The United States has to convince its closest European allies, especially the United Kingdom, to pressure Spain at all levels to stop providing help to the Russian navy. The warning comes from the Heritage Foundation, one of the most influential conservative think tanks.
Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the foundation, signs a report warning that "it has been reported that Spain will once again welcome the Russian navy into its ports". "It is not the time for a NATO member" to do so, writes Coffey, when most countries in NATO are "increasing economic sanctions against Russia, expelling Russian diplomats, and bolstering security in Eastern Europe against the Russian threat of aggression". Besides its ongoing support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and continued occupation of the Crimea, Russia has recently been accused of meddling in international elections and poisoning former spy Sergei Skirpal in the UK.
The report was published on Tuesday. It's expected that three Russian vessels will dock in Ceuta from this Friday to Monday: a warship, a tugboat and a tanker, with a total of 200 sailors in crew.
The Spanish foreign and defence ministers, Josep Borrell and Margarita Robles, have work to do. The Heritage Foundation has played an important role in the US conservative movement since the presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989). It has supported Donald Trump since the start of his campaign for the presidency; at least 66 researchers and directors affiliated to the foundation have or have had roles in the administration and it recommended at least five prominent members of the cabinet.
Between 2011 and 2016, Spain allowed at least 62 Russian navy ships (destroyers, frigates, amphibious assault ships, even an attack submarine) to use its ports. That ended in October 2016 under international pressure when "it was proven that some of these ships were involved in Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea and support for Syria’s Assad".
"The situation has not changed", notes the report, "yet Spain—a NATO member—is planning renewed support. The U.S. must send a clear message that this would be unacceptable".
At least 25 of the 62 ships "visited Spain to refuel and resupply between Russia’s invasion of Crimea in March 2014 and October 2016". The last such visit was on 16th October 2016, involving two Russian corvettes (Zeleny Dol and Serpukhov) and a tug boat (SB-36), which resupplied in Ceuta.
Spain's reason for this support was simple: "local communities hosting Russian vessels benefited financially".
Some of these visits "had curious timing". For example, in the same week in April 2014, the EU announced a new round of sanctions against Russia and Spain "made a mockery of the sanctions" by hosting a destroyer (Vice Admiral Kulakov - the photo accompanying this article) and two tankers (Dubna and Sergey Osipov).
The detailed report notes that, of the five most recent Russian ships to visit Spain (Zeleny Dol, Serpukhov, SB-36 and the frigates Ladny and Yaroslav Mudry), the first four came from their home port on the Crimean peninsula, under Russian occupation. Similarly, all of them except SB-36 have taken part in Russian operations in support of the Syrian dictator. The Yaroslav Mudry has also "harassed U.S. Navy ships conducting anti-ISIS operations in the eastern Mediterranean".
Gibraltar is key
For the US expert, Russian access to Ceuta is "of particular concern" because of its proximity to Gibraltar. The US has relied on the British port's facilities "from America’s first overseas military intervention in 1801 against the Barbary States [modern Morocco through Libya] to the most recent military interventions in the Middle East and North Africa".
Gibraltar is the "best place in the Mediterranean Sea to repair and resupply" the US's nuclear submarines and, clearly, "Russian submarines resupplying mere miles away presents a potential intelligence and security problem for the U.S. and its allies".
The report emphasises the lack of loyalty Spain shows its NATO allies through such actions, making their operations more difficult at the same time it makes things easier for Russia, NATO's main rival: "Spain’s policy of allowing the Russian navy to use Ceuta is all the more indefensible in relation to its reluctance to allow NATO vessels to make direct visits between Gibraltar and Spanish ports".
Restrictions for allies
"Although Spain is a member of NATO, the Spanish government places restrictions on U.S. and other NATO military assets visiting Gibraltar," Coffey writes. For example, upon leaving Gibraltar, US ships first have to dock at some other port, before they will be allowed into any of Spain's. "Amazingly, at times Spain would rather have a Russian ship, rather than a NATO ship, visit a Spanish port".
The same is true for aircraft: "Any request by military aircraft from NATO members that arrives or departs the Gibraltar airfield and overflies or lands in Spain is routinely denied by Spanish authorities". By way of example, he explains that "a U.S. military aircraft flying between Rota and Gibraltar must first detour either to Faro in Portugal, or to Tangier in Morocco".
At this point, he references a report he wrote for the foundation in 2014 arguing that the US "should back British sovereignty over Gibraltar". He argues that the US has national interests at stake, for example, the "special relationship" means that the US has access to UK military bases, like the one on Gibraltar, unlike any other country in the world. He adds that "an important part of the Gibraltar dispute between the U.K. and Spain is the right of self-determination of the Gibraltarians — a right on which America was founded in 1776 and a right that Spain regularly ignores".
Pressure from all sides
The author suggests that the US should bring "pressure [to bear on Spain] from all sides". For a start, "the administration must work with Congress to send a clear and coordinated message that any further Spanish support to the Russian navy would be unbecoming of a NATO ally".
He recommends that both the president and his national security adviser, John Bolton, should publicly express disappointment with Spain. Similarly, "secretary of state Mike Pompeo and secretary of defense James Mattis should use every opportunity, including NATO ministerial meetings, to raise this issue with their Spanish counterparts". They should also "coordinate with like-minded NATO members, especially the U.K., to pressure Spain".
Coffey concludes: "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 refueling and resupply. 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".