Austria commits to neutrality, even as Russia destroys Ukraine | News

The vacuum for geopolitical neutrality has narrowed across Europe since February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

The continent’s evolving security architecture has fueled Sweden and Finland abandoned their historical disconnect and even Switzerland come closer for NATO.

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

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

In this context, some analysts argue that Austria is essentially a freestyle racer, simply surviving by luck while remaining outside of NATO.

Almost six months later Ukraine crisisThere is no serious debate in Austria about officially joining NATO.

80% of Austrians support staying out of the Western coalition while neutrality remains widespread among Austrian politicians across the country.

On March 7, Chancellor Karl Nehammer, a conservative politician, tweeted that Austria’s neutrality was “without debate” and that the leader of Austria’s centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPO), Pamela Rendi-Wagner, often called Vienna’s neutrality “non-negotiable.”

The right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) shares a pro-neutral stance, and so does the pacifist Green Party.

Wolfgang Pusztai, a former Austrian defense attaché, told Al Jazeera: “After the terrible experience of the two World Wars and the Nazi terror regime, neutrality was deeply ingrained in the minds of the Austrian people.

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

After the Second World War, the winners of the conflict divided Austria into occupation zones. Then, in 1955, the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union signed the Austrian State Treaty, which required Austria to declare permanent neutrality and exist as a buffer zone between the West and the East.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Christoph Schwarz, a researcher at the European and Security Policy Institute said: “In general, the popularity of neutrality in Austria is based more on myths and legends than on myths and legends. opinion.

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

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

Neutrality also enabled Austria to integrate into the economic structure of the West while benefiting from trade with the Soviet Union and later Russia.

As the first Western country to sign a natural gas agreement with the Soviet Union in 1968, Austria remains dependent on Russian hydrocarbons. Today, gas many factors Austria’s interest in avoiding actions that might unduly offend President Vladimir Putin’s government in Moscow.

Reputation, diplomatic influence

In addition to the economy and energy, neutrality during the Cold War and the post-Cold War era also enhanced Austria’s role on the international stage as “a site for reconstruction between East and West”, explains Schwarz. prefer.

Vienna – along with New York, Geneva and Nairobi – has become the main office location of the United Nations, as well as the location of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe ( OSCE), and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and OPEC headquarters.

“A serious debate regarding Austrian neutrality would be helpful to [Austria] to clarify what serves its national interest in a better way. A preliminary question would be to find out whether all international organizations would stay in Vienna if Austria joined NATO,” Pusztai pointed out.

Most Austrians believe that their country is positioned as a diplomatic bridge and buffer zone between the East and the West – which works well for defense.

Rendi-Wagner argues that “neutral states are not a threat to great powers and that strengthens our security.”

Finally, Austria is not subject to any military threat from a foreign power with all its neighbors being EU members, Switzerland and the micro-state of Liechtenstein.

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

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

‘Not a friendly visit’

In April, Nehammer became the first Western leader meet Putin after the outbreak of war.

He did so with the aim of benefiting Austrian foreign policy, hoping that Vienna’s mediation might help reduce the conflict. However, as the Austrian chancellor emphasized at the time, “this is not a friendly visit.”

However, Nehammer’s trip to Moscow did not yield clear results.

Benjamin L Schmitt, a research associate at Harvard University and a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Al Jazeera that “Austria’s geopolitical position defines itself as a so-called The ‘bridge’ between Russia and the West has become substantial. doubt since the beginning of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February”.

This crisis in Ukraine has “undermines Vienna’s geopolitical view that a ‘middle’ position between East and West could somehow help mitigate such a conflict,” Schmitt added. .

Austria’s official line of neutrality is not to be confused with indifference or passivity.

Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg says Vienna is “helping [Ukraine] on a large scale but not with war bombs and bullets and I think the help for Ukraine cannot be reduced to war bombs and bullets alone.”

Along with 140 other UN member states, Austria voted in favor of the General Assembly on 2 March Resolution condemn Russia’s aggression.

In addition to that vote, Austria supported Ukraine with non-lethal weapons, such as donations of humanitarian assistance and protective equipment.

As a result, Austria-Russia relations deteriorated since February 24.

“Relationships with Russia have dropped to a bare minimum,” Pusztai said. “Austria is a favorite destination for investments by Russian oligarchs. Many even had residence in Austria. Now, most of their assets are frozen.”

Worried about Austria’s exposure to Moscow’s ability to eliminate its energy exports, Vienna joined other EU members to work to diversify gas sources away from Russia.

Since the start of the war, Austria has reduced its share of gas imports originating from Russia from 80 to 50%.

“When the time comes when any form of dialogue on conflict resolution seems possible, Austria will want to keep its position as a mediator. However, based on what can be observed so far, Austria would not be in any position to fulfill this role,” said Schwarz.

“Austria is weakening its position as a neutral mediator through closer integration within the EU. Russia, at least under its current leadership, will most likely not accept Austria as a mediator.

According to Pusztai, Austrian politicians think that Vienna being able to mediate between the West and Moscow is “completely unrealistic” and engage in “fantasy”.

The former defense attaché cited “a lack of honest analysis of the international environment and a dislike of seriously assessing the pros and cons of neutrality.”

Some NATO members and Ukraine have accused Vienna of maintaining ethical ambiguity. While this allegation may damage Austria’s credibility with its neighbours, it is highly unlikely that Austria will join NATO anytime soon.

But Scharwz warns that there could be a day “when this strategy comes with a big price tag attached”.

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