Russia-Austria Relationship: "A Window of Opportunity"

PeopleDiplomats ♦ Published: January 18, 2022; 15:29 ♦ (Vindobona)

Against the backdrop of a simmering military-technical conflict between Russia and the West in Ukraine, Russian bilateral ambassador to Austria Dmitry Lyubinsky says Russian-Austrian ties in the sphere of culture and science have traditionally been "the trump card in relations between the two states."

Lyubinsky: "We dare say that the Crimean War - this "crisis of confidence" - was never overcome in this historical period between Vienna and St. Petersburg and was one of the essential factors that led to Europe's slide into the catastrophe of 1914." / Picture: ©

In an article for the Russian Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Academy, "Diplomatic Service and Practice," Russian Ambassador to Austria Dmitry Lyubinsky describes Russian-Austrian relations as "a solid foundation and a window of opportunity."

Lyubinsky notes at the outset that despite relations between Russia and the European Union being at a low point, Russian-Austrian bilateral relations are generally stable and continuous at this stage, while asking the question

Lyubinsky notes at the outset that despite relations between Russia and the European Union being at a low point, Russian-Austrian bilateral relations are generally stable and continuous at the current stage, while at the same time asking what this "exclusivity" is based on, and whether it opens an additional window of opportunity?

"An important role in understanding the foundations of the modern (in some ways privileged) dialogue between Moscow and Vienna, in his opinion, is played by the eventful centuries-long history of relations between Russia and Austria, which has known periods of upsurge as allies as well as stages of deepest fall.

Besides the impressive time span (the first mission of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III, came to the court of the Moscow Grand Duke Ivan III more than 500 years ago - in 1486), Russian-Austrian relations in most periods of the historical retrospective are characterized by healthy pragmatism, mutual orientation towards the achievement of goals coinciding at a certain point in time, and a significant role of personal contacts of the heads of state.

A fact almost astonishing for Europe from the XVI to the XX centuries - until the First World War, these two very significant empires actually never fought against each other, while during this period they managed to be in states of conflict (with many repeated times) with most other powers on the continent."

According to Lyubinsky, "also noteworthy is the fact that one of the first Europeans who "acquainted" the West with Russia was an Austrian, namely Sigismund Freiherr von Herberstein, the envoy of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, who visited Moscow twice during the reign of Vasily III, in 1517 and 1526. The diplomat left extensive descriptions of the political order, everyday life, and habits and customs of Russia at that time, which literally rediscovered the Russian world for Western Europe. Herberstein's mission enabled Western European rulers to see in Muscovy not a half-tale land inhabited by barbarians, but a real functioning state with its own traditions and interests, with which it is possible and necessary to establish mutually beneficial contacts."

(Editor: Muscovy (also Muscovy) was the unofficial name in Western Europe for the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which formed the heartland of the unified Russian state, and for the Tsardom of Russia. The word Moskovia was used to refer to Russia in Europe from the 14th century until Peter the Great, and the Russians were called Muscovites).

According to Lyubinsky, "Over the centuries, Russia and Austria have repeatedly joined forces to solve foreign policy problems and face common challenges and threats. It is enough to recall the struggle of the two powers against Ottoman expansion, the coordination of actions on the Polish question, and, of course, the allied relations during the Napoleonic Wars. Friendship and trust between the courts of the Romanovs and the Habsburgs were at some point taken for granted in Europe - as far as that is allowed in principle in interstate relations."

"And all the more palpable for Russia, which always behaved with increased responsibility toward alliance obligations, was Austrian hostile neutrality during the Crimean War, which in many respects forced Russia to agree to painful concessions as a consequence of its outcome."

"We dare say that this "crisis of confidence" - to use a modern-day expression - was never overcome in this historical period between Vienna and St. Petersburg and was one of the essential factors that led to Europe's slide into the catastrophe of 1914."

World War I, in which Austrians and Russians actually faced each other with weapons in hand for the first time, ended with the collapse of both the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. While Soviet Russia became the de facto geopolitical successor to the Russian Empire, Austria - the nucleus of the former dual monarchy - finally fell into the orbit of German influence, even becoming part of the Third Reich in 1938 (the so-called "Ostmark") and "voluntarily" losing its international legal personality in the process.

Austria's human and economic potential was massively used in Hitler's invasion of the USSR, much to its own chagrin. Austrians were used almost entirely to raise seven Wehrmacht divisions and send them to the Eastern Front, and developed Austrian industry worked at full capacity to meet the needs of the Nazi war machine. On the territory of Austria there were fascist death camps, where there was a systematic extermination of the detainees, a significant part of whom were citizens of the Soviet Union. In total, about 280,000 Soviet prisoners of war and civilians expelled from the USSR had to perform forced labor in the "Ostmark".

