Just days after Prime Minister David Cameron's announcement to send military advisers to support Ukraine's armed forces, Russia has signed an agreement with Cyprus to give its navy ships access to Cypriot ports.
The agreement, signed in Moscow on Wednesday by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, may be a cause for concern for Britain as Cyprus hosts UK military bases. The move may also stoke further tension between the West and Russia over the Ukrainian conflict.
Putin, however, has assured that the agreement refers to Russian navy ships involved in counter-terrorism and anti-piracy efforts, and that the measure is not directed towards anyone in particular.
"Our friendly ties aren't aimed against anyone," he said after the talks. "I don't think it should cause worries anywhere."
Before Anastasiades' visit to Moscow, the Cypriot leader revealed that Cyprus and Russia would also be discussing the possibility of Russian planes using a Cypriot base near the town of Paphos for humanitarian relief missions. According to the Associated Press, Russian navy ships have already made stops at the port of Limassol, but the new agreement is intended to put the arrangement on a solid legal footing.
Earlier this month, the Cypriot president denied Russian media reports that the country was going to lease two military bases to Moscow: "There is no question of Russian air or naval military bases on the soil of Cyprus," said the foreign minister, Ioannis Kasoulides.
Cyprus' relationship with Russia and the European Union (EU) is an interesting one. It has strong relations with Russia, economically, politically and culturally. In 2008, Cyprus elected its first communist president, Russian-educated Demetris Christofias of the Akel party, who once described the breakdown of the Soviet Union as "a crime against humanity." It has been estimated that Cyprus now has a Russian expat population of between 35,000 and 40,000.
Cyprus is also a member of the EU, becoming a member in 2004. But its government has not been wholly supportive of the EU's response to Russia's role in the Ukrainian crisis.
Prior to the Moscow trip, Anastasiades criticized the economic sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia. "We have openly said in the Council of Europe that sanctions will not solve the problem," he said. Sanctions will only create wider problems for the whole European Union. It turns out that these sanctions will be paid for by the people from the smallest of the countries."
Back in 2011, Russia offered to lend Cyprus an emergency bailout loan of 2.5 billion euros ($2.8bn) for five years with an interest rate of 4.5 percent. In 2013, Russia extended the bailout loan and reduced the rate of interest. According to the BBC in 2013, ratings agency Moody's estimated that there was around $31 billion of Russian money in Cypriot bank accounts, with $12 billion from banks and $19 billion from businesses and individuals.
Yet Cyprus has also been branded as a tax haven, particularly for Russian investors.
Anastasiades said before the Moscow trip: "Our economy and defense are highly dependent on our relations with Russia. Thousands of Russian companies work in Cyprus, we have large investments made by the citizens of Russia."
"We show deep gratitude to the Russians," he added. "This is the feeling that makes us stand in the Council of Europe against the measures that might hurt friends who had shown confidence and gave us hope for a rapid recovery and a way out of the crisis."
Speaking to VICE News, Dr James Ker-Lindsay, senior research fellow at the London School of Economics, who has written extensively about Cyprus, said that the country's relations with Moscow "does not look good for EU solidarity" and that "it sends a message that the EU is divided." On the other hand, he continued: "Cyprus would argue that it needs to look after its own interests, and that Russia is an important business partner."
Russia has also been strengthening ties with other countries, including Hungary, another member of the EU. Last November, Putin said that the country was an important partner in terms of trade, stating: "We share the attitude of the Hungarian leadership aimed at growing constructive dialogue, jointly carrying out planned very large investment projects."
There have also been fears that Russia is strengthening ties with EU member Greece, where in January, Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis reportedly said: "We are against the embargo that has been imposed against Russia. Greece has no interest in imposing sanctions on Russia. We have no differences with Russia and the Russian people."
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