The big powers are in the lead in the war against Ukraine, but mid-sized democracies like Spain also oppose Putin’s Russia.
Spain has traditionally had an ambivalent position towards Russia. Under the previous conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the country sent mixed signals – supporting European Union (EU) sanctions and NATO military measures after the annexation of Crimea – while making overtures to the Kremlin. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov received the the highest honors in March 2014, in the midst of the Russian military intervention.
Unlike Germany or Italy, there is no deep interest underlying Spanish-Russian relations. Spain does not depend on Russian gas, and Spain’s trade balance with Poland is several times greater than with Russia. Until recently, many within the establishment, including in the diplomatic corps, had deeply entrenched, often naive positions.Ihave different views on Russia, ignoring the reality of Putin’s regime and showing more or less overt sympathy for its so-called legitimate interests.
Hostile actions by Russia have gradually eroded the legitimacy of these positions, while its rhetoric of “friendship” with Spain has been undermined by the peddling of disinformation in the crisis of the Catalonia. And in February last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov humiliated EU foreign policy chief and former Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell.
Under Prime Minister Pedro SaAt home, Spain has stepped out of the comfort zone of classic Spanish foreign policy in Latin America, North Africa and the EU. He has joined the Netherlands, Sweden and Canada send NATO troops to Latvia, bolstering Spain’s contributions on the eastern flank. His government has also boosted Spain’s support for Ukraine and the Belarusian democratic opposition.
Jos, Minister of Foreign Affairsstar Manuel Albares has become a driving force in the current political reset. Just before the Russian invasion, he visited kyiv and always supported the blizzard EU sanctions after the February 24 invasion. Spain is Sending in progress lethal equipment to Ukraine, including rocket launchers and ammunition, whereas it previously only supplied defensive military equipment. Albares says the goal now is the economic collapse of Putin’s Russia, while supporting Ukraine’s resistance and sovereignty.
Spanish public opinion, generally wary of Putin’s Russia and its authoritarianism, is now overwhelmingly on the side of the fight for Ukraine’s freedom. In the Spanish mind, especially on the left, the invasion of Ukraine and Russian abuses revive the nightmare of the West’s abandonment of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. Such memories have galvanized many left-wing leaders, including the vice president Yolande DIa-z, a rising political figure and member of the small communist party. His party previously echoed the Kremlin’s anti-Ukrainian propaganda.
Yet not everyone aligns with the new hostility to Russia. Coalition its partner Podemos, a left-wing populist party, still opposes the provision of military assistance, although it has not broken ranks with Prime Minister Sánchez. The decision to supply arms to the Ukrainian resistance is straining the coalition government, while some establishment pundits remain more or less openly sympathetic to Russia, blaming NATO.
The Spanish role in Ukraine will grow in the coming months. In June, Spain will host the NATO summit.
However, Spain still has a lot to do. Military assistance must be maintained. Night vision equipment as well as more anti-tank weapons should be high on the list. Building on previous efforts, Spanish law enforcement must crack down harder on Russian organized crime and oligarchs in the country.
Spain could also take the initiative to prosecute Russian war crimes in Ukraine. The Attorney General’s decision to open an investigation into potential crimes resulting from the Russian invasion is a nod in that direction.
The mainstream political debates around major international crises often focus on the great powers, neglecting the role of middle-power democracies. Yet much foreign policy business is done through their active engagement. Spain’s actions in confronting Russia offer striking proof of this.
Borja Lasheras is a non-resident senior researcher in the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He served in the Spanish Presidency of the Government between 2018 and the end of 2021, where he served as Senior Foreign Policy Advisor (2020-2021).