In April, the nuclear-powered submarine USS San Juan docked in the port of Limassol in Cyprus.
The submarine’s visit was “clear evidence” of the US and Cyprus’s “shared commitment to promoting security and stability in the region” the US ambassador to the island country said after visiting the boat with recently elected President Nikos Christodoulides.
The visit illustrates the importance that Cyprus’s government puts on its relationship with the US and the value Washington sees in the island amid rising activity — and tensions — in the Eastern Mediterranean.
A strategic regional ally
US Army CH-47 helicopters on a training flight over Cyprus in January 2020. US Army/Maj. Robert Fellingham
Located in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, Cyprus has a valuable position in an important neighborhood, providing a perch from which to watch activity in the Eastern Mediterranean and to reach into the Middle East and North Africa.
The Republic of Cyprus, as it’s formally known, was subject to a US arms embargo imposed in 1987 and had developed close ties to Russia, but that dynamic has begun to reverse in recent years.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in April, Gen. Christopher Cavoli, head of US European Command and NATO’s supreme allied commander, said Cyprus is ideally located for the US to project power into the Eastern Mediterranean.
The region is a complicated area “that has seen greatly increased competition as well as Russian naval presence in the past few years,” Cavoli said, adding that US naval forces “work extensively down there” and that NATO is devoting a lot of attention to Russian activity in the region.
Russia maintains a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus — its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union — and an airbase nearby in Hmeimim. Recent upgrades allow its airbase to support strategic bombers and its naval base to do more repairs for warships.
Russia was also a close military partner and a major arms exporter to Cyprus. In 2015, Nicosia struck a deal granting Russian ships access to Cypriot ports for replenishment. Cyprus is also a major hub for illicit Russian funds.
A Westward shift
US Army paratroopers train with Cypriot troops in Larnaca, Cyprus, in February US Army/Staff Sgt. John Yountz
However, Nicosia has been moving away from Russia and pursuing a closer relationship with the US.
In 2019, Congress voted to increase energy cooperation with Cyprus and other countries in the region. In 2020, the US partially lifted its arms embargo so non-lethal equipment could be exported to Cyprus, and last year, it fully lifted the embargo.
“Sharing an equipment set with another nation creates a strategic bond as well as a practical bond that is very useful,” Cavoli said at the hearing when asked about the importance of Cyprus buying American rather than Russian or Chinese weapons.
“We keep a strong military-to-military relationship with Cyprus,” Cavoli said.
Cyprus has expanded its military exchanges with the US, including formalizing its relationship with the New Jersey National Guard under the US’s State Partnership Program in March. That agreement allows Cypriots “to engage in various training and joint exercises on issues ranging from counter-terrorism to emergency response” said Andrew Novo, a professor of strategic studies at the National Defense University.
Cypriot and American units have already conducted joint exercises and the US is training Ukrainian troops on the island.
Nicosia has also undone some of its ties to Russia. Following Moscow’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022, it scrapped the 2015 deal and barred Russian ships from its ports.
Christodoulides, who took office in March, has “strong Western credentials” and wants to continue his predecessor’s efforts to bring Cyprus and the US closer and “to promote Cyprus as a force for stability in the Eastern Mediterranean” Novo told Insider.
Burgeoning US-Cyprus ties would appear to benefit NATO, but not all of the alliance’s members are happy about it.
Following USS San Juan’s arrival in April, Turkey publicly backed a statement by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus — a breakaway territory that only Turkey recognizes — that criticized the visit.
The Turkish statement described the US as taking actions “at the expense of disrupting the balance on” Cyprus and called on Washington “to reconsider these policies.”
Novo said he doubted that Ankara had “a genuine objection” to US warships visiting Cyprus. “These activities present no real concern for Turkey and are not militarily significant for Cyprus,” he added, calling the submarine’s visit symbolic. (US submarines also visited the island in 2022 and 2021.)
Rather, Novo added, Turkish leaders are “uncomfortable with the new close ties between the US and Cyprus.”
Since Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, the island has been divided between the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus, which is internationally recognized, in the south and the Turkish-speaking region in the north, which still hosts some 20,000 Turkish troops.
Firefighters respond to a fire at the Russian Cultural Center in Nicosia in April. AMIR MAKAR/AFP via Getty Images
“Putting out an official press release criticizing the docking of an American ship is a way to make a little noise and remind Washington that closer relations with Cyprus make people in Ankara unhappy,” Novo said.
Growing US ties to Cyprus is only the latest issue to come between Washington and Ankara, whose relations have deteriorated in recent years, driven in part by warming Turkish relations with Russia.
Turkey bought Russian S-400 air-defense systems — which prompted the US to expel it from the F-35 program — and opposed sanctions on Russia over its war against Ukraine, and Ankara is now suspected of helping Moscow avoid those sanctions. In April, Russian and Turkish leaders unveiled a Russian-built nuclear power plant on Turkey’s southern coast.
Turkey remains one of NATO’s largest militaries and occupies strategically important territory in the alliance’s southeastern corner. It also hosts alliance forces, including US nuclear weapons.
Asked about Turkey’s relationship with NATO during the April hearing, Cavoli said he would “defer” to civilian leaders on policy issues but added “that there is a sharp difference between our military relationships and our other relationships when it comes to some countries.”