Spain’s balancing act with Russia

The weakening of common European positions, with some key Spanish allies making overtures to Moscow, could weaken their mitigating force against a mix of isolationist and Realpolitik temptations, influential in Madrid.

Among the numerous factors that will shape future Spanish policy towards Russia and the eastern neighbourhood, probably three stand out: the world-view of the leaders emerging from the rocky political landscape in Spain; security developments in the southern neighbourhood, and the resilience of European and Euro-Atlantic cohesion, now threatened by crises within and on the borders of Brexit EU. The weakening of common European positions, with some key Spanish allies making overtures to Moscow, could weaken their mitigating force against a mix of isolationist and Realpolitik temptations, influential in Madrid. Further political and security fragmentation in the West could provide impetus to Spanish actors seeking to patch up bilateral relations with Moscow, regardless of its actions in Ukraine or elsewhere in Europe.

Spain’s existing policy towards eastern partners and Russia necessitates that it perform a balancing act between de-escalation and détente with Moscow, on the one hand, and adherence to EU sanctions and Allied reassurance in NATO, on the other. This approach leads to a pendular foreign policy: Spain continuously cooperates in common security frameworks while also trying to avoid what officials in Madrid perceive as the risk of isolating Russia and overlooking its role in key dossiers, such as Syria and Ukraine. Spain’s perception of itself as a neutral broker and a bridge-builder plays a role too. Spanish diplomacy’s default approach remains that the incentives (European and bilateral) of engagement with Russia outweigh those of containment and deterrence. Importantly, the emphasis on one or the other vector is ad hoc, largely depending on the personal influence and individual preferences of the few officials driving this policy, which is not yet part of the Spanish strategic acquis.

In terms of domestic discussions, Spain resembles other western European countries such as France or Germany in the sense that competing perceptions with respect to Russia and the east came to the fore with Ukraine. This has led to polarised debates in the country.

Spanish Russlandverstehers

Nowadays, many Spanish elites, foreign officials, politicians and pundits are influenced by a conservative view of international relations, dominant in strategic hubs and military institutes. Especially in times of insecurity, geopolitics, classic diplomacy and great power thinking prevail over normative considerations, let alone transformative struggles of the ones played out in the Arab Spring or the Ukrainian Maidan. Russia often blurs considerations to the specific circumstances of countries such as Ukraine, framed in simplistic terms. There is sympathy for the idea that they are a natural area for Russian influence – even if many have qualms about expressing it directly. In addition to this geopolitical world view, some politicians, pundits and officials show an inchoate and irrational sympathy for Russia. Spanish officials, including current Foreign Minister José Manuel García Margallo, have oscillated between formal condemnation of Russian actions – with a predominant focus on Crimea – and expressions of the need to “understand” Russia. Just like in other western countries, the framing of such “understanding” of or towards Russia is a slippery slope towards justifying Russia’s actions. It is clear that the victimhood narrative that Russia peddles is resonant for many.

Paradoxically, so-called insurgent, anti-establishment parties, such as Podemos, seem to endorse the idea of spheres of influence for Russia in the east (a sort of Monroe doctrine for Moscow), according to their statements[1] and voting records in Strasbourg and Madrid[2]. Some segments within the new liberal party, Ciudadanos, seem to share similar views too. The Spanish far left are particularly guilty of uncritically toeing Russian propaganda on Ukraine, voting against EU sanctions, EU’s condemnation of Crimea’s annexation or the association agreement with Kyiv –an agenda which, ironically, binds them with their reviled Spanish rightists, who see in Putin a bulwark against terrorism. The notion of Russia as a partner resonates among political forces, especially in the wake of Syria and the rise of the jihadist threat. Spanish Russlandverstehers therefore come from the left and right alike, academia and strategic institutes. In trying to understand Russia, the Russlandverstehers end up justifying the Kremlin, without really understanding it, or what Putin’s anti-European agenda ultimately means for the EU’s model. For them, consideration of Russia’s internal context, human rights violations or empowerment narratives, is of secondary importance. Underneath, there is sometimes a mixture of ideology, instinct, and inexperience, rather than any strategic depth. However, polls confirm that Spaniards are of a different view to the Russlandverstehers – exhibiting a strong disdain of Putin[3]. Most of the public even endorse firmer positions vis-à-vis Russia than the country’s official position.[4]

This leaning among elites towards Russia is not based on solid macro-economic indicators, either. In spite of Madrid’s attempts to boost economic relations with Russia, the results of this policy have been meagre. Spain has been affected by the economic retaliation measures taken by Russia against the EU (especially in the agricultural sector). The impact of this is still limited since Russia is not a crucial market for the Spanish economy. Spain does receive a significant amount of revenue from Russian tourism – something also likely to fuel its national desire to reset relations with Russia and gradually lift EU sanctions.

