The Economist recently called Austria “Putin's useful idiot.” In spite of the fact that Vienna is part of the European Union and publicly declares its support for the sovereignty of Ukraine, it has close ties to the Putin regime. The connection between the two countries began when Austria was liberated from the Nazis, but increasingly came under the influence of the USSR.
Since then, the Austrian people have voiced a preference maintain military neutrality, which is also enshrined in their Basic Law. Modern Russia has worked continuously to maintain and develop its links with Austria.
With Russia’s full-scale invasion, Austria found itself between a rock and a hard place. Partners from the European Union demanded Austria adopt a clear position on the war, at the same time, Vienna doesn’t want to lose permanent contact with Russia. Kyiv Post spoke to the former ambassador of Ukraine to Austria, Oleksandr Scherba, to get his take on this and whether changes in Austria's geopolitics are possible.
Ambassador, you worked in Austria for six and a half years. Will you tell us about your impression of cooperation with the Austrians and their attitudes to Ukraine?
Austria is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but rather difficult in terms of diplomacy. It has plenty of friends of Ukraine and enemies too. When I came there, the locals described Ukraine in terms of Russian narratives (a neo-fascist putsch, a civil war, a state of oligarchs, “Putin only wants to ensure his interests” etc.) Thank God, when I was leaving Austria, the tone had changed. The beginning of the invasion was a moment of truth. Most Austrians supported Ukraine. Austria gave refuge to thousands of our citizens. It always supports Ukraine in all international bodies. Although there are still many problems.
Do you consider Austria pro-Russian? Did you feel that pro-Russian narratives and sentiments really prevailed when you worked there?
I would not say that it is a pro-Russian country, but it had and still has a great deal of illusions about Russia. If you look at the coat of arms of this country, Austria has a new version of the traditional imperial eagle holding hammer and sickle. To me, it was always a symbol of a nation based on imperial and socialist past. Isn’t that the case for Russia too?
Most importantly, Austria made a lot of money and became very successful in the post-Cold War period because it was a bridge between East and West, in particular between the West and Russia (but also with countries like Ukraine). They enjoyed this position very much, it worked for them – and they want to be in that position in the future. Although it has become abundantly clear already that Russia doesn’t need any bridges. All it needs are useful idiots and cynics in the West who can be exploited for the benefit of Russian imperial agenda.
Austria has repeatedly been suspected of having too close ties with Russia. Russian agents were said to have infiltrated the country's security services. Frequent visits to Russia by Austria’s former Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, as well as the corruption scandal connected with the Russians did not go unnoticed. In addition, Russian businessmen and oligarchs also took advantage of Austria. Why has did the country become so comfortable for Russians?
Austria is comfortable for everyone. Vienna is a city that has been awarded the title of the most livable city in the world for 10 years in a row. Austria attracts everyone, both good and bad; tourists and oligarchs, artists and criminals, you name it. Because of its social security system, it’s a country where both the rich and the poor can live comfortably.
What attracts the bad guys is of course the Austrian concept of neutrality. Although, the tragic events of 2022-23 showed very clearly: neutrality is, in the best case, an illusion, a delusion, and in the worst case, hypocrisy. Many Austrians admit this, at least behind the scenes. But the fact remains that these things attract Russians, for whom Austria combines western comfort without really being a 100% team player in the West.
Do you think Austria is convenient for Russians to launder money?
The problem is less prominent now than in the past. After the Panama Papers scandal, the European Central Bank “tightened the screws” and made money laundering more difficult. Many Russian and also some Ukrainian businesses were simply kicked out of Austrian financial institutions, without any explanation. Belonging to a post-Soviet country was reason enough. Plus, the scandal around “Meinl Bank” that allegedly was used for laundering massive amounts of money from our region, drew a lot of attention. Austria has instituted the necessary precautions against a repeat.
How do you think Austria's policy towards Russia changed after Feb. 24? Does Austria want to remain this bridge between the East and the West?
Before 2022, there were thousands of people in Austria who were ready to give Russia the benefit of trust and turn a blind eye to many of its sins. 2022 was a game changer for them. This war was a betrayal for those who, despite everything, kept saying “let’s cut Russia some slack, they have their own truth”. They saw that validating Russia’s “truth” led to the worst European confrontation since WWII. I don't know how many decades it will take Russia to bring these people back.
I’m talking primarily about business. On Feb. 24, businesspeople saw that Ukraine’s warnings were not propaganda, but truth. Russia is unreliable. It throws its partners under the bus. Like it threw Ukraine, like it threw all the European businesses that are suffering immense losses as a result of this war.
