For decades, the U.S. national security and foreign policy communities viewed Cyprus more as a geopolitical problem instead of a potential partner in a critical region of the world. This perspective took root particularly in the years that followed the 1974 Turkish invasion of the island.
Yet, nearly four decades later, the winds are changing in Washington and Nicosia.
Today the bilateral relationship appears to be undergoing a profound makeover, particularly evident in energy and security cooperation. In Washington, this change of heart can be attributed to the pivotal role of Congress and the forward-looking vision of some specific State Department officials, who reevaluated the Eastern Mediterranean region from a fresh perspective.
A small European country in the Eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus has been facing foreign occupation since 1974, when the Turkish military invaded the northern part of the island with the pretext of safeguarding the Turkish-Cypriot minority. The illegal occupation divided the country and its people in two. Since then, Cyprus has sought to reunify Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots into one stable, free democracy without foreign interference.
Facing the refusal of the international community to recognize the occupied territories as an independent state, the self-proclaimed “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” Ankara shifted its diplomatic approach. The main objective was to trap the Republic of Cyprus into a stalemate by convincing its Western partners not to engage in a meaningful way with Nicosia until a final reunification agreement could be achieved.
While Turkey was insisting that this approach would exercise much-needed pressure for reaching a final peace settlement, the region of the Eastern Mediterranean was experiencing a profound geopolitical transformation that rendered it increasingly important for U.S. interests. The discovery of significant natural gas reserves, the resurgence of great power competition coupled with Turkey’s quest for strategic independence prompted Washington to search for new eager, like-minded partners. Nicosia appeared to be a good candidate, given that it had taken some important steps in that direction.
In 2004, Cyprus became a member of the European Union, while in recent years, it joined forces with Israel, Greece, and Cyprus to create a trilateral partnership that has the potential to strengthen the energy security and diversification of Europe. Very soon, an invitation was extended to the U.S., creating, thus, the 3+1 format with the declared goal of intensifying cooperation in areas such as energy, counterterrorism, and interconnectivity. Recently, Cyprus closed its ports to Russia even before a similar decision was taken by the E.U., while also proving its reliability as a partner by fully enforcing E.U. sanctions against Russia and contributing in many ways in the effort to defend and assist Ukraine.
Talks for reunification have been stalled since 2017, as Turkey would not budge from its position to continue to have troops in Cyprus even after a solution while maintaining its anachronistic security guarantees. Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides is expending every effort for a quick return to the negotiating table, but Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s recent rejection of the United Nations-defined negotiation framework and call for the partition of the island make any progress extremely hard in the foreseeable future.
Absent productive progress on the reunification of the country, Nicosia continues its path toward the West and the further strengthening of its bilateral partnership with the U.S.
In 2022, the U.S. lifted the arms embargo on Cyprus and established a partnership between the New Jersey National Guard and Cypriot military. Officials in Nicosia look at the future of the U.S.-Cypriot defense cooperation with promise. They have already made purchases of equipment now that they are able to access the U.S. defense industry. Moreover, the Cypriot military is now benefiting from the International Military Education Program, also known as IMET, that will train officers in the U.S.
19FortyFive was able to secure a brief interview with Cypriot Minister of Defense Michalis Giorgallas to talk about the security picture in the Eastern Mediterranean, the potential opportunities of the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the Cypriot military, and relationships with Turkey.
What role do you think Cyprus could play in the Eastern Mediterranean region going forward when it comes to security and defense?
Cyprus has a very active regional defense policy. We have long-standing defense cooperation with our partners in the EastMed region, namely with Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Gulf countries.
We are a key enabler and facilitator for defense and security cooperation in the region and through our cooperation structures we have consultations, exercises, and trainings.
Going forward I believe that our contribution to regional defense cooperation is vital for building those ties and connections that will bring about peace, stability, and prosperity.
Cyprus can be an indispensable partner to any country that wishes to cooperate with us in the EastMed for promoting regional security and defense collaboration.
Are there any plans for the further development of the Cypriot Air Force and Navy? Are there any specific systems that you would like to purchase from the United States?
Yes of course there are. They are in line with our overall strategy and policy for the modernization and upgrade of our capabilities and armaments. Recently we made an acquisition of new attack helicopters from Airbus and we are in the process of exploring our future options for other equipment and capabilities.
Turkish side maintains that the introduction of sophisticated weaponry to the island will aggravate an already tense situation. Can a Cypriot armament program be an impediment to the peace reunification process?
Our armed forces are a deterrent force. We train and equip in order to be a credible and forceful deterrent force in case our national security is threatened by Turkey or anyone else.
Hence our capabilities or armaments program is not in any way an impediment to peace efforts. On the contrary, it complements our efforts and contributes to our readiness to respond to any threat.
Cyprus seeks a reunification settlement that will repeal the obsolete Treaty of Guarantee. Could a NATO membership help to reach a solution in that direction?
As you rightly pointed out the treaty of guarantee is obsolete and anachronistic. We saw what happened in Ukraine as well. Security guarantees cannot be a principle to base an agreement in our time and age.
How do you counterbalance this security pivot to the U.S. with Russia, a country that is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and has traditionally a strong presence on the island?
We are an EU member state, and we follow what we decide collectively as EU27. In addition, we are a country that advocates the full and unequivocal respect of international law and the rules-based international order.
What is your take on a Unified Defense Doctrine between Greece and Cyprus: Is it possible in the future?
Allow me to clarify something. Cyprus and Greece already have a robust, structured, and unified approach. What was agreed in the 1990s relates to the conditions of that period.
Since then, a lot has changed. Our respective capabilities have changed- to the best of course.
Hence, I want to make clear that the defense and military cooperation between Cyprus and Greece is stronger than ever before. Both countries are investing significant amounts of our GDP in defense and more importantly in new, advanced capabilities that allow us to be more interoperable and lethal.
A 19FortyFive Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations and a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ). He holds a BA from the Johns Hopkins University, an MA from the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and is pursuing a J.D. at Boston College Law School. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.
Petros Kasfikis is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Greek MEGA TV and the national news agency of Greece (ANA-MPA), covering the White House, State Department, and Congress. As a foreign correspondent, Petros has reported extensively on U.S. foreign policy in Eastern Mediterranean, Balkans, and the Middle East, while also covering the latest U.S. presidential and midterm elections. He holds a BS from Boston University and is also a co-founder of the video production company Genesis Pictures.