During the second half of the 1990s, Turkey and Cyprus became locked in a tense standoff over the island nation’s purchase of Russian S-300 air defense missile systems (to be precise: the S-300PMU-1). Throughout the crisis, there was a debate about the risks and general wisdom of a European state buying such advanced Russian weaponry that has some relevance today in light of Turkey’s controversial purchase and fielding of more advanced Russian S-400 air defense missiles.
Air defense missiles an offensive threat to Turkey?
Then-Turkish Defense Minister Turhan Tayan compared the unfolding crisis to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (Chris Nutall, “Turkey threatens Cyprus attack”, The Guardian, January 11, 1997). This was because, far from being capable of merely defending Cyprus’ airspace, the S-300s also could track and target Turkish military aircraft operating within Turkey’s airspace. However, as can be seen in the image on the right, the system did not pose a significant threat to Turkish interests (Sean O’Connor, “IMINT & Analysis: The Cypriot Missile Crisis“, IMINT & Analysis, May 1, 2008).
At the time, journalists made analogies to the Cuban missile crisis. “Turkey responded like the United States did in 1962 when the Soviet Union placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, 90 miles south of Miami,” wrote journalists Jack Anderson and Jan Moller at the time. CIA sources cited by them claimed that Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov had aggressively lobbied for the sale as part of a strategy to undermine the NATO alliance, in response to that its expansion into Eastern Europe in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia claimed that economic reasons motivated the sale in light of the financial crisis it faced at the time. (“U.N. presides over Cypriot stalemate”, United Feature Syndicate, January 4, 1999).
Prominent New York Times columnist William Safire also compared the Cypriot S-300 Crisis to the Cuban Missile Crisis, going so far as to charge that Primakov saw “himself as a new Andrei Gromyko“, who was the Soviet Foreign Minister during the Cuban Missile Crisis. “The nuclear missiles Gromyko lied about were 90 miles from the United States; these offensively defensive SAM’s are 50 miles from Turkey,” Safire wrote (“Russian missiles in Cyprus spell trouble”, The New York Times, July 7, 1998).
The United States also expressed worries about Russian technicians being sent to Cyprus to set up the missiles since they could use the system’s powerful radar to monitor air traffic, including NATO aircraft, over the strategically-important Eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus sought to assuage these concerns. Then-Greek Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides insisted that “[n]o Russian technicians will be manning [the] weapons. [The] weapons will be manned by our [Cypriot] people.” He also charged that the United States had overreacted to the S-300 deal, pointing out that Cyprus already had short-range anti-aircraft missiles but did not use them, even though Turkish warplanes continuously violated its sovereign airspace. “We would only use the missiles on the occasion of an air attack by Turkey,” he insisted. Clerides went one step further and pointed out that Cyprus had already bought Exocet anti-ship missiles from France. “Which is more provocative, sinking a frigate with an Exocet or shooting down a plane with an anti-aircraft missile,” he asked rhetorically (Jack Payton, “Cyprus tension crosses ‘line’”, St. Petersburg Times, June 21, 1998).
Greek Cypriots felt such concerns were hypocritical because the United States had already approved a sale of 120 MGM-140 ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile Systems) to Turkey in December 1995, which were arguably more threatening offensive weapon systems than the S-300s. The U.S. Department of Defense insisted that this arms deal would not “adversely affect either the military balance in the region or U.S. efforts to encourage a negotiated settlement of the Cyprus question.” Nevertheless, Athens and Nicosia worried since the missiles 160-kilometer range and its highly accurate 450 kg payload would give Ankara the capability to devastate defenseless Greek Cypriot targets directly from southern Turkey (Michális S. Michael, “Resolving the Cyprus Conflict: Negotiating History“, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p. 146).
Standoff and deescalation
Turkey flexed its military muscles and sought to demonstrate that it was deadly serious about its threats of military action. The late 1990s were, therefore, the tensest time the island witnessed since the Turkish invasion in 1974. Back then, Turkey intervened militarily after the coup d’état of the Cypriot National Guard against the Cypriot President and Archbishop Makarios, invaded the northern third of the island and established an internationally-unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Turkey maintained, and still does, approximately 30,000 troops in the TRNC, a large enough force to threaten or even outright invade the rest of the island.
In early November 1997, to hammer home its threats, Turkey launched a massive military exercise in the TRNC (see video above). During the operation, Turkish commandos destroyed a mock S-300 missile platform with time bombs in a clear and direct warning against Greek Cyprus. Hundreds of spectating Turkish Cypriots cheered as flames consumed the mock site. In the air, Turkish AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters fired missiles, and F-16 jet fighter-bombers flew in formation. Two Turkish Black Hawk helicopters carried commandos on ropes displaying the Turkish and TRNC flags. On the ground, Turkish M60 tanks and armored personnel carriers carried out maneuvres (“Cyprus: Turkish troops undertake military exercises“, AP, November 5, 1997). Such a display of combined arms aptly demonstrated Turkey’s ability to threaten Greek Cyprus militarily.
On June 16, 1998, Greece deployed four F-16s along with two C-130 transport planes to an airbase near the western town of Paphos in Greek Cyprus. Turkey condemned the move as a provocation and responded two days later by sending six F-16s to an airstrip in the TRNC. The Turkish jets flew over both the Greek and Turkish parts of Nicosia at such a low altitude that “the Turkish crescent could be seen on the plane’s wings” from the ground (Hamza Hendawi, “Cyprus tensions flare up”, AP, June 21, 1998). While both sides withdrew their warplanes shortly after that, the incident demonstrated how quickly an escalation on the island could lead to a direct conflict between the Greek and Turkish armed forces.
