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From Russia with Love: Controversy Around the Russian Aid Campaign to Italy

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As Winston Churchill said in the mid-1940s as the end of World War II approached, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” At the time, the British Prime Minister was presumably referring to the Yalta conference and the resulting alliance between him, Stalin, and Roosevelt, the trio that would lead to the founding of the United Nations, thus generating opportunities within a crisis. Although the statement dates back more than 70 years, it continues to be relevant even today. In recent years the Kremlin has not hesitated to make a crisis fruitful, using it to regain its position as a significant player on the global scene (i.e., Libya, Ukraine, Syria). And the global health emergency triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.

On March 22, Italy began to receive the first Russian aid, following a telephone call between Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Russian President Vladimir Putin. A goodwill gesture labeled “From Russia with Love” in honor of one of the most successful films in the 007 sagas. Along with the mission and medical material, however, came a military contingent led by General Sergey Kikot, head of 104 health workers and other assistance personnel.

Although welcomed with great appreciation, the reception of the Russian aid operation has raised several doubts concerning the authenticity of its objectives. In this regard, it is necessary to stress that until the beginning of April, Italy faced the crisis almost entirely on its own.

Initially, Europe and its member states revealed themselves to be reluctant to cooperate. Instead of showing solidarity towards their then most affected member state, the allied governments reacted through the closure of the borders, a move that resulted in the delay of the arrival and exchange of necessary medical equipment on European soil, thus worsening the Italian situation. The apology addressed to the peninsula by EU President Ursula Von Der Leyen is dated April 1 (“Ursula von der Leyen: Scusateci ora l’Europa è con voi”). In the letter addressed to the newspaper “La Repubblica”, the President apologized for the lack of promptness of help from the European community, calling Italy a source of inspiration in the fight against COVID-19 and stressing its importance as a member state of the European Union. Besides, in the letter, it is repeatedly stated that although the European response was initially delayed, Europe is now more united than ever in the fight against the virus. A battle that cannot be won if not together.

Faster in the solidarity response, conversely, proved to be third countries, including not only Russia, but also China, and Cuba. Pending a European response, and just when the number of casualties exceeded that of China, a series of aid from the communist giant arrived in Italy. Between 12 and 18 March, an equipe of medical experts landed in Rome and Milan along with supplies and technical support, including respirators, masks, and protective suits and dressings. Similarly, on March 26, Cuba sent a medical team consisting of 52 healthcare professionals.

While not much has been spoken about the other foreign aid, and although Italy was facing great difficulties and was in definite need of help, the arrival of the Russian contingent has caused quite a few perplexities. Questions were raised concerning the consequences of the Russian aid campaign to Italy. Did the Kremlin expect anything in return? What would be the cost to the Italian government of these disinterested contributions, and what the strategic motives behind the humanitarian mission? Alexander Baunov, senior fellow at Moscow Carnegie Center, in the article “Is the Kremlin using the crisis as an opportunity to score propaganda victories?”, pointed out how, for countries that would like to see the world order turned upside down, this pandemic presents an excellent opportunity.

Prior to discussing the underlying motives at the heart of the Russian aid campaign, it is of interest to observe how the same information has been presented by the two respective governments. While in Russia the press focused on the gratitude shown by the Italian people for the assistance received, in Italy, media appeared more critical, questioning the implications of the campaign.

More specifically, La Stampa, one of the longest-selling and oldest newspapers on the peninsula, expressed its doubts about the matter, in particular through the work of the journalist Jacopo Iacoboni. (“Nella Spedizione dei Russi in Italia, il generale che negò i gas in Siria”, “Militari di Mosca acquartierati nella foresteria dell’esercito italiano, i timori di un’“occupazione” russa in Italia” ). The correspondent voiced his perplexity over the quality of the aid received, pointing out that about 80% of the material was obsolete and not working. The usage of the Aventa-M fan model (at present, there are 150 fans of this type on Italian soil) has, in fact, been suspended in Russia after having caused the death of 6 people, between 9 and 12 of May, for catching fire. In addition, the journalist, given the large number of military presence in the contingent, expressed his fears for the security of the country’s sensitive data, depicting the aid more as a geopolitical move than as an act of solidarity.

The diatribe became more heated when Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashankov intervened, accusing the journalist of russophobia and spreading false information.

Tensions culminated in an appeal to Russian institutions from Rome by Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio and Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini to respect freedom of the press, including the right of criticism, defined as a fundamental value at the base of the country.