In the first weeks and months of the war we saw how dramatically the Austrian political rhetoric changed. And, as we know, words matter. The Austrian president, when opening the annual music festival in Bregenz last year, devoted most of his speech to Ukraine and Russia. And I have rarely heard such a clear condemnation from European leaders. That’s on the one hand. And on the other, we see certain businesses still remaining in Russia. We see one of the chief political forces in Austria repeating Russian talking points. So, some things change, and some – don’t.
Yes, now the rhetoric is pro-Ukrainian, anti-war, anti-Russian, but there is another side. Austria remains the largest buyer of Russian gas, its Raiffeisen Bank continues to work in Russia because the Russians need it for international financial transactions. Because of this, The Economist called Austria a "useful idiot" for the Putin regime. Can we say that Austria finances the war against Ukraine?
Raiffeisen and OMV (the chief oil and gas company in Austria) definitely do. When the war started, Austria reduced the purchase of Russian gas from 80 percent to 50 percent and promised to further cut it to at least 20 percent, however, now it has returned to 70-80 percent. What is this if not financing of the war? We can state that the criminal and barbaric policy of Putin is being pursued at the expense of Austrian money. There is no doubt about that. Why is Austria doing this, whereas Germany cut gas purchase to almost zero? Because this was the moral choice of the Austrian government.
And as to Raiffeisen… What a disappointment they are. I have been in contact with them since the beginning of the war. I know that in the first days, they decided to gradually leave the Russian market. But then Russia passed a law, which allowed expropriation of the assets of banks who left. Raiffeisen says, it was not big enough to swallow it. But it’s only partly true. They also made a moral choice. They cut a deal with the devil.
Would you call Austria financially dependent on Russia?
Many countries in Europe were financially dependent on Russia but aren’t anymore. Germany for instance. It made a decision however painful it was; it ceased buying Russian gas, made financial institutions leave, revisited the decade-long ban on exporting weapons to war zones.
Why can't Austria follow in Germany’s moral footsteps? Why isn’t the right rhetoric reinforced with the right steps in the energy and financial market? Why is the Austrian Minister of Defense refusing us de-mining equipment saying it could be used “for military purposes?” Which military purposes? Winning the war against the aggressor? Making sure that fewer Ukrainian civilians and soldiers die from the mines of the aggressor who invaded their country? What kind of hypocrisy is this?
Do you have answers to these questions?
It’s all explained with Austria’s neutrality. They say they can’t change it, because it’s the law. Well, it was a law in Sweden and Finland, too.
Austrians believe that they know the secret of happiness in life: “I don't bother you. You don't bother me.” And yes, it worked for them splendidly throughout their modern history. But ever since they entered the EU, it has become more and more obvious what a lie it is. You can’t be neutral and at the same time pursue EU’s common foreign and security policy. Austria is secure, not because it bothers nobody, but because it’s surrounded by NATO. In other words, while they criticize NATO and proudly claim their neutrality, they have a nice life under the NATO umbrella.
Sweden and Finland have not used the word “neutral” about themselves for many years, although, of course, it was stipulated in their fundamental documents. Why? Because it was clear how wrong it was. Austria, on the other hand, still clings to this concept. Among other things neutrality gives them a backdoor for their conscience, a loophole for bad decisions. You can do bad things, such as war profiteering, without feeling bad about yourself. You just say: “I’m neutral!”
Is this all happening because of Russian influence?
I think it’s happening out of habit. Austria doesn’t want to say adieu to the world that made it rich and beautiful. They hold on to a world that doesn’t exist anymore. If they’re a “bridge” – it’s a bridge to nowhere, to a black hole that produces only wars, corruption and human suffering.
Now the pro-Russian Freedom Party is gaining popularity in Austria and there are even fears that it may win the 2024 election. What could this lead to if they get a majority?
The Freedom Party of Austria is a successor of two political projects created after the Second World War for former Nazi functionaries. They’re the successors of those who burned Ukraine to the ground 80 years ago. No wonder that these people speak and act as agents of those trying to burn Ukraine to the ground now. It should be obvious how historically wrong it is. I hope the Austrians will understand and consider this when voting next year.
How should Ukraine and the world act now to prevent Austria from turning into another Hungary?
This is not our decision, but a decision of Austrian voters. I don't see a desire on the part of Austrians to turn into Hungary. I don't see their willingness to become a pariah on the European continent. It is important for Austria to be part of Europe’s mainstream. And Hungary is clearly anything but mainstream. Therefore, I hope the fears of them becoming a new Hungary are exaggerated.
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