Can Austria Stay Neutral?

The world has changed. Austria’s security strategy must change with it.

de-Gruyter-Caroline-foreign-policy-columnist6
de-Gruyter-Caroline-foreign-policy-columnist6
Caroline de Gruyter
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
Nehammer walks with another man in front of a line of different countries' flags.
Nehammer walks with another man in front of a line of different countries' flags.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer (left) arrives ahead of an EU leaders extraordinary meeting to discuss Ukraine, defense, and energy in Brussels on May 31. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

“Austria always wants to be a bridge between East and West,” former Austrian Vice Chancellor Erhard Busek said one afternoon in 2017 during a long conversation over tea in his office in Vienna. “The problem is: A bridge has no identity. If East and West quarrel, and nobody wants that bridge anymore, what should Austria do? What is Austria then?”

Few Austrians had such a keen eye on what was happening in their militarily neutral Central European country as Busek did. He was well read, had a dry sense of humor, and above all possessed a remarkable talent for connecting national events with broader international developments. Pinning one’s identity on a bridge, he argued, illustrated well how his traumatized country had elevated the avoidance of painful questions to perfection. One day, he predicted, Austria would pay for this mistake dearly.

Busek died in March, just weeks after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. But had he still been alive, he surely would have been one of the signatories of an open letter that 50 prominent Austrians published in May. The letter is a strong appeal to Austria’s political leadership and citizens to finally stop trying to be a bridge between East and West and to end the country’s dependence on Russia in terms of energy and other sectors. The letter calls for a “serious, nationwide discussion about the future of Austria’s security and defence policy” and finally raises the central question in a country that has turned neutrality into a secular religion since the 1950s: Can Austria still be neutral in today’s world?

“Austria always wants to be a bridge between East and West,” former Austrian Vice Chancellor Erhard Busek said one afternoon in 2017 during a long conversation over tea in his office in Vienna. “The problem is: A bridge has no identity. If East and West quarrel, and nobody wants that bridge anymore, what should Austria do? What is Austria then?”

Few Austrians had such a keen eye on what was happening in their militarily neutral Central European country as Busek did. He was well read, had a dry sense of humor, and above all possessed a remarkable talent for connecting national events with broader international developments. Pinning one’s identity on a bridge, he argued, illustrated well how his traumatized country had elevated the avoidance of painful questions to perfection. One day, he predicted, Austria would pay for this mistake dearly.

Busek died in March, just weeks after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. But had he still been alive, he surely would have been one of the signatories of an open letter that 50 prominent Austrians published in May. The letter is a strong appeal to Austria’s political leadership and citizens to finally stop trying to be a bridge between East and West and to end the country’s dependence on Russia in terms of energy and other sectors. The letter calls for a “serious, nationwide discussion about the future of Austria’s security and defence policy” and finally raises the central question in a country that has turned neutrality into a secular religion since the 1950s: Can Austria still be neutral in today’s world?

Among the signatories were Austrian entrepreneurs, academics, artists, and even some former ambassadors to Moscow. “We are united in the conviction that the status quo of our security policy is not only unsustainable,” they wrote, “but dangerous for our country.” Austria’s security strategy is a decade old. It defines threats and challenges as seen in 2013. But the world of 2013 does not exist anymore.


After Feb. 24, when the Russian invasion began, some other neutral European countries acted swiftly. Finland, which has a 830-mile border—and a troubled history—with Russia, started working on its NATO membership application immediately: One day after the Russian attack, Finnish officials had opened discussions with allies. Neutral Sweden, which on security and defense issues moves in tandem with its neighbor Finland, followed suit. Both countries have since completed their accession talks and are now just waiting for each of the individual NATO member countries’ governments to ratify the accession protocols to make them official members.