On the other hand, the Russian media decided to focus their attention on the appreciation expressed by the Italians. Alongside the news of the mission’s arrival on Italian soil, media reported flags displaying the message “Spasibo Bolshoe” (thank you very much) held by smiling Italians gazing at the camera from their balconies. “Thank you, Russia, we won’t forget” “Dear Merkel, thank you for abandoning us” these the recurrent headlines on the subject (Baltnews, RT, BBC Russia, Rya Novosty, VestyRu, TsarGrad). Among the most well-known personal expression of gratitude, it is worth mentioning the former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s private message to Putin and a video posted by the Italian singer Pupo, in which the singer tries to pronounce a few words and sings in Russian.

From the Russian media, however, the Italian response to Russian aid seems to have found more support than what appears to have actually happened. According to EUvsDISINFO weekly report – “Coronavirus: BBC challenges pro-Kremlin reporting from Italy” – Italians have been portrayed replacing European flags with Russian ones, as proof though only an isolated video was found. Another recurring narrative denounced by the EU taskforce portrays Italian citizens engaged in playing the Russian anthem from their balconies during the lockdown. However, again, only one video to confirm the statement. The video was filmed outside the UGL Workers’ Union, a section of the extreme right-wing Italian political party Casapound.

Let us now turn to the controversies surrounding the interests behind the Russian aid contingent.

Amidst the most commonly discussed assumptions, one wonders whether, as a result of the disinterested aid, Russia does not expect something in return.

A common belief is that the Kremlin, having in Italy its closest ally within the European Union, could count on its help to put pressure on Brussels to review the question of sanctions, imposed following the illegal annexation of Crimea. A strategy that had already been employed in the preceding years with regard to Italy unsuccessfully (Following a unanimous vote held in December 2019, the European Council had extended the sanctions until July 31, 2020). As alleged evidence to this would seem to be the letter dated April 27 from the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Russian Duma, Leonid Slutsky, forwarded to the Italian senators. The letter expressly asks for help on the issue of sanctions. In order to avoid misinterpretation, clarification was promptly provided by the President of the Foreign Commission of Palazzo Madama, the senator of the 5 Star Movement Vito Petrocelli, who stated: “The appeal of my Russian counterpart Leonid Slutsky did not concern at all the European sanctions against Moscow linked to the Ukrainian issue, but the international sanctions that prevent countries such as Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and others from adequately combating the spread of COVID-19, creating further risks of contagion for the entire planet.” The letter would, therefore, refer to the UN General Assembly decision, which rejected the Russian resolution presented on March 25, also signed, among other countries, by China, Iran, and Venezuela, to suspend the sanctions due to the current health emergency.

Although there was some controversy following the letter’s receipt, it seems, nonetheless, quite far-fetched for the Russian mission to Italy to be solely dictated by the possibility for the latter to provide help concerning the suspension of sanctions against the Kremlin.

In this regard, it is of interest to remark that during its most critical moments (WWII, Cold War), Italy has always sided against Russia. On the contrary, the most probable scenario seems to be the Kremlin’s aim to gain credit with Rome in those areas of friction where bilateral relations prevail, i.e., the energy market and the Libyan question.

Italy is the fourth Russian trade outlet after the Netherlands, China, and Germany, and the fifth source of imports. In this regard, the Italo-Russian Chamber of Commerce (CCIR), founded in 1964, is very operative, bringing together the main Italian companies operating in Russia and vice versa. Russia is also the leading supplier of energy in Italy: from the latter, it purchases oil for about 15% of imports and gas for 30% of total imports. Italy acts, therefore, as the natural bridge between Russia and the European Union. This role, among other things, is witnessed by the massive Italian presence at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, which, in addition to the political presence, sees the participation of all the most significant Italian companies and their chain of small and medium enterprises. Not to mention the investments of the two major Italian banks, Intesa Sanpaolo and Unicredit. Italy and Russia live in a relationship of economic symbiosis, as evidenced by the ever-increasing commercial exchange (EUROSTAT).

Simultaneously, the ongoing instability in Libya presents several challenges for Italy. Among the broad spectrum of interests in ending the Libyan crisis, in addition to energy and security issues, the issue of migration is undoubtedly the most urgent. Indeed, the migratory flow on the Italian coast risks having a significant impact on public opinion and political developments in the country. In this regard, Russia, which is also involved in the country, would thus play a key role in the negotiations to end the conflict.

In addition to whether the bill would have been presented to Italy once the aid had ended, further concern relates to security. Due to the presence of a large military convoy, the motive behind army personnel deployment and not just medical staff was questioned. Widespread speculation was that Moscow, accessing various hospitals’ databases, was engaged in a data-mining mission. Now, that would seem more like a scenario worthy of the Cold War era. What seems more reasonable, especially given that, at the time, Russia was still one of the countries less affected by the virus, is that, in the Kremlin’s perspective, the Italian situation presented itself as an excellent opportunity to gather useful information about COVID-19 and its possible mutations.

Thus, Italy would have represented both a study opportunity to train and test the capabilities of Russian departments specializing in chemical, radiological and biological defense, as well as a chance to examine the data stored in the national health system, collecting all the information needed, in order to gain a better understanding of the virus. To suggest the hypothesis, the fact that Russian convoys, consisting among others of an entire department highly specialized in bacteriological containment operations, were located in Bergamo, Lombardy, the most affected area in Italy.

Even though some have regarded the Russian aid campaign with fear and criticism, including Josep Borrell head of the European Union’s foreign and defense policy, who warned against Chinese and Russian propaganda, the Italian government has been clear about the matter. To reiterate the Italian position and avoid further ambiguity, the foreign minister Luigi di Maio in a recent interview for the newspaper “Il Corriere Della Sera” reported that there was no new geopolitical scenario. In what he described to be a matter of “realpolitik,” he stated, “There is only one country that needs help and the other countries that are giving it.”

A few weeks after the end of the Russian mission (May 7), one wonders whether there will be any consequences on the international geopolitical scene. Nonetheless, when addressing Russia’s attempt to re-establish itself on the international stage, in Italy’s case, it appears erroneous to refer to the mission as of an attempt to penetrate new geopolitical spaces. Russian solidarity should rather be regarded as an effort to maintain a political status quo already considered favorable. From the friendship of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with Vladimir Putin, to Enrico Letta, the only EU leader at the inauguration of the Olympic Games in Sochi, to Matteo Renzi, former Prime Minister, and Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing party “The League”, who openly criticized the European Council for the renewal of sanctions against Russia, to an intense series of agreements and protocols of economic, political and cultural cooperation, Italo-Russian relations appear well-established.

Italy has long stood as the founding country of the EU closest to the Kremlin, and bilateral relations seem to be facilitated by the presence of shared interests based on economic cooperation (CCIR) and the lack of historical political and social issues (Siddi). Relations are determined not only by commercial interests but also by the fruitful cultural and social exchanges between the two countries. Italian institutes of culture are very operative in the Federation, as well as the Dante Alighieri Societies, particularly active in the teaching of the Italian language, along with various cultural and tourist exchange initiatives. Despite the consequences and the underlying motives behind this humanitarian mission remain hence difficult to be predicted, it is nevertheless interesting to stress that a link between the two countries already existed. And although Italy has been part of the western economic and military structure (EU and NATO founding member) since the first post-war period, positive dialogue with the Kremlin has continued and continues to evolve.

From our partner RIAC

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The 30th Anniversary of the Visegrád Group: The Voice of Central Europe

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The Visegrád group or V4 is a cultural and political union created in 1991, during a conference in the city of Visegrád in Hungary. V4 has been a symbol of Central Europe’s international activity and a new way of coordinating regional cooperation. Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia’s location in the Central European region provides shared cultural and intellectual roots, which they wish to, preserve and further strengthen.

The aim has been clear since the beginning of the cooperation: to eliminate the remnants of the Communist bloc in Central Europe and to accomplish the necessary transformation to further European integration. V4 accessed the EU membership together on May the 1st 2004. Once the goal – EU and NATO membership – had been reached, the Visegrád group did not disappear, as it was and still is also a way for those 4 countries to have a bigger voice by cumulating their strengths. However, some uneasiness and gloom can now be felt in this axis connecting the Baltic, the Adriatic, and the Black Sea.

Relationship with the EU

The construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is being opposed by several central and eastern Europeans as well as the United States, is a contentious subject for the V4. Its completion would bypass the V4 region, causing economic and geopolitical harm. It’s not only about falling income from gas transit fees to Western Europe; it’s also about the overall “geopolitical rent” for the Central European area, which would dwindle correspondingly as the present gas pipelines’ relevance decreases.