Balancing European and Allied solidarity

Nonetheless, officially, at the level of foreign and security policy, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have led Spain to scale down its view of Russia as a potential strategic partner, watered down in the recent Foreign Policy Strategy. Although Spanish support for the EU has declined dramatically in recent years,[5] the country’s foreign policy is still anchored in the EU and its policymakers still work to achieve and respect European consensus. Spain’s security policy is also geared towards solidarity with other member states and reassurances, even if it entails Spanish involvement in areas that are not seen to be of vital interest to the country.

This vector, coupled with personal leadership in key positions in the system, has played a significant role in Spain’s continuing, if grumbled, adherence to sanctions and its support to EU policies in the East (even if critical at times). It also helps explain Madrid’s engagement, in spite of tough budget constraints, in disposition measures in the Baltics and the East (e.g. NATO Police Air Operation, Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, etc.). The role of the US, a priority security alliance for Spain, remains crucial for tying Spain to the West. Cohesion with the EU is and will therefore continue to be a crucial factor in balancing the influence of the Spanish Russlandverstehers.

Contrary to stereotypes, Madrid has in fact scaled up its relations with Eastern partners and structured its diplomatic and security presence from the Baltics to the Caucasus. Madrid essentially supports the general framework of EU relations with partners, if critical with specific steps adopted therein. Spain tends to stress association, partnership programmes, conditionality and reform (especially of those inclined to the EU, such as Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova), as well as pragmatic relations with countries such as Belarus and Azerbaijan, with bilateral interests being crucial. Stringent conditionality is compatible with European incentives if conditions are met. On this light must be seen Spain’s support to visa liberalisation. Out of a deep seated sense for even-handedness Spain nonetheless believes that some of these incentives could be applicable to Moscow too.

Ultimately, Spain is forced to provide serious answers to the security questions facing Europe. However, whether it is able or willing to do so will largely be contingent on its fractured political scene, and whether Madrid ends up seeing Putin’s Russia as a threat, challenge or “adversary” (as some in the MFA put it), or not. There is still scope for Spain to slide into policies that are non-aligned with the rest of the EU – especially if these policies are enabled and encouraged by similar movements in other EU member states – or a Trump-led United States.

Scenarios for the future of Spain-Russia relations

Over the next few years, the path Spain takes will therefore largely depend on the state of domestic politics and the worldviews of those in power. As such there could be numerous scenarios in the years up to 2030.

The perils of Spanish non-alignment

If the Russlandverstehers come into power in Spain in the next few years or its influence outweighs other voices in the country, their security agenda will largely be focused on the south, with the country minimising – if not abandoning entirely – its commitments elsewhere with western institutions and eastern partners. In this scenario, and in spite of having advocated hard to build their pet project of a stronger, Russian friendly Southern caucus, these stakeholders will likely fail in bringing sufficiently on board key actors to make this entente credible. Core EU member states such as France or Italy would likely have qualms in joining such a homogenous (and weak) coalition, especially if built against other European partners. Spain will be left out of major European discussions alongside Cyprus, Greece and other Russian friendly countries that have little influence in the EU.

This Spain could therefore become  isolated from strategic European and western affairs, if it chooses non-alignment with EU policies. It would suffer an almost irreversible, loss of credibility. The mixture of political pressures and conflicting messages from Madrid on Europe and the EU could force the latter to downsize its security military presence in Spain, leaving the country more exposed. Yet the Russlandverstehers, leading a sort of Spanish strategic Brexit that does not represent the interests of a majority, will face push-back against a policy fraught with contradictions from those in Spain that do not support non-alignment. A Russia that ruthlessly pursues its self-interest and is increasingly unshackled from western-cherished international legal commitments, would hardly be interested with any sort of meaningful relations with a non-influential European country. In fact, as present examples, such as Syria indicate, Moscow could pursue policies that are actually damaging to Spanish interests.

