Turkey has announced that Russia will hold live-fire naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean, amid escalating tensions between Turkey and its coastal neighbours Greece and Cyprus over rights to search for energy resources in the region.
The navigational notice issued late Wednesday said the Russian exercises will take place Sept. 8-22 and Sept. 17-25 in areas of the Mediterranean where Turkish seismic research vessels are operating.
There was no immediate comment from Russia on the exercises, which Turkey announced after the United States said it was partially lifting a 33-year-old arms embargo against ethnically divided Cyprus.
It’s unclear why NATO-member Turkey would announce such drills on Moscow’s behalf, but the two countries have in recent years significantly strengthened their military, political and economic ties. They are co-ordinating closely on their military presence in Syria, while Turkey has purchased Russia’s advanced S-400 missiles and has broken ground on a Russian-built nuclear power plant on its southern coast.
Turkey has reacted angrily to the U.S. move that it said went against the “spirit of alliance” between Washington and Ankara. It also warned that it would harm efforts to reunify Cyprus, which is split between Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities. Turkish officials have also vowed to take steps to guarantee the security of a self-declared Turkish state in the island’s north.
Turkey’s announcement comes at a time of increased friction between Turkey on the one side and Greece and Cyprus on the other over offshore energy exploration rights. Warships from Greece and Turkey have been shadowing each other in recent weeks as Turkish survey vessels and drill ships continue to prospect for hydrocarbons in waters where Greece and Cyprus claim exclusive economic rights.
In Athens, Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said the planned Russian exercises were being “monitored by all the countries in the region, as well as our NATO allies and European Union partners.”
Cyprus’ government spokesman Kyriakos Koushos said that Russia notifies Cypriot authorities directly about issuing any navigation notice. He said Cyprus has no issue with Russia and that its only complaint concerns Turkey’s attempts to “take advantage” of the situation.
The U.S. embargo, imposed in 1987, was designed to prevent an arms race that would hinder UN-facilitated reunification efforts for Cyprus. It was directed against the southern, Greek Cypriot part of the island, where Cyprus’ internationally-recognized government is seated.
Cyprus split in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkey is the only nation to recognize a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence and it maintains more than 35,000 troops in northern Cyprus.
Washington said it was lifting the arms embargo against Cyprus for one year – with the option of renewal – to let it procure non-lethal equipment.
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Thursday that the lifting of the embargo will lead to a deadlock.
“If you lift the embargo on (Greek Cypriot-administered Cyprus) and try to disrupt the balance in this way, this will bring conflict, not peace. This will create a deadlock, not a solution,” he said.
Akar also took aim at France, which joined Greece and Cyprus for military exercises in the region, accusing it of “bullying, making claims and playing the role of a guardian angel.”
U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus Judith Garber said the embargo lifting had no connection to “valued partner and ally” Turkey, but aimed to strengthen regional security and to “counter malign actors in the region.”
Garber said Washington waived a requirement that Cyprus cease to offer refuelling and other port services to Russian warships, but that it would continue to “encourage” Cypriot government authorities to deny those services.
“We believe that Russia is playing a very destabilizing role in the region, especially in Syria,” Garber said.
Russia’s Ambassador to Cyprus Stanislav Osadchiy on Thursday rejected Garber’s remarks. He said that Russia is in Syria legally at the behest of the country’s government, and accused the U.S. of sowing “blood, chaos, unrest and an unprecedented migration crisis” through its actions in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Libya.
Osadchiy also accused the U.S. of pursuing a policy of “divide and rule” in the eastern Mediterranean by attempting to drive a wedge between Russia and Cyprus through its demand for the island nation to deny Russian warships access to its ports.
Russia maintains a sizable naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean and regularly conducts naval manoeuvres there. The announcement of the latest live-fire drill could be a message from Moscow that it remains a major regional player whose influence won’t be diminished by Washington’s embargo move.
Menelaos Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia, Cyprus. Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece contributed.