The government got a first vague warning about potential Russian retribution some six months ago, shortly after a fuel tanker was refused entry into the Grand Harbour, the Times of Malta has learnt.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said yesterday that Malta’s Security Service had been alerted to possible Russian interference in the general election.
Dr Muscat had been asked by journalists to comment on a report in specialist journal Intelligence Online that the British secret service, MI6, and its US counterpart, the Central Intelligence Agency, were “highly concerned” that the Russian whistle-blower who made the Egrant ownership allegations was part of a move to destabilise the country on orders from the Russian government.
“We were informed by the security services of these countries that this story [the Egrant allegations] was invented after our refusal to refuel Russian warships en route to Syria,” Dr Muscat told journalists.
He said the government had received warnings that the acceleration of the EU visa waiver programme with Ukraine, pushed by the Maltese presidency, was likely to provoke retaliation.
“So far, we have no evidence that the person who invented the story is linked to the Russian secret service,” he said.
“But this is not something the Malta Security Service came out with. We were informed by the security services of other countries. Two countries [Britain and the US] are mentioned in the [Intelligence Online] report.”
Government sources told this newspaper that the Maltese security service had first flagged the potential of “Russian retribution” around last December.
This, the sources said, came shortly after the government refused to allow the Russian military replenishment fuel tanker RFS Dubna from entering the Grand Harbour in early November.
The Maltese government’s decision had come amid growing international opposition to Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow rebuked Malta, saying it “had fallen victim to an information war”.
A similar warning was also sounded by US diplomats, the sources continued, but again, there was little information available other than the possibility of retaliation in some form.
Then, about two weeks ago, a journalist working for an influential US news publication contacted the government fishing for information on suspected links between the Egrant whistle-blower, who is a Russian woman, and Moscow.
According to the sources, the journalist claimed to have information, originating from unidentified informers, that intelligence officers suspected a link between the whistle-blower’s claims and the Russian government.
The sources indicated this matter had been raised by Dr Muscat with Maltese security service officers, however this newspaper could not ascertain whether the Maltese intelligence operators gave any credence to such suspicion or not.
The sources noted that the government had not contacted the Russian Embassy when the matter was first flagged last year, because the information available at the time was “too vague”.
“The government receives such tip-offs and warnings on a regular basis. We do not go through all the diplomatic procedures every time a potential issue is flagged,” the sources said.
They pointed out it was also unlikely that Dr Muscat had informed Magistrate Aaron Bugeja, who is investigating the Egrant allegations, of the reported potential involvement of the Russian government.
December 2015 – Russian whistle-blower Maria E. arrives in Malta and shortly after starts working with Ta’ Xbiex-based Pilatus Bank. There has been no suggestion so far that her arrival or employment was engineered by the Russian government.
March 2016 – Maria E. leaves Pilatus Bank.
April 2016 – The Panama Papers database is published, linking then energy minister Konrad Mizzi and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, to secret companies in Panama. A third company, Egrant, is named but the owner remains unknown.
October 2016 – Russian navy fleet oiler RFS Dubna, part of a flotilla en route to Syria, is refused permission to refuel in Malta, provoking a harsh public statement from the Russian government. Shortly after, the Maltese government is tipped off about potential retaliation by Moscow.
February 2017 – An agreement on visa liberalisation for Ukrainians is reached between the Maltese presidency of the European Council and the European Parliament. The agreement is confirmed by the European Council shortly after and adopted on May 11.
April 2017 – Blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia alleges the Prime Minister’s wife, Michelle Muscat, had shares in Egrant. Her information is allegedly based on documents provided by Maria E.
Two weeks ago – A US journalist contacts the Maltese government with information on potential links between the Egrant allegation and Russian intelligence.
This week – Intelligence Online reports concerns within British and US intelligence of Russian interference in the Maltese general election. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat confirms the reports.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us