Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 1

On December 29, nearly two years after reaching a controversial agreement with Moscow to deliver Russian S-300 air defense missiles to Cyprus, Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides announced that the missiles would likely be sent instead to the Greek island of Crete. Turkey had threatened to use military force, if necessary, to prevent the Greek Cypriot government from deploying the missiles. The December 29th decision, which represented a major retreat for Nicosia (capital of Cyprus), followed talks between Clerides and Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis in Athens. Greece is bound by a 1993 defense pact to defend Cyprus, and had pressed the Greek Cypriot government to negotiate the delivery of the missiles to Crete rather than to Cyprus. Government leaders in Nicosia were also swayed by the European Union (EU), which warned that Cyprus would endanger its EU membership were it to accept the missiles.

The Cypriot decision not to accept the missiles was greeted warmly in Washington and in European capitals, where fears existed that the US$500 million deal could exacerbate tensions in the Aegean region. In December, in an effort to help defuse the crisis and to move Nicosia toward canceling the S-300 deal, the UN Security Council issued two resolutions aimed at lowering tensions and resuming negotiations between the Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot communities. U.S. President Bill Clinton likewise pledged to take all necessary steps to support both the UN resolutions and the goal of ending the division of Cyprus. Those efforts were cited by both Greek Cypriot and Greek leaders for their decision to halt delivery of the Russian missiles to Cyprus (International and Russian agencies, December 29-30).

Tensions over the missile deal have not yet been fully resolved, however. Although Turkish officials hailed the December 29th decision as a diplomatic victory for Turkey, they warned that Ankara also opposed any plans involving delivery of the S-300 missiles to Crete. They argued that it would be improper for missiles deployed in one NATO country–Greece–to be directed at another NATO country–Turkey. Officials in Ankara also complained that deployment of the missiles in Crete would entail the presence of Russian military officials on NATO territory, because Russian technical specialists would be responsible for servicing the S-300s (AP, December 30; Vremya MN, December 29).

It remains unclear precisely what the latest developments in the missile deal mean for Russia. Nicosia had earlier pledged to pay for the S-300 complexes regardless of whether they were actually delivered to Cyprus. At least one Russian report claimed last week that Moscow had already received more than US$400 million from Cyprus (Segodnya, December 30). But there were also suggestions that–under continued prodding from the United States and the EU–the missile deal might finally be killed off altogether. If nothing else, that would eliminate an opportunity for Moscow to showcase the S-300s, which it has been touting as superior to U.S. Patriot missiles, and which it would also like to sell to Western countries. Meanwhile, the S-300s which Cyprus ordered are reportedly packaged and ready to go. It seems likely that the missile controversy will now shift to whether they will in fact be delivered to Crete.