Russia wants answers on Malta sanctions

In Moscow, foreign ministers discuss fuel smuggling sanctions against Darren Debono

Foreign ministers Carmelo Abela and Sergei Lavrov
Foreign ministers Carmelo Abela and Sergei Lavrov

Russia is seeking answers from the Maltese government over its desire to designate United Nations sanctions against suspected fuel smuggler Darren Debono, and fellow conspirator Gordon Debono.

A meeting held last week between foreign minister Carmelo Abela and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow was described – as expected – as “cordial”.

But the name of Darren Debono, former Malta international footballer now facing charges in Italy for his role in a €30 million fuel-smuggling ring, cropped up during talks with Lavrov.

Russia has now sent Malta’s sanctions monitoring committee a series of questions requesting clarifications on Malta’s proposed sanctions against the Debonos, which Moscow put on hold before they could be formally presented to the United Nations Security Council.

“The Russian government is clearly aware of the role Debono has played in the Libyan smuggling operation – the name cropped up during the talks with Abela – which raises questions over where their interests lie,” said one highly-placed government source.

Abela was also questioned as to why the Maltese government had only launched its sanctions bid a full year after the extent of the smuggling operation was revealed.

But another source, privy to details of the foreign ministers’ talks, insists both Abela and Lavrov conducted respectful discussions on the fuel-smuggling sanctions.

Sergei Lavrov meets General Khalifa Haftar
Sergei Lavrov meets General Khalifa Haftar

“The Russians are seeking clarifications on Malta’s designation of sanctions. Remember, this is the first time that Malta is venturing into this territory. We know that it all depends on the kind of information and answers we provide the Russians to influence this process – and as long as the answers are forthcoming, there might be cooperation,” the source said.

It is not known whether the United States, a supporter of the sanctions against Darren Debono and Gordon Debono, is also lobbying with Russia on the sanctions. The US has already hit the fuel-smuggling ring with a heavy raft of restrictions through the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC).

But a crucial effect of the UN designations would mean further restrictions on the Debonos and their businesses, as well as their ships: Darren Debono’s vessels were involved in transhipment activities that took smuggled oil from Libya, to Italy.

The foreign ministry insider, however, insisted that Russia’s actions are not retribution for Malta’s role in blocking the refuelling of Russian warships in the Mediterranean, or its recent refusal to grant overflight permission to military planes headed to Venezuela to provide President Nicolas Maduro with special troops.

“There’s neither retaliation over the Kuznetsov affair nor on the Venezuela overflight issue… I think the Russians respect our sovereignty on the matter. It is the Libyan theatre that is of interest to Russia,” the source said.

Indeed, in his eastern stronghold, General Khalifa Haftar – who has visited Moscow three times – controls oilfields and ports through his self-styled Libyan National Army. Yet he cannot sell oil because of UN Security Council resolutions, which leaves only the National Oil Corporation, under the control of the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli, as the only entity authorised to export crude.

Haftar’s control of the east and his offensive to win power is dependent on providing Libya’s various militias and tribes with money.

The NOC also accuses Haftar of attempting to sell Libyan oil illegally, specifically by stationing a warship off the coast of the Ras Lanuf refinery. So, oil money for Haftar is crucial, and that also depends on the countless middlemen operating in the Mediterranean sea transporting the smuggled oil.

In turn the NOC threatens to restrict supply and raise prices, in a bid to temper governments’ attempts to support Haftar by coming down hard on fuel smuggling. Additionally, governments are also under pressure by dozens of oil companies, who want to regain their licences to operate in Libya – most especially Total in France, which supports Haftar, and Eni in Italy, which supports the GNA and recently struck a deal to rebuild Tripoli International Airport. Yet Haftar’s capture of the south now makes this impossible.

Russian balance

Haftar’s military offensive suits Russia’s diplomatic goals because the LNA’s growing hegemony on Libyan oil reserves is the ultimate prize.

It is no secret that Haftar’s offensive benefits Russia’s diplomatic goals: Moscow has been criticised for blocking a UN resolution condemning Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli, allegedly deploying private military contractors in support of the LNA’s military activities, and printed dinars for distribution by Haftar’s parallel Libyan central bank.

However, Russia has maintained active relations with the GNA and energy giant Rosneft signed a deal to purchase NOC oil in 2016.

So amid the Franco-Italian rivalry, Russia’s cautiousness has, as its goal, a peace settlement that allows it to regain influence and economic benefits: before Gaddafi’s overthrow, it had $4 billion in arms contracts with Libya. Today, Russian companies are interested in building a $2.5 billion railway linking Benghazi to Sirte.

Smuggling moves to the east

A report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime suggests that LNA attempts to control fuel supplies after the arrest of Debono’s Libyan conspirator Fahmi Slim Bin Khalifa – Zuwara’s ‘smuggling king’ – in September 2017 by a militia, was a cover for smuggling operations. The NOC, in fact, revealed that supplies to Benghazi and Tobruk in the East after September 2017, were higher than vessels’ consumption needs for navigation, indicating that “quantities are artificially boosted to be smuggled, notably to Malta.”

“In 2018 sources working in Libya’s oil sector identified a suspicious pattern among vessels involved in the smuggling of refined petroleum products. Vessels usually call in the ports of Benghazi or Tobruk, or coast the Libyan eastern shores every three weeks to a month, before sailing to destination ports in Egypt, Malta and Cyprus.”

After Fahmi Slim’s arrest, the report claims “close connections between the Maltese and Libyan networks allowed a smooth shift of some of the smuggling activities from Zuwara [in the west] to the east of the country.”