April 29, 2019  |  Updated May 8, 2019

#EUelections2019: Spanish Weaknesses Against Kremlin Disinformation

By David Alandete
Photo credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana. https://www.flickr.com/photos/presidenciamx/14207814789/

The Russian government scored a goal during their visit to Madrid last November. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov somehow convinced his host to sign a mutual agreement to jointly fight disinformation. Several months have gone by and the agreement has been largely forgotten. However, the very signing of the agreement in the first place suggests that the Spanish state is unprepared for the ever-increasing threat of Russian hybrid warfare.

Josep Borrell, Spain’s foreign minister who signed the noted agreement with Russia, will top the PSOE party list for the European Parliament elections in May. Mr. Borrell is not a newcomer to Brussels; he served as President of the European Parliament in the first half of the 2004-2009 legislature and in the second half as Chair of the Committee on Development.

The current Spanish government, formed after a vote of no confidence last year, has repeatedly proven its unpreparedness to effectively respond to the threat of disinformation. Days after parliament elected Pedro Sanchez as prime minister, his own staff leaked the news that he planned to appoint reserve colonel Pedro Baas National Security Director, a position wielding control over Spain’s policies on cybersecurity, maritime safety, and other security sectors.

Those who follow the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign in Spain know Baños well. The reserve colonel regularly contributes to Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, where he has defended rapprochement with Russia. According to Mr. Baños, “Which country has everything that we lack? Russia does. We will not gain anything by provoking Russia. So Russia wants to have its own sphere of influence? Of course it does, just like the United States or China do. It also wants to have its markets and like-minded countries nearby.” In his opinion, Spain should pursue Moscow as an ally because China currently poses a greater threat than Russia to Europe.

Sanchez cancelled the colonel’s appointment before it took effect, but the government, while clearly responsive to public outcry, has faltered when faced with Russian aggression. After popular Russian media personalities scorned the previous cabinet for its rebuke of Moscow’s interference in Catalonia, its replacement stopped short of publicly identifying any aggressors in the situation. When leaking the news of the creation of a new government effort to fight disinformation, El País reported the following quote from its anonymous source: “We are just starting. At the moment there are no computer tools that guarantee the detection of fake news. We are asking high-level companies to work on programs that detect them, but it is not easy.”

Telling of Madrid’s position on Russia is that in November 2018, the Spanish government allowed Russian warships to resupply in the port of Ceuta after a two year moratorium. Ceuta offers the Kremlin a convenient location to service its Mediterranean fleet and thereby maintain pressure on NATO.

The PSOE is not alone in its unpreparedness. In 2017, Spain suffered a major hostile information operation. Kremlin media targeted the Catalan independence crisis, publishing false stories, misleading maps, and fabricated data. With the aid of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden, the Kremlin’s media outlets portrayed Spain as a fascist and abusive state, unable to guarantee democratic freedoms and inclined to use violence and repression to stifle dissent. The conservative government at the time failed to react decisively, allowing the Kremlin to distort what was happening in Spain for both domestic and international audiences.

The issue extends beyond the current government’s ruling party. PSOE’s main ally in parliament is Podemos. The latter’s founders are politicians with ties to the Chavez regime in Venezuela, a regime aided and abetted by Putin. Podemos’s leadership has been not only reluctant but at times categorically opposed to any condemnation of Russian hybrid aggression, both in the European and Spanish parliaments. Podemos’s five legislators in Brussels have repeatedly vocalized their pro-Kremlin feelings.

It is worth noting that over the past five years, a small group of Spanish Members of the European Parliament (MEP) have been the last line of defense against Russian aggression in the southernmost part of the European Union. However, their efforts have gone largely unappreciated by their peers and parties. Some of them are already preparing to return to Spain. Liberal MEP Beatriz Becerra, one of the strongest voices against all forms of disinformation threatening Europe, recently announced that she will not run for re-election. Gone will also be one of the European Parliament’s vice-presidents, Ramón Luis Valcárcel. Valcárcel is a reliable critic of the Kremlin’s manipulation campaigns; Moscow blacklisted him after he visited Ukraine. For one reason or another, many Spanish parties are recalling their respected voices in Europe, including the socialists Elena Valenciano and Ramón Jáuregui and the liberal Teresa Jiménez Barbat.

One of the most experienced voices on the topic of Russian disinformation, EPP spokesman Esteban González-Pons, is running again. However, despite enduring five years of persistent false narratives and disinformation, his party decided to nominate Dolors Montserrat to head the conservative list to the European Parliament. Montserrat is a political newcomer with no experience in Brussels and a worrisome lack of familiarity with Russian hybrid warfare.

In addition to the weaknesses described above, the newly created far-right party Vox will likely gain a handful of Spanish seats in the European Parliament. Vox is the Spanish version of France’s National Front or Italy’s La Liga, supporting far-right positions on contentious issues like migration and the EU. While still too young to have established ties to the Kremlin, its leader Santiago Abascal has said that Putin already requested a meeting with him. Abascal also claimed that he has “never said anything negative” about the Russian president.

The weaknesses described above are not unique to one politician, party, or even necessarily to Spain. However, they will continue to persist as vulnerabilities in Spain’s national security and internal politics, and as extension to those of the EU, until Madrid develops a coherent policy to combat hostile information operations. To counter such disinformation campaigns, Madrid should seek a strategy similar to that used in Sweden or learn from the new approach announced by the United Kingdom. For now, its lack of such a strategy means that until the government takes meaningful preventive action, Spain will continue to be a victim.

David Alandete is the US correspondent for the Spanish newspaper ABC.

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