Putin's Aggression Against Ukraine as a Trigger for the Flare-up of the Austrian Neutrality Debate

PeoplePoliticians ♦ Published: March 23, 2022; 16:45 ♦ (Vindobona)

Russia's fabricated pretext for war, Russian use of disinformation to distract and deflect responsibility and eventually Russia's invasion of Ukraine could become the turning point for Austria's security policy. Parliamentary groups discussed Austria's position in the field of tension between neutrality, NATO accession and the EU army.

In the picture you can see the Austrian Army Tank Leopard 2. / Picture: © Wikipedia / D-Kuru

The Russian attack on Ukraine has shaken the world.

The war in Europe, which is causing inconceivable human suffering and seems to be far from over, also has enormous implications for the security architecture of the West.

Representatives of the five parliamentary groups represented in the Austrian parliament discussed this and the challenges it poses for Austrian neutrality. 

Also present were Bernhard Gruber, Colonel of the General Staff Service, and Velina Tchakarova, Director of the AIEA Austria Institute for European and Security Policy.

What can or should Europe and Austria do?

Helmut Brandstätter, spokesman for foreign policy of the NEOS party, explained that Putin's plan had been observed for 20 years, but that the West had been blind. Putin had spent a lot of money in the last two decades with the aim to destroy the European society: Oligarchs had bought their way into Europe, Putin had partly re-nationalized the commodity industries, he had financed election campaigns of right-wing populist parties in Europe.

Michel Reimon, European spokesman for the Greens, also emphasized that it had long been possible to see what Putin was planning and in which direction he was going. Putin's script has existed for years, he said. In addition, Putin had tried to intervene deeply in national politics in Austria like nowhere else, and Austria must oppose this in its own interest, he said.

Petra Steger, EU spokesperson for the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), expressly condemned Russia's attack on Ukraine, but stressed that in such a situation it was the task of politicians to act prudently. Under no circumstances should one pour oil on the fire, which would undoubtedly happen with the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine or the enforcement of the no-fly zone demanded by Ukraine, the MEP said. In her opinion, Steger said, Austria must remain neutral in this situation.

Friedrich Ofenauer, defense spokesman for the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), added that Austria was, is and will remain neutral. However, February 24 represented a turning point, as a result of which Europe, but also Austria's energy, defense and security policy had to be rethought and realigned.

The EU must speak with one voice and be united. Putin will lose the war, at least politically, Robert Laimer, defense spokesman of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), was convinced. For the EU, which has enormous economic power, this war could lead to new political strength; we just have to continue to pull together. At the same time, Laimer said, it was important to remain level-headed.

In his assessment of the situation, Bernhard Gruber, a colonel in the General Staff Service, said it was difficult, if not impossible, to say how the war would end and how a way out of the spiral of escalation could be found. It is clear that even after the end of the war, it will not be possible to go back to business as usual. Since a capitulation of Ukraine is not foreseeable, it can be assumed that the warlike actions could turn into a kind of guerrilla warfare in the long run, which could last for a long time and remain no less lossy, Gruber said.

Modern design of Austrian neutrality necessary

The question is not whether one is for or against neutrality, Brandstätter stressed, but what Austria is doing for the security of the people who live here. Long before the war in Ukraine, the threat scenarios included hybrid threats such as hacker attacks that could result in a large-scale blackout. The answer to this could only be a joint European approach, he said: Since Austria cannot defend itself alone, it must act against it within the framework of the EU, he said. That is why the Common Security and Defense Policy must be further promoted and expanded, said the MEP.

Steger pointed out the high value placed on neutrality by the Austrian population and criticized the fact that it has nevertheless been undermined for years, especially as a result of Austria's move towards the EU. Asked about his position with regard to neutrality, Ofenauer stressed that this had served Austria well and would continue to do so in the future. When thinking about the future of neutrality, one has to include military as well as civil and spiritual national defense, he pointed out.

Reimon was convinced that Austria's neutrality had to be "modern and offensive". Austria must seek a foreign policy role that corresponds to the new conditions. This could only happen within a European foreign policy in which the neutral EU member states could possibly play a special role. Austria would have to push forward confidently and actively contribute its experience. This would immediately invalidate the argument that Austria, which is surrounded by NATO states, is merely a free rider.

Due to the events in Ukraine, neutral states such as Sweden or Finland have so far shown interest in joining NATO. However, this is mainly due to the fact that these countries currently feel a different threat than Austria with its special geostrategic location in the middle of Europe, surrounded by NATO members, explained expert Gruber. Austria is non-aligned, he said, and therefore it is all the more important for the Austrian Armed Forces to cover a broad spectrum of capabilities. The danger facing Austria is not so much a classic attack by an army, but rather threats such as cyberattacks, blackouts or drone attacks, stressed Gruber, who considered the Austrian Armed Forces to be fundamentally well positioned, but said they needed to catch up in terms of defense against cybercrime, in the air sector and in digitalization.

