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For one of the largest countries in the European Union, Spain is seldom mentioned in discussions of EU-Russia relations. Russia, in turn, hasn’t been an important subject in Spanish politics—despite accusations that Moscow interfered in the country’s recent Catalan crisis.
In fact, Spain remains one of the few EU countries whose position on Russia can be described as “favorably neutral.” And the recent events in Catalonia demonstrate that Madrid is willing to refrain from exploiting fears of Russian interference for its own domestic political aims.
For these reasons, Russian-Spanish ties may provide a foundation for Moscow to engage with the EU and its members at a time of heightened tensions. They could even yield concrete—albeit small—benefits on Moscow’s biggest issue: Western sanctions.
Spain’s neutral stance on Russia fits into the country’s broader international passivity. The 2008 economic and financial crisis hit Spain particularly hard, resulting not only in skyrocketing foreign debt, unemployment, and social inequality, but also in the collapse of the traditional two-party system. New political forces came to the forefront, and the establishment conservative People’s Party struggled to cobble together the current government. It does not enjoy a majority in the Cortes Generales, and the parliament itself is paralyzed by interparty rivalry.
Last year, a new problem emerged: the Catalan crisis. In October 2017, the Catalonian regional government attempted to hold a referendum on independence. In response, Madrid arrested some of the Catalan leaders, dissolved the regional government, and held new elections. However, separatist parties once again won a majority of the seats, ensuring the crisis will not end anytime soon.
Saddled with such serious internal challenges, Spain prefers to adhere to the general EU position on key international issues. Nevertheless, Spain’s relations with Russia both prior to and since the 2014 Ukraine crisis have been relatively positive.
It helps that the countries lack major disputes, are geographically far apart, and have limited economic relations. Spain does buy about 14 percent of its oil from Russia, but does not use Russian gas. Madrid also does not view Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a direct threat. It only reluctantly supported EU sanctions against Russia, which had limited economic impact on Spain. Some of Spain’s food exporters were affected, but leading exports such as wine and olive oil were not included in Russia’s counter-sanctions.
Russia reciprocates Spain’s benevolent attitude. Its 2016 Foreign Policy Concept places Spain among the countries with which Moscow aims to “activate mutually beneficial bilateral ties.” Trade and tourism turnovers have rebounded in recent years, albeit not to the 2013 levels. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported Madrid during the Catalan crisis, stating that it views the situation as Spain’s domestic matter and expressing hope that it would be resolved in accordance with Spanish law.
On certain international issues, Madrid’s position even more resembles Moscow than the West. Facing both Basque and Catalan separatism, Spain views the precedent set by Kosovo as a nightmare. Madrid is one of only five EU countries that still hasn’t recognized the region’s independence.
Madrid’s willingness to cooperate with Moscow sometimes even vexes Spain’s NATO allies. In October 2016, when a Russian flotilla led by the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier was traveling to Syria, the media predicted that the three Russian warships would stop in Ceuta. This was standard practice: despite the United States’ objections, the Spanish port on the North African coastline has made good money hosting around ten Russian ships per year since 2010. However, in 2016, Madrid feared undermining its relations with both NATO and Russia. The Russian authorities helped Spain save face, withdrawing their request for the ships to enter the port. Instead, the flotilla stopped in neutral Malta.
However, the biggest test for Russo-Spanish relations in 2017 was the Catalan crisis. A week before the October referendum, one of the leading Spanish newspapers, El Pais, published a “detailed investigation” concluding that the Kremlin had used media outlets and internet bots it controlled in an attempt to sow discord in Catalonia.
The Russia issue received even more attention in November, when the Instituto Elcano research center published a report on Russia’s alleged role in the separatist region. The author, political scientist Mira Milosevic-Juaristi, asserted that, in September 2017, the scale of Russian “Catalonia activity” increased by 2000 percent. She stressed that the Russian media’s coverage of Catalonia was unfavorable to Spain and the EU. However, her report also did not provide any evidence that the bots were controlled from Russia.
The Spanish foreign and interior ministers and the prime minister began to suggest that Moscow had ordered a hostile online campaign against Spain. However, when Russia asked for proof, Spanish officials stated that there was none and that the Spanish government in no way considered Moscow to be behind the spread of fake news about Catalonia.
Finally, in late November, the parliament began to investigate. Milosevic-Juaristi was invited to a meeting of a joint commission of the parliament’s two chambers. She declared that although there was no reliable evidence of interference, “all signs suggest” that Moscow was behind the information campaign. However, the hearing yielded no concrete results and descended into interfactional quarreling on unrelated issues. After this, the anti-Russia campaign began to peter out. Many Spaniards found attempts to blame a foreign enemy for the Catalan crisis to be ludicrous.
Unlike France’s National Front and Italy’s Northern League, no major party in Spain holds an openly pro-Russian position, and Russia seldom comes up in political discussions. At the same time, the Ukraine crisis did cause some lively debates. Three leading parties—the People’s Party, the Socialist Workers’ Party, and Ciudadanos—condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, although their criticism was restrained.
Meanwhile, the radical leftist Podemos movement criticized the EU’s response, describing the war in the Donbas as “anti-Fascist” and urging geopolitical rapprochement with Russia. But Podemos’s pro-Russian attitude should not be overestimated. Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the movement, has declared that the Russian president does not respect democratic processes and represents “the flourishing of authoritarianism after the transformations of the 1990s.”
In December 2015, the aforementioned Instituto Elcano invited the four leading parties to answer several foreign policy questions, including one on EU-Russia relations. All the responses were fairly favorable toward Russia.
The People’s Party declared that while it condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Russia remained an important neighbor for the EU and a key international player. Ciudadanos suggested that Europe could become a key ally for Russia in modernizing its economy. The party encouraged cooperation with Russia in Syria and to eliminate political disagreements between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union. The Socialists emphasized the need to adopt a mindset of cooperation in relations with Russia to resolve many international issues. Only Podemos proposed lifting sanctions, bringing Russia back into the G8, and reviving the work of the Russia-NATO Council.
Despite allegations of Russian involvement in the Catalan crisis, Spanish political parties still support pragmatism and dialogue with Russia. This indicates that Russian-Spanish ties are largely independent of who comes to power in Madrid. As a result, Moscow should foster stable contacts with Spanish parties. Benevolent ties with Spain are valuable for Moscow in building relations with other European states and the EU as a whole.
The Spanish government, which is embroiled in domestic policy disputes, will not lead a fight to lift sanctions on Russia. But if their partial or full cancellation ever comes up, Moscow can likely count on Madrid’s support.
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