Spain Offers to Refuel Russian Naval Strike Group

The Kuznetsov with a Royal Navy escort (UK MoD photo, undated)

Published Oct 26, 2016 1:42 AM by The Maritime Executive

Spain faces criticism from its EU neighbors and from NATO over its willingness to allow a Russian naval strike group to refuel at the North African port of Ceuta, a Spanish-controlled enclave on the coast of Morocco.

The Russian battle group, led by the jump-ramp carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, will be escorted through the Strait of Gibraltar by the Spanish frigate Almirante Juan de Borbon and the logistics vessel Cantabria. If all proceeds as planned, its auxiliaries will then refuel and resupply at Ceuta on Wednesday morning, Spanish media report.

The Russian fleet is bound for waters off Syria, where it is expected to take part in an operation against rebel positions in the besieged city of Aleppo. 

Russian and Syrian government bombing campaigns in and around Aleppo have generated a large number of civilian casualties, and the Council of the European Union issued a statement October 17 suggesting that the Russian strikes in Aleppo may be war crimes. 

"Since the beginning of the offensive by the regime and its allies, notably Russia, the intensity and scale of the aerial bombardment of eastern Aleppo is clearly disproportionate," the council wrote. "The deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel, schools and essential infrastructure, as well as the use of barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and chemical weapons . . . may amount to war crimes."

As one of the EU's 28 member states, Spain is party to the council. 

NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said that while it was up to Spain to choose whether to let the ships resupply, "we are concerned, and I have expressed that very clearly, about the potential use of this battle group to increase Russia's ability and to be a platform for air strikes against Syria." 

“This is something I have conveyed very clearly before and I repeat those concerns today. I believe that all NATO allies are aware this battle group can be used to conduct air strikes against Aleppo and Syria," he said. 

Ceuta has long been a refueling stop for Russian naval vessels, much to the consternation of Spain’s NATO allies. Spain asserts that the port is technically not under the NATO umbrella, so its activities there do not violate treaty obligations.

However, on Tuesday, Spain's Foreign Office appeared to be reconsidering its position on hosting the Kuznetsov's fleet auxiliaries. "The latest stopovers requested are being revised at this time according to the information we are receiving from our allies and the Russian authorities," the ministry said in response to an inquiry from The Spain Report.