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Speech by Aitor Esteban on the situation in Ukraine in the Plenary Session of the Spanish Parliament on 2 March 2022

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Speech by Aitor Esteban on the situation in Ukraine in the Plenary Session of the Spanish Parliament on 2 March 2022

Fellow members of parliament, Madam Speaker:

During the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee on 23 February, I warned that world geopolitics was about to change permanently and that we had to be ready. But I should say that I am shocked at the speed at which it is happening. We have been witnessing, in barely a week, an undreamt-of change of paradigm both to global relations and to the European internal dimension.

The specific evolution of this conflict will shape the extent of the specific changes that we will see in the future. Even so, in any event, we will soon be facing a different world to the one in which we started this year. Did we Europeans need to feel so threatened to discover that a future with a disunited Europe would only result in an absence of a future, of being completely irrelevant, of a relentless decline? On 13 February, it was still business as usual in Europe:  Scholz daunted by the supply of gas and the future of Nord Scholz 2 and Draghi were talking directly to Putin. Each one going their separate ways, wrongly thinking that, yet again, Moscow would back down and that US intelligence was exaggerated; each country was defending its own interests. Full steam ahead for Putin. Along the lines of the plot that he had been weaving for the last decade. By benefitting the personal financial interests of European leaders, meddling online in the electoral propaganda of democratic countries, sowing the seeds of discord, cultivating and financing the Trojan horse of authoritarianism. Many countries were inspired by him. Le Pen, Orbán Salvini… The embers are still smouldering of the meeting of all those ultra-right leaders in Madrid convened by VOX.

We are witnessing undreamt-of and historic events, a whole change of paradigm. Anybody who does not see that is looking the other way.  Because the Russian-Ukrainian conflict goes further than the military combat between both countries. We are talking about our safety and security, and of a Russia that is increasing more aggressive. A Russia that is seeking a new world order as it expands in Syria, Libya, in the Central African Republic, in Chad, in Mali, by defending an authoritarian model that finds a mirror and ally in China We are deciding whether to remain silent before a nuclear power that is explicitly threatening to use that power and with all its consequences – to quote Putin –, something that we would never have thought would happen. A political leader that seeks to base his power and audacity on the fear that he is inflecting. He has raised the stakes and is ready to fight a large-scale war.

That is a new reality that the West must face. The threat had to be great for Germany to abandon its policy of refusing to send military equipment, a policy dating back to demilitarisation and guilty conscience following World War II. The threat had to be huge for Switzerland to turn its back on its two hundred years of neutrality. Putin lied; he, and he alone, is solely responsible for what is happening. He mobilised his troops along the long border with Ukraine and even in Belarus. He then complained of Western ‘hysteria’ regarding a possible attack.

Putin announced that he had withdrawn troops and it was not true. He promised President Macron that he would not attack civilian targets and he is doing so. And according to different sources, he is using thermobaric or vacuum bombs. Putin’s speech on Monday 21 February was clear. It is not about NATO, it is about Ukraine being, according to Putin, a part of Russia, the Eternal Russia, whether under the tzars, Stalin or Putin.  And to think that some people still think that by defending Putin, they continue to defend the USSR and its ideology, merely by that fact that he is taking on NATO. Communist Putin…

On 23 February, on the eve of the invasion, some members of this Parliament, on the Foreign Affairs Committee, were still talking, as if nothing would happen, of the need to create a demilitarised buffer area between Russia and the European Union. Can they seriously believe that the Baltic states or Poland are going to withdraw from NATO? Nobody forced them to join, which was not the case with the Warsaw Pact. They joined between they knew – and know – that it was the only way to stop Russia swallowing them up again. By what right can we, we who argue for the self-determination of the people, ask the people of the Baltic nations or the Poles to disarm knowing their history? Buffer and disarm. Seriously? With Putin moving nuclear warheads to Belarus? Just read the message from the Lithuanian Left on 27 February: Dear comrades – it began –, NATO and the EU are the only hope for a country such as Lithuania.

