The Russian government has vehemently denied reports that its diplomats had visited Malta to buy tear gas canisters and riot gear meant to be transported to Venezuela to aid its president Nicolás Maduro.
“We believe that the misinformation that was widespread in the Maltese media is an example of lack of professionalism and an echo of anti-Russian hysteria, the swelling of which is not in the interests of Russian-Maltese friendship,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
On 18th April, BuzzFeed News reported that Maltese intelligence officials suspected Russian diplomats had visited Malta the previous week to buy tear gas and riot gear
The anonymous source said that although they couldn’t prove it, they suspected the items were intended for a Russian navy anti-submarine ship – the Severomorsk – given how the timing of their purchase coincided so closely with the dates that ship had planned to dock in Malta.
According to BuzzFeed, Russia’s embassy in Malta, on 28th March, asked Maltese authorities for permission to allow the Severomorsk to dock on the island from the 23rd to the 26th of April. According to the request, the purpose of the stopover was to “pay a business visit to Malta” for “provisioning and crew rest.”
Senior Maltese government officials told the news website that Malta had initially asked Russia for more information about the ship’s operation and itinerary but was told by US officials that the vessel was destined for Venezuela.
The sources said that Russia eventually withdrew the request but that it would have been denied anyway.
Besides refused entry to the Severomorsk, Malta also denied airspace to Russian military planes, which were transporting food, diesel generator sets and other supplies to the South American country.
“Neutrality doesn’t mean we must close our eyes, ears and noses to certain things, but that we must take the best decisions in the spirit of Malta’s neutrality and in the spirit of international solidarity,” Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said of the double denial.
While Russia is supporting Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro, Malta, along with the rest of the EU, the USA and other Western and Latin American countries, officially recognises the legitimacy of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who declared himself interim president last January.
A spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry criticised the Maltese government’s decision as “not friendly” and said that Russia will take it into account “within the framework of bilateral relations with Valletta”.
However, the United States applauded Malta’s decision, describing Maduro’s government as a “brutal dictator” and urging other countries to follow the island’s example.
Cover photo: The Russian Embassy in Malta. Secondary photo: The Severomorsk anti-submarine destroyer. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/POOL/TASS