Four Spanish factions on Russia and Ukraine

Spanish discourse on Russia and Ukraine confirms the existence of competing cleavages within the establishment

As elsewhere in Europe, Spanish public discussion on Ukraine has focused on the broader question of Western and European relations with Russia. This has often overshadowed the question of the future of Ukraine itself. The same basic policy choices that have divided member states and Western public opinion have also shaped the Spanish debate. These include the choice between blaming the European Union and shaming Russia; the question of whether to engage with Russia or whether to apply sanctions and deterrence measures; and the idea of offering enlargement-lite policy tools to Eastern countries as opposed to concentrating on narrower objectives.

United against escalation

Spain’s domestic discourse on the Ukraine crisis reflects its position within Europe and its own political trends. It is pro-European and supports a common EU stance on the crisis, even if strong criticisms of the EU’s role are common place. It is Western European, showing similar cleavages to those seen in countries such as Germany or France. For example, Spaniards have generally a preference for maintaining diplomatic engagement with Russia, rather than supporting more hawkish positions.

Spanish discourse is also Southern European. This is reflected in the suspicion with which large segments both of the political establishment and of the population see Eastern European politics and the United States’ agenda in the region. Its Southern European positioning is also clear in the emphasis on prioritising Southern Mediterranean challenges over those of the Eastern Neighbourhood. And, confirming a trend of the last decade, Spanish domestic debates on Ukraine are often very parochial: foreign policy topics are often overwhelmingly assessed in terms of their probable domestic implications. This “Spanish-Kosovo syndrome” emphasises status-related and territorial questions (at the official level and within rightist media), so as to leverage international politics to score points about Spain’s internal challenges. One good example is the comparisons that have been made between Crimea and Catalonia’s self-determination claims, with Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo taking the lead in denouncing both as illegal.

These domestic discussions reflect two things: first, Spaniards are torn on how to collectively tackle core challenges for Spain and Europe. And secondly, the discourse reflects deep-seated and contrasting perceptions about the fundamental issues at stake: the West, European security, and Russia. This means that the positions taken by different stakeholders can be easy to predict.

Spanish debates (public and private) reflect a clash between different perspectives on the crisis and on the way forward. Some take a strong pro-EU line, though usually critical in terms of EU’s over-reach in Ukraine or EU’s under-performance as an international actor. Some members of the old political guard, not just within the left and the far left, hold entrenched Russophile or at least Russian-friendly positions. These, sometimes, go hand in hand with anti-American, anti-Western, or “anti-great power” sentiments. But the public also has a certain lack of concern with Eastern European dynamics, though Vladimir Putin is unpopular – even if this does not translate into support for an activist agenda to balance the Kremlin or democratise Russia. Spaniards often take a pacifist approach to the crisis, ruling out any military response (and sometimes sanctions too) and emphasising diplomacy.

If any clear picture can be taken from these clashing visions, it could be concluded that Spaniards are generally united in the unwillingness to support escalation towards Russia beyond targeted sanctions. However, an otherwise cautious population could support harsher measures were necessary if a clearer case were made on the risks of indulging in Moscow’s agenda.

These conclusions must be assessed against the backdrop of a political culture that is highly suspicious of great-power politics and Western messianic agendas, particularly in the wake of George W. Bush’s botched democratisation agenda and the US loss of reputation after Iraq, Guantanamo, and Edward Snowden. And, with some exceptions such as in cases of gross violations of international law as in 1990s Bosnia, Spaniards tend to prefer diplomatic solutions to hostile actions, a very last resort.

Spain’s many Kissingers

Perceptions and views on Ukraine and Russia within Spain’s political establishment confirm the growing influence in Madrid of a post-crisis realist thinking, particularly when considered together with other factors, including recent Spanish foreign policy decisions. This new realism blends geopolitics, geo-economics, and re-energised national instincts in a sui generis, uniquely Spanish way. This thinking is also apparent in other EU member states’ strategies and foreign policies (as well as the current US foreign policy) and is clearly gaining momentum in the wake of the overall deterioration of security across the MENA region. In Spain, it has an impact on foreign policy issues from Europe to the Arab revolutions and the unrest in the MENA region, and from relations with great powers such as US, China, and Russia to security co-operation and human rights.

