Article by Alex Calvo, an specialist in Asian security and defence.


Some decades ago, during Franco’s dictatorship, a tourism promotion campaign designed to bring much needed hard-currency stated that “Spain Is Different”. Unfortunately, this is what more than a few thought when news broke out that Madrid had decided to provide water, fuel, and other supplies, to three Russian warships. The 6,900-tonne destroyer Vice Admiral Kulakov together with the tankers Duban and Sergey Osipov  docked at Ceuta, a Spanish-administered city in North Africa (claimed by Morocco) and proceeded as if NATO had not decided on a policy of sanctions against Russia. While other Allies were busy terminating military cooperation with Moscow, reinforcing links among themselves, and showing Russia and the world that NATO solidarity was as real as ever, Spaniards were also busy … selling fuel to the Russian Navy.


Madrid’s decision is even more surprising given that, when the Crimean crisis erupted, Spain was quick to try to position herself as one of the bastions of Allied resistance to Russian moves, with the thinly-disguised goal of tainting the 9 November Catalan referendum. In an attempt to secure international support against Catalonia’s peaceful and democratic drive to recover sovereignty (lost by force of arms in 1714), Spanish Foreign Minister Garcia-Margallo persistently portrayed the planned vote as a carbon copy of the Crimea’s, despite the latter being held in rather different circumstances (to put it mildly). Needless to say, having decided to provide logistical support to the Russian Navy, Madrid has lost any credibility it may have had when it came to opposing the use of force in the Ukraine. Right when NATO needs, more than ever in recent times, the fullest possible cooperation and mutual support among members, Madrid facilitates Russian naval operations in a sensitive corner of the world. Furthermore, the impact of this decision goes beyond NATO. Maritime democracies in the Indian-Pacific Region, faced with the need to promote international law at sea and the peaceful settlement of disputes, are unlikely to understand it.


Unfortunately, the recent refueling of three Russian warships is no exception, on at least two counts. First of all, this is the sixth port visit by the Russian Navy to Ceuta in the year to date. Second, it goes hand in hand with Spain’s military pressure against nearby Gibraltar (whose inhabitants have refused, in successive referenda, to join Spain), and threats of military intervention in Catalonia. The three factors, taken together, provide a very worrying portrait of a country supposed to be a member of NATO but seemingly more concerned with using force against a fellow member and civilians than in contributing to Allied operations, while failing to implement agreed policy towards Russia.


Unless NATO puts an end to these deeds, the organization’s credibility and capabilities are likely to suffer. It is very important  for the Alliance to prevent any member from bypassing sanctions, employing force against a fellow member state, and threatening civilians with military force. Setting aside any moral considerations, it is very important for the organization’s credibility and effective capabilities. It is also essential for NATO’s credibility and possible supporting role in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. In order to work with non-member partners like Japan, NATO needs to show first of all that it is united, and second that it is indeed committed to basic principles like the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes. This must go beyond mere words, it has to be implemented in practice in the Mediterranean and within the organization, before any hopes of exerting a positive influence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans can be entertained. In a global world, none of these bodies of water is disconnected from the rest.



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