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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Power Politics in Cyprus




The two-year saga of the missile contract between Russia and Cyprus has at last reached its conclusion. On Dec. 29 the Cypriot president, Glafcos Clerides, announced that Russian S-300 anti-aircraft systems would not be deployed on his island. The missiles will now either be deployed by systems on the Greek island of Crete or simply be put into storage.


The Turks are exultant and Ankara is claiming an easy victory in this round of power diplomacy with their old adversaries the Greeks and their wards the Cypriots.


In Nicosia a political crisis erupted after the announcement when two ministers from the defense and education party, or EDEK, left the government coalition in protest. Polls indicate only 12 percent of the Greek-Cypriot population support their president's decision. Most feel that the island's leaders were unwise to have dabbled with "missile diplomacy" in the first place, but that once started it should have been seen through to the deployment of the weapons.


Opposition members, such as Socialist leader and former Cypriot President Spiros Kiprianu, and a large proportion of the public seem decided that their patrons in Athens gave into pressure from the United States, the European Union and Turkey.


And while the argument of most members of the government that the decision averted military conflict between the Greeks and the Turks is a convincing one, national Greek-Cypriot pride has taken a whipping nonetheless.


In Moscow, everyone involved in the contract, from the Foreign Ministry to the state arms export company Rosvoorozheniye, is keeping quiet about the matter, clearly calculating the political damage to Russia's position on the world stage. Against this damage, the estimated $200 million to $500 million the Greek-Cypriots will pay Russian manufacturers for the missile systems is cold comfort.


Not only is the failure to take the contract to its logical end and the Greeks' preference for the U.S. Patriot missile system - the S-300's main competitor - a bad advertisement for the Russian military industrial complex, but it also shows that Athens' repeated references to its special relations and Orthodox brotherhood with Russia are a myth.


The failure of Moscow's missile diplomacy with Greece and Cyprus was especially hard-hitting to the pride of those in Russia who still dream of Great Power politics. It is no coincidence the first Russian politician to publicly voice regret at Nicosia's decision was the head of the State Duma's committee for security affairs, Communist Viktor Ilyukhin. But in addition to the left-wing opposition, most of the government had tied its hopes to a rebirth of Russian influence in the eastern Mediterranean through the creation of an informal alliance between Greece, Cyprus, Syria and Russia. Now any such hopes seem to have been dashed.


Together with the latest crisis over Iraq, which highlighted the rift between Moscow and the West, Russia's failure on its Greek-Cypriot beachhead confirms a cheerless reality for Russians. Ten years after the end of the Cold War the country is no less isolated than the Soviet Union was at the beginning of perestroika, perhaps even more so. Only Belarus and parts of Serbia are allies of Russia. Add Iraq, and you get a company of international outcasts.


This is largely due to Moscow's politics of negative greatness in the past few years. These worked very simply: Unable to bring resolutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict or conflicts in Iraq and Yugoslavia, Moscow always showed it can hinder their resolutions through its "special position" toward traditional allies, thus forcing the West to heed its opinion.


In Saddam Hussein's case, every time Baghdad escaped fresh bombardments over the last two years by yielding at the last moment, the impression was given that this backing down was due not to threats of brute force from the United States, but in compliance to requests from "our Russian friends," which only reinforced Russia's illusion of influence.


In Yugoslavia, Milosevic devalued Moscow's effectiveness as a key player in crisis situations by violating agreements achieved through Russian mediation, while Russia also contributed to this through its insistent stake on a strong Milosevic.


The situation in Cyprus has its own specifics of course - it is widely acknowledged that the republic of Cyprus is the victim of Turkish aggression and that Turkish intransigence over the island is the cause of a quarter century's conflict over it - but once again Russia's special position was largely at odds with that of the United States and the EU. After the latter refused to deliver any advanced military hardware that might upset the balance in the region, Russia clinched the S-300 delivery contract, citing some solid arguments of international law to back up the deal - "the UN has not imposed any sanctions on sale of arms to the island, has it?" - while stepping up the "Orthodox direction" of its foreign policy. Moscow was even partly prepared to share responsibility with Nicosia and Athens for the consequences of an inevitable heightening of tensions after the delivery, as evidenced by some unmistakably threatening statements addressed to Turkey by the Russian Foreign Ministry.


But now missile diplomacy has failed, and U.S. diplomacy supported by the EU has emerged as the only guarantee of peace in the region. Moscow's military and political role in the eastern Mediterranean has virtually petered out to nothing, while customers looking to buy Russian military hardware will think twice, wondering whether they want to bear subsequent pressure from the United States and the West not to embark on any such deals.


Alexander Shumilin is the foreign editor of Expert magazine. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.