Summary: Spain is an EU and NATO member state located in the westernmost part of Europe. Being located far away from Russia and not affected by the same fears as the easternmost EU member states, Spain remains focused on engaging in dialogue with Russia. This, however, does not negate Spain’s concern with Russian military build up and Russia’s actions in Ukraine. At the same time, Spain remains skeptical over possible European expansion, and Russia’s status as a strategic partner in the fight against terrorism has left a mark on Spain’s attitude of hesitance in making strong moves to counter Russian threat. However, this is more of a sign of the lack of any serious ties with Russia, rather than Spanish attempts to oppose other EU member states who have real concerns over Russian threats. Economy-wise, Russia does not play a significant role in Spanish energy imports, but Russian tourism plays a big role in Spanish economy. Thus, Spain was one of the several countries to voice criticism against anti-Russian sanctions, but so far, Spain joined other EU nations in supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
I. Relationship Parameters
History: Despite the geographical distance between Spain and Russia, and the rather limited historical and cultural ties, the relationship between the two countries is nowadays quite deep and friendly. Spain and Russia fully established their diplomatic relations in 1977, after the end of Franco’s regime, even though the relationship deepened only after the end of the Cold War. Under José Maria Aznar (prime minister from 1996 to 2004), Spanish foreign policy was focused heavily on cooperation with the USA, even though he established very friendly links with Putin as well. After the terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004 and during the prime ministership of José Luis Zapatero, Spanish foreign policy changed its focus to the “heart of Europe”, while desiring national affirmation and promoting multilateralism. Spain fiercely denounced the Bush administration for its intervention in Iraq. Efforts to develop a Russia-specific foreign policy led to the signing of the “Declaration of Strategic Partnership” in 2009, which focuses on cooperation in the energy sphere, economic relations in general and tourism in particular. Nevertheless, Putin never fully trusted Zapatero because of issues such as LGBT rights or withdrawal from Iraq. In the last decade, Spain has been very supportive towards Russia, backing Russia’s positions on many issues.
Energy, trade, investment, sanctions: Between 2012 and 2016, the cumulative trade in goods between Spain and Russia fell by 45,3%, mainly due to the Russian economic recession and sanctions. Spanish exports of food and agriculture were heavily hit by the Russian embargo in August 2014. Overall, bilateral economic relations, although promising in some sectors, are not particularly strong. However, it is noteworthy to mention that Spain is very popular amongst Russian tourists, who represent a priority market for the Spanish tourist industry. The number of Russian tourists visiting Spain began to skyrocket in 2008 with half a million visitors and peaked in 2013 with more than 1.5 million. This still represents only a small portion of the approximately 60 million tourists who visited Spain last year. But Russia is the fastest growing origin market and its tourists have higher average expenses per person than others. Regarding energy, the purpose of the 2009 deal was to further interconnect the energy markets of Spain and Russia, but as for oil and gas, Russia accounts only for 11% of Spain’s crude oil imports, and no Russian gas is imported to Spain. Spain is not a supporter of sanctions, as they have negative effect on the Spanish economy. In 2015, the then foreign minister of Spain said that the sanctions are “beneficial for no one.” Only 10% of Spaniards who consider Russia to be responsible for the war in Ukraine (59%) thinks that the EU should sanction Russia.
Euroscepticism: Spaniards are amongst the most Eurosceptic countries in the EU, with almost half of the population having an unfavourable view of the EU. However, that is a direct outcome of austerity policies, and in spite of that, 80% of Spaniards believe that Spain should stay in the EU.
Eastern Partnership/EU-28 Watch: “Spain has never foreseen a scenario with the member countries of the Eastern Neighbourhood as members of the European Union as a real possibility. The Ukraine crisis, with the conflict with Russia, has only reinforced Spain’s views on the question of enlargement towards these countries. That does not mean that Spain thinks there should not be close economic and political ties between those countries and the EU, but rather that the Eastern Partnership is not and should not be the first step towards an EU perspective for them.”
View of Russia: When it comes to Vladimir Putin personally, 88% of Spaniards have no confidence in him, according to the Pew Research Center. According to the latest Eurobarometer, 58% of Spain’s population have a negative view of Russia (42% very negative, 16% somewhat negative). On the contrary, 31% looks at Russia positively (25% somewhat positive, 6% very positive).
