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20th Sep 2020

Cyprus praises Russia, lets in warships

  • The two sides signed several agreements, on Russian warships, but also on media, banking, education and R&D (Photo: Kyriakos)

The Cypriot president has, on a visit to Moscow, showcased his country’s economic dependence on Russia and the emergence of an increasing threat to EU and US unity on sanctions.

Nicos Anastasiades used the trip, on Wednesday (25 February), to formalise an accord for Russian warships to use Cypriot military bases, and to speak out against EU policy on Ukraine.

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  • In remarks to Russian news agency Tass, the Cypriot leader (l) voiced "deep gratitude" to Russia for its economic help (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Referring to Russia as a “great country”, the 68-year old politician said: “I think it’s increasingly felt by our European counterparts that action against such a great country as Russia leads to countermeasures on the part of Russia which have negative results, not only for Cyprus, but also for a number of other European Union countries”.

He noted that his own “small homeland” is “largely dependent on the Russian Federation, whether it's [on] the economy, or services, or tourism, or defence, or solidarity on the Cyprus issue [it's frozen conflict with Turkey]”.

He said he supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

But he went on to describe the situation as a “civil conflict” and to “welcome” Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s contribution to the peace process, which was recently revived in Minsk - remarks which go against the EU joint position that Russia is arming, commanding, and fighting alongside the anti-Ukrainian paramilitaries.

For his part, Putin told press the naval treaty concerns counter-piracy and counter-terrorism operations, adding: “I don't think this should worry anyone”.

He noted that Russian investors and banks have a big presence in Cyprus - a relationship rooted in Cyprus' favourable taxation regime and a history of laxity on anti-money laundering.

“Cyprus is in second place in terms of investment in Russia’s economy, with $65 billion. We know that a large part of this is repatriated capital, but that it is coming via Cyprus is already not a bad thing”, the Russian leader said.

He added that Sberbank and VTB Bank - both under credit restrictions as part of the EU sanctions package - are “working actively” in Cyprus.

He also said Russia brings in 80 percent of Cypriot foreign investment and 600,000 tourists a year, while reminding Anastasiades that Moscow recently extended the soft terms of a €2.5 billion “stabilisation loan”.

Putin stopped short of publicly asking the Cypriot head of state to help dismantle EU sanctions.

But he said Cyprus, despite being “small”, is an “equal member” of the EU and has the “same voice” as others on sanctions.

He also said EU states should take sanctions decisions based on “national interests” and not “on the basis of some obscure reasons of a general nature formulated by some unknown people”.

Meanwhile, the Russian leader threatened the EU that he will cut gas supplies via Ukraine in the coming days unless Ukraine agrees to pay for gas consumed by Russia-occupied territories in east Ukraine.

He claimed that Ukraine’s refusal to do so “smells of genocide”.

Cyprus, like Greece, has a history of protecting Russian interests in the EU Council.

But the two countries’ recent pro-Russian statements come amid concern in Brussels and Washington that Moscow is trying to create division in order to get a free hand in Ukraine.

Putin earlier this month also met with Hungarian PM Viktor Orban in Budapest in an event seen in a similar light.

Mariupol next?

The Anastasiades meeting came during a lull in fighting in east Ukraine.

But Russian and pro-Russian forces have massed near the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, a tactically important land bridge to Crimea, which Russia annexed last year, raising fears of an impending assault.

British leader David Cameron told parliament on Tuesday that fresh escalation should see Russia disconnected from the so-called Swift system of international bank transfers.

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, told France Info on Wednesday: “The problem today is particularly around Mariupol. We've told the Russians clearly that if there was a separatist attack in the direction of Mariupol things would be drastically altered, including in terms of sanctions.”

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, testifying in Congress the same day, noted: “On Ukraine, we’ve held together Europe and the United States in unity to put in place sanctions … We are poised yet to do another round, potentially, depending on what happens with Minsk [the name of a recent ceasefire deal] in these next few days”.

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