The new president of the Republic of Cyprus has committed to allocate 2% of the country’s gross domestic product to the expenses allocated to the armed forces. Coupled with his Western foreign policy orientation and the recent lifting of the US arms embargo, this promise could have a transformative effect on the island republic’s modest military.
President Nikos Christodoulides made the promise on March 10 during a visit to a special forces training camp.
“As long as there is an occupation in our country, we are obliged to strengthen our deterrent capabilities,” he declared. The occupation refers to the partition of Cyprus in 1974 with the invasion of Turkey, which led to the creation of one-third of the island of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Only Turkey recognizes the CSTO and maintains a 35,000-strong army there.
While NATO has long required its members to allocate at least two percent of their GDP to defense spending, Christodoulides made it clear that he currently has no aspirations for Cyprus to join the bloc. Instead, he wants to put Cyprus “at the heart” of the European Union’s efforts to strengthen European defence. “I also worked as a minister of foreign affairs and I know that without a strong deterrent force, without a strong defense, your say in foreign policy matters is obviously limited,” he said.
In light of all this, Cyprus may be on the verge of its most significant military buildup since the 1990s. In the second half of that decade, Nicosia turned to Russia for military equipment, as the United States imposed a total arms embargo on the island in 1987 under the pretext of preventing an arms race there. That embargo was finally lifted in 2022, which could mean Cyprus could buy Western weaponry to replace its aging Russian arsenal. Nicosia may even transfer that arsenal to Ukraine if it is guaranteed adequate and quick replacements. Doing so would be a fitting indication of the seriousness of Christodoulides’ pro-Western foreign policy.
George Tsogopoulos, senior fellow at the European Center for International Formation (CIFE), noted that Cyprus was already spending more on defense as a percentage of GDP than most EU countries before the current war in Ukraine began more than a year ago.
“In 2021, it was fifth on the European list (along with France and Lithuania) after Greece, Latvia, Estonia and Romania,” he told me. “Christodoulides’ pledge echoes the general trend in Europe after February 24, 2022, the day the war began, but is also linked to the overall situation in Cyprus, the threat from Turkey and the expansion of Cyprus-US defenses. cooperation”.
“So, yes, I expect a moderate build-up,” he said.
The most advanced system Nicosia ordered from Russia in the 1990s was undoubtedly the long-range S-300 air defense missile system. However, Turkey threatened to destroy it after reaching the island. A crisis and a tense standoff ensued, which was only relieved when the batteries were diverted to the Greek island of Crete and put into storage.
Almost 30 years later, the island republic is undoubtedly looking to upgrade its limited air defenses with Western systems. While it likely won’t seek the S-300’s long-range system, it could acquire advanced short- and medium-range anti-aircraft defenses. There are already hints that Israel will acquire the Iron Dome system.
Tsogopoulos believes that Cyprus, under Christodoulides, is likely to expand defense cooperation with the US and Israel. And the strengthening and modernization of its air defense will be part of the agenda.
“We still cannot decide what kind of system can be bought,” he said. “But it is expected that the discussions will speed up.
Turkish objections to any military build-up in Cyprus are sure to be raised, and Christodoulides will find it difficult to get security guarantees against Turkey from the US or Israel.
“He needs to ensure that a stronger deterrent will effectively act as a peaceful game-changer on the island,” Tsogopoulos said. “History (of the 1974 invasion) creates pessimism rather than optimism. So Christoulides’ problem is subtle.”
The Cypriot leader has unequivocally condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of his pro-Western foreign policy orientation. Ukraine will undoubtedly find Cyprus’ arsenal of Russian-made weaponry, which includes T-80 main battle tanks and short-range air defense systems, very useful and compatible.
“The closer Nicosia gets to Washington, the more likely it will be pressured to play an active military role in Ukraine by, among other things, supplying Kiev with Russian-made weapons and Western alternatives,” Tsogopoulos said. “It is Christodoulides’ responsibility to ensure that closer US-Cyprus ties do not lead to a Turkish-Russian alignment of security interests with the potential to harm Nicosia’s national interests on the island.”
“The new president may be squeezed in the growing opposition of others.”
Cyprus has never operated fighter jets and currently has only a small number of unarmed surveillance drones purchased from Israel. Unconfirmed rumors in the past have suggested that Greece may eventually supply Nicosia with its French-made Dassault Mirage 2000 jets, although this may remain unlikely for various reasons. The island republic can turn to Israel for armed drones.
While Tsogopoulos believes these scenarios are possible, he argues that it is more important for Cyprus not only to invest in new weapons, regardless of their type and origin, but to tie “new military spending and new military deals to a specific dogma.”
“In my opinion, Nicosia should demand the expansion of NATO (with Finland and Sweden) to include Cyprus as well,” he said. “Obviously, Turkey’s objection is noted. But I strongly believe that military build-up alone will not solve his problem. Nicosia should act strategically, at least try in this direction.”
What weapons Cyprus acquires now that the US embargo is lifted depends largely on US calculations as Washington sets the parameters of this fledgling defense partnership.
“Since Nicosia’s participation in European defense projects does not make a significant difference in guaranteeing its security, it must ensure that its future pro-American choices do not push the island into uncharted waters,” Tsogopoulos said. “That is why I argue that Christodoulides needs a balanced and careful policy when deciding on a military build-up.”
“It all starts with a clear strategy of what he wants to achieve.”