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Why Austria’s response to the Skripal poisoning wasn’t so tough on Russia

- April 18, 2018
Sebastian Kurz, 31, led Austria’s conservative People’s Party win in the October 2017 elections. Kurz has offered to mediate between Russia and the United Kingdom in the wake of the Skripal poisoning case. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

When former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury, England, by a Novichok nerve agent, the British government investigated — and concluded that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack.

The European Union also issued a strong statement and expressed “unqualified solidarity with the United Kingdom in the face of this grave challenge to our shared security.”

Austria signed on to the E.U. statement, but then held back when the United Kingdom, United States and a number of E.U. countries subsequently expelled some 100 Russian diplomats.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/03/20/why-did-russia-poison-one-of-its-ex-spies-in-britain/?utm_term=.4ade143007d3″]Why did Russia poison one of its ex-spies in Britain?[/interstitial_link]

Vienna’s decision not to follow suit drew heavy criticism from other E.U. members.

Why did Austria backpedal?

Many former diplomats and politicians in Austria and the international media were quick to point a finger at the country’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which has been in a ruling coalition with the conservative Austrian People’s Party since December 2017.

It’s true the far-right Freedom Party has close ties with Russia. The party signed a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party in December 2016. In November 2017, several FPÖ members also visited Crimea, in apparent support for Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Peninsula.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/03/13/russia-has-a-long-history-of-eliminating-enemies-of-the-state/?utm_term=.267a39529245″]Russia has a long history of eliminating ‘enemies of the state’[/interstitial_link]

But there are other explanations why Austria decided not to expel any Russian diplomats — reasons that reflect the country’s Cold War history.

Austria’s history of neutrality

Austria joined the European Union in 1995 but is not a member of NATO because of its post-World War II neutrality stance. This neutrality policy dates to 1955, when Western allies and the Soviet Union ended their 10-year occupation of Austria — on the condition that it would become a neutral country and not join any military alliance.

The notion of neutrality is deeply rooted in the Austrian national self-perception and makes up a large part of the Austrian identity. Austrians like to evoke the difficult negotiations of the Austrian State Treaty in Moscow in April 1955 — and the myth that they were successful because of Austrian Foreign Minister Leopold Figl’s ability to tolerate as much vodka as Nikita Khrushchev, who was then first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The signing of the State Treaty in Vienna on May 15, 1955, between the Austrian government and the allied forces marked a major milestone in Austrian history and signified the country’s independence and sovereignty. The Constitutional Law on the Neutrality of Austria, adopted by the Austrian Parliament in October 1955, stipulates that Austria shall never accede to any military alliance or allow the establishment of military bases on its territory. It is important to note that neutrality was a precondition for Austrian sovereignty.

Austria as a bridge-builder between East and West

In the 1970s, Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky took neutrality one step further and established the country’s “active neutrality” policy. Under its social democrat leadership, Austria took on a more active diplomatic role, in particular to foster dialogue between East and West. There was a precedent: U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev held high-level talks in Vienna in 1961.

The policy also included Austrian participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations and establishing Vienna as a hub for U.N. agencies and other international organizations, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Will Austria now take on mediator role in the Skripal case?

This history is the lead-up to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s announcement that Austria was willing to mediate in the Skripal case. Kurz, Europe’s youngest leader at age 31, had repeatedly offered to host high-level talks between Putin and Trump, even before the Skripal crisis erupted. Kurz’s center-right conservative People’s Party won a snap election in October last year.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/01/03/is-austrias-new-government-breaking-sharply-to-the-right-not-more-than-the-rest-of-europe/?utm_term=.042a7c3289ae”]Is Austria’s new government breaking sharply to the right? Not more than the rest of Europe.[/interstitial_link]

“We will not take any national measures,” Kurz and Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl said in a joint statement on March 26 — a statement that helps explain why Austria did not join with other European countries in expelling Russian diplomats in protest. “Indeed, we want to keep the channels of communication to Russia open. Austria is a neutral country and sees itself as a bridge-builder between East and West,” they said.

In recent weeks, Kneissl repeated the offer to mediate in the Skripal case, as well as in the Syrian conflict.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov suggested in late March that Moscow, in principle, welcomed offers of mediation. An opportunity to discuss this issue further could arise when Kneissl travels to Moscow to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday.

The political science behind Austria’s move

While there is suspicion among some E.U. countries that Austria could be developing ties to Russia that are a tad too close, the Austrian focus on dialogue also reflects Vienna’s concerns about the escalation of tensions between Russia and the West — and strained relations not seen since the Cold War.

In a worsening security situation, there is a tendency on both sides to focus on projecting military strength. For example, both NATO and Russia are conducting more military exercises and military maneuvers to deter the other side.

Hence, in the current international context, different actors assume different roles — and Austria appears to be stepping into its dialogue and diplomacy stance. It’s a role that got the attention of both Russia and Ukraine recently, regarding the idea of Austrian peacekeepers (among others) for a potential U.N. peacekeeping mission that is under negotiation for eastern Ukraine.

This move — along with Austria’s restraint following the Skripal poisoning — fits squarely in line with Austrian efforts at neutrality and mediation in Cold War conflicts going back at least half a century.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that the U.K. concluded that Russia was responsible for the attack. It concluded that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack. We regret the error. 

Stephanie Liechtenstein is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Vienna, and a freelance journalist. Her interests include foreign and security policy as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. You can follow her @StLiechtenstein.