Notwithstanding this, the Soviet leadership respected the aspirations of the Austrian people and immediately after the liberation of Austria from Nazi forces began to pursue a policy of restoring Austrian sovereignty, albeit under the conditions of the inevitable temporary occupation of the country by the allies of the anti-Hitler coalition at that time. Thanks largely to Moscow's benevolent attitude, the resurgent Republic of Austria and the Allied victorious powers succeeded in signing the State Treaty on the Restoration of an Independent and Democratic Austria in May 1955 - a document that underlies the country's subsequent state structure to this day.

Coming to terms with Austria's role in World War II has been a long and in many ways painful process in Austrian sociopolitical discourse. For decades after the end of the war, it was common to portray Austria almost exclusively as a victim of Hitler's aggression and Austrians primarily as sufferers of Nazi propaganda. It was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s, thanks in part to a series of revelations and growing pressure from abroad, that there was a turnaround in public awareness of the extent to which Austria and Austrians had been implicated in the war crimes of the Third Reich. Austrian leaders acknowledged responsibility at the political level for complicity in the Nazis' most horrific atrocities and apologized. The Republic of Austria participated in the implementation of compensation programs for the victims of Nazism."

Ambassador Lyubinsky "considers it necessary and important to emphasize the attentive and responsible attitude of the Austrian authorities to preserve the memory of the victims of World War II. Cases of desecration of graves of fallen soldiers of the Red Army (there are 217 Soviet war graves in Austria), as well as attacks by individual politicians or journalists in the public space with an attempt to reinterpret the liberating role of the Soviet Union in the Great Patriotic War, are currently rather exceptional excesses for Austria, which are usually followed by a prompt reaction of the competent authorities and social condemnation without additional calls."

In this context, Lyubinsky mentions the productive activity of the Russian-Austrian Historical Commission, which was established in 2008 on the initiative of the foreign ministers of both countries. A landmark project implemented under its auspices was the publication by the now-deceased Austrian researcher Peter Sixl of the "Memorial Book," which contains data on tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers, concentration camp prisoners and Soviet forced laborers buried in Austria.

An equally important achievement, he said, was the publication for the first time of a joint textbook for students and teachers in Russian and German. Its first volume covers the period of the twentieth century, the most complex in the common history.

The work of the Commission of Historians is a vivid example of how, despite the existing divergences, the two countries manage to continue the dialogue and successfully develop constructive cooperation in certain specialized fields. During the work of the Commission, historians and archivists from Russia and Austria have carried out a number of projects, including many scientific publications and conferences, also with the participation of experts from other countries. Summer schools for young people were organized and research projects were supported. Even during the pandemic, the Commission is trying not to limit its activities by moving its events to an online or hybrid format.

"Russian-Austrian ties in the field of culture and science have traditionally been the "ace of trumps" in relations between the two countries. Even in the conditions of coronavirus restrictions, student exchanges continue in various forms and special inter-university educational programs are opened. Scientists from Russia and Austria regularly exchange experiences and implement joint initiatives. Vienna, as a recognized world cultural capital, continues to act as a center of attraction for many Russian cultural figures - musicians, singers, artists, painters, writers, both world-famous and rising young stars on a global scale. In it there is also a firm unifying potential.

A special mention undoubtedly deserves the growing cooperation between the civil societies of both countries. The flagship in this sense is the Sochi Dialogue civil society forum, launched under the auspices of the presidents of Russia and Austria at the inaugural meeting in Sochi in 2019. The Steering Committee of the Forum includes prominent representatives from business, academia and the public. The co-chairs became the Advisor to the President of Russia, Andrei Fursenko, and the President of the European Chamber of Commerce Eurochambres, Christoph Leitl.

In the three years of its activity, the Sochi Dialogue has proved relevant and was distinguished by a number of noteworthy initiatives that encompassed the priority areas of cooperation between Russia and Austria - culture and science, business, educational and youth exchanges. Among them were the holding of thematic conferences and meetings, a series of book publications, and the organization of expert round tables. The activity of the Sochi Dialogue contributed not least to the new interesting practice of organizing the "Clock Comparison" in the format of the "Trialogue of Dialogues" with the Russian-German and Russian-French partner platforms - the Petersburg Dialogue and the Trianon Dialogue.

Not insignificantly, the forum enjoys the support of the political leadership of both countries. This is impressively evidenced by the fact that the work of the "Sochi Dialogue" was included in the current coalition program of the Austrian government until 2024."

Ambassador Lyubinsky concludes by noting that "in general, relations between Russia and Austria at the present time can be described as a full-fledged and sustainable partnership. This does not mean that Moscow and Vienna always agree on everything or that there are no complex or even problematic issues on our bilateral agenda."

However, he considers it "a serious achievement that there are no taboo issues in this dialogue, and in principle no unsolvable problems in the bilateral format. To that end, the existing bilateral mechanisms are working effectively and with the necessary practical dedication to the agreed agenda. And unlike with the European Union, Russia as a whole has all the prerequisites with its Austrian partners to avoid endless lamentations about irretrievably missed opportunities in a future review."

Russian Embassy in Vienna