Three Russian navy ships carrying seven hundred men (missile cruiser Marshall Ustinov, salvage tug SB-406 and Dubna, a tanker ship) were set to leave the Spanish port of Ceuta on Monday. Although Spain is a NATO member, the Russian flotilla arrived on Friday last week in order to refuel at this Spanish enclave in northern Africa.

In a surprise visit last Tuesday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov travelled to Madrid to meet his Spanish counterpart, Josep Borrell. Ceuta’s port had been declared off-limits to the Russian navy when, amid the war in Syria, NATO had forced Spain to stop allowing Russian warships to use it.

Following their meeting, Lavrov and Borrell announced the creation of a joint work group to thwart fake news. Furthermore, the Spanish minister stated that Russia stands with Spain on the issue of Catalonia and Spain’s territorial integrity. Still, some Spanish newspapers have accused Russia of spreading fake news to aid Catalonia’s independence bid, an accusation that does not hold water.

However, everything seems to suggest that Russia has now used this as leverage to obtain permission for its navy to dock in Ceuta, which is of paramount importance to Russia’s Mediterranean expansion efforts. In the past some Spanish foreign ministers have admitted —even in public— that they had to do “favours” to other countries to stop them from voicing their support to the government of Catalonia.

Between 2010 and 2016 over sixty Russian navy vessels docked in Ceuta on account of the fact that this Spanish African enclave is not part of NATO. In the wake of very strong criticism from allies such as the UK, Germany and the US, in October 2016 Spain did not allow the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier group to stop off at Ceuta on its way to support the offensive on Aleppo. Until last weekend, not one Russian ship had returned to Ceuta.

Cañete connection

Interestingly, the Russian ships that have been refuelling in Ceuta’s port since 2011 have regularly engaged the services of Ducar SL, a petrol company with which Miguel Arias Cañete has family ties. Cañete is a former Partido Popular cabinet minister and he is currently the EU Commissioner for Energy and Climate Action.

Arias Cañete was Ducar’s chairman until January 2012, shorly before his Spanish ministerial appointment. His brother-in-law, Miguel Domecq Solis, has been at the helm of the firm since February 28, 2012. The Russian navy uses Ducar’s facilities located at the Eastern and Western piers. Local media have reported several times that this is the company which supplies fuel directly to the Russian warships.

In a parliamentary address in 2013 Miguel Arias Cañete admitted to holding a 2.5 per cent stake in Ducar SL. Specifically, he stated that he owned 85,509 shares valued at €185,104 At the time, though, Arias Cañete claimed that Ducar SL merely stored oil which was subsequently sold by a third party. As has been pointed out by Ceuta newspapers, the firm’s web page clearly states that they sell the fuel as well.