European atrophy, Spanish bilateralism

Should the main foundations of NATO and EU’s foreign policy cohesion indeed atrophy in the next few years, with a divided EU absorbed by Brexit and a NATO unable to attend to the security preferences of its main allies, Spain could follow in the wake of other EU countries, attempting to pursue a more individualist foreign and security policy. This would include closer relations with great powers such as Russia, but also China and the US, crafting new, though often hollow alliances. Nonetheless, Spain struggle hard to assert its basic interests in a non-European world. If the Russlandverstehers win the argument they would probably try to set in motion a foreign policy that is unshackled from EU and NATO constraints. Yet they would be faced with a sheer inability to face security challenges across the board, from within and without Europe. This Spain might therefore adopt a defensive, isolationist and sometimes unpredictable foreign policy stance.

Eastern annexations and hybrid interferences

Russia will resort more to so called wars of diversion for domestic legitimacy purposes.[6] Even more open interference in Ukraine, beyond Crimea and the territories, with more casualties, will bring expose the gap between the Russlandverstehers and mainstream democratic forces in Spain. A more hawkish Spain will make it a target for hybrid action, putting stress on the political crisis in Catalonia, for instance, or other weak points, increasing the sense of security challenge in Madrid. Pro-Russian actors would insist on neutrality, even-handedness, frameworks for settlement of disputes, and probably mobilise to hinder almost any policy designed to respond to Moscow. This could entail political costs at home and make Russian sympathisers more isolated.

Washington Treaty scenarios

A litmus test for this Janus-faced Spain and its Western identity will be instances of higher confrontation with Russia, translated into clear dangers to Allied territory or European political stability in general- which could as well  spring from miscalculation (e.g. a downed Russian jet in the Baltics), Spain’s position could shift between caution and support to Allied solidarity. A hybrid action, with “little green men” in the European north and east might elicit a similar response, though it could perhaps strengthen the hands of the pro-western political forces and officials in Spain (a minority now), which will push to provide military assistance. Hybrid interferences of the ones laid out above could not be ruled out either, especially as they tap into influential Russian friendly and anti-US constituencies.

Internal crackdown in Russia

The dominant rationale among Spanish policymakers today is that the nature of a partner’s political system should not trump interest considerations, except where there are massive cases of human rights violations (though still then the approach is ad hoc – e.g. Madrid’s pragmatic position on the role of Syria’s Assad). By the middle-end of the next decade, Russia may well have relapsed into more anarchic scenarios, mixing violent authoritarianism with revolts and clashes within the system and among the siloviki. Presently, Spanish foreign policy tends to stress caution, with a strong preference for behind the scenes diplomatic brinkmanship and European unity. More openly violent crackdowns – “Yanukovych style” – might force Spain in the future to craft a new approach, more active on human rights, perhaps empowering more human rights friendly elites. Such a “Yanukovych 2” scenario could isolate those who defend Putin in Spain and other EU countries, though Russian friendly voices would still struggle between challenges to their positions and usual conspiracy theories, similar to those express during and after the Maidan. 

Reforms and crises in the eastern neighbourhood

If, by mid the 2020s the EU’s eastern neighbours continue to be engulfed by a mixture of instability, faltering reforms, nationalism and upheavals, Madrid would probably adopt an even more cautious diplomatic approach. Bar a more dynamic policy, insisting on both reforms and neutral agencies for management of their frozen conflicts, such as the OSCE or the Council of Europe, would remain a default option, together with selective engagement in bilateral relations.

Yet, should some of these countries make substantial progress in reform and move towards the EU, Spain might endorse substantial steps from the EU itself. This could be the case if the Union has evolved into a two or three tier system that allows membership in the outer layer of its concentric circles for countries such as Moldova. For those other countries not pivoting to Europe, such as Azerbaijan and Belarus, Spain will stick to a selective approach and targeted bilateral relations, even if it yields rather limited results.


[1] See, for instance, interview of Pablo Bustinduy, Podemos’ Foreign Policy Coordinator, at Jot Down (June 2016).




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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