The global geopolitical shockwaves have become so strong that even in neutral Switzerland—which, uncharacteristically, is already participating in European Union sanctions against Russia—some politicians are calling on their government to move closer to NATO. Denmark, a NATO country that has always opted out of participating in EU defense initiatives under the Common Security and Defence Policy, immediately organized a referendum to overturn this exemption, and in early June, a solid majority of Danes—67 percent—approved it. These countries suddenly feel vulnerable and unprotected. All seek an extra layer of security. This is one of those moments in history when governments think that two life insurances would be better than one.

Not in Austria. Two months after the open letter’s publication, there has been no official response by the government. Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen is reportedly studying it, but with presidential elections coming up this year, he seems to prefer to keep a low profile on this delicate matter.

“We write op-eds about it, we talk about it, but we are stuck,” Velina Tchakarova, the director of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES) in Vienna and one of the letter’s signatories, told Foreign Policy. “None of the political parties see it in their interest to touch neutrality or even have a debate about the consequences of a profoundly changing security environment.”

After two world wars and a bloody civil war in the 1930s, Austrians still instinctively avoid conflicts. It is in their DNA. After 1945, the Allies administered the country, and many Austrians remain fiercely anti-American to this day, often describing the country during that period as being occupied by both the Soviet Union and the United States. The Soviet Red Army stayed on Austrian soil until 1955. Then, the Red Army withdrew, and Austria regained its independence—but on one condition, imposed by the Kremlin: that the country remain strictly neutral.

Since then, “permanent neutrality” has been enshrined in the country’s constitution, and a deep fear of “stepping on the Russian bear’s tail” has dominated Austria’s foreign policy. The country cultivated deep trading and cultural ties with the Soviet Union and, after its demise, Russia. Germany may be criticized today for its dependence on Russia, but Austria’s ties with Moscow are warmer and closer. Many Russians live in Austria because they feel at home there.

It is telling that Austria, together with Sweden and Finland, only became a member of the EU in 1995, after the fall of the Soviet Union and after receiving a nod from former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. But Austria never joined NATO. Membership in NATO was not even discussed, ever. A recent poll indicates that 75 percent of Austrians reject membership in the alliance.

Even after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin was warmly welcomed in Vienna on several occasions. When it comes to conflicts, “our credo is, keep out!” Busek said at the time. “This has been our survival strategy for years.”


Now, that strategy has reached a dead end. Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine is “the last warning call to the free world, of which Austria is also part,” the 50 signatories wrote in their open letter. Austria’s neutrality “was never checked for its up-to-date functionality, but raised to a supposedly untouchable myth. … Despite urgent warnings from experts, our armed forces and intelligence services were not only not strengthened, they were even weakened. We are now unprepared, and this [is] the worst security crisis in Europe since 1945.”

In March, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, who is a member of the conservative Austrian People’s Party, announced that Austria’s defense spending would be doubled, from 0.7 percent of its GDP to 1.5 percent. But Tchakarova of AIES points out that as an EU member state, Austria has long been obliged to do this anyway.

Moreover, it is not just NATO that has a mutual defense clause. As an EU member and participant in the bloc’s Common Security and Defence Policy, Austria is also obliged to act in solidarity—there is a mutual defense clause in the European treaty, too. For years, Austria has behaved as if these obligations do not exist.

Europe is now in the fourth month of complete geopolitical change, another signatory to the letter told Foreign Policy during a private conversation, “and our politicians are only concerned with party congresses and endless corruption scandals. They are hiding in plain sight.”

The country’s security doctrine needs a complete overhaul. Yet the government refuses to discuss it, arguing it takes too much time. “Austria was neutral, Austria is neutral, and Austria will also remain neutral,” Nehammer recently said. Meanwhile, Austrian politicians have not traveled to Sweden or Finland to see what has been going on there. “In the city of [Sigmund] Freud, we still work by Verdringung—by repressing troublesome things,” the signatory said.

The open letter’s publication was already a miracle in a country where people rarely say things to each other face to face. If anything, it’s a sign of just how much the world has changed: 20th-century neutrality no longer exists—and just as Busek feared, the Austrian bridge has become a bridge to nowhere.

Caroline de Gruyter is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She currently lives in Brussels.

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