In Brussels, “Europe” usually means Western Europe. Yet V4countries are, in terms of national progress, becoming the equals of, and even superior to, France and Germany—two EU founders and its two largest, wealthiest members. Recent statistical measures of economic growth, employment, and terrorism all show that four ex-Soviet satellites on the EU’s eastern frontier demonstrate better performance than France or Germany in almost every benchmark metric.


The gross domestic product (GDP) of the V4 grew an average of 4.3 percent in 2018, compared to 1.6 for France and Germany. In both Hungary and Poland, the growth of GDP was 5.1 percent, more than three times the average rate for France and Germany. The worst growth rate among the V4—Czechia’s 3.0 percent—was still double Germany’s growth rate. Given Germany’s stellar reputation as Europe’s economic powerhouse, this is significant. Yet inflation remained mild across all four Visegrád countries, ranging from 1.7 percent in Poland to 2.9 percent in Hungary.


Western Europe still sports larger economies, higher incomes, and longer life expectancies, but these represent a fading legacy of decades of prosperity and peace that was denied to the EU’s eastern members. The indicators, in which some CEE states still lag, like corruption or pollution, are similarly an inheritance of ex-communist rule. Pre-pandemic economic and social progress looked very good for Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, and troubling for Germany and France. If these trends resume—and there is no reason to think they won’t—the East will soon outshine the West.

Despite the fact that Germany is the largest net contributor of EU funds, its economy has benefited the most under the euro, gaining €1.9 trillion from 1999 and 2007, or about €23,000 per German. Berlin’s economy benefits from the EU’s euro zone in many ways, according to Bertelsmann Stiftung, a respected German think-tank. By 2025, the benefits could amount to €170 billion more for Germany. Observers often refer to the V4 as “two plus two,” because of their differing attitudes to European integration. Czechia and Slovakia are more Europe-friendly than Poland and Hungary, which are far more eurosceptic.

Conclusion

The V4 do not share the post-World War II view of the EU embraced by dominant decision-makers in Western Europe, such as France, and Germany. Hungary and Poland’s authorities have generated front-page headlines in recent months for disregarding EU regulations. Their vision for Europe is for a robust and strong nation-state. The V4 has emerged as a non-institutional organization but is increasingly present as a separate agent in European and global politics. The upcoming year, with all its challenges, will certainly reveal more about this partnership. Central Europe needs to be strong within the European Union, and this requires a functioning Visegrád, and the willingness to find common results.

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EU: The stalemate in negotiations brings Serbia ever closer to Russia and China

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Serbia has been waiting since 2012 for the European Union to respond to its application to become a full member of the EU.

In spite of exhausting negotiations, this response is slow in coming and the main cause of the stalemate has a clear name: Kosovo. Before accepting Serbia’s application for membership, the EU requires a definitive solution to the relations between Serbia and that region that broke away from it after the 1999 conflict – when NATO came to the aid of the Kosovo Albanians – and proclaimed its independence in February 2008.

Serbia has never recognised the birth of the Kosovo Republic, just as many other important countries have not: out of 193 UN members, only 110 have formally accepted the birth of the new republic, while the rest, including Russia, China, Spain, Greece and Romania – to name just the most important ones – refuse to recognise the independence of the Albanians of what was once a region of Serbia.

The European Union cannot accept that one of its members is in fact unable to guarantee control over its borders, as would be the case for Serbia if its membership were accepted.

In fact, since the end of the war between Kosovo and Serbia, there is no clear and controlled border between the two countries. In order to avoid continuous clashes, Kosovo and Serbia have actually left the border open, turning a blind eye to the ‘smuggling economy’ that thrives on both sides of the border.

In this situation, if Serbia were to become a full member of the European Union, it would create a gap in the borders of the entire Schengen area, as anyone passing through Kosovo could then move into all EU countries.This is not the only obstacle to Serbia’s accession to the European

Union: many European chancelleries are wary of Serbian foreign policy which, since the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation, has maintained a privileged relationship with Russia, refusing to adhere to the sanctions decided by Europe against Russia after the annexation of Crimea to the detriment of Ukraine.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Serbia even agreed to produce the Russian vaccine ‘Sputnik V’ directly in its own laboratories, blatantly snubbing EU’s vaccine offer.

For the United States and some important European countries, Serbia’s formal accession to the European Union could shift the centre of gravity of Europe’s geopolitics towards the East, opening a preferential channel for dialogue between Russia and the European Union through Serbia.

