Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov voiced Moscow's readiness to help mediate in any talks with Turkey amid escalating tensions between Ankara and Athens over claims to energy reserves in contested Eastern Mediterranean waters.
"We are also concerned about the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean," Lavrov said in his opening remarks at a meeting with Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades in Nicosia on Tuesday, according to the Russian foreign ministry. "As for your relations with the Republic of Turkey, we are ready to assist with establishing a pragmatic dialogue built on respect for mutual interests in order to find a fair solution, based on international law."
An intensifying dispute over commercial rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, an area thought to be rich in natural gas, has seen decades-old tensions flare up between Turkey and Cyprus. Relations between the two countries deteriorated in mid-August when Turkey conducted oil and gas exploration in a territory claimed by both Ankara and Athens.
Tuesday's meeting in the Cypriot capital Nicosia focused on another matter of interest to Moscow. The Russian foreign minister, who is visiting Cyprus on the occasion of the 60th anniversary since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, also expressed condemnation over the United States' latest actions regarding the situation in the region.
"We are deeply concerned about the fact that a power located far away, the United States, is trying to play the countries in the region against each other and to pursue the course of 'who is not with us is against us,' forcing everybody else to follow this course," Lavrov said, referring to the US decision to waive restrictions on the transfer of arms to Cyprus for one year. "This is deplorable because the Eastern Mediterranean and any other region need completely different approaches in order to solve their problems and promote their own interests. Searching for a compromise and a balance of interests is the only path towards resolving problems in different parts of the world."
A week ago, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States intends to partially lift a 33-year arms embargo on Cyprus and deepen its security cooperation with Nicosia - a move which was immediately slammed by Turkey. Ankara made it clear that Turkey, as a guarantor country, would take unilateral action if Washington did not reconsider its decision.
President Anastasiades welcomed the lifting of the embargo, which the US Congress enforced in 1987 in an attempt to encourage a peaceful settlement between the Greek and Turkish communities and avoid an arms race on the island.
Turkey invaded the northeastern portion of the island to protect the Turkish Cypriots in 1974 in response to a coup engineered by the then military regime in Athens that aimed to unite Cyprus with Greece. As a result, 36% of the island had been taken over by the Turkish troops. Greek Cypriots moved from the north to the south of the island, while roughly 60,000 Turkish Cypriots, amounting to half of the Turkish Cypriot population, relocated from the south to the north. In 1983, the Turkish Cypriot leader proclaimed the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which is recognized only by Turkey.
Currently, Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom are guarantor powers of the island under the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee, which gave each country the right to intervene, unilaterally if necessary – as Turkey did in 1974 to protect the Turkish Cypriots following a Greek-led military coup.
In his remarks, Lavrov reaffirmed Russia's support in fulfilling the decisions taken by the United Nations as well as "an earlier resumption and completion of the talks between the two communities."
Lavrov's offer to mediate came after Greece said it would bolster its military with new weapons, troops and the development of its defense industry, amid concerns of open conflict between the two countries. The two NATO members have deployed naval and air forces to assert their military power in the region.
The two countries rely on fundamentally different legal arguments to make their claims in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. Ankara argues that a country’s continental shelf should be measured from its mainland and that the area south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo - just a few kilometers off Turkey’s southern coast - therefore falls within its exclusive zone. Meanwhile, Greece claims that islands must also be taken into account in delineating a country’s continental shelf regardless of the island’s proximity to Turkey.
Large reservoirs of natural gas have been discovered under the seafloor of the Mediterranean Sea. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, an estimated 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 3.5 trillion cubic meters of recoverable gas could be found in the Levant region of the eastern Mediterranean.