Russians convene in the “city of spies”

Austria’s decision to allow Russian MPs to visit a security meeting in central Europe has outraged Kyiv’s allies—and is a sign that Vienna’s cosy relationship with the east has yet to go cold

February 24, 2023
Demonstrators protesting front of Hofburg Palace during an OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo
Demonstrators protesting front of Hofburg Palace during an OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Friday marks a solemn anniversary: one year ago, on 24th February 2022, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The resulting war has fundamentally reshaped Europe’s security landscape and made Russia a diplomatic and economic pariah on the continent. But in Austria, the war’s one-year mark looks a bit different.

The small Alpine nation welcomed a Russian delegation, including 15 members of the Russian parliament who are under European sanctions, for a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna on Thursday and Friday, a move that earned it harsh criticism from many of the OSCE’s 57 member states and prompted Ukraine and Lithuania to boycott the meeting altogether. 

The date of the meeting appeared to be a coincidence and Austrian officials insisted that as the host country they were obliged to grant the visas, but the dissonance between commemorative events across the continent and the presence of Russian officials in the Austrian capital underscores the at-times contradictory line Austria has walked since the start of the war: although Austrian leaders have strongly condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine and joined other European Union countries in imposing harsh sanctions, the country has held fast to its tradition of military neutrality and in various ways has failed to end a once cosy relationship.

Österreich: eastern realm

Austria’s neutral status is closely linked to its postwar autonomy: in 1955, just after Allied forces left the country, parliamentarians enshrined neutrality into the treaty that established the country’s independence. In the years afterwards, it saw itself as a “bridge” between east and west—although Austria joined the EU in 1995, it didn’t join Nato; its neutrality and place in the centre of Europe drew officials from both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, earning Vienna the nickname “city of spies.” 

Last April, weeks after the invasion, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer became the first (and only) EU leader to travel to Moscow and meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin after the invasion, saying it was his “duty” to seek a swift end to the war. Although the country has sent humanitarian supplies, it has not joined Germany and other EU countries in sending weapons. 

Unlike Finland and Sweden, which moved to join Nato in the wake of the Russian invasion, Austria has held fast to its position of neutrality and has no plans to join the security organisation. “Austria was neutral, is neutral, and will remain neutral,” Nehammer said last spring. “For Austria, [joining Nato] isn’t a question—we also have a different history than Sweden and Finland.”

As host to a range of international organisations, including a United Nations office, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the OSCE, Austria has also typically been less willing than its neighbors to expel Russian diplomats (although it did expel four it suspected of spying earlier this year).

Symbolically, there has been a well-established closeness between some Austrian officials and Russia: in 2018, photos of a dirndl-clad Karin Kneissl, then Austria’s foreign minister, dancing with Putin at her wedding shed light on that cozy relationship. (Kneissl went on to serve on the board of the Russian oil company Rosneft, though she resigned last May.)

In other ways, the bond is more tangible. While countries like Germany have rapidly weaned themselves off Russian energy supplies, Austria remains deeply dependent on Russian gas. In December 2022, 71 per cent of the country’s gas imports still came from Russia. Germany, meanwhile, has received no Russian gas since September, and Russian gas made up just 12.9 per cent of the EU’s overall gas imports in November. 

Austrian businesses remain tied up in Russia, despite the war. Raiffeisen Bank, one of Austria’s largest banks, is one of the few European banks to continue its operations in Russia. It recently came under fire for extending special offers to returning Russian soldiers (although it later said such offers were required for all banks doing business in Russia.) And the energy drink giant Red Bull, while it has stopped its marketing efforts in Russia, continues to sell its products there (prompting protesters to quip that “Red Bull Gives Putin Wings”). 

Sticking in the middle

There’s little to suggest that Austrians in general want to abandon neutrality. Austrian officials’ strong statements in favour of maintaining it are overwhelmingly backed by the nine million population at large. Last May, a survey found that just 16 per cent of Austrians wanted to join Nato, compared with 70 per cent who were opposed. And 86 per cent of those surveyed in another poll last June said they considered neutrality to be part of Austria’s national identity.

There have been prominent calls for change, however. More than 40 experts released an open letter to Austrian leaders this week, urging them to reconsider the country’s position. The signees called for a “serious, inclusive, open-ended discussion on Austria’s foreign, security and defense policy future and the adoption of a new security doctrine that takes account of the changed circumstances.”

“Austria acts as if the world had stopped on February 23, 2022,” the petition reads, saying the belief that nothing has changed for Austria is “an expression of a contradiction between Austrian and global reality.” 

Still, in this country between east and west, change seems unlikely. Speaking on the Austrian public broadcaster ORF earlier this week, Karoline Edtstadler, minister for the EU and the constitution, stressed that although Austria may find ways to rethink its own security infrastructure, neutrality is here to stay. Neutrality “was, is, and will be identity-forming” for Austria, she said. Changing it, she added, “doesn’t work.”