A number of factors are crucial to understanding this trend in Spain. A new Euro-realism is at work, which tempers Spain’s traditionally Europhile bias. In certain quarters of government and the strategic community, a strong feeling of insecurity is growing in view of the shifting strategic environment and the unravelling neighbourhood. Scepticism is increasing about the solidarity of Spain’s alliances in relation to Spanish concerns in the Southern Mediterranean. Popular revolutions are seen mostly from a security perspective. These views are held by mainstream elements on both the left and the right, and so this new realist thinking cannot only be explained by the current conservative and domestic-focused government. It is true, though, that this view is dominant at top levels of the government and also that the conservatives’ foreign policy views are particularly influenced by their concern with Spain’s internal challenges.

This Spanish Jacobinism, state-centric and order-focused, is strongly tilted towards geopolitical and Realpolitik readings of international relations. It prioritises a security agenda at the international level, which often trumps normative factors and liberal values. Naturally, the approach has geo-economic consequences, and it sometimes turns foreign policy into another tool for business promotion. In security and defence affairs, this Spanish Jacobinism promotes self-reliance options, in tune with the utilitarian approach to multilateralism and alliance dynamics that is clearly popular in the chancelleries of other big EU member states.

In a nutshell, Kissinger has many adherents in Madrid, who have been swift to swim in the tide of neo-Westphalianism and the security narrative. Spain’s many Kissingers do not yet outweigh the country’s pro-internationalist and pro-EU foreign policy slant. However, they do form a counterbalance, strengthening traditional features of Spanish foreign policy, state-centric and endorsing classic, even Westphalian visions of international law, and taking the country further away from a more activist policy on human rights and democratisation.

Key foreign policy caucuses in Spain

Together with the influence of Spain’s Kissingers, the Ukraine crisis has confirmed that there are distinct foreign policy cleavages or caucuses within the Spanish political establishment. Though each grouping is by no means homogenous, their members do think in established patterns on every foreign policy topic, which makes their responses somewhat predictable. On Ukraine and Russia, these caucuses fall into four main groups: the “understanders”, the “equidistants”, the “pro-Maidans”, and the “Cold Warrior Atlanticists”, with the first two being clearly more influential in the current juncture.

The understanders

The understanders mostly see the crisis through the realist geopolitical prism. Their main concern is stability. They see understanding Russia’s claims and grievances as hugely important. With a not-quite-stated “I told you so”, this group often enumerates the grievances allegedly inflicted on Russia by the West since the end of the Cold War, such as NATO’s eastern enlargement, Kosovo’s international recognition, and so on. The understanders blame the EU for directly “causing” the current crisis by trying to bring Ukraine into the EU’s orbit and ignoring Russia’s long-standing claims to influence in the country. Understanders often share the Kremlin’s view that the Ukrainian opposition’s takeover of government in February was a coup d’etat by Ukrainian extremists. They dismiss that Maidan could have been solely an organic movement, so they often raise conspiracy theories about the role of the US and even the EU itself.

Understanders warn against the West’s “soft containment” of Russia through sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and NATO’s reassurance of its eastern members – they are against stationing NATO troops in eastern allies’ territory. They go further than the “off-ramp” and de-escalation focused diplomacy, and are willing to countenance other forms of settlement with Russia, keeping open the option of the federalisation and “Finlandisation” of Ukraine, which would cement its neutrality.

Understanders are deeply concerned about the unravelling order, and the insecurity east and south of the EU’s borders. They have profound misgivings about revolutions, self-determination and popular empowerment. These understanders include many policymakers and pundits who still adamantly oppose Spanish recognition of Kosovo, which independence they see as a clear precedent for Crimea. Imbued by classic power dynamics, they accept strongmen as inevitable in illiberal political contexts to maintain security (for example, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el Sisi, Syria’s Bashar Assad). Interestingly, among some elements of the far left, their Putin-flattering and West-bashing often puts them in tune with rightist Europhobic leaders.

The equidistants

This caucus advocates for what it sees as an equidistant, compromise-driven position in this crisis. It tries to juggle three objectives: supporting Europe while remaining critical with the EU’s policies thus far; supporting engagement or at least diplomatic outreach to Russia, although it agrees with moderate sanctions; and supporting the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) approach, although it demands conditionality. Equidistants are generally aligned with Germany’s stance in the current crisis and are in a way, on foreign policy with Russia, the Germans of the South.

Like the understanders, equidistants believe that the EU committed serious mistakes in the run-up to the crisis, exacerbating the situation, but they are quick to underline that these mistakes do not justify Russia’s actions in Crimea and beyond (as understanders sometimes do). They note that the EU vastly underestimated the Russian depth of feeling, riding roughshod over Moscow’s concerns or, worse, and at the behest of some member states, using the Eastern Partnership to balance Russia. Equidistants criticise the EU’s double standards on, for instance, conditionality, which they believe was wrongly watered down in Ukraine to speed up the achievement of political objectives. Another mistake was confusing Neighbourhood Policy with enlargement policy, unnecessarily raising expectations among EaP countries and dividing the EU’s stance.

However, equidistants are generally pro-European. They believe Europe should present a united front in this crisis. This would include further engagement with EaP countries, although engagement must take place on the basis of the principle of differentiation and clear conditionality. Though reluctant to provide blank cheques to Kyiv’s new authorities, given the poor governance record of Ukrainian elites, they disabuse the coup d’etat narrative.

Equidistants often favour engagement with Russia, or at least see an overall need to keep relations with Moscow. They think this should be as much a priority as stabilising and modernising Ukraine. Yet they see the case for moderate sanctions, particularly after Crimea, which they believe was the tipping point that justified a firmer reaction to Russia. Even so, the equidistants have profound misgivings about escalation. So, they advise against a third round of sanctions and support de-escalation mechanisms through the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and through diplomatic channels with Russia.

The pro-Maidans

The pro-Maidans are so far a minority within the Spanish establishment. They mostly want to help consolidate the democratisation of Eastern Europe and ensure its peoples’ European future. They are very vocal against the Kremlin’s agenda, which they criticise as destabilising and imperialist. Pro-Maidans bemoan the fact that power politics often force Western and European policymakers to prioritise relations with Russia over Eastern Europe and its development. They regret that Western elites lack enthusiasm for seriously engaging with Eastern Europe’s democratic transitions, and warn against the impact of Russian propaganda within the EU itself. Pro-Maidans defend the Maidan forces as an organically developing movement, at least in the initial stages of the crisis.

Unlike understanders and many equidistants, pro-Maidans insist that the future status of Ukraine, including federalisation, must be solely decided by Ukrainians themselves, and not by Moscow. For the pro-Maidans, therefore, Europe’s and the West’s priority should be to support Ukraine and help it to address its many challenges. They also underline the importance of supporting democratic forces inside Russia, instead of always trying to engage with or “understand” Putin.

The Cold Warrior Atlanticists

This group is an even smaller minority than the pro-Maidans. Cold Warrior Atlanticists see this crisis, first and foremost, as a crisis of US power and Western hegemony. Cold Warrior Atlanticists are harshly critical of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and its apparent disregard of its own red lines (such as Syria). They think that ruling out military tools from the outset acted to embolden Putin. For them, the key element in the equation is not Europe – a secondary actor and a junior, disjointed partner in the Alliance – nor even NATO. Instead, they focus on the role of the US and their concern is American strategic retrenchment, and its implications for global security.

Like the pro-Maidans, Cold Warrior Atlanticists underline the need for firm responses to Moscow, advocating different forms of containment, even if they also think NATO lacks credibility. But Cold Warrior Atlanticists, caught up with ideas of the balance of power, are interested not so much in the transformation agenda of Eastern Europe as in balancing Russia – along with other hostile actors across the globe.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow

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