View from Madrid: Spain’s balancing act on sanctions

Spain’s approach to sanctions against Russia has shifted as the crisis over Ukraine has escalated.

Spain’s approach to sanctions against Russia has shifted as the crisis over Ukraine has escalated. Madrid has tailored its stance to match complex intra-European dynamics, especially Berlin’s positions and the EU’s incrementalism.

Spain’s competing goals

In its efforts to craft policy on Russia after Crimea, Spain has been juggling five competing and sometimes conflicting desires. Firstly, to de-escalate the situation and maintain engagement with Russia (which Madrid thinks is essential for an eventual settlement). Spain has tried to keep open diplomatic channels with Russia (still defined as a “strategic partner”, though with more caveats, in the new Spanish Foreign Policy Strategy), aiming to avoid Russia’s becoming isolated. Secondly, Madrid wants to uphold international law: it has made it clear that it opposes and condemns Russia’s breach of basic international norms. Yet Madrid has placed a special emphasis on territorial integrity and on the illegality of Crimea’s so-called referendum, with senior officials sometimes making connections with Spain’s territorial problems and Catalonia’s government self-determination claims.

Equally central for Spain is its desire to preserve hard-won European unity by brokering compromises and avoiding breaches of solidarity. To achieve this goal, Madrid is willing to soften its position and accept positions with which it is often not fully comfortable. Fourthly, Madrid wants to supportUkraine but not to offer blank cheques. It endorses the European Union’s objectives of supporting reforms through the Eastern Partnership and other tools. But it does not want structural challenges in Ukraine to be overlooked for the sake of other objectives. Nor does it want Ukraine’s crisis to cause the EU to neglect other reform-minded Eastern Partnership countries.

Finally, Spain wants to protect its economic recovery, at a time when the government, under challenge elsewhere and headed for elections in the autumn, can show economic growth, better macro data, and an improvement of the country’s credibility in the markets. Nonetheless, Madrid is committed to enforcing common European positions, even in the face of Russian retaliation (which is damaging Spain’s agricultural exports).

The Spanish foreign policy establishment is somewhat torn between its own different constituencies on Russia. But in balancing conflicting demands and divergent opinions, Madrid has been generallyconsistent. Spain’s cautious diplomacy has been aimed at avoiding a West-vs-the-rest face-off and presenting Spain as a bridge-builder – particularly now that it has won a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

If Minsk II fails…

Given these competing demands, Madrid has oscillated between support for de-escalation and acceptance of gradual European escalation through sanctions. From being reluctant to impose sanctions at first, Spain’s messaging has since toughened somewhat. Meanwhile, Spain continues to invest in bilateral relations with Russia.

Spain still has some reservations about the endgame of the third and possible fourth phase of sanctions, and about the risks of full-blown escalation. However, senior Spanish officials speak out publicly in favour of sanctions against Russia and their rationale, and stress the need to maintain EU unity.

The critical point, though, will come when European unity is even more seriously strained, which may happen in the near future, if Minsk II collapses and the conflict deteriorates even further. In this regard, Europe’s member states have already split into separate groups, not entirely homogenous, with lines that sometimes shift. The Hawks (such as Poland, the Baltics, and perhaps the United Kingdom) want harsh sanctions against the Kremlin and argue for tougher deterrence against Moscow (though with different stances on the military question). The Reluctant member states want to avoid more sanctions and are even willing to lift some: this caucus tends to include Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and, at times, Italy. The Anti-Sanctions Trojan Horses, led by Viktor Orban’s Hungary and now including Syriza’s Greece, openly oppose sanctions, and seem close to voicing support for Russia and even for Vladimir Putin’s position.


Contrary to common perceptions, Spain’s position is closer to that of an intermediate caucus made up of France, the Netherlands, and especially Germany – what Minister Margallo dubbed in Kyiv the Owls: keen on long-term strategic vision, cautious against passionate escalation, but with claws if need be. If Minsk II should fail completely, if Russia were to step up its intervention in Ukraine, or if some EU member states were to send military support to Kyiv, beyond endorsing more sanctions, Spain would probably still stick to heightening sanctions and push for a common position on a post-Minsk II scenario.

Another factor to take into consideration will be domestic politics. The country is heading for elections, and some of the forces poised to make big wins, chiefly “Podemos”, like Greece’s Syriza, have consistently endorsed the Kremlin’s narrative on Ukraine in their political discourse and their European Parliament votes – interestingly, along similar lines to rightist Europhobic forces elsewhere. All other mainstream parties, including other surging parties, generally support a common European stand on Ukraine.

Some segments of Madrid’s foreign policy establishment need to realise the impossibility of any vibrant strategic partnership with Putin’s Russia, in the current circumstances. The priority should be strengthening relations with European partners, more important in strategic terms for European solidarity and, ultimately, also for achieving a balanced EU position that would also reflect Spanish views. Spain can still encourage Europe to explore options for settlement(s) with Russia that neither forsake Ukraine, nor kowtow to the principles of spheres of influence advocated for by the Kremlin in Eastern Europe. It can and should maintain avenues of engagement with Russia’s civil society and its citizens (Madrid’s insistence on visa liberalisation deserves credit). Admittedly, these will all be difficult demands to juggle.

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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