The EU’s latest step to “solve” the Eurozone crisis is the pillaging of the savings stored in Cypriot banks. It’s not hard to see the various harmful implications – a collapse of confidence in bank saving in Cyprus itself, a blow to the already miniscule levels of confidence in banking elsewhere in the EU, further reductions in bank capitalisation as savers realise the mattress is the safest place for the cash and so on.
One aspect of the affair that has yet to be widely considered, though, is the opportunities this offers to Russian foreign policy. Russians are the largest group of foreign savers in Cyprus (some legitimately, others less so), and the Russian government has loaned billions to keep the faltering Cypriot state and banking sector afloat.
Now, with Cyprus plunged into a new crisis, Putin’s Kremlin is reportedly “considering” the generous step of extending the existing loans and possibly offering more. The question this raises is simple: what will the Russians want in return for their kind helping hand?
The answer is disturbingly self-evident. Only this morning, the Russian navy announced it was to establish a new, permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean – the first since the post-Soviet retreat of the early 1990s.
At the moment, the Russians have a naval facility in Tartus, a port in Syria. Their shameful solidarity with Bashar al-Assad has been motivated at least in part by the desire to keep a foothold in the Med, but their ally’s position of power is now in doubt. At any time the Syrian regime could fall, and be replaced by a government of rebels who are unlikely to look kindly on hosting a naval base for the chums of the dictator they have just unseated.
So the Russian Mediterranean Naval presence needs a new home. Cyprus seems the natural place – it’s at the Eastern end of the sea, close to allies in Syria and potential enemies in Israel in the event of a conflict with Iran. Most compellingly of all, Cyprus is broke – and evidently ready to do just about anything for cash.
When the Eurozone’s fans say the single currency protects our security, I’m not sure a new Russian naval base on our doorstep was what they had in mind.