LONDON — Malta has refused a new Russian request to use its airspace to fly military aircraft from Syria to Venezuela this month, BuzzFeed News has learned.
The move comes weeks after Malta, a member of the European Union, approved a similar Russian request, and Russian military planes and personnel were spotted on the airport tarmac in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, as the country continues to experience protests and political unrest.
Data from a flight tracking website shows that two Russian military planes also flew through the airspace of Greece and Cyprus from Syria en route to Venezuela on March 22 and 23.
The new request from Russia was made by the Russian Embassy in Malta’s capital of Valletta last week, a senior diplomat said. It asked for clearance to fly two military aircraft between April 16 and 19, from Syria to Caracas, and back.
The two aircraft, a Russian air force jet, Ilyushin Il-62, and a cargo plane, An-124-100 Ruslan, are respectively planning to depart from Syrian capital Damascus, and Khmeimim, an airbase operated by Russia in Syria.
The aircraft have the same tail numbers as the two Russian military planes photographed at Simón Bolívar International Airport in Venezuela’s capital last month. Reports in the New York Times, citing the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, say that those flights were routine, and the two planes were carrying supplies and technical advisers.
According to the Russian request made to Malta’s foreign ministry, the contents of which have been shared with BuzzFeed News, the purpose of this month’s flights is humanitarian in nature. The planes would bring food supplies and diesel generator sets, as well as engineering, technical, and medical specialists needed by Moscow’s diplomatic mission in Venezuela, Russia says in its request. It says that the planes do not carry arms, explosives, or poisonous or harmful materials.
News that Russian military aircraft are travelling from Syria to Venezuela will raise 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 European Union’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 travelled to Venezuela to beef up Maduro’s security at the turn of the year. Russia has reportedly signed more than $11 billion worth of contracts for maintenance and arms, including air defense systems, tanks, fighter jets, and attack helicopters with Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez.
Data from the tracking website Flightradar24 shows the two Russian aircraft flying over the airspace of EU member states Cyprus and Greece after leaving Syria en route to Venezuela in March.
The foreign ministries of Cyprus and Greece did not respond to a request for comment asking whether they were granting Russia permission to access their airspace this month.
This is the second time this month Malta has rejected a request from Russia to use its airspace for flights to Venezuela from Syria. Between the request approved in March, and the recent denial, Russia had also filed a request for military flights from Syria to Venezuela between April 12 and May 1, which was also rejected.
A senior diplomatic source told BuzzFeed News that Russia has not taken the rejections well — and the expectation is that it could retaliate by targeting Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat with a misinformation campaign during or after next month’s European Parliamentary elections, said the source.
Russia's ministry of foreign affairs did not respond to a request for comment.