There are also some who repeat Putin’s refrain that Ukrainians are Nazis and never tire of circulating the same three photos of the infamous Azov Battalion.  Yet none of those extremist groups have managed to get a representative elected to the Ukrainian Parliament and even less so one in the Government. Whether they like it or not, the Ukrainian Government, despite its shortcoming, is a democratic government and its President, Zelenski, apart from being Jewish, was the dove striving for an agreement for the Donbas against the hawk, Poroshenko. Of course, that there are Nazis in Ukraine, like there are everywhere! But it is an unacceptable leap from that statement to claiming that the Ukrainian Government and people are Nazis.

Spain cannot be said to be a fascist and totalitarian state because there are people in this Parliament who defend Franco’s dictatorship. Or Basque are all terrorists because there are people who have defended ETA’s totalitarian and murderous action. And let us be clear, there has been no genocide perpetrated by Ukraine in the Donbas in the last eight years. Obviously, there have been clashes and losses on both sides. But the claims that there has been a hidden genocide are ludicrous as the OSCE has been on the ground, with numerous observers from 2015 until yesterday, when they were withdrawn.

What Russia should be wondering is why the former territories of the USSR which have embraced democracy want to distance themselves as far as possible from Russia and reject any type of association with it. Russia should wonder why it is so unattractive and if fear should be what binds the peoples in the 21st century. It should also ask China. And no, no, that is or should not be, in my opinion, about defending the sovereign borders of a country. It is about the popular will, because we are in the 21st century and that is the only way to settle conflicts.

Ukraine held an independence referendum in 1991 and the support was overwhelming:  92% of the population voted and 82% were in favour of independence, even in the Donbas, where 76% supported it. And, I should also point out, in Crimea, where there was 55% support. I do not know if the opinion of the inhabitants of the Donbas has changed, but I am clear that they are the only ones that should decide; both the more than one million inhabitants who have fled as internally displaced refugees to other areas of Ukraine and those who stayed. Minsk could have served to do that. But nobody has asked them or has there been any interest in doing so.

The idea that the Russian-speakers in Ukraine directly support Russia is very simplistic, but a widely held one. Anyone who says so has no idea of how things work in those nations that have suffered the impositions by stronger ones; who have seen how their language has been excluded from schooling or from the Administration and ousted from culture with the excuse of being parochial and not valid for modern life. That was the case with the Ukrainian language until its awakening with Shevchenko in the 19th century. It also happened with the Basque language. I know many Basques who do not speak Basque, but who are convinced separatists; I also know Basques who can trace their Basque roots back generations and speak the language perfectly who feel Spanish. The life of the minoritized, subjugated nations is complex. Ukraine’s history since Kievan Rus’ is filled with episodes when its territories were under Mongol, Tatar, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian rule.  When the country was more or less its current size, there was a brief four-year period of independence as the Ukrainian People’s Republic before it was swallowed up by the USSR. And, of course, Ukraine has been independent for the last thirty year, but that is not relevant to defend its right to continue to be so; what is relevant is the actual will of the people.

Putin can deny that the Ukrainian people are a nation, but he will never manage to dictate to them how to feel, as nobody will never dictate that to the Basque people. That ‘you are Russian because I say so’ is very familiar to me. Of course, the Ukrainian people have made their national feeling loud and clear in the defence of their territory. I should confess that I feared they were going to be left to fight alone given the doubts in Europe; that, as Rousseau said to the Poles in the 18th century, they were going to be swallowed up and the only thing they could do was to see to it that they could not be digested. But truth be told they are putting up a strong fight against being devoured.   I believe that their initial endeavours galvanised the European foreign ministries and we must not forget that there was no money available for the Ukrainians at that time.   I confess that I thought that the economic sanctions were only going to be token. The level of the ones adopted is a milestone and had never been seen before; it marks a before and after in international relations and defending peace.

