A Soft Zeitenwende in Vienna?

Subtle shifts: Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg and Chancellor Karl Nehammer hold a press conference on Ukraine. Image: Austrian Foreign Ministry / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, even Austria is moving away from its pro-Putin position.

The recent appearance of Karin Kneissl in St Petersburg enraged top diplomats in Vienna. The former foreign minister of Austria, who famously invited Vladimir Putin to her wedding in 2018, is still loyal to Putin’s regime. ‘Austria has betrayed Russia’, she quoted from Tolstoy’s War and Peace while at the St Petersburg Economic Forum, formerly dubbed the ‘Russian Davos’. Most high-ranking Western guests have stopped attending since Putin started a war in neighbouring Ukraine. Kneissl still does.

‘Karin Kneissl damages Austria’s reputation, she destroys all attempts to show a diversified position of Austria’s diplomacy towards Russia’, says Emil Brix, a former ambassador of Austria to the UK and Russia. Now the director of the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna, Brix is a sharp critic of the failure of consecutive Austrian governments to move away from an overly friendly position towards Putin and his regime. Brix goes as far as asking: ‘According to article 33 of our citizenship law the citizenship can be removed, if a citizen damages the reputation of his or her country: Is this not the case here?’

Brix is not the only one distancing himself from Kneissl’s pro-Putin position. Austria’s Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg told me in clear words: ‘The rule-based international order is being endangered by Russia’s war against its neighbour. Putin has started the war; he can end it tomorrow. But if Zelensky stops fighting, Ukraine ceases to exist.’ Although a loyal disciple of Austria’s former Chancellor and mini-strongman Sebastian Kurz, Schallenberg has carved out his own foreign policy agenda. The right-wing populist Kurz was in coalition with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) until his government fell in 2019 over corruption scandals. During that period, Austria found it more difficult to act in solidarity with other European countries. It tried to question sanctions against Russia. And when a Russian double agent was poisoned by the FSB in the English town of Salisbury in 2018, Austria chose not to expel Russian diplomats. As foreign minister, Schallenberg has kept Austria closer to EU positions: ‘We are militarily neutral’, he says, ‘but we are not politically neutral’.

Bilaterally, Austria has carried its share of support for Ukraine: viewed in per capita terms, the country is not as reluctant to help as its international public image suggests. The Kiel Institute for the World Economy has a Ukraine support tracker which sees Austria in third place when it comes to humanitarian aid. ‘We are even number one when you count humanitarian aid according to GDP’, says Schallenberg proudly. On financial aid, meanwhile, Austria ranks 17th. Only when it comes to military aid does the Kiel Institute give Austria zero points – that is, when counting bilateral provision.

But Austria is part of the EU effort, too. As with other neutral countries in the EU, Austria has begun to diversify its policies under the cover of EU structures. Austria supports the common foreign and security policy of the EU. And to facilitate peace in conflicts, in 2021 the EU created a new instrument called the European Peace Facility. This extra fund, which is not part of the EU budget, has already provided €5.6 billion in weapons to Ukraine. On 26 June, the EU foreign affairs chief announced a further €3.5 billion to procure weapons and equipment for the Ukrainian army. Austria’s foreign minister was present at the vote. But in typical EU compromise fashion, neutral countries have the option to ‘constructively abstain’ when it comes to lethal weapons. Schallenberg said: ‘Nobody thought that the EU could be so united and manage to agree on 11 sanctions packages within 16 months of this war. But we did.

As with other neutral countries in the EU, Austria has begun to diversify its policies under the cover of EU structures

He has also announced that Austria will join the ‘European Sky Shield Initiative’. This was initiated by Germany last year to allow neutral and NATO countries to join a common effort to defend themselves from possible air attacks. Switzerland is joining, too. 17 countries including Germany and Sweden are already taking part. France is not joining because it does not want to buy into foreign defence systems and Israel’s Arrow-3-missiles are part of the programme. Schallenberg has fended off criticism from the far right that joining Sky Shield will undermine Austrian neutrality further: ‘Sky Shield is about pooling and sharing’, he says.

Cleary, Austria is ‘pooling and sharing’ its weapons systems more with EU and NATO countries than with Russia. This is understandable given that most former Warsaw Pact states like Poland have also positioned themselves clearly against Russia’s aggressive foreign policies.

But neutrality, a remnant of the Cold War period, is still deeply rooted in Austria. There is no debate about whether Austria should join NATO as Finland has done and as Sweden is about to do. Since the war started 16 months ago, Austrians seem to love their neutral status even more: 90% of them want to keep it.

The newly elected leader of the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), Andreas Babler, is struggling to introduce a Zeitenwende like German Chancellor and fellow social democrat Olaf Scholz has done in Germany. As mayor of the town of Traiskirchen, which houses Austria’s biggest refugee camp, Babler has advocated successfully for a humanistic immigration policy. But as a leftist he is quite critical of NATO and the EU for engaging militarily in conflicts. ‘Our neutrality is an important instrument to create peace’, he said in a speech in February 2023. And he has been critical of the Austrian government under Karl Nehammer: ‘The prime minister degrades our neutrality to a puppet theatre when he goes begging for gas to Putin. We should not let him do that.’

Neutrality has proven so popular because it has allowed Austria to invest more in social services, healthcare and education over the decades. Moreover, from the 1960s onwards, Austria was able to import gas and oil cheaply and reliably from Russia via Ukraine. This all changed in 2022, of course.

Most top Austrian politicians have shown an astonishingly high tolerance of Putin’s autocratic behaviour over the years

Unlike Germany, which weaned itself off Russian gas quite drastically during the first year of the war, Austria has struggled to change energy supplier. In recent months, Austria has still imported 64% of its gas from Russia. One might argue that landlocked Austria cannot ship in liquid gas as easily as Germany. But the government is finding it difficult to embark on a bold plan of action – and to prepare the population for it. It is the same picture when it comes to the reluctance of Austrian companies to leave Russia. Raiffeisen Bank International, for example, is still a major player in the country, filling Putin’s war chest.

Most top Austrian politicians have shown an astonishingly high tolerance of Putin’s autocratic behaviour over the years. Solidarity with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, on the other hand, does not come easily. Even simple tasks go wrong in Austria when it comes to Ukraine and Russia. An invitation to Zelensky to speak to the Austrian parliament by video link at the end of March turned into a farce. The far-right FPÖ left the hall in protest. But about half of the SPÖ MPs did not bother to attend either: one had an unmovable dentist appointment; another was sick.

Babler is now under pressure to introduce his Genossen to at least a whiff of Zeitenwende: ‘If I were a member of parliament, I would have been there to listen to Zelensky’s speech’, Babler insisted in a recent TV interview. ‘Ukraine needs the means to defend itself against the aggressor. We need to leave our dependency on Russian gas behind. And we need to support the democratic opposition in Russia.’

Nehammer’s coalition partner, the Greens, are in strong support of cutting political and gas ties with Putin; a turn towards renewable energy is a top priority for them in any case. Another small party in opposition, the liberal Neos, have never loved the strongman in Moscow and have called for a rethink on neutrality and ending gas supplies from Russia.

But in all recent opinion polls, the strongest party proves to be the far-right FPÖ. Its pro-Russian leader Norbert Kickl might return to government next year – this time as prime minister. Together with Hungary’s Victor Orban, Kickl could build a new political axis in Central Europe with fellow pro-Putin governments, sabotaging EU policies. Austria’s soft Zeitenwende might soon come to an abrupt halt.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Tessa Szyszkowitz

Distinguished Fellow

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