The Biden administration’s lifting of the U.S. arms embargo on Cyprus on Oct. 1 has rekindled the prospect of Nicosia transferring its Russian military arsenal to Ukraine in return for Western-made weaponry. However, for Cyprus to agree to such a tradeoff, it will require replacement weaponry immediately.
As previously detailed here in April, Cyprus has a sizable inventory of Russian-made weaponry the Ukrainians are familiar with that could significantly bolster Kyiv’s arsenal and capabilities if transferred. In mid-October, a Cypriot government spokesperson told The New York Times that Nicosia “would be ready to consider” such an arrangement if it could secure replacements “of equal power and capabilities.”
Shortly after that report’s publication, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades told reporters that his country “will not send arms to Ukraine” since “half of Cyprus is occupied, we need defense, and therefore without defense we cannot survive.”
Despite that seemingly unequivocal statement, Anastasiades echoed that spokesperson’s earlier statement when he added that Cyprus would consider a transfer if another country would supply it with adequate replacements. “That is a different issue,” he said.
The United States or Europe could offer to immediately lease weaponry to Cyprus so Nicosia wouldn’t face the untenable prospect of being unarmed or weakened militarily in the interim between its transition from Russian to Western equipment.
Bulgaria will soon retire its aging Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets and has plans to lease interim aircraft until it receives the modern F-16 Block 70 jets it ordered from the U.S. at the end of this decade. Swedish Gripens, French Dassault Rafales, and older model second-hand F-16s from either the U.S. or Israel are among the aircraft currently under Sofia’s consideration .
While Cyprus does not operate fighter jets, the Western powers could make similar arrangements to immediately replace its Russian-made T-80 tanks, Mi-35P attack helicopters, and Buk and Tor air defense systems.
On the other hand, a direct swap is more likely and straightforward and would fulfill Cyprus’s stated conditions for agreeing to a transfer. Germany’s “Ringtausch” (or ring swap) program incentivizes countries to send their Soviet gear to Ukraine in exchange for provisions of Western-built replacements.
For example, in return for the Czech Republic sending its T-72 tanks and Soviet armored personnel carriers to Kyiv, Germany’s Rheinmetall is compensating Prague with replacement Leopard 2A4 tanks and Buffalo armored recovery vehicles. Slovenia will receive military trucks and flatbeds for providing 28 M55S (Israeli-modified T-55s) tanks to Ukraine. And Greece, a close ally of Cyprus, will receive 40 Schützenpanzer Marder 1 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) in return for giving 40 BMP-1 IFVs to Ukraine.
The program, or something similar, could be extended to Cyprus, along with ironclad guarantees to immediately backfill the Cypriot arsenal in return for a swift transfer of its hardware to Ukraine.
George Tzogopoulos, a lecturer and senior fellow at the European Institute of Nice, believes that the “potential shipment of Russian hardware from Cyprus to Ukraine is likely indeed.”
He believes there are at least two main reasons for this likelihood.
“First, such hardware or parts of it will be useful for Ukraine from a military and technical point of view due to its origins,” he told me. “And second, the lifting of the arms embargo by the U.S. a few weeks ago paves the way for the replacement of this weaponry by American equipment or makes such a development possible.”
However, Tzogopoulos also cautioned that “this is not a typical procedure or business as usual as it is happening with Czechia (Czech Republic).”
“The replacement of the Soviet-made Cypriot weaponry is an urgent national security issue for the Republic of Cyprus,” he said.
After all, the evident sensitivity in Cyprus concerning the prospect of transferring its weaponry is understandable. After all, it coincides with Turkey’s recent pledge to boost its military presence in Northern Cyprus and its declaration that it “would take other necessary actions as a guarantor state.”
“It will be hard to speculate how the military material Cyprus possibly ships to Ukraine could be replaced and whether the U.S. decides to step in directly in the aftermath of the lifting of the arms embargo or advise some of its partners to proceed,” Tzogopoulos said. “As long as the American-Turkish bargain is going on, several cards will be on the table.”
The overall situation is, therefore, “subsequently becoming tricky,” with the strong possibility that Russia and Turkey will seek to complicate things for the small, vulnerable island republic.
“While the principal interest of the U.S. is to push the Republic of Cyprus away from Russia, a pro-U.S. orientation of Nicosia’s foreign policy will be seen suspiciously by Ankara – the Greek experience is edifying,” Tzogopoulos said. “Moscow, for its part, will attempt to prevent this outcome from happening, a task which is not theoretically impossible because the Republic of Cyprus is not a NATO member state.”
“Against this backdrop, the continuing American-Turkish misunderstanding and the evolving American-Russian antagonism will eliminate (the almost non-existing) hopes for a resolution of the Cyprus question solidifying dichotomy and rivalry,” he added.
Furthermore, he warned that one could not exclude a scenario wherein Turkey and Russia cooperate on the Cyprus issue to fulfill their different motivations. After all, Ankara and Moscow share the common goal of thwarting the emergence of a pro-U.S.-oriented Cyprus.
“For the U.S. to shape regional order by moving Russia out, bringing the Republic of Cyprus into its orbit, and keeping Turkey relatively satisfied will be a tall order,” Tzogopoulos said.
“Within this context, the Republic of Cyprus will need to calculate costs and benefits as it risks seeing its national interest downplayed in the roulette of geopolitical and regional aspirations of other players.”