Malta Refuses to Refuel Russian Naval Strike Group
On Thursday, Malta withdrew permission for a Russian Navy replenishment tanker to refuel at its port. UK and American diplomats had applied pressure to the Maltese government to deny access to the tanker, as they believed the fuel would be used to replenish the Admiral Kuznetsov battlegroup. The carrier and seven accompanying vessels are believed to be headed to Syria to support the siege of Aleppo.
Earlier this week, Spain cancelled permission for the Kuznetsov's auxiliaries to take on fuel at the North African port territory of Ceuta. The Spanish government had come under intense diplomatic pressure to deny access to the Russian vessels.
Russian officials say that the Kuznetsov battlegroup carries enough supplies to be self-sustaining for at least 45 days, and several military spokespeople denied that they had ever asked for formal permission to call at Ceuta or Malta.
The smoke-belching jump carrier Kuznetsov has limited cabilities, analysts say, and a long history of breakdowns. But her passage through the English Channel earlier this month raised a great deal of concern for Russia's European neighbors.
“Most of us thought the cold war was over,” UK Armed Forces minister Mike Penning said in an address to Parliament this week. “In the past couple of months we have had to look back to the old foe. We saw their fleet sailing through the English Channel, probably as a sign of what they could do."
Beyond regional security, rights activists, UN officials and diplomats are concerned that the Kuznetsov's air wing will be deployed in a bombing campaign over Aleppo – a campaign which has inflicted a significant number of civilian casualties.
The Russian government has repeatedly stressed that the Kuznetsov will not be used in the Syria air campaign.
"These concerns are groundless, because our planes have not been even close to Aleppo for nine days. There are no reasons to worry," said Andrei Kelin, head of European Cooperation at the Russian Foreign Ministry, speaking to RIA Novosti. "A group of ships is now in the Mediterranean. Our ships have always been in the Mediterranean. There are no reasons to suspect something, no reason for [NATO]'s claims."
However, his claim did not explicitly extend to rotary aircraft, and Russian defense officials said Friday that attack helicopters from the Kuznetsov will test a new anti-tank missile against combat targets in Syria.
Separately, on Friday, the Russian Navy despatched the destroyer Smetlivy from the port of Sevastopol to Syria, Russian government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported.