Please don’t absolve Robert Abela on grounds of incompetence or pathological stupidity. Today’s U-turn on selling Maltese citizenship to Russian oligarchs while their patron Vladimir Putin flouts international law and kills thousands of Ukrainian innocent civilians, is not the result of some intellectual inhibition that prevents our prime minister from having the shortest of foresights.

Robert Abela has known for years that our European partners did not appreciate the way we sold European citizenship to anonymous oligarchs who had and otherwise would have had nothing to do with Malta. He knew that the European Commission believed the trade to be illegal and was confident enough in that view to take the case to the European Court of Justice.

He had heard the President of the European Commission say the EU would no longer sell its citizenship to Putin’s mates. He had heard the President of the European Parliament echo that claim, even more categorically.

Robert Abela knew that his non-answers to questions he was getting every day were convincing no one. An Italian colleague of mine taught me the neologism supercazzolà, a newly coined term that has filled the void in the Italian language for the concept that can be loosely translated as nonsense spiced up with the absurd to the point where humour is no longer appropriate.

There has been a lot of nonsense.

“Our due diligence is rigorous.” That’s untrue because our acceptance of citizenship applications is predicated on the acceptance of and complicity in the lie that applicants live in Malta. If they lie about that (almost all of them do), they must be presumed to lie about everything else.

“Not all Russians are bad.” Which is not in doubt. But not all Russians are multi-millionaires either and only those can afford to buy Maltese citizenship. And you can’t be a multi-millionaire in Russia unless you’re a friend of Putin. Find one who isn’t, and you’ll learn they’re an enemy of Putin, in prison, or in hiding from Putin’s murderous spies.

“Ukrainians have also acquired Maltese passports.” Some of them likely originally Russian who acquired Ukrainian citizenship when that country was run by a puppet of Putin. They did that (or acquired first the citizenship of countries like Moldova or Belarus) to cover up their Russian identity beneath another layer of subterfuge.

“We can’t discriminate on a national basis.” Except you do. Iranian applicants are banned for example. So that’s not just a lie. In denying the existence of discrimination, the discrimination is made worse.

“Putin’s cronies don’t want to come to Malta.” None of the acquirers of Maltese citizenship want to come to Malta, or almost none anyway. Remember the 72 Saudi oil sheiks who got Malta’s citizenship all in one go? If 72 Saudi oil sheiks lived here, believe me, we’d know, we’d see them. Putin’s cronies want a Maltese passport because it’s a European passport. They want it because they can use it to go, and more importantly to take their money, anywhere in Europe but here. Joseph Muscat told them as much.

And now they want a Maltese passport to help them do that more than ever as they struggle to move and spend their money trapped by the sanctions imposed on them by the West.

Robert Abela knew these lame excuses wouldn’t last the distance. It was only a matter of time before someone with some serious political clout would get on the phone to him and tell him what’s what. Let me indulge in a little speculation. The German chancellor, a social democrat, would get on the phone to Robert Abela and tell him the prevarication was simply not acceptable and if Malta intended to cooperate with Vladimir Putin, Malta’s isolation from her European partners would be made explicit and painful. And while at it the Labour Party would finally get kicked out from the Socialist Party to be forced to join the Putin sympathisers sitting where Nigel Farage used to crouch.

Don’t assume that Robert Abela would have been surprised by such a phone call.

So why the embarrassingly comedic attempt to keep the scheme running, to defend it in such a weak fashion, only to have to climb down with a humiliation no political party, however confident of victory, would wish to experience in the second week of an election campaign?

The answer is in the manner of their announcement today. Robert Abela did not say Russians (and Belarusians) were being excluded from the passports scheme for reasons of principle, because there’s a war on, because we support our partners’ effort to resist Putin’s unprovoked assault on Western democracy and the territorial sovereignty of a smaller neighbour.

Instead, Robert Abela said the scheme was being withdrawn because Malta’s world-renowned “due diligence” on applications by Russians and Belarusians could not be adequately completed in view of the current restrictions on Russia and Belarus.

It’s almost as if Malta is complaining that it has been victimised by the sanctions. It’s almost as if Malta has managed to find a reason not to have those sanctions and to allow Russians and Belarusians to continue using their inordinate stores of (ill-gotten) funds and to move them around freely preferably in our general direction.

It’s as if Robert Abela was telling Vladimir Putin that if he could help it the scheme would still be up, and that Putin must be reassured that the scheme (along with Malta’s cooperation with his evil plans) would be made available to Russia at the first possible opportunity.

Robert Abela doesn’t like looking stupid. He’s touchy that way. But even looking stupid is a relatively smaller price to pay than annoying Putin’s Russia. If ever the Russian military needs our waters, our harbours, our air traffic control, or any of our assets that could be used in furtherance of Putin’s aggressive plans against the democratic world, he’ll find Robert Abela here to serve him.

Don’t call stupid those whose proper fault is treachery.