Destabilization of Ukraine as destabilization of the European Union

Putin is not only waging war against the independent state of Ukraine, but also against the Ukrainian population, explained Velina Tchakarova, Director of the Austria Institute for European and Security Policy. This comprehensive war, according to expert Tchakarova, is intended to break the Ukrainian population and deprive it of its ability to resist. This has already driven an extremely high number of people to flee, which poses great challenges for the surrounding states as well as the EU, she said. However, Tchakarova was convinced that European solidarity would not diminish, but would continue to increase.

In this context, Steger stressed that first and foremost the refugees, among whom were mainly women and children, had to be helped. Many of them are fleeing to Europe to wait out the crisis and then return to their home countries. It is necessary to support them quickly.

EU unity as Putin's "success"?

Asked how long the EU's unity would last, Tchakarova replied that the war could well become a test of Europe's strength again. One must be aware that despite the united stance, lines of conflict still exist within the member states, Tchakarova said. As an example, the political analyst cited Hungary's position with regard to Russian gas exports and Poland's proposal to deploy a UN peacekeeping mission in Ukraine. In addition, there are many external actors in this area of tension - including the United States, China and Turkey - who are pursuing their own geopolitical interests and playing them off against each other. This naturally gives rise to security threats, Tchakarova noted, which are "mercilessly exploited" by these states - whether partners or rivals of the EU.

Therefore, Laimer said, one must proceed sensitively in the current situation. One must prevent Russia from increasingly orienting itself in the direction of China and ultimately "affiliating" itself, he said. It is important to keep in mind that Russia is part of Europe and that Russia should not be lost. Laimer pointed out Europe's mistakes and stressed that this balancing act had to be mastered despite all adversities and that this turning point had to be faced honestly.

It is also important to take a stand with regard to the events in the immediate vicinity, Brandstätter said: Austria can only be on one side of the issue of liberal democracy versus dictatorship and this must be made clear to Orbán, Vučić and all others.

This systemic struggle is currently taking place and Europe as a liberal democracy must be strong in order to win it. Europe has an incredible power and strength in its diversity, he said. Ofenauer. But it also contains a number of fault lines that are being exploited by various forces. The European Union must act in this difficult situation, and Austria is particularly called upon to raise awareness of where the fault lines lie.

The Ukraine war as the trigger for a change of era in energy policy

Austria must "get out as quickly as possible" of its dependence on Russian gas, said Reimon. Any sanction, in order to be sustainable in the long term, would have to hurt Putin more than the EU - this is how the position of the Green parties at the European level can be outlined. The search for alternatives is painful and difficult at the moment, especially when one has to turn to Saudi Arabia, for example, where 81 people were recently executed, Reimon said.

Ofenauer cited energy self-sufficiency as a major goal for the future. However, he said, the issue is highly complex, as an immediate switch to sustainable energy production is only feasible to a limited extent, as one has to resort to raw materials from other countries, which may not be ethically acceptable, in all areas.

Steger criticized that the EU had made many strategic mistakes in the past, which had led to dependence on other countries in many areas. From this point of view, the EU should rather focus on becoming more independent from other states, but this should not mean cutting trade relations with Russia, he said. Russia is geographically a part of Europe, and for this reason alone one must work on improving these relations in the future, said the MEP.

Robert Laimer concluded by stressing the importance of developing renewable energy sources, but also pointed out that we are not yet ready to "break away" from fossil fuels. He said that the EU must take a broader stance on energy supplies and organize them better, i.e. differently.

Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine will change the landscape of global energy and its geopolitics in profound ways

Pieces of this terrain have already begun shifting.

As the world’s largest combined exporter of oil and gas, Russia has direct energy relationships with more than two dozen European nations, as well as China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and others. Russia has used these exports for political leverage since Soviet times.

But invading Ukraine in violation and disrespect of international law has made Russia a pariah.

Its energy customers are not just concerned about sanctions, most are rethinking their reliance on the Kremlin itself.

The most pressing issue is Europe, Russia’s main market. Until now Putin clearly believed Russia’s exports are too important to sanction and make Russia’s energy sector too valuable to attack.

It can already be heard in Brussels and other European capitals that the EU will also gradually get its act together on this issue.

In any case, Putin’s strategy will fail.

Austrian Parliament