The US is making 'irreversible' progress with a former Russian partner in a tense corner of Europe, but not everyone in NATO will be happy

  • The US has been strengthening its relationship with the Republic of Cyprus.

  • Cyprus is perched in the Eastern Mediterranean, near three continents and important sea routes.

  • For Cyprus, it's a move away from its longtime partner in Russia, but Turkey isn't happy about it.

Amid tensions in Europe, the US is increasing its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean region, a hotspot connecting three continents and sea routes between the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans.

Part of the US's increased involvement has been through strengthening relations with the Republic of Cyprus, a strategically located island offering access to the Middle East and North Africa.

Cyprus has made "important strides" in its military and security cooperation with the US, Michalis Giorgallas, Cyprus' minister of defense, told Insider in response to written questions.

Cyprus' increased engagement with the US comes as it moves away from Moscow, a longtime economic and defense partner, but warming US-Cyprus ties aren't welcomed by Turkey, and Ankara's displeasure could have wider consequences for NATO.

A new US partner

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A UN peacekeeper looks at a map of the buffer zone between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in April 2021.ROY ISSA/AFP via Getty Images

Since Turkey invaded the island in 1974, Cyprus has been split between the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Ankara.

US security cooperation with the Republic of Cyprus was largely frozen after 1987, when Washington imposed an arms embargo to limit the amount of weapons on the island.

Although Cyprus had no defense-cooperation agreements with Russia, Moscow was one of Nicosia's main arms providers during the embargo, but in recent years the Cypriot government has moved away from Russia, including through a 2015 decision to scrap an agreement that allowed Russian warships to dock in its ports.

Sanctions imposed on Russia after its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its attack on Ukraine last year have only made it harder for Cyprus to maintain its Russian-made hardware and incentivized its search for other partners.

Russia Navy destroyer Admiral Panteleyev Limassol Cyprus
Russian Navy destroyer Admiral Panteleyev in Limassol, Cyprus in May 2013.Yiannis Kourtoglou/AFP via Getty Images

Indeed, the most important milestone in the US and Cyprus' burgeoning relationship was the complete lifting of the arms embargo in 2022, four years after Washington partially lifted it to allow Nicosia to import non-lethal arms. The decision to lift the embargo will be assessed annually, and the US has already renewed it for the coming year.

"Following the lifting of the anachronistic arms embargo, the future of our cooperation is even brighter!" Giorgallas told Insider. "We have already made some purchases of equipment and being able to access the US defense industries gives us access to new opportunities and expands our options."

Giorgallas said Cyprus is "moving forward with the replacement of our existing Russian-origin material." The country plans to buy at least six Airbus H145M helicopters to replace its Soviet-era Mi-35 helicopters. Some hardware, like air-defense systems, may take longer to replace, but Cyprus is pursuing other forms of cooperation.

Army paratroopers in Cyprus
US Army paratroopers train with Cypriot troops in Larnaca, Cyprus, in February.US Army/Staff Sgt. John Yountz

Cypriot military officers have received training in the US for several years as part of the Pentagon's International Military Education and Training, or IMET, program.

In September 2022, the US and Cyprus signed an agreement to facilitate logistical support and exchanges, making it easier for US forces to deploy to the island. Cypriot officers who took part in IMET programs were present at the signing ceremony.

In March, the Cypriot National Guard — the country's military force — signed a partnership agreement with the New Jersey National Guard, which will allow more exercises reflecting a range of scenarios.

"This trajectory will continue," Giorgallas told Insider, adding that after the National Guard partnership, "our defense cooperation with the US has become irreversible and we look forward to what's to come."

A complicated region

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A Cypriot T-80 tank in an independence day parade in Nicosia in October 2019.IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP via Getty Images

The Eastern Mediterranean region is an important one for a number of nearby powers, which have competed and clashed in North Africa, the Middle East, and southeastern Europe for centuries.

While recent years have seen increased focus on tensions between Russia and NATO, the situation in the region is complicated by enduring rivalries between alliance members, particularly Greece and Turkey, the latter of which has maintained ties with Russia.

Gen. Christopher Cavoli, head of US European Command and NATO's supreme allied commander, told US lawmakers this spring that the Eastern Mediterranean "has seen greatly increased competition as well as Russian naval presence in the past few years."

Cavoli added that US naval forces "work extensively down there" and that NATO devotes considerable attention to Russian activity in the region. (Russia has a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus.)

Giorgallas told Insider that the area is historically an unstable one and that the instability has become more visible in more domains, such as at sea and in the air over the region.

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Turkish forces at an official ceremony marking Turkey's 1974 invasion in the northern part of Nicosia on July 20.BIROL BEBEK/AFP via Getty Images

For Cyprus, "the main security challenge comes from the revisionist and aggressive behavior of Turkey," Giorgallas said, adding that Ankara "seems to disregard and ignore international law and the rules-based international order, posing a threat to regional security and stability."

Turkey does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus and contests its maritime and energy exploration rights. Ankara has kept thousands of troops Northern Cyprus and has been a vocal critic of Nicosia's strengthening of ties with Washington.

Cyprus' support for Ukraine, including hosting Ukrainian troops for training with US experts, and its rapprochement with the US has led to speculation that it may agree to send its Russia-made military hardware — including T-80 tanks and BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles — to Ukraine.

However, Giorgallas said, the "grave security situation" on the island prevents such a transfer. "With Turkish military occupation and aggression still in place, we cannot jeopardize and compromise our national security. I believe that our position is well understood and received by everyone."

Constantine Atlamazoglou works on transatlantic and European security. He holds a master's degree in security studies and European affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. You can contact him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.

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