Washington says it will go all the way in lifting an arms embargo on the Republic of Cyprus starting next month, but defense trade restrictions could be reapplied at any time if Nicosia fails to implement certain steps against Russia.
According to a statement on Friday by the US State Department, “the Republic of Cyprus has met the necessary conditions under relevant legislation to allow the approval of exports, re-exports, and transfers of defense articles to the Republic of Cyprus for fiscal year 2023.”
While a decades-long US arms embargo was partially lifted in 2020 for non-lethal weaponry, State Secretary Antony Blinken made no reference to partial restrictions this week when he told Congress they would be lifted effective 1 October 2022.
Washington warned Nicosia that in order to expand a partial lift of embargo on arms 'we must see further assurances about their ability to deny port access to Russian naval vessels'
Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades welcomed the announcement and expressed on Twitter “great satisfaction” about “the complete lifting of the US arms embargo on Cyprus.”
“This is a landmark decision, reflecting the burgeoning strategic relationship between the two countries, including in the area of security,” Anastasiades wrote.
Ankara fears arms race on Cyprus
But Ankara rushed to condemn the decision, fearing an arms race on the divided island and calling on the US to “reconsider” and “pursue a balanced policy towards the two sides," Greece-backed Greek Cypriots in the south and Turkey-backed Turkish Cypriots in the north.
“This decision, which is in contradiction to the principle of equality of the two sides on the Island, and which will further strengthen the Greek Cypriot side’s intransigence, will negatively affect the efforts to resettle the Cyprus issue,” Ankara said in statement.
US former president Donald Trump had deferred the issue of arms embargo to Blinken’s predecessor, Mike Pompeo, who had informed Nicosia that Washington would “temporarily waive” restrictions on the direct commercial sale of non-lethal defence articles and services to the Republic of Cyprus for the fiscal year 2020-2021.
The Russian caveat
US officials have been publicly warning their Cypriot counterparts in the last couple of years that in order to expand a partial lift of embargo on arms to the Republic of Cyprus, “we must see further assurances about their ability to deny port access to Russian naval vessels.”
While Russian ships always had access to Cypriot ports, an agreement signed in 2015 between Anastasiades and Russian President Vladimir Putin made explicit that Russian military ships would have access to Cypriot ports.
Nicosia satisfies Washington, angers Moscow
But the deal with Moscow later came in sharp contrast with an agreement a few years ago between Nicosia and Washington, after US legislation called for partial lift of embargo on arms to the Republic of Cyprus in exchange of assurances that Nicosia would deny access to Russian naval vessels.
Ten days after Russian troops invaded Ukraine, Cyprus made news when Russian ships including frigates and support vessels were denied access to Limassol port on the island's southern coast, satisfying Washington and angering Moscow.
Blinken reassures Congress Cyprus complies
Blinken reportedly told Congress this week that Cyprus held its part of the deal in accordance with the National Defense Legislation Act of 2020 and provisions in the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019.
The lift of the US arms embargo on Cyprus cannot last beyond one fiscal year unless the US president determines and certifies to the appropriate congressional committees not less than annually that Nicosia is in compliance with terms and conditions laid out in the legislation.
Legislation championed by Cyprus friend senator Bob Menendez, who leads the foreign relations committee, calls on Cyprus to continue to cooperate with the US government on money laundering reform and financial regulatory oversight, as well as make and continue to take the steps necessary to deny Russian military vessels access to ports for refueling and servicing.
In 2020 Moscow and Washington went head to head over Cyprus, with US officials calling on Nicosia to address the portage issue more fully and their Russian counterparts accusing Americans of “conditioning better relations with countries on the curtailment of their cooperation with Russia.”
Nicosia seeking US weapons as war in Ukraine rages
Nicosia has been calling in recent years on Washington to completely lift restrictions on defense articles, while the US government more recently called on its Cypriot counterpart to transfer Soviet-made weapons to Ukraine so that Kiev could resist Russian attacks.
Greek Cypriots defense officials never ruled out a transfer to Ukraine but made clear this could only take place through an intermediately country. They also said arrangement for western replacements would be necessary before Nicosia could send out its Russian made weapons.
Last month it emerged that Nicosia had signed up for new technology from Iron Dome, an exclusive joint US-Israeli defense system, with media speculating the island could be replacing its Russian-made Tor-M1 and Buk-M1 air defense systems that could be heading for Ukraine.
Cyprus' S-300 in Greece, radar lockdown ignites speculation
Cyprus also bought Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles in the mid-1990’s but ordered them delivered on the Greek island of Crete after Turkey objected to the divided island obtaining such a capable defense system that could also threaten the mainland.
Media speculation recently has pointed to Greece flirting with the idea of sending the S-300 to Ukraine. A similar shipment by Slovakia was reportedly targeted back in April based on aerial photos that showed the systems were destroyed before they could become operational.
Athens has denied claims that it would send S-300 to Kiev despite recent accusations from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who claimed Turkish planes were radar-locked by the system which has been dormant on Crete.
Greek officials did not deny that radar lockdown took place but argued that the aircraft had been tracked by four Greek F-16 fighter jets and not the S300 radar system.
Pentagon officials declined to comment on the radar lockdown allegations, while Ankara said it would send “radar traces of S-300 harassment” to NATO.