Ukraine and the Transformation of Europe: An Interview with Clara Portela

This is part of our special feature, Europe and NATO Since Ukraine.


Connecting research and practice on public policy is always a challenge. Scholars of Europe, like their counterparts in other fields devoted to contemporary issues, seek to have their insights influence decision makers. Yet leaders can easily miss the nuances of scholarly research, while scholars may not grasp the immediacy of the questions leaders face. One scholar of contemporary European foreign policy issues whose research successfully speaks to on-going policy debates and who regularly consults with both national and European-wide institutions is Clara Portela of the University of Valencia. At Valencia and a wide range of other institutions where she has served as a visiting instructor, Portela has continued to bridge the gap between theory and practice in her teaching. Meanwhile, her consulting has drawn upon the latest research and channeled into succinct advice that officials and policymakers can use. Following the invasion of Ukraine, while some scholars scrambled to advise governments and the public on the use of sanctions against Russia, Portela was able to better respond because she had already built channels of communication with the EU and other international agencies over the years by writing and advising on how sanctions had succeeded or failed against a variety of regimes over human rights abuses.

In the interview that follows, Portela argues that, thus far, the reaction to the war in Ukraine has done the opposite of what Putin intended. The war has strengthened those trends within the European Union and NATO that had moved the two organizations toward greater unity, despite negative forces such as Brexit and the opposition of leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. She also contends that the rise of populist parties on the right or left may not have a decisive impact upon the level of European solidarity towards Russia. Many of these parties do not agree on foreign policy and typically have to govern within coalitions that temper their influence. Meanwhile, Europe has learned valuable lessons about the dangers of economic interdependence with potentially hostile countries. The mixed success of sanctions against Russia also demonstrates that countries can prepare to withstand sanctions, as Putin’s Russia did before the war. Sanctions, too, as the case of Russia shows, can take time to be truly effective and yet, once imposed, can have long-lasting effects.

Crossing the disciplinary boundaries between administrative law, political science, and sociology, Portela has tackled research ranging from human rights policies to weapons of mass destruction, multilateral sanctions, arms control, and the foreign policy of the European Union. Both her education and her international experience have shaped her ability to speak on global issues. As she explains below, Portela deliberately sought an education outside her native Spain and made good use of her employment outside of Europe following her education. She holds a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence and an MA from the Free University of Berlin, but her perspective on European issues has been strengthened by experience teaching and doing research on Europe in Asia, notably at the Singapore Management University. Working in Asia while engaged in research on Europe helped to see the European Union from the outside, from its effects on the rest of the world, as well as from within.


Carl J. Strikwerda for EuropeNow


EuropeNow Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine’s success in resisting Russia, and the solidarity of NATO in helping Ukraine all surprised many observers across the world. To what extent do you think these events surprised leaders in the European Union specifically?

Clara Portela Both Russia’s decision to invade its neighbor and Ukraine’s resistance to the attack surprised the EU and the European public in general. The fact that the attack took Europeans by surprise is hardly a new situation: episodes such as the Arab Spring were admittedly also unanticipated in Brussels. Ukrainian success in resisting Russia has arguably been the greatest surprise, as most experts expected the war to be over in a few weeks. However, Western solidarity is not surprising, particularly because leaders in Moscow claim—and believe—to be at war with NATO. Part of this solidarity is driven by the belief that Russian aggression, if successful, would not necessarily stop in Ukraine but could reach further targets in Russia’s neighborhood, bringing more instability to the continent. However, NATO has not been the only, or even principal, channel of Western solidarity: much assistance has been offered by individual countries and collectively via the EU. Sanctions, for example, which constitute the principal element of the joint response, emanate from an EU policy: they are decided in Brussels and reflected in legislation that is valid throughout the EU. Importantly, Brussels has used the European Peace Facility to fund armaments deliveries, something for which this instrument was not originally foreseen.

EuropeNow What do you believe has primarily motivated Putin’s invasion and his persistence in continuing the war—fear of NATO, Ukraine’s ties with the EU, or Russia’s own internal dynamics?

Clara Portela The aggression was officially justified on the basis of an external threat perception—the world’s most powerful alliance approaching Russian borders. This alliance was seen as a threat by Moscow because of the absence of a buffer zone separating Russia from NATO allies. During the Cold War, a large territory covering several states separated Russia from NATO, and Moscow could rely on an alliance with those states under the Warsaw Pact. This situation no longer holds today. The Russian military elite believes Russia is exposed to the expansion of the Atlantic Alliance to its borders, even though the Alliance has not evidenced hostile intentions or moved eastwards the nuclear weapons it stores in Western Europe. And the EU has not played much of a role in the enlargement of the Atlantic Alliance, although it tends to get conflated with NATO by third countries due to the large overlap in both organizations’ membership. This threat perception has combined with internal dynamics: the launch of military operations is often resorted to in order to foster patriotism and national cohesion and to deflect from domestic problems and increase the popularity of leaders. This mechanism is readily available in countries where the freedom of the press is restricted and where the leadership can control the war narrative disseminated to the public and effortlessly make its own version prevail.

EuropeNow Europe has displayed a noteworthy level of solidarity with Ukraine. How do you see this solidarity evolving over time?

Clara Portela Solidarity has indeed been remarkable, to the extent that Europe has been criticized for privileging refugees from Ukraine over those of other origins. There is certainly a risk that, over time, popular support may somewhat decline. The current crisis is Gaza has shown how one crisis can be quickly overshadowed by another. Still, the existing level of solidarity will continue, in particular in the direction of several states closest to Russia, for which the crisis involves an existential threat. There are still nuances among EU members about assistance to these countries, but with the exception of the Hungarian leadership, which nurtures a rather confrontational stance towards the EU, these nuances are less pronounced since February 2022.

EuropeNow How do you think the rallying of NATO around Ukraine and the adhesion of Finland and Sweden will affect NATO’s future?

Clara Portela The current crisis can only strengthen the Atlantic Alliance. Only a few years ago, it was criticized as irrelevant; French President Macron famously referred to NATO as experiencing “brain death” as recently as 2019. After Russia’s attack of 2022, nobody contests the continued centrality of NATO to European defense. With the accession of long-standing neutral countries such as Finland and Sweden and with Moldova reconsidering its neutrality, the Atlantic Alliance will become even more central to European security as alternatives are vanishing: the Warsaw Pact was the first to disappear, followed by military neutrality. And additional countries are queuing for NATO membership. This is the greatest irony about Moscow’ launching the war: it has strengthened the case for NATO membership and the organization itself.

EuropeNow Depending on how the war ends, what do you think is the near term prospect for European and the EU’s future relations with Russia?

Clara Portela The prospects for relations between the EU and Russia are rather grim. There will certainly be an effort to reconstitute a working political relationship with Moscow after the war, an effort that is currently being made since cooperating with Russia is necessary in so many fields. However, many of the sanctions that have been adopted in recent months are unlikely to be lifted. Instead, they may take the form of a semi-permanent system of export controls that ensures that key technologies are no longer shared with Russia.

EuropeNow What do you think are the most important lessons for Europe and Europeans from the war in Ukraine?

Clara Portela Probably one of the most important lessons for Europe is that economic interdependence may not work out as promised. There has been too much reliance on the peaceful effects of fostering economic interdependence. Europe is devoting great effort to diversify its energy sources, and it is unlikely it will revert to being as energy dependent on Russia as it once was. At the same time, there might also be a lesson to be drawn from the fact that nurturing a powerful military alliance such as NATO has implications on the way it is perceived by third country elites: neither harboring nor declaring hostile intentions does not necessarily equate with not being perceived as hostile, or at least, it does not prevent such image from being disseminated by third country elites for their own political gain.

EuropeNow In what other ways has the war in Ukraine transformed Europe?

Clara Portela While it is true that NATO has increased its centrality thanks to the war, which has led allies to agree on increasing their financial contributions to the alliance, it is not the organization itself that is undergoing the most dramatic changes. Changes are also being experienced by the EU, which is managing the European sanctions effort against Russia, in close coordination with its North American partners and the UK. While the EU has a long history in imposing sanctions on different countries, after the annexation of Crimea it started to increasingly rely on these sanctions, and after the 2022 invasion, it put in place a sanctions regime unprecedented in complexity and magnitude. Never before had such a high number of sanctions rounds succeeded each other so closely in such short time period. While in the past it was rare to witness more than three sanctions packages adopted each year in one sanctions regime, December has seen the adoption of the twelfth sanctions package against Russia. Each of the packages has been substantial, entailing economic and financial restrictions and often accompanied by measures other than sanctions, such as a cap on oil prices. While NATO has kept a more discreet role than the EU in order not to be involved—and to not be seen as participating—in hostilities in Ukraine, the EU as an organization has been at the forefront of the sanctions operation mounted in reaction to Russian aggression. Brussels has not only acquired a new centrality in security policy, but it has critically expanded its powers in order to better implement and enforce these sanctions. Although this increased power might be overlooked on the other side of the Atlantic, the EU has been transforming its security governance through its response to the war.

EuropeNow How do you think the recent upsurge in anti-EU, populist sentiment—as seen for example in the apparent popularity of the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) and the electoral success of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands—will eventually affect the level of EU aid for Ukraine’s defense against Russia?

Clara Portela This upsurge is a risk to reckon with, but it is not as acute or imminent as it may seem. One aspect to keep in mind is that not all populist parties across Europe advocate withdrawal from the EU as AfD does. Many of them favor a reframing of the organization as a less supranational entity, a “Europe of the Nations.” Thus, in the event these parties rose to power in several EU members, their leaders would not easily agree on the European project. More than Euroscepticism, the risk resides in the affinity to the Kremlin displayed by parties on both extremes of the political spectrum—the (often populist) far-right and the far-left. There is a possibility that these parties could undermine the support for Ukraine. They could be emboldened in this intent if a new leadership in Washington stops backing Kyiv. However, the risk is mitigated by the fact that, if these parties come to power, they will in all likelihood do so as part of a coalition with a moderate, mass party supporting aid to Ukraine.

EuropeNow Brexit has been cited over the last seven years as an example of the EU’s weaknesses. Yet in responding to the war in Ukraine, Britain appears to have worked well with both NATO and the EU. Do you believe that this relative unity can continue, despite the divisions within NATO and the EU, or is Britain an exception in this regard? How do you think that support for a unified Europe on important issues can continue despite Europe’s institutional divisions?

Clara Portela The evolution we have witnessed after the British withdrawal from the EU has been interesting. Contrary to expectations, the EU has remained very active in foreign policy, and it has maintained a close collaboration with the UK on key issues such as sanctions matters. In general, we have not witnessed any weakening of the organization or a decrease in the level of unity following Brexit. The emergence of an external threat and a growing leadership of the Commission have played a role. In its stead, the main hurdle to the framing of a common foreign policy stance has been internal: the rule of law crises in Poland and Hungary have proven extremely difficult for Brussels to handle, and the Hungarian leadership’s proximity to the Kremlin has visibly obstructed unity vis-à-vis Moscow.

EuropeNow To what extent have you been surprised by the ability of Russia to keep its economy going, despite sanctions?

Clara Portela This is hardly surprising. Russia had been preparing its economy to reduce its vulnerability to sanctions, especially after the imposition of limited sanctions by the West following the invasion of Crimea. The political elites anticipated that more sanctions were coming, or that least they were likely to come. This process is well-documented and has been called the “securitization of the economy.” Russians have had much time to prepare. Another reason why we have not seen a dramatic economic decline in Russia resides in the nature of sanctions. They are slow-acting tools; it takes time for them to have effects, but once these become evident, they tend to be long-lasting. Lastly, we should not forget that much of Russia’s wealth comes from energy exports such as natural gas, on which some of the European sanctioning countries were dependent and which cannot be easily replaced.

EuropeNow In your research, you have focused on sanctions, even before their extensive use against Russia after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. What are the crucial lessons that European leaders and the global community at large should draw from the application of sanctions against Russia in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?

Clara Portela I believe that the key lesson is that Europeans need to be better prepared to impose sanctions. The exact same sanctions measure the EU has in place now could have been applied more swiftly if it had planned ahead. The EU is short of foresight, which means that it is easily taken by surprise. The level of agreement reached on sanctions has been a remarkable success for the member-states and the Commission. However, it has taken many months of arduous, continuous negotiations among bureaucracies that needed to work indefatigably to achieve results that could have been, at least partly, prepared in advance. A second lesson that Europe has drawn from the current situation is that it ought to be more cautious about becoming overly dependent on third countries and also about the transfer of sensitive items to countries with deteriorating relations with the West.

Europe Now Your research and teaching have been distinctly transnational, both across Europe and a variety of world regions. What attracted you to transnational or global research?

Clara Portela My main academic interest has been international relations. Pursuing this research interest invites academic mobility. Regularly conducting research overseas entails many intellectual benefits. While based in Asia, I was nonetheless able to keep track of what was happening in Europe. Moreover, meeting new researchers and learning about their research is an educative exercise in itself; it can even lead to common projects. At the same time, being based in Singapore allowed me observe more closely the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its dynamics of cooperation, which also inspired me to study regional integration arrangements beyond the EU.

EuropeNow If you consciously pursued your education in different European countries, why did you?

Clara Portela I certainly did. My purpose, like that of many migrant students, was to obtain a better education overseas than that available in my home country. Germany was ideal for studying political science because it has a strong tradition in this discipline and a vibrant political debate; in addition, public universities there are good and affordable. The European University Institute in Florence is an excellent research hub. Also, my exchange year in Northern Ireland was central in introducing me to peace research. But a central benefit of academic migration is actually the education one receives outside the classroom—experiencing different societies and contrasting mindsets and lifestyles are both key to understanding European society.

EuropeNow What was it like to teach and do research on Europe while you had an academic post in Asia, specifically, Singapore? Were there special challenges to teaching and giving policy advice on Europe in a very different world region?

Clara Portela The main challenge about being based as far away from Europe as Southeast Asia is that I had a considerable distance from my research object—the EU—and that I was missing out on the policy and academic debates that prevailed in European research nodes. At the same time, the experience of being located on the other side of the EU foreign policy, i.e., at the receiving end, allowed me to assess how the EU and its action are viewed from outside. This made me conscious of the role that the EU plays in the world. This is something one is not exposed to from a European base, especially not from within the Brussels bubble. In sum, it is a highly educative experience I would not hesitate to recommend.

EuropeNow You have had success as a consultant and advisor to policymakers. What advice would you give to other scholars who wish to make their research relevant to policymakers and serve as consultants to government officials?

Clara Portela My advice to scholars interested in policy is to take the time to write a short policy product distilling the implications of their research results for practitioners as well as for the broader public. This gives visibility to findings relevant to an audience that does not read scholarly products for lack of time. Still, the link to the policy world is not easy to establish. The exchange between academia and policy is far less developed in Europe than in North America, and it is equally hampered by prejudices: much of the academic community does not value policy work, while many policymakers consider the input from scholars irrelevant.


Clara Portela teaches political science at the Law School of the University of Valencia, having formerly served at Singapore Management University and at the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) in Paris. Her research on EU foreign policy received the THESEUS Award for Promising Research on European Integration. Clara Portela was the inaugural Konrad Adenauer Visiting Scholar at Carleton University’s Centre for European Studies in Ottawa, Canada, and has advised the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the European Parliament.


Carl J. Strikwerda is former president and Professor of History Emeritus from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. He currently lives in Washington, D.C. He formerly served as Dean of Arts and Sciences at the College of William and Mary and as Associate Dean at the University of Kansas. He has published on international labor migration, consumer cooperation around the world, and working class history. His book The Origins of the Contemporary Global Order: From the Nineteenth Century to the Cold War will be published in 2024 by Palgrave Macmillan.


Published on February 15, 2024.


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