Russia-Ukraine war tests unity of Spain’s left-wing government
Spain’s ruling Socialist party is in favour of arming Kyiv but its junior coalition partner remains unconvinced.
Madrid, Spain – Like many in Spain, Begoña Castro is in favour of helping Ukraine to fight back against the invading Russian army.
In fact, she believes the Spanish government is not doing enough to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from overrunning Kyiv.
“We have been following the NATO line and giving arms, but it seems that the coalition government is split and do not want to give too much help to Ukraine,” the 43-year-old financial analyst told Al Jazeera from her home in Seville, southern Spain.
“The defence minister said the other day that Spain would send defensive weapons. Defensive weapons!? We are either sending weapons or not. I support Ukraine and I just don’t think we are doing enough. We should send more arms.”
Castro, who describes herself as politically “right wing”, says she feels Spain, like many other European countries, has a duty to help Ukraine in its time of need as the first anniversary of the start of the war nears on February 24.
It is an opinion held by most Spaniards, according to a series of polls.
Spain’s left-wing coalition government, however, is divided on its response.
The ruling Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party support the NATO policy of sending arms to support Ukraine and pledged earlier this month to send five Leopard tanks to Kyiv.
As part of the European Union, Madrid has also sanctioned Russian companies and oligarchs whose yachts have been moored in superyacht marinas along the Mediterranean.
José Manuel Albares, the Spanish foreign minister, recently defended the decision to send tanks, saying it would not escalate the war with Russia.
“Unfortunately, [Russian President] Vladimir Putin does not need any excuse to escalate [the war]. They [the Russians] will do what they want. We all want peace but there is a person, [Putin], who doesn’t want it,” Albares told Telesur television channel in an interview.
But the far-left Unidas Podemos, the coalition’s junior partner whose votes prop up the minority government, has adopted a different approach.
The party, which started from street protests in 2014, has backed sending humanitarian aid but opposes increasing arms shipments.
Officially, when the coalition government was formed in 2019, Podemos agreed that the Socialists would take the lead in foreign policy, and it would not interfere.
However, tensions emerged in the Spanish government after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Leading figures in Podemos have voiced opinions in public which contradict the Socialists’ policy.
“Podemos opposes the NATO war rage and (we) refuse to escalate the war in Ukraine with more and more weapons to encourage the warlords even if (public opinion) crushes us on television,” Pablo Echenique, the parliamentary spokesperson for Podemos said last week in reference to NATO’s decision to send more Leopard tanks.
Public support for military aid
More than 157,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Spain since last year, according to official data from December. Of these, 64 percent are women, and 36 percent are under 20.
But Spain is not just providing shelter to refugees fleeing Russian bombs.
Last month, 225 Ukrainian troops and civilians began training at a military base in Toledo, south of Madrid, under an EU scheme.
A poll in January for the Centre for Sociological Investigations (CIS), a government body, found that 23.4 percent of Spaniards were “very worried” about Ukraine, while 49.2 percent said they were “worried” and 12.9 percent were concerned about the war. In contrast, 13.8 percent said they were not concerned.
A similar poll in March last year by CIS found seven out of 10 backed NATO sending military arms to support Ukraine.
Putin’s military aggression in Ukraine was among the biggest worries for Spanish teenagers, according to a study of adolescents by the University of Seville for UNICEF Spain which was published in February this year.
It found the Ukraine war concerned 12.8 percent of teenagers, making it the second biggest worry after the effects of the pandemic, which concerned 14.6 percent of those questioned.
“We want to listen more to our boys, girls and adolescents because they have got a lot to say,” said José María Vera, executive director of UNICEF Spain.
‘Spain should be neutral’
However, not everyone is in favour of sending aid or tanks to help Ukraine.
Some on the far right and the hard left have opposed supporting Kyiv because they are sympathetic towards Moscow, or they believe that the NATO policy does not help Spain’s interests.
“It is a waste of time. Spain should be neutral like Hungary or Austria. Spain was neutral in the first and second world war and this was much better for our national interests,” Guillermo Rocafort, a lawyer, told Al Jazeera.
“Following America blindly like this does not help our country at a time when our economy needs to concentrate on recovering from the pandemic.”
He believes that arms sent by the West have been used to “attack civilians in pro-Russian areas” in Ukraine.
Lluis Orriols, a professor of politics at the University Carlos III in Madrid, said the differences within the coalition were “evident”.
“But it must be said that there was an agreement by both parties when they formed a coalition that the Socialists would lead on foreign policy and Podemos would not interfere. So, these differences of opinion have less consequences,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The position of Podemos is typical of the Spanish left which means it is against the Atlantic pact and NATO and not to be allied with the United States. But Podemos are not against helping Ukraine. They are more in favour of humanitarian aid. They have a more pacifist attitude towards the war.”
But what of the Ukrainians who have started a new life in Spain?
Anastasiia, who did not want to give her surname, travelled from Kyiv to stay with about 40 other women and children to stay at a shelter near Valencia in April last year.
She was grateful to the Spanish for the reception she had received.
“For us, it has been hard to start a new life here. We miss our families and our country of course so much. But the Spanish have been so friendly and welcoming it has not been so difficult,” she told Al Jazeera through an interpreter.