This possibility, however, is not viewed unfavourably by Germany which, in the intentions of the CDU President, Armin Laschet, the next candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor, has recently declared he is in favour of a foreign policy that “develops in multiple directions”, warning his Western partners of the danger resulting from “the interruption of the dialogue with Russia and China”. In this regard, Laschet has publicly stated that ‘foreign policy must always focus on finding ways to interact, including cooperation with countries that have different social models from ours, such as Russia, China and the nations of the Arab world’.

Today we do not know whether in autumn Laschet will take over the leadership of the most powerful country in the European Union, but what is certain is that Serbia’s possible formal membership of the European Union could force Europe to revise some of its foreign policy stances, under the pressure of a new Serbian-German axis.

Currently, however, Serbia’s membership of the European Union still seems a long way off, precisely because of the stalemate in the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations.

In 2013 Kosovo and Serbia signed the so-called ‘Brussels Pact’, an agreement optimistically considered by European diplomats to be capable of rapidly normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo, in view of mutual political and diplomatic recognition.

An integral part of the agreement was, on the one hand, the commitment of Kosovo’s authorities to recognise a high degree of administrative autonomy to the Kosovo municipalities inhabited by a Serb majority and, on the other hand, the collaboration of the Serbs in the search for the remains of the thousands of Kosovar Albanians presumably eliminated by Milosevic’s troops during the repression that preceded the 1999 war.

Neither of the two commitments has so far been fulfilled and, during the meeting held in Brussels on July 21 between Serbian President Alexander Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti, harsh words and reciprocal accusations were reportedly exchanged concerning the failure to implement the ‘Pact’, to the extent that the Head of European foreign policy, Josep Borrel, publicly asked the two parties to ‘close the chapter of a painful past through a legally binding agreement on the normalisation of mutual relations, with a view to building a European future for its citizens’. This future seems nebulous, to say the least, if we consider that Serbia, in fact, refuses to recognise the legal value of degrees and diplomas awarded by the Kosovo academic authorities also to members of the Kosovo Serb minority.

Currently, however, both contenders are securing support and alliances in Europe and overseas.

Serbia is viewed favourably by the current President of the European Union, Slovenian Janez Jansa, who is a supporter of its membership because “this would definitively mark the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation”. The vast majority of European right-wing parties, ranging from the French ‘Rassemblement National’ to the Hungarian ‘Fydesz’, also approve of Serbia’s membership application and openly court the Serbian minorities living in their respective countries while, after the years of US disengagement from the Balkans under Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump, the Biden administration has decided to put the region back on the list of priority foreign policy commitments, entrusting the ‘Serbia dossier’ to the undersecretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Matthew Palmer, an authoritative and experienced diplomat.

With a view to supporting its application for European membership, Serbia has also deployed official lobbyists.

Last June, Natasha Dragojilovic Ciric’s lobbying firm ND Consulting officially registered in the so-called EU ‘transparency register’ to promote support for Serbia’s membership. ND is financed by a group of international donors and is advised by Igor Bandovic, former researcher at the American Gallup and Head of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, by lawyer Katarina Golubovic of the ‘Committee of Human Rights Lawyers’ and Jovana Spremo, former OSCE consultant.

These are the legal experts deployed by Serbia in Brussels to support its application for formal European integration, but in the meantime Serbia is not neglecting its “eastern” alliances.

Earlier this month, the Head of the SVR, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergey Naryshkin, paid an official visit to Belgrade, a few weeks after the conclusion of a joint military exercise between Russian special forces (the “Spetznaz”) and Serbian special forces.

In the Serbian capital, Naryshkin not only met his Serbian counterpart Bratislav Gasic, Head of the ‘Bezbednosno Informativna Agencija’, the small but powerful Serbian secret service, but was also received by the President of the Republic Alexander Vucic with the aim of publicising the closeness between Serbia and Russia.

The timing of the visit coincides with the resumption of talks in Brussels on Serbia’s accession to the European Union and can clearly be considered as instrumental in exerting subtle diplomatic pressure aimed at convincing the European Union of the possibility that, in the event of a refusal, Serbia may decide to definitely turn its back on the West and ally with an East that is evidently more willing to treat the Serbs with the dignity and attention that a proud and tenacious people believes it deserves.

