprus and Morocco, while clarifying that a swap deal for Ukraine was refuted by Cypriot officials.
Last week on Wednesday the rumors intensified on the island after the National Guard shut down a portion of the Limassol-Paphos highway between Kouklia and Anarita, Paphos district, “due to the need of transferring heavy military vehicles between 6am and 3pm,”with the statement warning motorists that all lanes in both directions would be closed.
“During this time traffic will be diverted to the secondary road network. Drivers are asked to comply with emergency signs as well as instructions of police officers on duty,” it was said in the announcement.
A Bulgarian military website went as far as to claim that 41 Russian tanks in Cyprus, referring to the updated version T-80U, were earmarked for Ukraine as a donation on condition that Nicosia would not export the Merkavas without Israeli consent.
KIev has been desperately seeking Russian-made defense systems such as Cyprus’ Tor-M1 and Buk-M1 missile batteries, following an invasion last year by Russian troops into Ukraine, a conflict seen by the West as unprovoked while Moscow says it was forced to intervene for peace and security.
Earlier this week Paris announced a joint €500 million purchase of 1000 Mistral air defense missiles with four other European states, including Cyprus, which has joined EU states in seeking various ways to support Ukraine through joined defense schemes.
"We cannot take any action that would leave Cyprus unprotected"
Nicosia has maintained since last year that it had no plans to transfer military equipment to Ukraine but did not rule out an indirect transfer as long as the National Guard would receive modern armaments to replace Soviet technology.
Christodoulides on Tuesday said Nicosia would increase its defense budget for military deterrence to 2% over the next five years.
“The Republic of Cyprus is under occupation, the military budget is very precise, and so you can understand that we cannot take any action that would leave the Cyprus Republic unprotected,” Christodoulides said.
Cypriot Defense Minister Michalis Giorgallas, who met his Ukrainian counterpart Oleksii Reznikov during a hurried trip to the island in April, told a local television network that Nicosia was supporting Kiev in humanitarian ways while clarifying assistance was not military.