Russia is in the midst of negotiations for a military presence on Cyprus. In addition to being part of a plan to build up its naval forces, analysts say Moscow needs to find an alternative to its base in Syria.
Reports that Russia is withdrawing all military personnel from its naval base in Syria and replacing them with civilian workers are wrong, the Russian Defense Ministry made announced on Thursday (27.06.2013) in Moscow. There is no need for the military to be based in Tartus, a city on Syria's Mediterranean coast, the press release said, "because maintenance of Russian warships was taken over by civilians long ago."
According to the ministry's statement, Tartus would remain Russia's naval base within the Mediterranean. But at the same time Moscow is clearly preparing for a loss. It has long been speculated that Russia, in the event of a regime change in Damascus, would give up the Tartus base. And now it seems they have found an alternative.
Cyprus instead of Syria
The Russian government is in negotiations with Cyprus about extending their military cooperation. The Russian Air Force could uses a base in Paphos, Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides said in an interview with the "Voice of Russia" radio station on Monday (24.06.2013). Cyprus and Russia will discuss the specifics soon, the Cypriot diplomat added. Military cooperation agreements could be signed within the coming months.
"This is certainly connected to Tartus," Margarete Klein of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told DW. "Even if the Russian government assumes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will retain power, it could change in the future."
Meanwhile, Russia's navy is paying an increasing number of visits to Cypriot ports. On June 19, three warships docked in the port of Limassol to refuel and replenish supplies. In May, it was the "Moscow" missile cruiser, the flagship of Russia's Black Sea Fleet and the vessel that in July will take over command for the Russian Navy's 16 ships in the Mediterranean.
Russia's favorite in the Mediterranean
It's no surprise to observers that Russia is looking at Cyprus for a Mediterranean base as the countries have close economic ties and Cyprus is still regarded as a tax haven for Russian companies. A few years ago, Russia loaned Cyprus billions in credit. In spring 2013, when the EU country was on the brink of national bankruptcy due to high debt, Cyprus' leader went to Moscow to negotiate a new round of loans. Both sides couldn't agree in that case and in the end, the European Union bailed out the island.
Back then there was speculation that Russia would offer the credit to Cyprus with the condition that the countries would expand their military cooperation. Should such an agreement come to fruition in the future, it would be a turning point. Almost 20 years have passed since Russia had a military presence in a current EU country.
In Soviet footsteps
Experts put Moscow's plans in Cyprus in a larger context. "Russia wants to re-establish itself as a great power," said Klein of the SWP.
Russia wants to build a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean by 2015. President Vladimir Putin described the Mediterranean as a "strategic region" in which Russia has its own interests.
During the Soviet era, between 30 and 60 Russian naval vessels were tasked with keeping US Sixth Fleet at bay. In 1992, the Russian Mediterranean fleet was disbanded, and now it seems to have been revived on a smaller scale. It is planned that 10 Russian warships will monitor the Mediterranean.
Vessels to send a clear signal
In professional circles, these plans were met with some skepticism. "I think this policy is about sending a clear signal," Klein said, adding that the Russian Navy's military importance is "not very big."
Russian journalist and analyst Alexander Golz said he has a similar view of the situation. "The task of the Mediterranean fleet will be to show its presence," he told DW.
He pointed out that the Russian Navy lacks modern warships. "Russia only has one aircraft carrier, the 'Admiral Kuznetsov' stationed with the Northern Fleet," added Golz.
Neither Klein nor Golz said they though Russian warships would participate in the Syria conflict. NATO also needn't worry, the experts said. Golz pointed out that Cyprus is not a NATO member, though two British military bases are stationed on the island, one of them in near Limassol.
NATO's secretary general has pledged that the Western military alliance will uphold the "territorial integrity" of Europe. Jens Stoltenberg also described Russia's recent behavior as "deeply troubling."
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