Spanish City in North Africa at the Heart of Diplomatic Row

Russian warships sail past Ceuta this time, but its ambiguous NATO status makes it a popular port of call.

Russia withdrew a request for a flotilla of warships to refuel at Spain’s North African city of Ceuta on Wednesday, sparing the NATO country the embarrassment of having to either turn the Russians down or accept the outrage of its allies.

Madrid had come under criticism from politicians in continental Europe and the United Kingdom for possibly allowing the Russian ships to dock at Ceuta.

A group of warships led by Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, was expected to stop for supplies in the port after passing through the Strait of Gibraltar on Wednesday morning.

The vessels are sailing for Syria, where they would join Russian military efforts in support of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, warned on Tuesday that the battle group may be used to increase Russian airstrikes in and around Aleppo, a major city in the north of Syria where tens of thousands of civilians are trapped between loyalist and opposition forces.

Ambiguous status

Ceuta is located in North Africa, directly opposite the British territory of Gibraltar south of Spain. It has been in Spanish hands since Phillip II took the Portuguese crown in 1580.

The city, which has a population of 80,000, is outside the European customs union but recognized as a part of Spain and hence the EU.

Its NATO status is less clear.

Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which created the alliance, refers only to protection against attacks in “Europe and North America”.

Article 6 specifies that attacks “on the territory of or on the islands under the jurisdiction of any of the parties” north of the Tropic of Cancer would invoke the mutual defense clause.

That would seem to include Ceuta.

Nonetheless, when Spain joined the alliance in 1982, it failed to obtain specific security guarantees for Ceuta as well as Melilla, its other North African dependency.

Free port

Before the EU and NATO existed, Ceuta was a “free port”, meaning it would allow ships from any nation to dock.

The concept no longer has legal meaning, but it’s a tradition that endures. Ceuta’s economy is still dependent on tourism and maritime trade.

In March, when members of the European Parliament wondered if Russia’s continued use of the port didn’t violate EU sanctions, El País reported that Russian sailors spend around €1 million in Ceuta each year. On top of that comes the money the Russians pay for fuel and water.

Over fifty Russian warships have docked in Ceuta since 2011. According to El País, that makes the Spanish enclave “the main base of the Russian fleet in the Western Mediterranean.”