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Trouble in Paradise: Shifting strategic relations in Eastern Europe

Dyami Insights Analysis

 

Following the lifting of the arms embargo on the Republic of Cyprus by the United States in September 2022, the two countries have been enjoying closer relations than ever in the realm of defense and security. Cyprus’ position in the East Mediterranean is becoming of increasing interest to the US since it offers a strategic vantage point to project power in the region, especially regarding Russian activities from its military bases in Syria. However, whilst this strengthens NATO’s ability to further isolate Russia, given its ties with Cyprus, it has caused divisions within the Alliance.

Turkey has vehemently condemned the lifting of the arms embargo as well as US-Cyprus security cooperation, claiming that Washington is losing its impartiality in the dispute surrounding the divided island. At the same time, Romania’s role within NATO is increasing as the Allies rush to modernize its military bases to NATO’s highest operational standards. Indeed, NATO’s backbone may be shifting towards Eastern Europe and that may occur at Turkey’s expense. With Turkey proving an unreliable ally, could this signify a shift in Turkey’s geopolitical position in the alliance?


Constanta Port Romania
Source: Liliana Moraru

Growing Cyprus-US Cooperation

When the Republic of Cyprus became an attractive destination for the illicit funds of Russian oligarchs, the US decided to intervene and incentivize the Greek island-state’s realignment with the West by offering its most coveted service: security. Previously, Russia had been a close military partner and a major arms exporter to Cyprus, with the Russian Navy even being granted access to Cypriot ports. The Republic has been wary of the security situation on the island due to the ongoing Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus, welcoming Russia’s support to build up its National Guard. The United States thus saw an opportunity to step in and outmatch Russia’s assistance to Cypriot defense in the hope that this would minimize its political influence in the region.

USS Arleigh Burke fires 5-inch gun
Source: US Navy Official Imagery

In 2020, the Cyprus Center for Land Open Seas and Port Security (CYCLOPS) training facility opened in Larnaca after the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the United States and Cypriot governments, marking the start of official cooperation in the security domain. The US State Department’s Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS) program provided the know-how, technology, and funding for the center, bolstering security capacity-building in the wider Eastern Mediterranean region in non-military areas such as customs control, maritime security, and cybersecurity. Once the arms embargo was lifted, a close military collaboration between the two nations quickly ensued. The former Minister of Defense, Charalambos Petrides, declared that Cyprus will be spending close to €200 million in 2023 on armaments alone, pushing to replace its old Soviet-era arsenal acquired from Russia with modern Western weaponry.

Furthermore, the National Guard of the Republic of Cyprus signed its first Bilateral Defence Cooperation Programme with the US in January 2023. This is a step forward for the Cyprus National Guard after becoming paired with the New Jersey National Guard as part of the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program. Several bilateral military trainings and exercises have also taken place, such as Silver Falcon 2023 and Proteas 2023, as well as demining trainings for Ukrainian personnel together with Irish military experts. Most recently, on the 16th of May 2023, the USS Arleigh Burke arrived at Limassol Port for a symbolic visit formally displaying the American-Cypriot military partnership. The Arleigh Burke is part of the NATO Forward Deployed Naval Forces-Europe (FDNF-E) routinely operating throughout the waters of Europe and Africa in support of NATO’s Integrated Air Missile Defense architecture. According to Declassified UK, cooperation may run so deep that there is a significant American military deployment at RAF Akrotiri, one of the British Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) in Cyprus.

Souring Relations with Turkey

When the whole Although an expanding foothold in the Eastern Mediterranean and the gradual removal of Russian political influence from the Republic of Cyprus would appear to benefit NATO, this has caused divisions among the alliance’s members. Turkey has strongly objected to US security cooperation and arms sales with the Republic of Cyprus, accusing the US of disrupting the balance of power on the island at the expense of Turkish Cypriots. Indeed, the Cyprus issue persists to be a longstanding source of tension between NATO partners Greece and Turkey, as well as other territorial disputes. The Turkish President, Erdoğan, reinstated his commitment to take all necessary steps to ensure the security of the Turkish Cypriot people and protect the sovereignty of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which only Turkey recognizes as a legitimate state.

The ceremonial landing at Limassol Port of the USS Arleigh Burke and the nuclear-powered submarine USS San Juan in the previous month has considerably inflamed US-Turkey relations which deteriorated in recent years. After an accumulated number of crises, starting with Turkey’s acquisition deal for the Russian S-400 missile system, NATO has begun to see Turkey as an increasingly disruptive ally. Turkey continues to block Sweden’s membership in NATO on the pretext that Sweden is sympathetic to the Kurdish nationalist movements and harbors followers of Fethullah Gulen. In light of the dire security environment caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Turkey’s anti-Western foreign policy has undermined NATO’s interests and democratic governance regarding the admission of new members into the alliance.

Turkey

Furthermore, Turkey’s precarious geopolitical balancing act has led to questions being posed on whether NATO should explore ways to eject Turkey from the alliance considering the widening discrepancy in political values. These developments have led to speculations on whether the US is actually planning to leave Incirlik Air Base in Turkey where a substantial amount of its nuclear assets are stationed. Evidently, Turkey’s strategic importance to NATO has been diminished due to Erdoğan’s foreign policy choices and his gamble on Turkey’s strategic position as an indispensable NATO member. Turkey has therefore become a problem to be managed, and how NATO will manage this will likely produce some significant geopolitical power shifts. The results of the recent election hold tremendous weight since Erdoğan will tilt Turkey further away from Europe while practicing his authoritarian and populist politics. Overall, not all is well on the South Eastern flank of the alliance.

