US applauds Malta’s blocking of Russian aircraft: 'It takes courage to stand up to dictators'

The US State Department urged countries to follow Malta’s example to stop the Kremlin’s support for Venezuelan 'dictator Maduro'

One of the two Russian military planes that arrived in Venezuela last month (Image: AFP)
One of the two Russian military planes that arrived in Venezuela last month (Image: AFP)

The US State Department has applauded the Maltese government for refusing a request by the Russian government for military aircraft to fly through its airspace.

The story was originally reported by Buzzfeed news, which quoted senior government officials saying that Malta had turned down two requests by the Russian government for Malta to grant permission for military aircraft travelling from Syria to Venezuela to fly over Maltese airspace.

The same website also reported, three days later, that Malta had also refused to allow a Russian warship to stop over in Malta, after the security services were alerted to the fact that Russian individuals were known to be in Malta trying to procure riot gear and tear gas.

“We applaud the government of Malta for refusing to allow Russian planes to use its airspace to supply the brutal former regime in Venezuela. We call on all countries to follow Malta’s example to stop the Kremlin’s support for the dictator Maduro,” tweeted State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortangus.

The tweet was retweeted by Mark Schapiro, the United States Charge d’Affaires, who described Malta’s position a show of “strong and strategic leadership in support of EU and US policy on Venezuela”

“It takes courage to stand up to dictators and disinformation,” Shapiro wrote.

The background: Showdown over Venezuela

Two military planes carrying about 100 Russian personnel arrived in Caracas towards the end of March, an influx which United States officials said was unusual for its size.

An unnamed Venezuelan official told The Associated Press that the Russian military officials arrived in Caracas to discuss strategy, equipment maintenance and training.

The Chief of Staff of Russia’s Ground Forces Vasily Tonkoshkurov, nearly 100 troops and 35 metric tons of equipment were on board the planes, media reports said. The flights also carried officials who arrived to “exchange consultations”, the state-funded Sputnik news agency reported. “Russia has various contracts that are in the process of being fulfilled, contracts of a technical military character,” Sputnik said.

The An-124, along with a Russian Air Force Il-62M passenger transport, arrived at Simón Bolívar International Airport in Venezuela’s capital Caracas on 23 March.

Both flights originated in Russia, but the Il-62M stopped in the Syrian capital Damascus before heading off to South America, while the An-124 flew through the Russian military’s Khmeimim air base outpost, also in Syria.

Malta was said to have granted overflight clearance to the planes after the Russian embassy in Malta said they were carrying humanitarian assistance and cargo to Venezuela.

Subsequent photographs show Russian personnel on the tarmac wearing desert camouflage uniforms and baseball caps similar, if not identical, to the ones commonly seen on the Kremlin’s troops in Syria.

The planes fuelled tensions between Russia and the US that were sparked earlier this year as the two countries picked opposing sides in Venezuela’s debilitating political crisis. Since then, Malta has refused overflight clearance to Russian assets from Syria travelling to Venezuela.

For two months now, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has been locked in a political crisis with American-supported Opposition leader Juan Guaido.

The US, along with the European Union, has thrown its support behind Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido. The former leader of the National Assembly has declared himself the country’s interim president and labelled President Nicolas Maduro a “usurper” following his re-election.

Moscow continues to support embattled leader Nicolas Maduro
Moscow continues to support embattled leader Nicolas Maduro

Moscow insists Maduro is still the country’s legitimate leader. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has made it clear that Russia will not allow Venezuela to become “another Syria”.

“We have nothing to hide,” he said in response to a question about what Russian troops are doing in the South American nation.

The United States said the two planeloads of Russian troops were sent to Caracas to support Maduro. The Kremlin claims, however, that they were sent to do maintenance work on military equipment Russia supplied to Venezuela several years ago.

Russia has maintenance contracts for weapons sold to Venezuela under late President Hugo Chávez, including air defence systems, fighter jets and tanks, that are worth billions of dollars.

The arrival of the advisers came as Venezuela activated Russian-made S300 air defence systems last week, according to satellite imagery analysis firm ImageSat Intl. Russia has also recently deployed the S300 in Syria.

The Russian government described Malta’s decision to close its airspace to Russian military transport planes bound for Venezuela as “not friendly”.

Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova last Thursday said the Russian government will take Malta’s decision “into account” when considering bilateral relations with Valletta.

Maria Zakharova on Thursday described Malta's position as not friendly
Maria Zakharova on Thursday described Malta's position as not friendly

Malta has twice refused permission to Russian military planes bound for Venezuela to use its airspace after a first request had been accepted.

Zakharova said the Russian embassy in Malta had asked for permission to allow Russian planes bound for Venezuela to pass through Malta’s airspace. She acknowledged that Malta exercised its sovereign right but went on to say: “The solution of Malta government is not friendly… of course Russia will take this into account in its bilateral relations with Valletta.”

Zakharova insisted she was “surprised” by the statement that Russia would cause trouble, describing it as “absurd” and “fake news”.

“This destroys the good image of the mass media in Malta… Russia’s position is that we shall not interfere in a sovereign country no matter how big and what military potential it has,” she said.

She also recalled the decision in 2016 by the Maltese government to refuse permission to allow a Russian warship to refuel in Malta on its way to Syria.

More in National