A piece of news confirming that Serbia is ready to turn its back on the West, should Europe continue to postpone the decision on its accession to the European Union is the fact that China has recently signed a partnership agreement with Serbia in the field of pharmaceutical research, an agreement that makes Serbia one of China’s current largest commercial partners on the European continent.

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NATO’s Cypriot Trick

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UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact died, there was much speculation that NATO would consider itself redundant and either disappear or at least transmogrify into a less aggressive body.

Failing that, Moscow at least felt assured that NATO would not include Germany, let alone expand eastwards. Even the NATO Review, NATO’s PR organ, wrote self-apologetically twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin wall: “Thus, the debate about the enlargement of NATO evolved solely in the context of German reunification. In these negotiations Bonn and Washington managed to allay Soviet reservations about a reunited Germany remaining in NATO. This was achieved by generous financial aid, and by the ‘2+4 Treaty’ ruling out the stationing of foreign NATO forces on the territory of the former East Germany. However, it was also achieved through countless personal conversations in which Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were assured that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakness and willingness to withdraw militarily from Central and Eastern Europe.”

Whatever the polemics about Russia’s claim that NATO broke its promises, the facts of what happened following the fall of the Berlin wall and the negotiations about German re-unification strongly demonstrate that Moscow felt cheated and that the NATO business and military machine, driven by a jingoistic Cold War Britain, a selfish U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex and an atavistic Russia-hating Poland, saw an opportunity to become a world policeman.

This helps to explain why, in contrast to Berlin, NATO decided to keep Nicosia as the world’s last divided city. For Cyprus is in fact NATO’s southernmost point, de facto. And to have resolved Cyprus’ problem by heeding UN resolutions and getting rid of all foreign forces and re-unifying the country would have meant that NATO would have ‘lost’ Cyprus: hardly helpful to the idea of making NATO the world policeman. Let us look a little more closely at the history behind this.

Following the Suez debacle in 1956, Britain had already moved its Middle East Headquarters from Aden to Cyprus, while the U.S. was taking over from the UK and France in the Middle East. Although, to some extent under U.S. pressure, Britain was forced to bring Makarios out of exile and begin negotiating with Greece and Turkey to give up its colony, the U.S. opted for a NATO solution. It would not do to have a truly sovereign Cyprus, but only one which accepted the existence of the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) as part and parcel of any settlement; and so it has remained, whatever the sophistic semantics about a bizonal settlement and a double-headed government. The set of twisted and oft-contradictory treaties that have bedevilled the island since 1960 are still afflicting the part-occupied island which has been a de facto NATO base since 1949. Let us look at some more history.

When Cyprus obtained its qualified independence in 1960, Greece and Turkey had already signed, on 11 February 1959, a so called ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, agreeing that they would support Cyprus’ entry into NATO.1 This was, however, mere posture diplomacy, since Britain—and the U.S. for that matter—did not trust Cyprus, given the strength of the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) and the latter’s links to Moscow. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) wrote: ‘Membership of NATO might make it easier for the Republic of Cyprus and possibly for the Greeks and Turks to cause political embarrassment should the United Kingdom wish to use the bases […] for national ends outside Cyprus […] The access of the Cypriot Government to NATO plans and documents would present a serious security risk, particularly in view of the strength of the Cypriot Communist Party. […] The Chiefs of Staff, therefore, feel most strongly that, from the military point of view, it would be a grave disadvantage to admit Cyprus to NATO.’2 In short, Cyprus was considered unreliable.

As is well known, the unworkable constitution (described as such by the Foreign Office and even by David Hannay, the Annan reunification plan’s PR man), resulted in chaos and civil strife: in January 1964, during the chaos caused by the Foreign Office’s help and encouragement to President Makarios to introduce a ‘thirteen point plan’ to solve Cyprus’ problems, British Prime Minister Douglas-Home told the Cabinet: ‘If the Turks invade or if we are seriously prevented from fulfilling our political role, we have made it quite clear that we will retire into base.’3 Put more simply, Britain had never had any intention of upholding the Treaty of Guarantee.

