Austria commits to neutrality, even as Russia destroys Ukraine

Since February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, the area of ​​geopolitical neutrality has been shrinking across Europe.

The continent’s evolving security architecture has prompted Sweden and Finland to abandon their historic alignment, and Switzerland is also 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 essentially a free rider, surviving only by luck by staying out of NATO.

Almost six months after the Ukrainian crisis, there are no serious talks about officially joining NATO in Austria.

Eighty percent of Austrians support staying out of the Western alliance, while a sense of neutrality is widely popular among Austrian politicians.

On 7 March, Chancellor Karl Neuhammer, a conservative politician, tweeted that Austrian neutrality was “not up for debate”, and Pamela Randi-Wagner of Austria’s centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPO), frequently called for Vienna’s neutrality. Non-negotiable.”

The right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) has a pro-neutrality position, as does the pacifist Green Party.

“After two world wars and the terrible experience of the Nazi terror regime, neutrality is deeply rooted in the mentality of the Austrian population,” Wolfgang Pusztai, a former Austrian defense attaché, told Al Jazeera.

Since the 1950s, neutrality has long been associated with Austrian independence.

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

“In general, the popularity of neutrality in Austria is based on myth and legend rather than informed opinion,” Christoph Schwarz, a research fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, told Al Jazeera in an interview.

“The general public associates neutrality with economic prosperity and security, both of which Austria has enjoyed in abundance over the last 60-70 years.”

Over the years, this foreign policy has helped the country keep its defense spending relatively low.

Neutrality enabled Austria to integrate into the economic architecture of the West and also gain trade benefits with the Soviet Union and later Russia.

As the first Western country to sign a natural gas treaty with the USSR in 1968, Austria is dependent on Russian hydrocarbons. Today, gas is largely a factor in Austria’s interests in avoiding actions that could overly antagonize President Vladimir Putin’s government in Moscow.

Prestige, political influence

Beyond economics and energy, neutrality in the Cold War and post-Cold War eras has elevated Austria’s role on the international stage “as a point of interaction between East and West,” Schwarz explained.

Vienna – along with New York, Geneva and Nairobi – became the headquarters of the UN, as well as the location of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). , and headquarters of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and OPEC.

“A serious debate about Austria’s neutrality would be helpful [Austria] to explain what best serves its national interest. “The primary question is to find out whether all international organizations will remain in Vienna if Austria joins NATO,” Pujtai pointed out.

Most Austrians believe that their country is positioned as a diplomatic bridge and buffer between East and West—which is good for national defense.

Randy-Wagner argued that “neutral states do not pose a threat to great powers and thereby strengthen our security.”

After all, Austria is under no military threat from a foreign power and all its neighbors are fellow EU-members, the micro-states of Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

And unlike Austria, Sweden and Finland, membership in NATO is not required for defense.

As Pustai told Al Jazeera, “joining NATO is a question of international solidarity”.

‘Not a friendly meeting’

In April, Neuhammer became the first Western leader to meet with Putin since the outbreak of war.

He did so with the intention of giving Austrian diplomacy a shot, with Vienna’s mediation helping to defuse the conflict. Still, as the Austrian chancellor emphasized at the time, “this is not a friendly visit.”

However, Neymar’s trip to Moscow did not show tangible results.

Benjamin L. Schmidt, 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 crucial. Russia launched a massive invasion of Ukraine in February.” Doubt since.

The crisis in Ukraine “undermines Vienna’s geopolitical concept of a ‘middle’ position between East and West to mitigate such conflict,” Schmidt added.

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

Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said Vienna was “helping [Ukraine] On a large scale but not with munitions, and I think aid to Ukraine cannot be reduced to munitions alone.

Along with 140 other UN member-states, Austria voted in favor of a March 2 General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s aggression.

Beyond that opinion, Austria has supported Ukraine with humanitarian aid and lethal weapons such as donating protective gear.

As a result, Austrian-Russian relations have deteriorated since 24 February.

“Relations with Russia have gone down a notch,” Pujtai said. “Austria was a preferred investment destination for Russian oligarchs. Many even lived in Austria. Now most of their assets have been frozen.”

Concerned that Austria has demonstrated its ability to weaponize Moscow’s energy exports, Vienna has joined fellow EU members in working to diversify gas sources away from Russia.

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

“When the time comes that any kind of dialogue on the resolution of the conflict seems likely, Austria wants to position itself as a mediator. Based on what has been observed so far, Austria, however, will not be in any position to fulfill this role,” Schwarz said.

“Austria is undermining its position as a neutral mediator through ever-closer integration in the EU. Russia, at least under its current leadership, is unlikely to accept Austria’s mediation role.

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

The former defense attache cited a “lack of honest analysis of the international environment and a reluctance to seriously assess the advantages and disadvantages of neutral status”.

Some NATO members and Ukraine have accused Vienna of maintaining moral ambiguity. The allegation may damage Austria’s reputation among its neighbors, but it is highly unlikely that Austria will join NATO anytime soon.

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

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