Eleven members of the European Parliament have complained to the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, about the Russian navy’s frequent use of the Spanish north African enclave of Ceuta.
Russian warships and submarines regularly stop in Ceuta for fuel, prompting concern that Spain may have breached EU sanctions against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.
The MEPs asked Ms Mogherini whether she was aware of the presence of Russian ships in the Spanish port, adding that Ceuta was playing a role that was “…key to maintaining the Russian army’s positions in Ukraine.”
The questions to the EU Commissioner for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy were backed by MEPs from a number of different parties and countries, including from Spain, Poland and the Baltic states.
Since 2011, over 50 Russian warships have stopped in Ceuta, one of two Spanish cities located on the African mainland, to resupply and give their crews a rest.
The vessels have included submarines, frigates, destroyers, amphibious assault ships and auxiliary vessels.
The frequency with which Russian navy ships call into the port – at least 10 times a year – have turned the Spanish enclave into the main base of the Russian fleet in the western Mediterranean, according to the Spainish daily newspaper El Pais.
The Russian army has an official base in Tartus (Syria), although its ships have also docked in Maltese and Greek ports.
These visits are authorised on a case-by-case basis by a specialised department in the Spanish Foreign Ministry, El Pais reported.
Diplomatic sources told the newspaper they do not violate the EU sanction regime, and that Spain has received no protests from EU or NATO allies over this policy, which is implemented “with complete transparency.”
The same sources said that the stops involve “routine maritime activities and never military activity.”
The Russian embassy in Madrid also expressed surprise at the fact that “such a common practice as calling into foreign ports” could be the subject of controversy.
“They take place after requesting permission in full compliance with international and domestic legislation,” an embassy spokesman told El Pais.
“Their goal is to allow crews to rest and ships to restock with food and water. Besides, these stops are beneficial for the ports and cities that welcome them.”
Spanish experts noted that Ceuta had become an “unrivalled observatory” for analysing the state of the Russian fleet.
They cited the presence in the port last August of the Novorossiysk, a third-generation submarine that is considered nearly impossible to detect and is nicknamed “the Black Hole”.
The US conservative think tank Heritage Foundation has in the past been critical of the Russian presence in Ceuta.
“It is irresponsible for Madrid to allow Russian warships—especially some of Russia’s most advanced submarines—to use Spanish ports, especially ports located a short distance from such an important naval base as Gibraltar,” wrote Luke Coffey and Niles Gardiner in an article for the Heritage Foundation last September.
“It is unacceptable that a major NATO member would offer support to the Russian Navy at a time when Moscow is actively attempting to dismember Ukraine and is undermining the security of the Baltic States.”
“The U.S. government should make it clear at the highest levels that it views any support of the Russian Navy as completely unacceptable in light of Russian aggression.”
The issue was also raised in the House of Commons during a debate on Gibraltar last October.
The UK’s Minister for Europe, David Lidington, left no doubt that the British Government did not approve of the Russian naval presence in Ceuta, although he said that this was ultimately a matter for the Spanish Government to decide.
“I find it extraordinary that such hospitality should be shown at a time when Russia is not only engaged in a campaign of aggression and destabilisation in Ukraine but has acted in a way that threatens the security of a number of our EU and NATO allies, particularly the Baltic states, but this is ultimately a matter for Spanish Ministers to consider,” he said at the time.