However, we are witnessing another important step and questioned by some sectors: supporting Ukraine with weapons. I believe it to be a simple dilemma. We want “No to the War” to come true, but it is not enough just to really want that and go on demonstrations.  If Russia stops fighting, there will be no war. If Ukraine stops fighting, there will no longer be Ukraine. War is always reprehensible, but if there is something that justifies the use of force in international law, it is, precisely, defending oneself against real and unprovoked aggression.  If we want the Ukrainians to fight for us, we cannot abandon them and they must have the means. It is right as we know from painful experience from what happened during the Spanish Civil War. The United Kingdom and France established a naval blockade in the Bay of Biscay to prevent weapons being supplied to the Basque Country as set out with the Non-Intervention Agreement. However, Franco’s forces received the unconditional support of the Axis. The Basque Country had to defend itself on an unlevel playing field and that situation was caused by European democracies.  We cannot make the same mistake. One thing is to directly intervene using military force, which I can understand is the last step given the implications and consequences. Another is to leave a country defenceless that is under attack and which is also indirectly repelling the aggression for us.   I believe that the supply should be coordinated by the European Union, instead of a country acting unliterally, but that cannot be an excuse for doing nothing.

Mr. Prime Minister, you have today rectified your position and I think that is right, because such aggression cannot be repelled by field hospitals, bandages and flack-jackets.  Putin was probably expecting that it would be, as his spokespeople claim, a special operation. Something that he would get done extremely quickly while his adversaries were paralysed by fear. The problem is that if you have called someone’s bluff based on fear and even Switzerland stands up to you, you have gone too far.

In my opinion, first of all, the EU must be resounding in its resolve and firm in its support of Ukraine, without cracks appearing and upholding and strengthening the measures right to the end, if possible. Secondly, if the measures are successful – and we hope so –, as the saying goes, retreating enemies should be given free passage. If Russia retreats, it has to be offered a way out; Russia, which is not the same as Putin. Thirdly, this experience shows that the defence and decision-making structures of the European Union’s foreign policy have to be strengthened. The weak Europe, incapable of taking initiatives, is over – of that is what I would like to think at least –. COVID highlighted the need for the European Union to be less dependent on third-country production and research in the health field. This crisis must be used to permanently improve European mechanisms in terms of economic, defence and external policy.

We therefore urge you, Mr. Prime Minister, to pursue strategic decision making by the EU to alleviate the supply crisis and price hikes caused by the situations, beyond those measures that can be adopted internally.  Of course, it is not as if we had not already warned your government to pay great attention to gas as a transition element and it has taken a war for it to act in that regard.

What is not acceptable, Mr. Prime Minister, is that you spend between ten and fifteen minutes of your speech to set out a myriad of measures in a so-called war response plan without time to be able to assess them. Mr. Prime Minister, the common emergency, as you have dubbed it, is faced in common, but, yet again, you have done the opposite. You have rushed in without consulting your possible parliamentary support. At the moment, I am unable to assess the measures that you announced. Mr. Bel seems to be able to some extent, but, honestly, I am not. They came one after another and, furthermore, some do not seem new or related to the conflict.  Therefore, we will see, and I believe that we will also discuss them in a Plenary Session. But here and now today, it is not the time or is it appropriate. And even less so with the set fifteen minutes that the parliamentary groups, but not you, have to speak.

Mr. Prime Minister, you must focus on the stream of war refugees that is going to happen. The human drama must be an important part of the action we take. We welcome the news that you are going to activate the temporary protection directive. We urge all institutions to be involved in this task, as the Basque Government is already.

And now to end. When faced with the struggle between democracy and totalitarianism, between the free world and autocracies, between human rights and force, between the will of the citizens to decide their future and establishing regimes by force, the Basque National Party will always be on the side of the first: democracy, the free world, human rights and the will of the citizens to decide their future.

We fully support the European Union, the Alliance and your Government, Mr. Prime Minister.

Thank you.

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