The Russian cruiser Marshal Ustinov docked in Ceuta yesterday, marking the Russian Navy’s return to the Spanish enclave after a two-year break.
Ceuta had long been Russia’s port of choice in the western Mediterranean but became mired in controversy in 2016 after it emerged that some Russian warships bound for Syria would refuel there, prompting an angry response from Nato.
Britain and Nato allies piled pressure on Madrid over concerns that the Russian ships could be used to ramp up air attacks in Syria.
Two years later, despite continued tension between the west and Russia, the Russian Navy has returned to Ceuta.
For the Spanish enclave, this is good news, generating business not just for the port but for the city too, where Russian sailors will this weekend enjoy some welcome shore leave.
The vessel arrived just days after Spain’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Madrid and agreed to establish an international group to tackle “fake news”.
The Spanish Government has since come under pressure from opposition parties to explain the nature of the agreement, not least given that Russia is widely accused of having used “fake news” to exert influence in support of its foreign policy aims.
After the meeting Mr Borrell welcomed Moscow’s support for Spain’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity”, a reference to Catalonia, where Russia had been accused of meddling during the independence drive, but with clear implications too in respect of Spain’s position on Gibraltar.
Mr Borrell welcomed the Russian statement even while insisting that Spain opposition to Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 remained unchanged.
The return of Russian warships to Ceuta was condemned yesterday by Luke Coffey, a director at the conservative US think tank The Heritage Foundation.
Mr Coffey tweeted: “[French President Emmanuel] Macron is worried about Trump but yesterday the U.S. increased sanctions against Russia and today Spain welcomes the Russian Navy into its ports. I think Macron should start looking closer to home.”
Earlier this week, when news broke of the imminent arrival of the Russian vessels to Ceuta, Mr Coffey published an update to an earlier report prepared for The Heritage Foundation on the Spanish enclave’s role as a staging post for the Russian Navy.
“Considering the current state of relations between the West and Russia, it would be the height of irresponsibility for Madrid to once again allow Russian warships to use Spanish ports for refuelling and resupply,” he wrote.
“This is especially true for those ships participating in the illegal occupation of Crimea or continued support for Assad.”
“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.”