Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis
(Department of History and Political Science, King College, USA; Senior Editor at intelNews.org)

Copyright: www.rieas.gr

Diplomatic observers were surprised in November 2008, when the then Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to meet his Cypriot counterpart, Dimitris Christofias, during the latter’s official visit to Moscow. Considering the traditionally close bilateral ties between Russia and Cyprus, the excuse from President Putin’s office, that he was too busy attending his United Russia party’s national conference, appeared unconvincing.

An article published recently in Greek-Cypriot newspaper O Politis, traced the cause of the Russian President’s apparent snub to a 2007 attempt by the Cypriot government to hand over parts of a Russian-made missile system to Israel(1). Citing “entirely confirmed reports [from] well-informed” political and diplomatic sources, the paper said the Cypriot plan was hatched in response to a request by Israeli intelligence officials, who were interested in acquiring technical insights into the Russian-made TOR-M1 surface-to-air missile defense system. The Israelis were concerned about the TOR-M1 because Iran was also said to be using a variant of the same system, which features a radar apparatus unknown to Israel, the United States or NATO. According to the newspaper, the Cypriot Central Intelligence Service communicated Israel’s request to the government of then President Tassos Papadopoulos, which in turn consulted with “senior officials of the National Guard” before deciding to secretly supply Israel with the TOR-M1 radar.

In forming their judgment, Cypriot officials undoubtedly realized that (a) the Israeli government would probably share its findings on the TOR-M1 with the US and with NATO; and (b) sharing TOR-M1 technical details with the Israelis would violate applicable purchasing agreements with Russia, which expressly forbade the disclosure of said details to third countries without Moscow’s expressed consent.

It is worth noting that Cypriot officials familiar with the secret operation were so few they “could be counted on the fingers of one hand”, according to a source directly involved in the negotiations with the Israelis. Still, the Cypriot daily alleges that the Russians were, “via their secret services, promptly informed” about the deal and were able to avert it, literally at the last minute. The article mentions that the radar system had been meticulously packaged and camouflaged, and was about to be transferred to the port of Limassol, en route to Haifa, Israel, when the Cypriot President was directly contacted by the Russians and “sternly warned” about the pending transfer, which was then quickly called off.

The O Politis revelations have not been contested by Cypriot, Israeli or Russian officials (2), which does not necessarily point to the accuracy of the allegations. However, if factual, the TOR-M1 affair points to an array of intriguing questions. To begin, how exactly were the Russians informed “via their secret services [and] in due course” about the alleged Cypriot-Israeli deal? Were Russian intelligence operatives in either Cyprus or —perhaps more likely— Israel able to uncover the covert arrangement, or were they in fact tipped off by Turkish intelligence sources in Cyprus, Israel, or NATO, who would have an obvious interest in undermining Russia’s customary pro-Greek stance on the Cyprus dispute? Also, to what extent did the TOR-M1 affair affect Russian-Cypriot, or for that matter Russian-Israeli, diplomatic relations? Another obvious concern is whether traditional Cyprus ally Greece was privy to the Papadopoulos government’s decision to export the radar system to Israel. If so, did Athens concur with Nicosia’s plan?

Essentially, providing they are factual, what do the TOR-M1 allegations signify about the current state of strategic alliances in the east Mediterranean? In pursuing this issue further, it may be worth speculating on the extent to which the conventional view (3) of the Greek and Cypriot alliance with the Arab world is truly applicable today. It is in fact tempting to consider the rumored TOR-M1 affair as the latest in a growing series of episodes pointing to a considerable strengthening of Greek-Israeli ties. The latter began with Greece’s de jure recognition of the state of Israel in 1990, and the 1994 signing of the bilateral Protocol for Military Cooperation. On the security side, Greek-Israeli ties were noticeably bolstered during the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, when several Israeli government agencies and private companies participated in related security and intelligence operations on Greek soil. The strengthening security ties between the two nations were officially acknowledged in the 2005 bilateral Agreement on Military and Defense/Technical Cooperation (4), which one Israeli source praised as giving “Israel’s strategic standing in the Mediterranean and southern Europe its biggest boost since [a similar] treaty was signed with Turkey in the 1980s” (5). It was in the context of the 2005 Agreement that the Israeli Air Force was able to carry out a major military exercise over Greek airspace, in June of 2008. US media interpreted the exercise as “an effort to develop the [Israeli] military’s capacity to carry out long-range strikes”, while US officials called it a “rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities” (6). Finally —not in order of importance— in January 2009, during the Israel-Gaza conflict, it emerged that Washington planned to ship armaments to Jerusalem via the US Naval base in Crete’s Souda Bay (7).

Considered in light of Israel’s progressively deteriorating relations with neighboring Turkey8, the apparent Greek-Israeli rapprochement in recent years may offer useful insights into the dramatic shifts in alliances in the Balkans and the Middle East in the post-Cold-War strategic environment. Taken in context, the alleged TOR-M1 affair may be part of the ongoing geopolitical upheaval that has resulted in the emergence of a strong pro-US presence in Albanian-dominated Balkan regions, the rapid rise of Islamist politics in Turkey, and the very real possibility of a nuclearized Middle East.


1 S. Paroutis, “Ρωσική σαλάτα για τους TOR επί Τάσσου”, O Politis (25 Oct. 2009).
2 L. Adeilinis and S. Paroutis, “Ικανοποίησε ο Πούτιν”, O Politis (27 Oct. 2009).
3 See A. Nachmani, Israel, Turkey, and Greece: Uneasy Relations in the East Mediterranean, Frank Cass, London, 1987, pp85ff.
4 Anon., “Ενισχύεται η αμυντική συνεργασία Ελλάδας-Ισραήλ με την υπογραφή νέας συμφωνίας”, In.gr (15 Nov. 2005).
5 Anon., “A Strategic Pact between Israel and Greece”, DEBKAfile (1 Oct. 2005).
6 M.R. Gordon and E. Schmitt, “US Says Israeli Exercise Seemed Directed at Iran”, The New York Times (20 Jun. 2008)
7 H. Botsaris, “Οι ΗΠΑ εφοδιάζουν το Ισραήλ με πυρομαχικά μέσω Ελλάδας”, Proto Thema (9 Jan. 2009).
8 A. Lapidot-Firilla, Turkish Foreign Policy and Israel: The End of a Strategic Alliance?, RIEAS, Middle East Studies (10 Oct. 2009).


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