Ukraine's Shoddiest Supplier | Opinion

Hard times are the test of true friendship. As Ukraine keeps the world's enmity stubbornly fixed on Russia despite the war's economic consequences, one of its staunchest self-declared allies is stealthily breaking ranks by failing to deliver weapons as it promised. Spain, an otherwise NATO-delinquent outpost a continent away from the battlefront, seems to have mastered the art of hot-air diplomacy: pledge generously and deliver scantily. With allies like this, who needs enemies?

A Spanish daily of reference, El Mundo, recently labeled the declared goodwill of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's socialist-led government a "fraud," a jab rare in its directness for Spain's second-largest newspaper. Back in early April, Volodymyr Zelensky succeeded in capturing Madrid's sympathy with a speech to the Cortes Generales (the Spanish Congress) that drew a parallel between Russia's ongoing invasion and the 1937 Nazi bombing of Guernica at the request of Franco's nationalists, immortalized in a painting by Pablo Picasso. This parallel, though dubious in its historical accuracy, was likely calibrated to please Sánchez's hard-left coalition allies, who support military deescalation in pursuit of a negotiated peace and routinely celebrate the Republican resistance to Franco's 1936 coup.

On a visit to Kyiv later that month, Sánchez pledged to help Ukraine. Over four months later, all that Zelensky has to show for the prime minister's purported largesse is some light, defensive artillery, a single armored ambulance and a meagre 200 tons of antitank weaponry—no more.

The Ukrainian military is in a mood of ironic dismay, reports El Mundo. In late April, when Spain ferried 40 tanks by sea via Poland, the receiving commanders thought they had Spain's in-kind donation before their eyes. But the tanks dropped their load of ammunition and turned back to their boats.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez addresses a press conference to present his government's results since the beginning of the year, at La Moncloa Palace in Madrid, on July 29, 2022. Javier Soriano / AFP/Getty Images

In June, Spain nearly became Ukraine's first ally to pledge Western-made tanks to face off against Russia's when it announced it was mulling a shipment of 40 Leopard 2A4 tanks to the battlefront, with even a pledge to train Ukrainians on how to use them. Though the tanks had been said to be in good condition, the shipment had to be signed off by their manufacturer, Germany. Although the dovish German chancellor Olaf Scholz was admittedly lukewarm about the idea, a few days later it was reported that Spain had not even made the necessary request. Its pledge dropped to 10 tanks only. Two months later, Spain's defense minister took the offer off the table entirely. The tanks' deplorable condition, she argued, would endanger the users.

The Ukrainians seem to be losing faith in Spain as a result. Last week, Zelensky's government announced it expected 20 armored M113s. For once, the pledge was no longer met with Ukraine's usual display of heartfelt gratitude. M113s, as it happens, are a 1970s-era vehicle of which Spain has about 1,000 and expects to largely discard, per internal sources. "Something will come up and they will retreat," commented one government official to presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich, for whom even receiving 20 defective tanks was too much to expect from Spain by now. To stir a Spaniard's pride, another quipped that "even Portugal, which is smaller, is more generous."

Some press reports have chalked up the paucity and slowness of Spain's deliveries to behind-the-scenes stonewalling by Podemos, which supports Ukraine's cause but opposes open-ended shipments of heavy weaponry to the front. Ukrainians are less naïve. One official accused Sánchez of reaping the public opinion boost from chest-thumping aid pledges whilst shirking from their actual cost.

This, if anything, is the lesson other countries should draw from Spain's stingy way of overpromising and underdelivering. When a costly foreign war combines with a pro-Ukraine tilt of public opinion, politicians will once again prove they're made of the same stuff as us other humans. They will surf the wave of public outrage at Russia's aggression, but when push comes to shove, they may not have enough of an incentive to actually pay the costs of action.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the executive director of the Madrid-based think tank Fundación Civismo, and the co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast on Europe (@UnDecencyPod).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.