VALLETTA, Malta — Russia has withdrawn a request to dock a warship in Malta that officials told BuzzFeed News was bound for Venezuela. Malta planned to reject the request.
It can also be revealed for the first time that Russian diplomats were trying to purchase riot gear and gas canisters on the island, which officials suspect they wanted to load onto the ship.
Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs and its embassy in Malta did not respond to a request for comment.
The move comes days after Malta, a member of the European Union, denied Russia permission to use its airspace to fly military aircraft to Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, from Syria, this month. Venezuela is currently experiencing huge political unrest and mass protests.
This new incident, reported here for the first time, has raised concerns among senior US and European government officials that Moscow is looking to boost its military presence in Venezuela, and, at the same time, flex its muscles in the Mediterranean.
On March 28, Russia’s embassy in Malta asked Maltese authorities for permission to allow a large Russian navy anti-submarine ship — the Severomorsk — to dock on the island from April 23–26, a senior Maltese government official said.
According to the request, the contents of which have been shared with BuzzFeed News, the purpose of the stopover was to “pay a business visit to Malta” for “provisioning and crew rest.” The 7,570-ton Severomorsk is 163 meters long, and has a crew of 403 people, the request says.
Malta initially asked Russia for additional information about the ship’s operations and itinerary, but has since been told by US officials that the vessel was en route to Venezuela, said senior Maltese government officials.
The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic, added that the request, which was withdrawn late Tuesday afternoon, would have been denied.
A high-level government official confirmed that the US assessment had been shared with Malta. On the basis of information and sources, the ship — “to the best of our knowledge” — was ultimately bound for Venezuela, the same US government official said.
Commenting on news of recent Russian military flights to Venezuela, the official also questioned the humanitarian nature that Russia claims is the purpose for diverting resources from Syria — a war zone — to Venezuela.
Reports that Russian military planes are flying from Syria to Venezuela, via the EU countries’ airspace, has raised alarms in the international community. The Kremlin is one of the main backers of Venezuela’s embattled president, Nicolás Maduro, after opposition leader Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself interim president in January. Guaidó’s claim is supported by the EU’s member states, the US, and about two dozen other governments.
Reuters reported in January that a contingent of private military contractors linked to the Kremlin traveled to Venezuela to beef up Maduro’s security at the turn of the year.
At a regular press briefing on Thursday, the Russian government described Malta’s decision to close its airspace to Russian military transport planes bound for Venezuela — first reported by BuzzFeed News — as "unfriendly."
A senior intelligence source in Valletta said Russian diplomats tried to buy tear gas canisters and riot gear on the island last week.
The source, and senior Maltese government officials informed about the attempted purchase, said that although they cannot definitively prove it, they suspect the items were meant for the Severomorsk, given the timing coincides so closely with the dates the Russian navy anti-submarine ship was hoping to dock on the island. One of the officials said it wasn't otherwise clear why the ship and its crew wanted to spend so much time in Malta.
BuzzFeed News has agreed to withhold details of how the information was obtained by Malta’s security services in order to not expose their sources and methods.
It is not the first time that Malta has stopped Russian warships from using its ports. In 2016, the government denied permission to a Russian naval battle group to refuel amid opposition to Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.
US and Maltese government officials told BuzzFeed News that in recent months Russia was more aggressively asserting its presence and pursuing its interests in the Mediterranean, and in Malta in particular, due to the island’s strategic geographical location.
A senior government official described Russia’s diplomatic mission in Malta as disproportionately big given the country’s small size. The Maltese official also said that Russia was looking to extend westward its influence across the Mediterranean, and was annoyed at Malta’s increasingly close security cooperation with the US.
The same official recalled how last summer, a senior Russian diplomat was flagged after trying to cash multiple checks totaling hundreds of thousands of euros, purportedly to make cash payments.
A US government official told BuzzFeed News that Moscow was intent on disrupting Malta’s place in the EU.
Another Maltese senior government official said Russia was “very irritated” following the wave of recent rejections to use the country’s airspace — and feared it could retaliate by targeting Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat with a misinformation campaign during or after next month’s European parliamentary elections.