Could Cyprus Hold the Answer to the War in Ukraine?

February 3, 2023 Topic: Russia-Ukraine War Region: Europe Tags: Russia-Ukraine WarUkraineCyprusTurkeyDonbas

Could Cyprus Hold the Answer to the War in Ukraine?

While Ukraine isn’t exactly “like Cyprus,” there are intriguing similarities that raise the possibility of a solution along similar lines.


Once upon a time, the leaders of a mighty military power, which was the successor to a great historic empire that had lost much of its territories after the end of an international war, were concerned that political instability and a regime change in a nearby country that had once been one of its provinces could threaten its ethnic brethren that resided in that lost domain. Further, these leaders feared that a rival historic power with ties to the country’s other ethnic group would exploit the situation to attain a military presence there.

So, in violation of international law, the ex-empire deployed its troops into the country and invaded part of its territory under the pretext of saving its compatriots and defending its core interests.


After occupying more than one-third of that country’s territory, the military power declared that territory to be an autonomous region, and later as an independent state. This move for all practical purposes divided that country, and it wasn’t recognized by members of the international community, including the power’s leading allies.

That “independent state” has survived for close to half a century, as repeated diplomatic efforts to bring the two parts of the country together have failed. The illegal occupation, coupled with human rights violations, has ignited criticism, while the unoccupied part of the country has developed into a modern and prosperous liberal democratic state.

Bottom line is that the status quo has remained intact and in line with the interests of all the players involved. And notwithstanding its illegal occupation of the territory, the nation-state that continues to dream about re-establishing its old empire has emerged as a major regional and global player that maintains diplomatic ties with all members of the international community.

Of course, the aforementioned aggressor country is not Russia, and the situation described is not the Russian occupation of Ukraine and the events leading to it. Instead, it is the story of the island of Cyprus, which has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded in response to a Greek-backed military coup. Certainly, the prospects for a possible diplomatic deal on the island are remote; for all practical purposes, Turkey’s occupation has been accepted as part of the status quo in Cyprus and the region.

That reality allows all the players involved to place Cyprus’ territorial division at the bottom of the global agenda. This is in stark contrast to, say, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which continues to stir international tension, and is more like the independence of Kosovo that permits everyone, including those who don’t recognize that state, to live with it.

But while Ukraine isn’t exactly “like Cyprus,” and there are some major differences between Russia’s invasion of its neighbor and Turkey’s occupation of a Mediterranean island, there are intriguing similarities that raise the possibility of a solution along similar lines. Under such a plan, Ukraine remains divided between a Russian-controlled autonomous territory and an independent and prosperous Western-oriented Ukraine.

To recall, Cyprus, which was once part of the Ottoman Empire before it was taken by the British following a post-World War I settlement, experienced growing violence between its Greek and Turkish communities after winning independence in 1950. Relations further deteriorated throughout the 1960s, and intercommunal violence became more common. Then, in July 1974, a Greek military regime instigated a military coup in Cyprus with the intention of uniting the island with Greece, or “Enosis,” provoking a Turkish invasion. Turkish leaders justified their country’s invasion and initial occupation of 3 percent of the island as part of an attempt to protect its Turkish minority, which constituted 20 percent of the population.

After ensuing peace talks between the two communities failed to lead to a peace agreement, the Turks expanded their occupation to 36 percent of the island. That resulted in the de facto partition of Cyprus with a United Nations buffer zone—known as the Green Line—separating Cyprus from the Turkish-occupied areas in the north which absorbed many of the Turks that were displaced from the south.

In 1983, the de facto Turkish Cypriot Administration declared independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—not to be confused with the Republic of Cyprus. There the government, backed by the United States and the European Union, which Nicosia joined in 2004, transformed itself into a prosperous economy. Nicosia still regards the northern part of the country as Turkish-occupied territory and supports the idea of negotiations aimed to bring the country together. Meanwhile, the northern part has been settled by Turkish immigrants and has gradually become a province of Turkey.

In this context, the United States and the EU, which publicly insist that Russia should vacate Crimea and the other Ukrainian areas that it has illegally occupied, seem to have no major problem turning the Turkish occupation of Cyprus into a marginal international issue; in fact, Turkey remains an important member of NATO and Ankara has conducted negotiations with Brussels over joining the EU, even as its forces have occupied Cyprus.

One of the main reasons that the status quo on the island has lasted for so many years is the reluctance of Nicosia and Athens to challenge the Turkish occupation through the use of military force. It seems that the leaders in Nicosia have made their cost-benefit analysis and decided that the benefits of becoming a thriving Western society and ally of the United States and the EU outweigh the costs of confronting Ankara. 

From that perspective, Ukraine’s leaders in Kyiv may reach a point where the costs of continuing the war with Russia in order to liberate Crimea and other Russian-occupied territories would be perceived as outweighing the benefits of a cease-fire that would provide for the reconstruction of Ukraine and permit its future accession to the EU and NATO.

That shouldn't prevent Kyiv from continuing to challenge the illegal Russian occupation of Ukraine and calling for the return of those territories to Ukraine’s control at some point in the future.

Of course, a deal that accepts the current status quo in Ukraine would not satisfy everyone, but it would allow the United States and the EU to rebuild Ukraine and help it join the West. Further, it would assist the West in restoring ties with Moscow and finding ways to ensure that Russia becomes part of a new and peaceful postwar balance of power in Europe.

Dr. Leon Hadar, a contributing editor at The National Interest, has taught international relations at American University and was a research fellow with the Cato Institute. A former UN correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, he currently covers Washington for the Business Times of Singapore and is a columnist/blogger with Israel’s Haaretz (Hebrew).

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