The crisis came to an end in late 1998. That same year saw another incident that demonstrated how Turkey’s threat of military force compelled rivals to make serious concessions. In October 1998, Ankara threatened to attack Syria over its continued support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It amassed armor and 10,000 troops on the Syrian border. Turkey had launched enormous operations, often consisting of up to 30,000 troops, into Iraqi Kurdistan against the PKK in that region the previous year, demonstrating its readiness to take military action against that group beyond its frontiers (Paul Iddon, “In 1998, Turkey and Syria Narrowly Avoided War“, War Is Boring, December 17, 2018). Eager to avoid war with his far more powerful northern neighbor, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad exiled PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan who was captured in Kenya the following year and cracked down on the group’s activities in Syria. Nicosia undoubtedly observed that incident and took note.
By December 1998, Greek Cyprus reached a compromise with Greece. The missiles were not deployed to Cyprus, but instead, in a face-saving compromise for Nicosia, were sent to the Greek island of Crete in the Aegean Sea. While this defused the Cypriot S-300 Crisis, Turkey still opposed the Crete deployment and made arguments against it that ironically resembled the same arguments and warnings the United States and the NATO alliance made against Turkey’s recent purchase of S-400s.
The Crete deployment and aftermath
Turkey claimed the stationing of the S-300s on Crete relocated the threat of conflict from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Aegean Sea. In December 1998, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem insisted that Greece’s stationing of S-300s on Crete constituted a severe security threat. Deploying the S-300 missiles on the island, he said, would require Russian technicians, which he claimed would effectively mean that Greece would be threatening NATO member Turkey with Russia’s assistance. There were more general fears that any presence of Russian technicians on the island could see the NATO bases there coming under Moscow’s surveillance.
One senior NATO diplomat also pointed out that the Russian missiles could threaten Greek warplanes in addition to Turkish ones given their lack of NATO standard “Identification Friend or Foe” (IFF) systems. “One of the things you build into a system like this is the ability to distinguish between good guys and bad guys,” the diplomat said. “The Russians don’t have this in their software because we haven’t given them our codes. [The Greeks] have to go to the Americans for help, one presumes, if they don’t want the missiles to lock on to their own planes.” Another senior Western diplomat also warned that the missiles could inadvertently spark a Greek-Turkish clash stating that: “It’s absolutely possible for Turkish warplanes to fly within range of the missiles during routine flights in international airspace, for the missiles to lock onto them and for the Turkish planes to respond.” (Amberin Zaman, “Greek Missile Plan Risk Clash with Turkey, Experts Say“, The Los Angeles Times, January 29, 1999).
Fears, and the prospect of yet another crisis with Turkey, likely convinced Athens to store the missiles on Crete instead and not test-fire them for 14 years. However, after test-firing them during the 2013 White Eagle military exercise, Israel has reportedly since tested its warplanes against the S-300, likely gauging its air forces’ capabilities against the system, which Iran also possesses (Dan Williams, Karolina Tagaris, “Israel trained against Russian-made air defense systems in Greece: sources“, Reuters, December 4, 2015).
Interoperability issues and the more general irresponsibility of a NATO member fielding advanced Russian air defense missiles were central to the United States’ opposition to Turkey’s purchase of S-400s, which Ankara ordered in 2017 and began taking delivery of in 2019. The acquisition resulted in Turkey’s suspension from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program over United States fears that having both systems operate in the same military could enable Russia to glean important intelligence on the fifth-generation jet fighter’s classified stealth characteristics.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has dismissed these claims and charged NATO with hypocrisy for overlooking Greece’s continued possession of the S-300s on Crete. “Greece, which is also a NATO member, has been using S-300 for years, no one says anything,” he charged (“S-400 agreement with Russia ‘a done deal,’ Erdogan says“, Daily Sabah, July 26, 2017).
In another ironic development, Russia reportedly installed an IFF system up to NATO standards in the Turkish S-400s, potentially enabling Ankara to integrate the Russian missiles with other systems in its military (Joseph Trevithick, “Russia Built A NATO Spec Identification Friend or Foe System For Turkey’s S-400 Batteries“, The War Zone, December 9, 2019).
Today, Cyprus finds itself in a new series of tensions with Turkey. Ankara has been drilling for gas in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and also, in November, reached a controversial maritime deal with Libya, that seeks to establish an EEZ between Turkey’s southern shores and the northeastern Libyan coast (Luke Baker, Tuvan Gumrukcu, Michele Kambas, “Turkey-Libya maritime deal rattles East Mediterranean“, Reuters, December 25, 2019). France is supporting Cyprus in its present dispute with Turkey and its navy’s flagship, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, did a five-day port-call in the port of Limassol in February (Bouli Hadjioannou, “Charles de Gaulle Aircraft Carrier Docks at Limassol Port“, in-cyprus, February 21, 2020). In early February, Cyprus also signed a $262 million deal with the European arms manufacturer MBDA for additional French short-range portable Mistral surface-to-air missiles and Exocet anti-ship missiles. This arms deal also envisions France helping the island nation modernize its existing air defense system (Ed Adamczyk, “Cyprus buys missiles, partners with France for exercises to thwart Turkey“, UPI, February 17, 2020).