Putin Wants to Play Peacemaker in Turkish-Cypriot Drilling Standoff

Αssociated Press

An offshore drilling rig is seen in the waters off Cyprus coastal city of Limassol, Sunday, July 5, 2020 as a boat passes with a skier. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

NICOSIA -- As Turkey picked up drilling for oil and gas in Cypriot sovereign waters, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to step in and try to calm the waters, even as Turkey said it would later proceed with an energy hunt in Greek waters after pulling back.

Government spokesman Kyriakos Koushos said Putin made the pledge during a 45-minute telephone conversation with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, who appealed to the Russian leader to personally step in so Turkey “is convinced to cease its unlawful actions.”

Erdogan has ignored soft sanctions from the European Union that exempted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, apparently fearful he will flood the bloc with more refugees and migrants through Greece, especially the islands.

Turkey is holding some 3.3 million refugees and migrants who fled war and strife in their homelands, human traffickers being allowed to keep sending more during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU.

The United States has also urged Turkey to stop “provocative” drilling efforts that increase regional tensions but done nothing else, with Erdogan having the ear of President Donald Trump, who is said to have done him repeated favors.

“(Putin) promised that he would intercede with (Turkish) President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan in order to deescalate the crisis,” Koushos told reporters.

“(Putin) assured that he’s observing the situation ... with great concern, and always supports the resolution of differences through negotiations based on principles of international law,” the government spokesman added.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov plans to travel to the Cypriot capital on Sept. 8 “for a more detailed assessment of developments and for joint action to ensure peace and stability" in the region, Koushos said. 

Anastasiades also accepted Putin's invitation to visit Moscow at some point, Cyprus long having tight ties with Russia, with Russian oligarchs piling money into Cypriot banks for years, giving the country the reputation as a tax haven.

The Kremlin said that “regional issues, including the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, and prospects for Cyprus settlement” were discussed, along with bilateral issues.

Turkey, trying unsuccessfully since 2005 to join the EU – while refusing Cyprus, which is a member – disputes parts of the island's EEZ and insists it has rights to offshore energy reserves in the eastern Mediterranean and is trying to protect the rights of Turkish-Cypriots occupying the northern third of the island since a 1974 invasion.

“We will carry on with our work in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean until the end, which we began to protect our rights,” Erdogan said in a pre-recorded message for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, leaving Putin little wiggle room to do anything.

The Cypriot government said Turkey is violating international law that Erdogan doesn't recognize except when invoking it in his his favor, Anastasiades having said Turkey is doing a de facto energy invasion.

The Turkish research vessel Barbaros is  sailing off Cyprus’ southeastern coast — in an area the island republic has already licensed to Italian and French energy companies for exploration, those companies backing off during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier, Turkey issued a NAVTEX, or international maritime safety message it would be carrying out a gas search “in accordance with international law, a move that Anastasiades called “uphelpful,” and further cranking up tensions.

Although hailing Turkey’s suspension of a gas search in the south Aegean, Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas on called Barbaros’ actions as “a tangible continuation of (Turkey’s) lawless behavior.”

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias told private Antenna TV that Athens would answer the Cyprus Republic’s call for support, including backing additional EU sanctions against Turkey which aren't on the table now, nor expected to be.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)