Not All Russia-Friendly Policies Are Nefarious

Why won't Austria — and its pro-Russia, far-right foreign ministry — punish Vladimir Putin? The real answer isn't the obvious one.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz after their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 28, 2018. (GRIGORY DUKOR/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz after their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 28, 2018. (GRIGORY DUKOR/AFP/Getty Images)

Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube — “Let others wage war: thou, happy Austria, marry” — was the Habsburg Emperor’s Maximilian I’s axiom that he bequeathed to his successors. Republican Austria, for obvious reasons, has cast aside dynastic marriage as an instrument of foreign policy today. But it has largely remained true to its diplomatic inheritance. Its handling of Europe’s most recent international crisis is a case in point.

On March 22, European leaders, following a meeting of the European Council, issued a stern statement about Russia’s alleged poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England, earlier that month. “We stand in unqualified solidarity with the United Kingdom in the face of this grave challenge to our shared security,” they declared. Russian diplomats were then kicked out of more than 20 countries, including 18 member states of the European Union. Russia has expelled Western diplomats in a tit-for-tat measure.

But for the EU member state Austria, governed by a coalition that includes the far-right Freedom Party, solidarity with the United Kingdom quickly ran up against limits. Vienna has so far refused to expel any Russian representatives or take any other concrete actions against the Kremlin.

While some commentators and political pundits were quick to blame the influence of the Russia-friendly Freedom Party for Austria’s behavior, Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl were quick to note that this has more to do with Austria’s traditional neutral role as a “Brückenbauer” (bridge builder) between East and West and that the country intends to keep “open communication channels with Russia.” And rather than dismiss this explanation in a fit of pique, it’s worth taking it seriously.

The ambiguity of Austria’s behavior may be irritating, but it’s hardly suspicious — and it’s in the West’s interest to maintain the ability to tell the difference.

Austria has maintained good relations with Russia for decades, mostly due to the country’s immediate postwar history. After the end of the Second World War and following a 10-year occupation of Austria, Western allies and the Soviet Union agreed on the country regaining its sovereignty in 1955 on the condition that it would remain a neutral country and bar the stationing of foreign troops on its soil, nor join any military alliances.

As a result, once the last Soviet soldier left Austria in October 1955, its Parliament enacted the Constitutional Law on the Neutrality of Austria, pledging the country to “permanent neutrality.” Consequently, Austria never joined NATO, though it unequivocally identified with the West and its intelligence services cooperated with the United States during the Cold War years.

In the 1970s, Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky took neutrality even further by establishing the so-called active neutrality doctrine, which favored engagement with autocratic regimes — including the Soviet Union — at bilateral and multilateral levels. It also established Vienna as a diplomatic hub by enticing international organizations, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OPEC, and various United Nations bodies, to establish their headquarters there. Good relations with Moscow, in Kreisky’s eyes, were key to this foreign policy approach.

Curiously, it was the neutrality doctrine and ostensible nonalignment (the Austrian military throughout the Cold War saw itself as a secret NATO ally) that helped to shape Austria’s postwar identity, finally creating a “Nationalbewusstsein” (national consciousness) independent of Germany. Indeed, one historian called the neutrality law the “origo gentis” of the Austrians. For decades, it has been publicized as Austria’s ultimate security guarantee and instrument for maintaining Austrian independence and freedom. To this day, initiating debates over the repeal of the law, like questioning the viability of the 2nd Amendment in the United States, is tantamount to political suicide.

Good relations with Russia are seen as instrumental in maintaining neutrality. Indeed, neutrality and good ties with Russia are virtually synonymous within Austria’s political class. Cooperation with Moscow therefore has always enjoyed wide support across party lines, not just within the Freedom Party, no matter the political climate of East-West relations.

Austria was the first EU member state to welcome Russian President Vladimir Putin for an official visit after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Prominent members of the Austrian People’s Party and the Freedom Party, as well as the Social Democratic Party, have repeatedly expressed their desire to see the sanctions against Russia lifted, openly admitting that this stance was a result of Austrian business interests in Russia.

