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Russia has announced plans to launch direct flights to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, a state recognized only by Turkey.
Russia will thus become the only nation outside of Turkey that flies directly to the territory since the Republic of Cyprus declared independence in 1983.
The opening of flights to the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus could be part of a policy to counter US influence on the island and boost Russia’s cooperation with Turkey in building an alliance around the Ukraine war. Aeroflot, Russia’s flag carrier, recently resumed direct flights to Tehran, widely seen as part of moves to build closer ties with Iran.
Some analysts believe that Russia’s decision to start flights to the territory in northern Cyprus may also be a response to the sanctions of Greece and the Republic of Cyprus against Russia.
Russia says the new flights are aimed at 10,000 Russians living in northern Cyprus and that it remains committed to UN Security Council resolutions on Cyprus. The UN established a buffer zone in Cyprus, which is guarded by UN peacekeepers, to protect the ceasefire negotiated after the 1974 invasion of Cyprus by Turkish forces.
However, the move will find favor with Turkey, which Putin considers an important ally. In October, during a speech at the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan called on the international community to officially recognize the territory. In November, in another major step, Northern Cyprus was admitted to the Organization of Turkic States as an observer member, the first international organization to recognize its constitutional name.
Russia’s regional ambitions
Russia began increasing its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean in 2013, establishing and maintaining a squadron in the area including the Black Sea Fleet and moving air defenses to Crimea. Russia’s strategic goals were to secure Russia’s southern flanks, which it considers the Mediterranean, and to challenge US naval dominance (backed by other NATO countries) in the region. Russia’s military involvement in support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has also been part of efforts to secure a presence and access to Mediterranean bases and ports.
Russia uses a narrative of shared cultural and religious heritage along with existing anti-American or Eurosceptic sentiments to try to gain support in other regions. Putin refers to shared cultural and religious traditions with Greece, Cyprus and other Mediterranean countries to build on anti-American sentiment. This type of influence has not yet led to Greece breaking with NATO or the EU.
The most important partner for Russia in this region is Turkey. It is a paradoxical relationship because Turkey is a member of NATO and Russia and Turkey pursue opposite goals in Libya and Ukraine. The sale of Russia’s S-400 missile system to Turkey was a major coup that caused deep tensions between Turkey and NATO and resulted in Turkey losing access to the Patriot missile and F-35 jet fighter programs. Turkey’s relationship with NATO was also shaken when it was the only member to request NATO membership terms for Finland and Sweden.
Read more: Russia builds closer alliances with world autocracies – West should beware
Russia had a relationship with the Republic of Cyprus in the past that included potential military cooperation, but that appears to have ended. In response to Russia and Turkey, the US announced in September 2022 the complete lifting of the arms embargo against Cyprus.
Flights as symbolism
The first flights from Russia were scheduled to take place on November 15, which coincides with the 39th anniversary of Northern Cyprus’ declaration of independence. However, due to technical difficulties, the opening of the new airport and routes has now been postponed until early 2023.
The arrival of these flights from Russia is likely to be perceived as a political insult by Putin to the Republic of Cyprus and its claims to the entire territory. In March, the Republic of Cyprus drew ire from northern Cyprus when it announced the closure of its airspace and what it claims to be northern Cyprus.
Currently, people who want to visit northern Cyprus have to fly via Turkey or drive north from Larnaca or Paphos in the Republic of Cyprus. This hampered the tourism industry in Northern Cyprus. Russian tourists are usually one of the biggest tourist groups in the Republic of Cyprus – and for northern Cyprus, welcoming tourists from Russia while the EU and the rest of the island prevent them from coming could be an economic boost for Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus.
Turkish Cypriots have felt the limitations of living in an unknown territory for almost 40 years. The isolation has significantly affected the territory’s economy and prevents Turkish Cypriots from participating in worldwide sporting, musical and cultural events. Pop star Jennifer Lopez, for example, was forced to cancel a concert in northern Cyprus after receiving furious backlash from Greek Cypriots in 2010.
Widespread international recognition of the territory is unlikely, although Azerbaijan and Pakistan appear to be taking steps toward closer ties.
And in October, Adil Karaismailoğlu, Turkey’s transport minister, announced that direct flights between northern Cyprus and Kyrgyzstan were being considered.
Northern Cyprus is the latest candidate to join the group of foreign nations that Putin has identified as useful, and it may not be the last.