In July of the same year, the Foreign Office wrote: ‘The Americans have made it quite clear that there would be no question of using the 6th Fleet to prevent any possible Turkish invasion […] We have all along made it clear to the United Nations that we could not agree to UNFICYP’s being used for the purpose of repelling external intervention, and the standing orders to our troops outside UNFYCYP are to withdraw to the sovereign base areas immediately any such intervention takes place.’4

It was mainly thanks to Moscow and President Makarios that in 1964 a Turkish invasion and/or the island being divided between Greece and Turkey was prevented. Such a solution would have strengthened NATO, since Cyprus would no longer exist other than as a part of NATO members Greece and Turkey. Moscow had issued the following statement: ‘The Soviet Government hereby states that if there is an armed foreign invasion of Cypriot territory, the Soviet Union will help the Republic of Cyprus to defend its freedom and independence against foreign intervention.’5

Privately, Britain, realising the unworkability of the 1960 treaties, was embarrassed, and wished to relieve itself of the whole problem. The following gives us the backstage truth: ‘The bases and retained sites, and their usefulness to us, depend in large measure on Greek Cypriot co-operation and at least acquiescence. A ‘Guantanamo’6 position is out of the question. Their future therefore must depend on the extent to which we can retain Greek and/or Cypriot goodwill and counter USSR and UAR pressures. There seems little doubt, however, that in the long term, our sovereign rights in the SBA’s will be considered increasingly irksome by the Greek Cypriots and will be regarded as increasingly anachronistic by world public opinion.7

Following the Turkish invasion ten years later, Britain tried to give up its bases: ‘British strategic interests in Cyprus are now minimal. Cyprus has never figured in NATO strategy and our bases there have no direct NATO role. The strategic value of Cyprus to us has declined sharply since our virtual withdrawal from east of Suez. This will remain the case when the Suez Canal has reopened.8

A Cabinet paper concluded: ‘Our policy should continue to be one of complete withdrawal of our military presence on Cyprus as soon as feasible. […] In the circumstances I think that we should make the Americans aware of our growing difficulty in continuing to provide a military presence in Cyprus while sustaining our main contribution to NATO. […]9

Britain kept trying to give up the bases, but the enabler of the Turkish invasion, Henry Kissinger, did not allow Britain to give up its bases and listening posts, since that would have weakened NATO, and since Kissinger needed the bases because of the Arab-Israel dispute.10

Thus, by the end of 1980, in a private about-turn, Britain had completely succumbed to American pressure: ‘The benefits which we derive from the SBAs are of major significance and virtually irreplaceable. They are an essential contribution to the Anglo-American relationship. The Department have regularly considered with those concerned which circumstances in Cyprus are most conducive to our retaining unfettered use of our SBA facilities. On balance, the conclusion is that an early ‘solution’ might not help (since pressures against the SBAs might then build up), just as breakdown and return to strife would not, and that our interests are best served by continuing movement towards a solution – without the early prospect of arrival [author’s italics]11.

And so it is today: Cyprus is a de facto NATO territory. A truly independent, sovereign and united Cyprus is an anathema to the U.S. and Britain, since such a scenario would afford Russia the hypothetical opportunity to increase its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

From our partner RIAC

[1] Ministry of Defence paper JP (59) 163, I January 1960, BNA DEFE 13/99/MO/5/1/5, in Mallinson, William, Cyprus, a Modern History, I.B. Tauris (now Bloomsbury), London and New York, 2005, 2009, 2012, p.49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Memorandum by Prime Minister, 2 January 1964, BNA CAB/129/116, in ibid, Mallinson, William, p.37.

[4] British Embassy, Washington, to Foreign Office, 7 July 1964, telegram 8541, BNA FO 371/174766, file C1205/2/G, in ibid.’, Mallinson, William, p. 37.

[5] Joseph, Joseph S., Cyprus, Ethnic Conflict and International Politics, St Martin’s Press, London and New York, 1997, p. 66.

[6] In 1964, Cuba cut off supplies to the American base at Guantanamo Bay, since the US refused to return it to Cuba, as a result of which the US took measures to make it self-sufficient.

[7] Briefing paper, 18 June 1964, BNA-DO/220/170, file MED 193/105/2, part A. Mallinson,William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p. 127.

[8] ‘British Interests in the Eastern Mediterranean’, draft paper, 11 April 1975, BNA-FCO 46/1248, file DPI/515/1.

[9] Cabinet paper, 29 September 1976, in op. cit. Mallinson, William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p.134.

[10] Mallinson, William, Britain and Cyprus: Key Themes and Documents, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2011, and Bloomsbury, London and New York, 2020, pp. 87-121.

[11] Fergusson to Foreign Minister’s Private Secretary, minute, 8 December 1980, BNA-FCO 9/2949, file WSC/023/1, part C.

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