Despite sanctions, Austria made foreign direct investments of around $7 billion in Russia in 2017 and over 700 Austrian companies are still operating in the country. In turn, Austria remains a top destination for Russian tourists — over 338,000 visits in 2017 — and Russian gas: One of Europe’s most important gas distribution stations is located in eastern Austria. Austria is also energy-dependent on Russia: 85 percent of its natural gas demand is met by Russia. Austrian and Russian gas companies have pledged to expand “strategic cooperation” last year. (Austria’s former Finance Minister Hans Jörg Schelling of the People’s Party, who only stepped down in December 2017, announced this week that he will join Gazprom as an advisor.)

Putin allegedly also has a special personal affinity for Austria and has repeatedly vacationed in the Austrian Alps. “It is difficult to continue talking to people who confuse Austria with Australia,” Putin once derisively noted about a faux pas committed by U.S. diplomats.

There are, however, several drawbacks to Austria’s neutrality doctrine generally, and its close relationship with Russia in particular. Austrian elites’ ambivalence has helped fuel anti-Americanism in Austria, as a 2017 study by the European Council on Foreign Relations finds: “The anti-Americanism visible across all parties in Austria also helps create conditions in which there is sympathy for Russia, particularly on security issues.” The embrace of neutrality can also encourage a certain laxity toward international law: Many Austrian politicians and businessmen would gladly sacrifice Eastern Ukraine for better relations with Russia.

Austria’s foreign-policy traditions can also make it hard to tell when neutrality tips over into something more subversive. There is good reason to be concerned about the Freedom Party’s relationship to Russia. There has been repeated speculation that the party received money from Russian donors. Meanwhile, it was the first European far-right party to sign a “partnership treaty” with United Russia, the ruling political party of Russia, implicitly endorsing the regime of Vladimir Putin. Freedom Party members have repeatedly traveled on the invitation of the Russian government to Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and even St. Petersburg to pose as “election observers” and thus served to prop up the legitimacy of a specious Russian electoral process. Both parties also share anti-EU sentiments. For example, the Freedom Party’s chief whip Johann Gudenus, who is fluent in Russian, called Europe a “puppet of Brussels and the U.S.” and referred to the EU as a “lobby for homosexuals” in a speech he gave in Moscow in 2014.

Critics of Austria’s ostensible impartiality also argue that it has been effectively repealed following Austria’s accession to the European Union in 1995, despite remaining in force legally. Recently an Austrian member of the European Parliament, Othmar Karas, emphasized this point, tweeting that following the EU accession, “Neutrality is no longer an argument for Austria! Sorry!” Opponents attest that Austria selectively invokes its “neutralist” stance whenever it sees its business interests abroad threatened, or in order to avoid wider security responsibilities as a member of the EU. This has repeatedly caused Austria to be labelled a “sicherheitspolitischer Trittbrettfahrer” (security-policy freeloader) within the union.

Concerns about security freeloading might also explain why European countries are apprehensive of Austria’s recent actions. “Austria has been particularly criticized for its handling of the expulsion matter, despite the fact that many more EU countries behaved the same,” Russia expert Gerhard Mangott tells Foreign Policy. “Most likely this is due to the suspicion that Austria is trying to establish a special relationship with Russia. Some states worry about an Austrian Sonderweg [unique path] with Russia. So the big EU members want to check Austria from the very start.”

Nonetheless, Austria’s intentions to not pick sides and mediate are ultimately motivated by prudence and deeply embedded in the postwar history of the country. They have less to do with Russia and more with the country’s sense of itself as a geopolitical buffer. There is no Austrian plot to vicariously destroy the European Union by Kurz, and Vienna is not Russia’s Trojan horse in Western Europe. Rather, diplomacy is often the only means for a small state to be heard in times of crisis. Kurz had repeatedly noted his desire to host a summit between the Russian and U.S. presidents in Vienna prior to the crisis, emulating the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit of 1961. This week, Russia announced that it might accept Vienna’s offer of mediation.

Tradition, however, is no excuse for incaution. Austrian policymakers should take note: Today’s peacemakers could quickly turn into Putin’s “useful idiots” tomorrow.

Franz-Stefan Gady is a senior editor at The Diplomat magazine and senior fellow at the EastWest Institute. Twitter: @hoanssolo