The new president of the Republic of Cyprus has pledged to allocate 2% of the country’s gross domestic product for spending on the armed forces. Coupled with his Western foreign policy orientation and the recent lifting of the U.S. arms embargo, this pledge could have a transformative effect on the island republic’s modest military.
President Nikos Christodoulides made the pledge on Mar. 10 during a visit to a special forces training camp.
“As long as there’s an occupation in our country, we are obligated to bolster our deterrent capabilities,” he declared. The occupation refers to Cyprus’s division by Turkey’s 1974 invasion, which led to the establishment of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) over one-third of the island. Only Turkey recognizes the TRNC and maintains a force of 35,000 troops there.
While NATO has long obliged its members to allocate at least two percent of their GDPs for defense spending, Christodoulides clarified that he does not seek membership in the alliance for Cyprus at present. Instead, he wants to put Cyprus “at the core” of efforts by the European Union to enhance European defenses. “I also served as foreign minister and I know that without a strong deterrent force, without a strong defense, your say in foreign policy matters is clearly limited,” he said.
In light of all this, Cyprus could well be on the verge of the most significant military buildup since the 1990s. In the second half of that decade, Nicosia turned to Russia for military hardware since the United States had imposed a complete arms embargo on the island in 1987 under the pretext of preventing an arms race there. That embargo was finally lifted in 2022, which could mean Cyprus might buy Western weaponry to replace its aged Russian arsenal. Nicosia might even transfer that arsenal to Ukraine if it is guaranteed adequate and speedy replacements. Doing so would aptly demonstrate the seriousness of Christodoulides’ pro-Western foreign policy.
George Tzogopoulos, a senior fellow at the Centre International de Formation Européenne (CIFE), pointed out that Cyprus was already spending more on defense as a GDP percentage than most EU countries before the present war in Ukraine began over a year ago.
“In 2021, it was ranked fifth in the European list (together with France and Lithuania) after Greece, Latvia, Estonia, and Romania,” he told me. “The pledge of Christodoulides echoes the general trend in Europe after Feb. 24, 2022, the day the war began, but is also connected to the general situation in Cyprus, the threat coming from Turkey, and the expanding scope of Cyprus-U.S. defense cooperation.”
“So, yes, I expect a moderate arms buildup,” he said.
The most advanced system Nicosia ordered from Russia in the 1990s was undoubtedly the long-range S-300 air defense missile system. However, Turkey threatened to destroy it once it arrived on the island. A crisis and tense standoff broke out that was only defused when the batteries were diverted to the Greek island of Crete and put in storage.
Almost 30 years later, the island republic undoubtedly seeks to improve its limited air defenses with Western systems. While it most likely won’t seek a system with the range of the S-300, it may obtain advanced short to medium-range air defenses. There are already indications it will acquire the Iron Dome system from Israel.
Tzogopoulos believes that Cyprus, under Christodoulides, will likely expand defense cooperation with the U.S. and Israel. And strengthening and modernizing its air defense will be part of the agenda.
“What type of system it will possibly buy, we cannot yet determine,” he said. “But discussions are expected to accelerate.”
Existing Turkish objections against any Cypriot military buildup will undoubtedly rise, and Christodoulides will find it difficult to get security guarantees from the U.S. or Israel against Turkey.
“He will need to ensure that stronger deterrence will practically function as a peaceful game changer on the Island,” Tzogopoulos said. “History (the 1974 invasion) rather creates pessimism than optimism. So, Christoulides’ task is delicate.”
The Cypriot leader has unequivocally condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of his pro-West foreign policy orientation. Ukraine would undoubtedly find Cyprus’s arsenal of Russian-built weaponry, which include T-80 main battle tanks and short-range air defense systems, highly useful and compatible.
“The more Nicosia comes closer to Washington, the more likely it will be pressed to play an active military role in Ukraine, among other things, by supplying to Kyiv Russian-built weapons and get Western alternatives,” Tzogopoulos said. “The responsibility of Christodoulides is to make sure that closer U.S.-Cyprus ties will not lead to a Turkish-Russian alignment of security interests with the capacity of damaging Nicosia’s national interests on the island.”
“The new President might be squeezed in the rising antagonism of others.”
Cyprus never operated fighter jets and only currently possesses a small number of unarmed surveillance drones acquired from Israel. Unconfirmed rumors in the past suggested Greece might eventually supply Nicosia with some of its French-built Dassault Mirage 2000 jets, although that may remain unlikely for various reasons. The island republic could turn to Israel for armed drones.
While Tzogopoulos believes these scenarios are possible, he argued that what matters more for Cyprus is not merely investing in new arms, irrespective of their type or origin, but linking “new military expenditure and new military deals to a specific dogma.”
“In my opinion, Nicosia will have to demand the NATO enlargement (with Finland and Sweden) to also include Cyprus,” he said. “Obviously, the objection of Turkey is noted. But I strongly believe that a military buildup alone will not solve its problem. Nicosia has to act strategically, at least try toward this direction.”
What weapons Cyprus ultimately acquires now that the American embargo is lifted heavily depends on U.S. calculations since Washington defines the characteristics of this nascent defense partnership.
“As Nicosia’s participation in European defense projects makes no substantial difference in guaranteeing its safety, it will need to make sure that its future pro-U.S. choices will not push the island into unchartered waters,” Tzogopoulos said. “That is why I insist that Christodoulides needs a balanced and careful policy when deciding on a military buildup.”
“It all starts with a clear strategy for what he wants to achieve.”