Austria commits to neutrality, even as Russia destroys Ukraine

Room for geopolitical neutrality has shrunk across Europe since February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

The continent’s evolving security architecture has prompted Sweden and Finland to abandon their historic non-alignment and even Switzerland is moving closer to NATO.

However, Austria continues to sit on the fence and Vienna has no plans to join NATO despite the ongoing war.

Austria, a European Union (EU) member, partners with NATO in various capacities and the country has become more integrated into the EU’s security framework.

In this context, some analysts label Austria as essentially a free rider, simply surviving by luck while remaining outside of NATO.

Nearly six months into the Ukrainian crisis, there is no serious debate in Austria about officially joining NATO.

Eighty percent of Austrians support staying out of the Western alliance while the spirit of neutrality remains popular among Austrian politicians across the spectrum.

On March 7, Chancellor Karl Nehammer, a conservative politician, tweeted that Austrian neutrality is “not up for debate” and the leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO), Pamela Rendi-Wagner, frequently calls Vienna’s neutrality “non-negotiable.”

The right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) has the same pro-neutrality position and so does the pacifist Green Party.

 

“After the horrible experience of two World Wars and the Nazi terror regime, neutrality is deeply rooted in the mindset of the Austrian population,” Wolfgang Pusztai, the former Austrian defence attaché, told Al Jazeera.

Since the 1950s, neutrality has long been tied to Austria’s freedom.

After World War II, the conflict’s victors split Austria under zones of occupation. Then in 1955, the US, UK, France, and the USSR signed the Austrian State Treaty, requiring Austria to declare permanent neutrality and exist as a buffer zone between the West and the East.

“Generally speaking, the popularity of neutrality in Austria is much more based on myth and legend than informed opinion,” said Christoph Schwarz, a research fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, in an interview with Al Jazeera.

“The general public associates neutrality very strongly with economic prosperity and security, both of which Austria enjoyed an abundance of over the past 60-70 years.”

Over the years, this foreign policy strategy has helped the country keep its defence costs relatively low.

Neutrality has also enabled Austria to integrate into the West’s economic architecture while also reaping benefits of trade with the Soviet Union and later Russia.

As the first Western country to sign a natural gas agreement with the USSR in 1968, Austria remains dependent on Russian hydrocarbons. Today, gas heavily factors into Austria’s interests in avoiding actions that could excessively antagonise President Vladimir Putin’s government in Moscow.

Prestige, diplomatic Influence

Beyond economics and energy, neutrality in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods has also elevated Austria’s role on the international stage as “a venue for rapprochement between the East and West,” explained Schwarz.

Vienna – along with New York, Geneva, and Nairobi – has become a key office site of the UN, as well as the location for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and OPEC’s headquarters.

“A serious debate regarding Austria’s neutrality would be useful for [Austria] to clarify what serves its national interests in a better way. A preliminary question would be to explore if all the international organisations would stay in Vienna if Austria would join NATO,” pointed out Pusztai.

Most Austrians believe their country is positioned as a diplomatic bridge and buffer between the East and West – which bodes well for national defence.

Rendi-Wagner argued that “neutral states do not represent a threat to great powers and that strengthens our security.”

Ultimately, Austria is not under any military threat from a foreign power with all its neighbours being fellow EU-members, Switzerland, and the micro-state of Liechtenstein.

And Austria, unlike Sweden and Finland, does not require membership in NATO for defence.

As Pusztai told Al Jazeera, “Joining NATO is more a question of international solidarity”.

‘Not a friendly visit’

In April, Nehammer became the first Western leader to meet Putin after the war erupted.

He did so with the aim of giving Austrian diplomacy a shot, hoping that Vienna’s mediation could help wind down the conflict. Yet, as the Austrian chancellor emphasised at the time, “this is not a friendly visit.”

However, Nehammer’s trip to Moscow did not produce tangible results.

Benjamin L Schmitt, a research associate at Harvard University and senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Al Jazeera that “Austria’s self-defined geopolitical position as a so-called ‘bridge’ between Russia and the West has been thrown into significant doubt since the onset of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.”

This crisis in Ukraine has served to “undermine Vienna’s geopolitical concept that a ‘middle’ position between East and West could serve to somehow mitigate such a conflict,” added Schmitt.

Austria’s official line is that neutrality must not be confused with indifference or passivity.

Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said that Vienna is “helping [Ukraine] on a large scale but not with war munition and I think help for Ukraine cannot only be reduced to war munition.”

Along with 140 other UN member-states, Austria voted in favour of the March 2 General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion.

Beyond that vote, Austria has supported Ukraine with non-lethal weapons, such as donating humanitarian assistance and protective gear.

Consequently, Austrian-Russian relations have deteriorated since February 24.

“Ties with Russia are reduced to the bare minimum,” said Pusztai. “Austria was a preferred destination for investments of Russian oligarchs. Many had even a residence in Austria. Now most of their assets are frozen.”

Worried about Austria’s exposure to Moscow’s ability to weaponise its energy exports, Vienna has joined fellow EU members in working to diversify gas sources away from Russia.

Since the war began, Austria has reduced the percentage of its Russia-sourced gas imports from 80 to 50 percent.

“When the time comes that any form of dialogue on conflict resolution seems possible, Austria will want to position itself as a mediator. Based on what could be observed so far, Austria will, however, not be in any position to fulfil this role,” said Schwarz.

“Austria is undermining its position as a neutral mediator through ever-closer integration within the EU. Russia, at least under its current leadership, will most likely not accept Austria in a mediating role.”

According to Pusztai, Austrian politicians who think Vienna can mediate between the West and Moscow are “entirely unrealistic” and engaged in “wishful thinking”.

The former defence attaché cited a “lack of honest analysis of the international environment and an aversion to seriously evaluating advantages and disadvantages of the neutral status.”

Some NATO members and Ukraine have accused Vienna of maintaining moral ambiguity. While this accusation may damage Austria’s reputation among its neighbours, it is highly unlikely to result in Austria joining NATO any time soon.

But Scharwz warned that there may come a day “when this strategy comes with a big price tag attached”.

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