Not All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Blossoming US-Cyprus cooperation and tensions with Turkey may be indicative of other developing power dynamics within the Trans-Atlantic alliance. Due to the war in Ukraine, Romania’s strategic significance for NATO has been increasing exponentially. Its position in South Eastern Europe and the Black Sea Region offers NATO an auspicious vantage point on the frontline in the Donbas as well as Russia’s ongoing hybrid warfare campaign in Moldova. Since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO expanded its permanent air policing peacetime mission to reinforce its borders in South-Eastern Europe. Consequently, the NATO Security Investment Programme approved a significant renovation plan in 2015 for the Mihail Kogalniceanu military base, located in proximity to the Black Sea port of Constanta, to be led by Romania in coordination with NATO allies. The budget for upgrading the capacity and infrastructure of the base is estimated at more than EUR 2.5 billion, with USD 21.6 million being allocated by the US Army in 2019 alone.

Romanian military aircraft

Following the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States relocated a Stryker squadron of about 1 000 service members from Vilseck, Germany, to Romania. Moreover, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division has been deployed for the first time since the Second World War, functioning as the most forward-based American unit in Eastern Europe. NATO has also formed a multinational battlegroup based at the newly built Cincu military base in the centre of the country. Nevertheless, Kogalniceanu is set to become the biggest military base in Eastern Europe overlooking the Black Sea. Such military commitment demonstrates NATO’s robust defence and deterrence presence in the region, as well as its increased readiness to react if Russia directs its aggression towards any NATO allies in its vicinity. Indeed, Romania has become a very active zone for NATO with more and more troops moving in and military exercises constantly happening throughout the year, such as Defender Europe 23, Sea Shield 2023, Dacian Spring 2023, Junction Strike 2023, and Sabre Guardian 2023.

As Romania’s role within NATO grows simultaneously with deepening US-Cyprus relations, geography can provide clues to the changing strategic landscape in Eastern Europe. Looking at the geo-strategic position of Romania and Cyprus, it may appear that the US may be trying to circumvent Turkey and conduct its military operations in the region without the need for its knowledge or approval. Erdoğan’s presidential victory has sealed Turkey’s fate since his foreign policy is proving detrimental to NATO interests. Therefore, Cyprus’ location in the Eastern Mediterranean supplants Turkey’s connection to the Middle East, allowing the US and UK, as NATO members, to assert their presence in the area via seapower and airpower. Strategically speaking, seapower and airpower can deny the adversary the ability to exercise control over his forces, thus diminishing the influence of hostile actors threatening Trans-Atlantic security. On the other hand, a military build-up on the island poses the risk of aligning Turkish and Russian security interests against the Republic. There may be a possibility that the region could become destabilized if a cautious defense policy is not pursued or if land power assets are not deployed to act as a deterrent to any aggression on the island.

Yet it is likely that NATO’s center of gravity may shift towards Romania due to its position in Eastern Europe, having access to the Black Sea and bordering Ukraine. In light of Russia’s renewed belligerence, NATO has reoriented its focus on its member states in the East that better fit its strategic objectives. Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states have taken exponential measures to reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank against Russia, proving to be reliable and resourceful allies through their military as well as humanitarian response to the crisis. Whilst Cyprus compensates for Turkey’s position adjacent to the Middle East, Romania replaces its outlook towards the Black Sea. Thus, NATO may be trying to quietly and incrementally exclude Turkey from its inner workings without causing any open contention on the matter. Turkey’s control over the Bosporus strait is still significant, but it is diminished by the existence of the port of Constanta and the Galati shipyard in Romania, which can allow for the effective exertion of seapower in the Black Sea.


U.S. Air Force F-22A Raptor at Kogalniceanu Air Base Constanta
Source: Tech. Sgt. Ryan Crane

Moreover, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft indicated that the US may be revising its military presence abroad, drawing down in certain places and building up others. As Romania and Cyprus are experiencing a build-up, Turkey may be experiencing a drawdown with most personnel and equipment being moved out of Turkey to these locations. Arguably, Romania has a better strategic position to combat the security threat presented by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its bid for political influence in Europe. Kogalniceanu Air Base, in particular, may be expanding in order to act as a strategic replacement for Incirlik Air Base in the future. Cyprus, on the other hand, may become an unstable geopolitical battleground as multiple actors will jockey for power in the region. Developments in the security situation of this popular holiday destination must be closely monitored since the frozen conflict on the island risks being absorbed into the reignited Russo-American rivalry.


To conclude: there are certainly great power shifts happening in Eastern Europe fomented by the war in Ukraine. These shifts are indeed represented by current military movements as Turkey’s commitment to NATO is being questioned due to Ankara’s ties with the Kremlin and its anti-Western rhetoric. NATO’s dependence on Turkey, nevertheless, is in the process of decline as Cyprus and Romania present viable geostrategic alternatives while Eastern Europe’s political significance is on the rise.


 
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