LARNARCA, Cyprus, June 24 (UPI) -- Financially strapped Cyprus is looking at allowing Russian military aircraft to use an airbase in Paphos, the country's defense minister said this weekend.
Cypriot Defense Minister Fotis Fotiu told the Nicosia daily Fileleftheros the country was "studying the possibility of providing in certain cases" the use of the Andreas Papandreou Air Force Base for Russian military aircraft.
He also indicated allowing Russian warships to use the port of Limassol was under consideration, less than two weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the restoration of a permanent presence for the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean.
Fotiu said the possible moves were discussed during his recent meeting in Moscow with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, as well as at a Thursday meeting in St. Petersburg between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Cypriot counterpart Ioannis Kasoulides.
Fotiu denied, however, the military concessions being considered were in any way related to Cyprus' precarious financial situation.
Moscow last year provided Nicosia with a $3.3 billion loan, and Cyprus sought to restructure it as it debated whether to accept the harsh conditions of a $13 billion bailout from the European Union.
Putin announced in April that at the urging of the EU, Russia would indeed restructure and extend the loan, amounting to a 10 percent write down.
Asked by Fileleftheros if the military and financial moves were connected, Fotiu categorically rejected the idea, saying it is no different than services other countries provide for foreign armed forces.
"There is no 'exchange' principle here," he said. "Facilities in our ports will be given to the Russians just as they are given in other countries. It is the same as the United States, which uses such port facilities in European countries such as France and Germany and in Israel.
"But what I want to make clear is that no discussion about a permanent base in Cyprus for Russia, and to make it clear, I repeat, no 'exchange' principle."
Allowing Russian forces to use the Cypriot port and airbase is natural because of "historical ties" between the countries, he said, adding, "Russia supports Cyprus and our close relationship will not only continue, but also to deepen."
Asked if use of the Paphos airbase will be granted only to Russia or other countries as well, the defense chief noted the only other agreement for Andreas Papandreou is with France, which dates to 2007.
Russia's military interest in the Cypriot facilities comes as Putin revealed Moscow was stepping up its presence in the Mediterranean as the Syrian crisis continues unabated.
Russia has seen its influence there decline in recent years but now has decided to station warships in the Mediterranean on a permanent basis to counter what it sees as the danger of a U.S.-led military intervention into its Middle Eastern ally Syria, the Russian Communist Party daily Pravda reported.
In December the Russian Navy performed what it called "exercises" in the Mediterranean as fears of an intervention in Syria mounted.
The U.S. aircraft carriers Eisenhower and Iwo Jima moved into the coastal waters of Syria after Washington voiced warnings to Syrian President Bashar Assad not to use chemical weapons against rebel forces. The Obama administration two weeks later withdrew the carriers to their bases in Norfolk, Va.
The Russian Defense Ministry indicated its new Mediterranean naval task force will include about 10 ships taken from the North, Baltic and Black Sea fleets on a rotational basis, Pravda said.