The United States has a prime opportunity to thwart the designs of Russia, China, and Turkey in the Middle East. At the same time, it can strengthen a bilateral relationship with a democratic, European ally and enhance our defense supply base, as well. This can all be accomplished by taking one relatively simple step: Lift the arms embargo on the Republic of Cyprus.
That Cyprus is under embargo is a head-scratcher in the first place. The country is a member of the European Union (EU). It has enjoyed good relations with the United States and is eager to strengthen them further.
Since 1974, the Cypriot government has controlled two-thirds of the island, with the northern one-third occupied by Ankara-backed Turkish Cypriots. Tensions have escalated recently after Cyprus also recently discovered large quantities of natural gas in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off its southern coast. The government has sought to develop these resources, but Ankara is encumbering those efforts. In fact, Ankara has worked to exploit energy resources in Cyprus’ EEZ, dispatching drilling ships to conduct assessments in Cypriot waters well beyond Ankara’s sovereignty. Turkish Naval vessels also stopped an Italian oil company drilling ship licensed by the government, in a clear attempt to prevent Cyprus from operating in its own EEZ.
The EU hasn’t done much to help. European Council President Donald Tusk expressed “serious concerns” and stated that the “European Union stands united behind the Republic of Cyprus regarding its right to explore and exploit its natural resources in its Exclusive Economic Zone.”
That’s all well and good, but don’t expect much action from the EU. The U.S., by contrast, appears more inclined to step up.
In November of last year, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoRepublican lawmakers raise security, privacy concerns over Huawei cloud services WashPost fact-checker gives Pompeo four 'Pinocchios' for 'zombie' claim about Obama Iran deal Poll: Biden, Trump statistically tied in favorability MORE met his Cypriot counterpart, and vowed to strengthen the bilateral security relationship and to support Cyprus’ EEZ. In March, the U.S. joined Israel, Greece, and the Republic of Cyprus in issuing a joint declaration welcoming recent natural gas finds in the Eastern Mediterranean and their potential to contribute to energy security and diversification.
The problem is that Washington can’t yet fully embrace Cyprus. The country has been flirting with Beijing. The two countries recently signed a “Belt and Road” cooperation document, and China now says that Nicosia is a “strategic partner.” Meanwhile, Cyprus has permitted Moscow to cultivate military and financial influence on the island. Specifically, Moscow has used the island to project power in the Middle East. Moscow signed a deal with Cyprus in 2015 to give Russian military vessels access to Cypriot ports. Since then, Russian tankers and warships have reportedly used the ports to defy international sanctions and support the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In recent months, the Russian Navy docked a frigate and an anti-submarine ship at the Cypriot port of Limassol. For years, Cyprus has also purchased significant quantities of military equipment from Moscow.
In retrospect, Cyprus has not had much of a choice of weapons. U.S. law prohibits arms transfers to the country. The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) restrictions imposed by Washington stem from a fear of stoking further tensions with Turkey’s occupation forces in Northern Cyprus. Yet, its not clear why American equipment would be more provocative than the Russian equipment Cyprus has purchased in the past – or why the sale of arms to the Cypriot government should be viewed as more provocative than our sale of arms to the Turks.
Today, however, things might be beginning to change. New bipartisan legislation has been introduced in Congress to lift the American arms embargo on Cyprus. At minimum, the country could benefit from Americans radars, helicopters, and vessels to protect its newfound energy wealth offshore.
But while such a move would counter Turkish aggression, it would not solve the Russia problem. In addition to Russia’s military presence, Cyprus has served as a safe haven for Russian money laundering and oligarchs, who reportedly have gained Cypriot citizenship in under six months in exchange for investing two million euros.
Recently, the U.S. has been leaning on Nicosia to change that. In April, a senior U.S. Treasury Department official praised Cyprus’ “outstanding” work to fight money laundering. New anti-money laundering rules have contributed to an outflow of Russian funds from Cyprus. In another positive sign Cyprus might be eager to reduce Russian influence, the Cypriot government recently announced plans to issue a new round of government bonds, in part to facilitate the early repayment of existing financial obligations to Russia.
If the Republic of Cyprus is willing to make certain tangible assurances on Russia, including an end to the purchase of key Russian weapons systems, a reexamination of basing agreements with Moscow, and continued progress related to Russia’s malign role in the financial sector, it would be wise to lift the arms embargo. Of course, such assurances would have to extend to Nicosia’s recent outreach to China, too.
Reaching such an agreement would benefit Cypriots, promote U.S. interests, seize the regional initiative from Putin, thwart Beijing’s ambitions, and discourage overreach by Ankara. Of course, the Turks will protest. And Russia may try to stir up trouble, too. But it’s time for Washington to unabashedly pursue our interests and those of our real allies. It’s time to lift the arms embargo on Cyprus.
Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD) where Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Foundation’s Center on Military and Political Power (@FDD_CMPP).