After the Russian war in Ukraine, can Austria remain neutral?

“Austria always wants to be a bridge between East and West,” former Austrian Vice-Chancellor Erhard Busek said one afternoon in 2017 during a long tea chat in his office. in Vienna. “The problem is this: a bridge has no identity. If East and West are quarreling and nobody wants this bridge anymore, what should Austria do? What is Austria?

Few Austrians had such a keen eye on what was happening in their militarily neutral central European country as Busek. He was cultured, had a dry sense of humor and, above all, possessed a remarkable talent for linking domestic events to wider international developments. Pinning his identity to a bridge, he argued, was a good illustration of how his traumatized country had perfected the avoidance of painful questions. One day, he predicted, Austria would pay dearly for this mistake.

Busek died in March, just weeks after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. But if he were still alive, he would surely have been one of the signatories of an open letter that 50 prominent Austrians published in May. The letter is a strong appeal to Austrian political leaders and citizens to finally stop trying to be a bridge between East and West and to end the country’s dependence on Russia in terms of energy and other sectors. The letter calls for a “serious nationwide discussion on the future of Austria’s security and defense policy” and finally raises the central question in a country that has made neutrality a secular religion since the 1950s: can Austria still be neutral in today’s world?

“Austria always wants to be a bridge between East and West,” former Austrian Vice-Chancellor Erhard Busek said one afternoon in 2017 during a long tea chat in his office. in Vienna. “The problem is this: a bridge has no identity. If East and West are quarreling and nobody wants this bridge anymore, what should Austria do? What is Austria?

Few Austrians had such a keen eye on what was happening in their militarily neutral central European country as Busek. He was cultured, had a dry sense of humor and, above all, possessed a remarkable talent for linking domestic events to wider international developments. Pinning his identity to a bridge, he argued, was a good illustration of how his traumatized country had perfected the avoidance of painful questions. One day, he predicted, Austria would pay dearly for this mistake.

Busek died in March, just weeks after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. But if he were still alive, he would surely have been one of the signatories of an open letter that 50 prominent Austrians published in May. The letter is a strong appeal to Austrian political leaders and citizens to finally stop trying to be a bridge between East and West and to end the country’s dependence on Russia in terms of energy and other sectors. The letter calls for a “serious nationwide discussion on the future of Austria’s security and defense policy” and finally raises the central question in a country that has made neutrality a secular religion since the 1950s: can Austria still be neutral in today’s world?

Among the signatories were Austrian entrepreneurs, academics, artists and even some former ambassadors to Moscow. “We are united in the belief that the status quo of our security policy is not only unsustainable,” they wrote, “but dangerous to our country.” Austria’s security strategy is ten years old. It defines threats and challenges as in 2013. But the world of 2013 no longer exists.


After February 24, when the Russian invasion began, some other neutral European countries acted quickly. Finland, which has an 830-mile border – and a troubled history – with Russia, immediately began working on its NATO membership application: A day after the Russian attack, Finnish officials had started talks with allies. Neutral Sweden, which on security and defense matters acts in tandem with its neighbor Finland, followed suit. The two countries have since completed their accession talks and are now waiting for each of the governments of NATO member countries to ratify the accession protocols to make them official members.

Global geopolitical shockwaves have grown so strong that even in neutral Switzerland – which, uncharacteristically, is already participating in European Union sanctions against Russia – some politicians are calling on their government to move closer to NATO. Denmark, a NATO country that has always chosen not to participate in EU defense initiatives under the Common Security and Defense Policy, immediately held a referendum to cancel this exemption, and June, a solid majority of Danes – 67% – approved it. These countries suddenly feel vulnerable and unprotected. All are looking for an extra layer of security. This is one of those times in history where governments think two life insurance policies are better than one.

Not in Austria. Two months after the publication of the open letter, there has been no official response from the government. Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen is reportedly looking into it, but with presidential elections approaching this year, he seems to prefer to keep a low profile on the sensitive issue.

“We write opinion pieces about it, we talk about it, but we get stuck,” said Velina Tchakarova, director of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES) in Vienna and one of the signatories. of the letter. Foreign Police. “None of the political parties sees it in their interest to touch on neutrality or even to have a debate on the consequences of a profoundly changing security environment.”

After two world wars and a bloody civil war in the 1930s, Austrians still instinctively avoid conflict. It’s in their DNA. After 1945, the Allies administered the country, and many Austrians remain fiercely anti-American to this day, often describing the country during this time as being occupied by both the Soviet Union and the United States. The Soviet Red Army remained on Austrian soil until 1955. Then the Red Army withdrew and Austria regained its independence, but on one condition, imposed by the Kremlin: that the country remain strictly neutral.

Since then, “permanent neutrality” has been enshrined in the country’s constitution, and a deep-seated fear of “stepping on the Russian bear’s tail” has dominated Austria’s foreign policy. The country cultivated deep commercial and cultural ties with the Soviet Union and, after its demise, Russia. Germany may be criticized today for its dependence on Russia, but Austria’s ties with Moscow are warmer and closer. Many Russians live in Austria because they feel at home there.

It is telling that Austria, along with Sweden and Finland, did not become a member of the EU until 1995, after the fall of the Soviet Union and after receiving the endorsement of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. But Austria never joined NATO. NATO membership was not even discussed, ever. A recent poll indicates that 75% of Austrians reject joining the alliance.

Even after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin was warmly welcomed to Vienna on several occasions. When it comes to conflict, “our credo is, stay away!” Busek said at the time. “It’s been our survival strategy for years.”


Now, this strategy has reached a dead end. Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine is “the last warning call to the free world, of which Austria is also a part”, the 50 signatories wrote in their open letter. Austria’s neutrality “has never been verified for up-to-date functionality, but elevated to a supposedly untouchable myth. … Despite the urgent warnings of experts, not only have our armed forces and our intelligence services not been strengthened, but they have even been weakened. We are no longer prepared, and this [is] the worst security crisis in Europe since 1945.”

In March, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, who is a member of the conservative Austrian People’s Party, announced that Austria’s defense spending would be doubled from 0.7% of its GDP to 1.5%. But AIES’ Tchakarova points out that as an EU member state, Austria has long been obliged to do so anyway.

Moreover, it is not only NATO that has a mutual defense clause. As a member of the EU and a participant in the bloc’s common security and defense policy, Austria is also obliged to act in solidarity – there is also a mutual defense clause in the European treaty. For years, Austria behaved as if these obligations did not exist.

Europe is now in the fourth month of complete geopolitical change, another signatory to the letter said. Foreign Police in a private conversation, “and our politicians are only interested in party conventions and endless corruption scandals. They hide in plain sight.

The country’s security doctrine needs a complete overhaul. Yet the government refuses to discuss it, arguing that it is taking too long. “Austria was neutral, Austria is neutral and Austria will also remain neutral,” Nehammer said recently. Meanwhile, Austrian politicians did not travel to Sweden or Finland to see what was going on there. “In the town of [Sigmund] Freud, we are still working by Verdringung– by suppressing the awkward things,” the signer said.

The publication of the open letter was already a miracle in a country where people rarely say things face to face. On the contrary, it is a sign of how much the world has changed: the neutrality of the 20th century no longer exists and, as Busek feared, the Austrian bridge has become a bridge to nowhere.