NICOSIA — Russia wants to play peacemaker on Cyprus where Turkey is drilling for oil and gas off the coast, undeterred by soft European Union sanctions that has left the legitimate government howling for a tougher stance.
After meeting President Nicos Anastasiades, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow ws ready to help mediate in any talks with Turkey over energy exploration in the East Mediterranean Sea, the news agency Reuters reported.
Turkey doesn't recognize parts of Cyprus' Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and sent ships there near where foreign companies have been licensed to hunt as well, Turkey and Turkish-Cypriots wanting a stake in the growing hunt for lucrative energy fields.
“As far as your relations with Turkey are concerned, we are ready to promote dialogue, pragmatically based on mutual interests and in search of decisions, which will be fair and based on international law,” Lavrov said, according to the report.
“Russia considers any steps that could lead to a further escalation of tensions (in the East Mediterranean) unacceptable,” he later added in a news conference.
That comes as Turkey has also provoked tensions near the Greek island of Kastellorizo where it plans drilling, as well as other Greek islands including Crete, under a maritime deal with Libya dividing the seas, a pact no other country recognizes.
Greek and Turkish armed forces have been conducting military exercises in the area in a show of muscle-flexing to underscore each side's resolve.
Greece and Cyprus, members of the EU that Turkey has been trying to join since 2005 while refusing to recognize Cyprus and barring its ships and planes, accuse Turkey of violating international law and of "gunboat diplomacy."
Turkey insists it's defending its rights and those of breakaway Turkish-Cypriots occupying the northern third since an unlawful 1974 invasion to get their rightful share of the area's potential gas deposits.
The EU is mulling imposing tougher sanctions on Turkey over its "illegal" actions if talks fail to end the standoff but so far going mild with penalties for the Cypriot drilling, excluding Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Lavrov's visit comes a month after Anastasiades asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to personally step in so that Turkey "is convinced to cease its unlawful actions” but at the same time Turkey has bought Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems undermining NATO, the defense alliance to which Greece and Turkey belong.
Lavrov said that Russia – whose wealthy have big holdings on Cyprus and where there is an ex-patriate community – is concerned about what he called U.S. attempts to stir up "conflict instead of peaceful solutions" in the East Mediterranean, without mentioning Russia want to increase its presence there, especially on Cyprus.
Lavrov was alluding to Washington's decision to partially lift an arms embargo on Cyprus that was designed to prevent an arms race hindering United Nations-facilitated talks to reunify the island.
Washington said it was lifting the arms embargo against Cyprus for one year — with the option of renewal — to let it procure non-lethal equipment which means technically there is still an arms embargo while both sides can say there isn't.
Turkey reacted angrily to the partial embargo lifting and announced that Russia would be conducting live-fire naval exercises this month in areas in the eastern Mediterranean where Turkish research vessels are prospecting for gas.
Cyprus is striving to bolster relations with the U.S., but not at the expense of its ties with Russia or China, on whose support it often counts in the United Nations, which hasn't worked as Anastasiades' repeated calls for help have been ignored.
The U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus, Judith Garber, said the lifting of the embargo had no connection to "valued partner and ally" Turkey, but aimed to strengthen regional security and to "counter malign actors in the region,” – which technically means Turkey.
Garber said the US waived a requirement that Cyprus cease to offer refueling and other port services to Russian warships, but that it would continue to "encourage" Cypriot government authorities to deny those services.
"We believe that Russia is playing a very destabilizing role in the region, especially in Syria," Garber said without explaining the American concessions to allow Russia's Navy to still use the island.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)