Foreign Affairs minister João Gomes Cravinho - Photo: PAULO CUNHA/LUSA

Portugal and the Ukraine crisis


Portugal will have plenty of national post-election problems to deal with in the weeks and months ahead, but one of its wider worries that should not be underestimated is the tension between the West and Russia over Ukraine.

Portuguese foreign and defence officials will be carefully watching developments amid fears that the Ukraine confrontation could spiral out of control and affect the whole of Europe. Dialogue and diplomacy between Russia and the United States are at present keeping armed conflict and perhaps even an all-out war at bay.

More clarity about the possibility of compromises may emerge as early as this coming week when further negotiations are scheduled.

Ukraine is an independent sovereign nation. It is not a member of either the EU or NATO. Historically and ethnically, it has been close to Russia in that it formed part of the Soviet Union. Geographically located next to Russia, Ukraine also borders on a few EU states that are members of NATO.

President Vladimir Putin emphatically demands that Ukraine is not allowed to join the EU or NATO. Equally emphatically, the majority of Ukrainians, especially those in the west of the country, want to be free of any form of Russian domination.

Led by the United States, European countries have joined in the war of words, promising massive economic sanctions if Russia does not back off the troops and military equipment amassed along the frozen 1,600km northern, eastern and southern borders of Ukraine.

Russia is also thought to have recently carried out cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and other hostile acts while claiming it has no intention of invading Ukraine. Should it do so, a united, swift and strong response is assured.

No one in the West is quite sure what Putin’s intentions are, but a weakening or breakup of the EU is suspected of being one of his primary goals. Perhaps he is just exerting pressure to force a rollback of NATO forces in countries close to Russia.

Both sides have so far remained resolute in the negotiations held most recently last Friday between the Russian and US foreign ministers. They concluded with a wide gulf between the two. So, where does Portugal fit into all this?

Portugal firmly supports the joint EU and US stance even though it is not a direct participant in the ongoing negotiations. Germany, France and the UK are the main interlocutors with the US and Russia.

Fortunately for Portugal, unlike much of the rest of Europe, it is not dependent on natural gas supplies from Russia, which it is feared the Kremlin might be using as a weapon in the current stalemate. Portugal’s gas originates in Algeria, Nigeria and the US.

Portugal has concerns even though it is the most distant EU country from Ukraine and thus perhaps the least vulnerable should dialogue fail. It is situated more than 3,000 km west of Ukraine. It’s about the same distance east of the United States.

As distant as it is, defence minister João Gomes Cravinho told his 26 EU counterparts at a meeting earlier this month in Brest, France, that he was delighted with the “absolute refusal” by all EU member states to give in to Russia’s attempts to divide the Union by threatening Ukraine.

The defence minister went so far as to claim: “It’s clear that Russia’s attitudes seek to divide – divide the Europeans and divide the Europeans from the North Americans.” He described it as “a very worrying situation that must be dealt with firmly, with a clear purpose and in unity among all Europeans.”

He added that, in the case of Ukraine, there is strict coordination, as opposed to the confusion last year when US troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan without the prior knowledge by European governments.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos, a Portuguese professor of sociology at the School of Economics, in the University of Coimbra, does not lean nearly as heavily on Russia’s behaviour as most Western commentators. He argues that the United Nations could play a crucial role in defusing what he calls the escalating Cold War.

“This war, which was set in motion by Donald Trump and enthusiastically continued by Joe Biden, seeks to have two targets, China and Russia, and two fronts, Taiwan and Ukraine. It would seem unwise for a declining power such as the United States to engage in confrontation on two different fronts at the same time.”

Meanwhile, Portugal is pressing the EU to focus much more than it has done in the past on the Atlantic Ocean and strengthen maritime security. This will be addressed in a new version of the EU’s Defence Strategy scheduled to be approved in March, if not before.

In past years, top Russian warships have passed along Portugal’s coast, at times as close as 26 nautical miles from the Algarve’s shores.


Len Port is a journalist and author based in the Algarve. Follow Len’s reflections on current affairs in Portugal on his blog: