Greece, Armenia, and Cyprus held trilateral defense consultations on July 5. The meeting comes as the armed forces of all three nations are undergoing substantial changes.
During that meeting, held in Cyprus, officials from the three countries discussed security issues of mutual interest and reaffirmed aims to strengthen their respective defenses and security. They also signed a cooperative plan for a series of events they will hold on each other’s territories over the next year.
The meeting coincided with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s conservative government securing a second term. Mitsotakis reiterated that his government’s “priority is to safeguard the country” and will continue with its multi-billion euro military buildup.
Greece has already ordered 24 Dassault Rafale multirole fighters from France as part of that buildup. The bulk of the Hellenic Air Force F-16 fleet is also being upgraded to the most modern Block 72 standard. And most significantly, Athens is ordering at least 20 fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II fighter jets, and has the option to buy 28 more.
These acquisitions are proceeding despite a thaw in tensions with Turkey. Heightened tensions and standoffs with Ankara in 2020 at least partially prompted this ongoing buildup, the most expansive in decades.
Mutual fear and opposition to Turkey’s ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean and South Caucasus undoubtedly helped motivate increased military cooperation between Athens, Nicosia, and Yerevan.
While Greece’s ongoing military buildup is much more significant than that of either Armenia or Cyprus, the East Mediterranean island nation’s current procurements are noteworthy in other ways.
Between 1987 and 2020, the United States had Cyprus under a strict arms embargo aimed at preventing an arms race on the partitioned island. It began lifting that embargo in 2020.
As with its ally Armenia, the Cypriot military consists primarily of Russian hardware. Nicosia bought T-80U/UK main battle tanks and BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles from Moscow in the mid-1990s. Its attempts to acquire longer-range S-300 PMU-1 air defenses during that period ignited a crisis with Ankara. A possible war on the island was averted when the advanced batteries were diverted to Greece. Nicosia ultimately received medium-range Buk and short-range Tor missiles for its air defense.
Like Mitsotakis, Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides is determined to strengthen his country’s military. In March, he vowed to allocate at least 2 percent of the Cypriot gross domestic product to defense spending, stressing that “without a strong defense, your say in foreign policy matters is clearly limited.”
In June, Cyprus was one of five European countries that signed a letter of intent to purchase short-range French Mistral air defense missiles. In early 2020, Nicosia reportedly signed a 240 million euro contract (approximately $263 million) for Mistrals and Exocet anti-ship missiles.
While Cypriot-French defense cooperation isn’t new, there have been increasing signs over the past year that Cyprus intends to buy more Israeli military hardware. To date, Nicosia has only purchased a handful of Israeli Aerostar and Searcher surveillance and reconnaissance drones and small arms.
In August 2022, Greek media reported that the Cypriot Defense Ministry had already begun to “implement the government’s decision to purchase” Israel’s well-known Iron Dome air defense system and that agreements were already signed.
However, there have been no further details since, and it’s unclear when and how many Iron Dome batteries Cyprus will ultimately procure.
On the other hand, this June, sources in both Cyprus and Israel confirmed to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that both countries are discussing a sale of Israeli Merkava tanks. Cyprus will become the first European country to field the Israeli main battle tank if the deal goes through.
Even if it takes delivery of the Merkava and Iron Dome, the current Cypriot government may still oppose transferring its T-80s, BMPs, or Buk/Tors to Ukraine. In a June press conference, Christodoulides unequivocally ruled out sending any of this equipment in exchange for more modern Western replacements. He stressed that Nicosia remains committed to “increasing defense spending, strengthening the deterrence of the Republic of Cyprus and reaching 2 percent of the budget.”
(Christodoulides’ ruling out transferring T-80s may suggest that Cyprus aims to replace its older French-built AMX-30 tanks with the Israeli Merkavas and keep those bigger Russian tanks in service for a little while longer.)
Out of these three countries, Armenia’s defense buildup is less significant. Nevertheless, Yerevan is taking notable steps to diversify its defense acquisitions and lessen its heavy reliance on Russia.
An enormous 94 percent of Armenia’s “imports of major arms” in 2011-20 came from Russia. Now, Yerevan is seeking alternatives and doubtlessly hopes to markedly reduce that 94 percent.
Two major events undoubtedly spurred this decision. Firstly, Armenia’s devastating defeat by the Azerbaijani military, equipped with modern Turkish and Israeli drones, during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Secondly, the ongoing Russian war on Ukraine and the consequent supply issues.
In June, the Secretary of the Armenian Security Council, Armen Grigoryan, said Yerevan is in talks with “many countries” on arms sales.
“It means that if Armenia has a problem, it is looking for alternative options to resolve the problem in relations between Armenia and Russia in what concerns weapons supplies,” he told Armenian television. “We see the reality. It is Russia’s war in Ukraine. So, we understand that Russia has not so many possibilities to export weapons.”
In recent years, Armenia has sought closer defense ties with India. As noted by Armenian media, Yerevan’s interest in Indian military hardware predated the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Earlier that year, for example, Armenia signed a $40 million arms deal for four Indian radars designed to track incoming enemy projectiles and locate their firing positions and launchers. In June of that year, Armenia also negotiated buying drones and other weaponry from India.
Armenia became the first foreign buyer of India’s Pinaka multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) in a $250 million deal for at least four batteries revealed in September 2022.
Going forward, Armenian-Indian defense ties look set to expand exponentially. In May, Yerevan appointed a defense attaché to its New Delhi embassy in light of “strong interest shown recently by state structures, private organizations and companies of the military-industrial complex towards bilateral cooperation.”
Transitioning from Russian to Indian weaponry may prove relatively straightforward for Armenia, given the similarities in many systems. India has a long and successful track record of producing and customizing Russian origins systems locally. As previously speculated in this space, New Delhi’s experience locally producing the Su-30MKI fighter jet could make it an ideal candidate for customizing Armenia’s modest Su-30SM fleet, the only fighters in that country’s air force. India could potentially even provide Armenia with unique and advanced weapons for these aircraft, possibly including the air-launched version of its supersonic BrahMos cruise missile, which could greatly enhance their strategic value for Yerevan.
Time will ultimately tell on that front. But what is already abundantly clear is that, as they forge closer defense ties, the armed forces of Greece, Cyprus, and Armenia are undergoing some notable transformations.