II. Expert Assessment
Power Audit (2007): Strategic partner. Among large EU member states, Spain has the least developed relations with Russia, although Putin has been careful to treat Madrid with the respect it generally accords to big states. Spain’s approach to Russia is driven by economic priorities and a desire to avoid irritating the Kremlin. Maybe because it is less dependent on Russian gas, Spain supports full ownership unbundling of EU energy companies. Also, Spain is wary of engagement in the Eastern neighbourhood.
National Perspectives (2013): Official positions place Spain as a supporter of a multipolar world, where the USA is not a leading superpower, but one great power among others, namely Russia. (…) The development of a clear Spanish interest towards Russia can be categorized in two main aspects. On the one hand, the availability of opportunities for interaction in regional security issues, such as the Middle East, where Spain has been actively engaged and where Russia remains a central actor. On the other hand, there has been an overlap of security perceptions, mainly on issues of terrorism, which the post 9/11 context further reinforced. Today, due to Spain’s engagement in global settings such as Afghanistan, and Russia’s increasingly vital role in NATO efforts, both countries have furthered bilateral co-operation. (…) Besides high politics in the global and EU-Russia bilateral agenda, Spanish relations with Moscow have also focused on economic co-operation, investment and cultural relations.
ECFR Article (2016): Spanish diplomacy’s default approach is that the incentives of engagement with Russia outweigh those of containment and deterrence. Spain continuously cooperates in common security frameworks while also trying to avoid isolating Russia and overlooking its role in key dossiers, such as Syria and Ukraine.
III. Policy Documents
Official statements by the State Secretary for Foreign Affairs (2016)
In relation to Ukraine, Spain’s position is in favour of a political solution to the conflict, based on compliance with the Minsk Accords and full respect for international law and the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. As regards relations between the European Union and Russia, Spain defends a balanced and constructive approach, both as neighbours and as strategic partners, which is based on dialogue and allows for open discussion on the main international issues that concern and are of interest to both parties. The State secretary also underlined the need to make decisive progress on human rights issues.
Strategy for External Action (2015)
Ukraine is a sovereign country with the full right to decide its status freely among nations. This is Spain’s departure point. From this stance, we inevitably understand and incorporate Russia’s special sensitivity which derives from diverse factors such as the strategic value that Ukraine has for Russia and, in turn, Russia has for Ukraine; a strong emotional value; economic weight; and human closeness among a large part of respective societies. (…)
Russia’s attitude in the common neighbourhood—particularly in the Ukraine conflict—has lead to considerable distancing in relations with the European Union that can only have undesirable consequences for all. (…) Spain wishes to work towards achieving a more solid relationship with Russia. Spain has the capacity and aspirations of being a key partner in the modernisation process of the Russian economy mapped out by its leaders. We also aspire to further strengthen the ties between both societies which have only recently begun to know each other better.
National Security Strategy (2013)
Russia is the EU’s largest neighbour and a key strategic actor of great importance to the European energy market. Cooperating with Moscow is essential to Europe’s security and stability. Russia must contribute to settling longstanding conflicts in the strategic environment it shares with the Union, as this will enhance the democratic stability of the countries involved and the security of everyone. Russia must consolidate its role as a strategic partner of the EU – this will have a positive effect on the security of Spain and its partners and NATO allies and on global governance.
National Security Reports (2014–2016)
2014: The Ukraine crisis is a major challenge to European security. The situation has been aggravated by the annexation of Crimea and the decisive military support from Russia to separatist groups, which poses a threat to the stability and security of the entire Euro-Atlantic space, with possible long-term effects in the area Black Sea and for the allied countries of the East.
2015: The Ukraine crisis together with the exchange of accusations between Russia and the US on Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the new deployment of tactical nuclear weapons by the US have generated tensions which could lead to a new nuclear arms race. There is a will on both sides to maintain diplomatic activities on WMD non-proliferation. In its 2014 military doctrine, Russia emphasizes modernization and development of nuclear forces and SLBM test launches. In 2015, Russia added forty new ICBMs to its nuclear arsenal.
2016: The modernization of the Russian’s Federation’s nuclear and ballistic weapons is a factor generating a certain degree of tension, compounding that already existing in the Eastern European scene.
 Simão, Licínia, Portugal and Spain, Chapter 7 in National Perspectives on Russia.
 Ibid., https://uk.reuters.com/article/gazprom-repsol-idUKL357888920090303 https://www.cores.es/sites/default/files/archivos/icores/i-cores-imp-export-gn-marzo-2015_eng.pdf, https://www.cores.es/sites/default/files/archivos/icores/i-crudosjulio2015_eng.pdf