Last year, news of Spain's decision to provide water, fuel, and other supplies to the 6,900-tonne destroyer Vice Admiral Kulakov and the tankers Duban and Sergey Osipov at Ceuta (a Spanish-administered city in North Africa, facing Gibraltar and claimed by Morocco) in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis prompted surprise and even anger in many Allied quarters. After all, NATO was supposed to be breaking military relations with Russia, implementing sanctions, and showing the world its opposition to Russian policy in the Ukraine, not refueling Russian warships. In the whole of 2014, Russian warships paid 13 visits to Ceuta, the port becoming one of the cornerstones in Moscow's drive for a much larger naval blueprint. This was the more strange given that Madrid was among the most vocal members of the Atlantic Alliance when it came to denouncing the Crimean referendum, in an openly-acknowledged bid to try to taint Catalonia's (conquered in 1714) self-determination vote, which took place on 9 November.
The question thus appears what may have prompted Madrid's U-turn. Some British voices have already mentioned what could be a very important factor: Spain's harassment campaign against Gibraltar. Furthermore, recent Royal Navy reinforcements to the Rock seem designed, among others, to counter the threat of increased offshore Elint gathering by Russian warships operating with Spanish logistical support. While this seems to be at least one of the factors at play, could there perhaps be others?
Going back to the Catalan 9 November referendum, Rajoy's administration has repeatedly tried to secure public commitments by partners and allies not to recognize an independent Catalonia, with little success to date. Obama has remained silent, even when Rajoy brought up the subject in a joint meeting before journalists. Cameron has not only refused to play ball, but even publicly admonished his Spanish counterpart to resort to dialogue, not force. France (which, to add insult to injury, now has a Catalan-born prime minister), by repeatedly refusing to drill a tunnel through the Central Pyrenees has condemned Madrid to recognize Catalonia, through which most Spanish overland exports to the EU travel. Spain's only successes have been among European Commission members, but unfortunately for Madrid it is member states, not the Commission, which take important decisions in the European Union.
So, what options are left to Madrid? Well, not many really ... perhaps Russia? This may have easily crossed Rajoy's mind when confronted with a request for logistical support in the midst of a major NATO-Russia crisis. Or was it perhaps Putin who discreetly brought up the question? We are speculating here, since there is no open source evidence that any such exchange took place, but it clearly makes sense. An isolated Spain, having failed to secure support from her partners and allies, may well be tempted to try to get a hand from the Russian big brother. Making life difficult for the people of Gibraltar would provide an added incentive. On the other hand, a Russia seeking ways to strike back at NATO without risking an escalation could find the prospect of a de facto naval base right in front of the Rock, at the gate of the Mediterranean, most appealing. Actually, old-fashioned naval bases are no longer in vogue, as we have been seeing in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region lately, dual-purpose infrastructures are much more flexible and politically convenient. There is no need for Russia and Spain to sign any formal agreement, it suffices for Russian warships to know that they can quietly refuel and resupply at Ceuta.
How should thus NATO respond? There may be no easy answers to this question, but it seems clear that as long as uncertainty concerning Catalonia's status remains Spain may be tempted, strongly tempted, to play the Russian card, even more so at a time of heightened tensions with Moscow. To prevent this NATO and the maritime democracies only have two realistic options: either support Spain in employing military force to crush Catalonia's push to recover independence, or force Madrid to renounce the use of force and promptly recognize Catalonia after she declares independence. Any middle ground, by lengthening Spain's agony, is only likely to increase even further Madrid's incentives to break ranks with NATO and support Russian naval operations in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The democratic values espoused by the members of the Atlantic Alliance should make us hopeful that NATO will choose the latter course of action.
Alex Calvo is an expert in Asian security and defence