Written by Raquel Velasco Ceballos
On the 16th of September, the US administration released an official statement lifting defence trade restrictions on Cyprus for the coming fiscal year.
The embargo entered into force in 1987 to create a negotiated settlement to the conflict that involved Cyprus, Greece and Turkey. Its main purpose was to prevent arms build-up in Cyprus and push the participating nations into reaching an agreement through diplomacy. However, it only prevented Cyprus from buying arms to the US, allowing Ankara to provide arms to the occupied territory by Turkey on the North of the island. For this reason, Cyprus decided to purchase arms from Russia to defend itself.
At the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Cyprus’ Defence Minister rejected sending arms to help Ukraine, something that could change with the termination of the embargo. In fact, the end of the arms embargo benefits all parties involved, them being Cyprus, the US, Europe and Ukraine, as it offers a diplomatic opportunity to reach an agreement with Cyprus to give some Russian-made arms to Ukraine in exchange for the provision of modern US equipment and other security assistance. Firstly, Cyprus could improve its military capabilities and preparedness by using M1 Abrams tanks, Stryker combat vehicles, AH-64 Apache helicopters, artillery and air defence capabilities provided by the US, whereas other EU allies, such as France, could provide anti-air and anti-ship missiles. The US can also benefit from this. Cyprus’ Russian-made weapons are among the 6,300 weapon systems available for potential transfer from various countries. Cyprus possesses 82 T-80U tanks, 43 BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles, 11 Mi-35P helicopters, 6 Tor-M1 air defence systems, 4 Bulk-M1-2 air defence systems and 4 BM-21 multiple rocket launchers (Brobst, Schanzer & Bowman, 2022). All of these have similar variants operated by the Ukrainian military. Therefore, if Cyprus sends these arms to Ukraine, the Ukrainian side can increase their arms inventory, replace losses, and support their existing systems.
However, there are certain downsides. Cyprus will not accept the deal if it does not obtain replacement capabilities, due to the ever-present threat of Turkish troops in the northern part of the island. Moreover, it could take years for some of the systems to arrive, due to the long queues for the weapons build-up in some cases and longstanding industrial capacity issues in the US. Also, if the US can produce additional arms, vehicles, artillery and air defence systems in the short-term, the destination will likely be Ukraine if Russia’s invasion of the country persists.
Another problem is that Europe and the US must also address Cyprus’ security needs in the period between the transfer of arms to Ukraine and the arrival of US replacements. Some ways in which they can do this are increasing US navy port calls and military exercises and training exercises with Cyprus, providing a temporary stationing of additional US forces, as well as temporary defence capabilities transferred from a member of the EU.
Lastly, the US has to also make sure that the UNFICYP deployed on the border with the Turkey-backed North –which maintains a buffer zone in the island to prevent aggression– continues to fulfil its purpose.
Indeed, Cyprus is an important strategic player in the Eastern Mediterranean. Tackling these problems can encourage Cyprus to send arms to Ukraine, promoting US interests and regional security, and helping Ukraine with repelling Russia’s invasion. Therefore, the Biden administration can help Ukraine by lifting the embargo on Cyprus and in doing so supporting an ally in the Mediterranean.
Brobst, R., Schanzer, J., & Bowman, B. (2022, September 22). Lifting the arms embargo on Cyprus is a major opportunity to aid Ukraine. Retrieved from: https://breakingdefense.com/2022/09/lifting-the-arms-embargo-on-cyprus-is-a-major-opportunity-to-aid-ukraine/?_hsmi=227574123&_hsenc=p2ANqtz–7tNBiVNajZ0LHIHKV4TtrLA4RYJui-NfLweh-JmhdJvEZ8Dg1672EMsKA22N-h0LB9DqIAnFawmpCLHIROqQI1bH7dw