Putin visits Austria looking for cracks in EU's Russia policy

On 5 June, Russian President Vladimir Putin undertook a state visit to Austria, where he met the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, and the country's President - Alexander Van der Bellen. Austria was deliberately chosen as Putin's destination for his visit abroad since his reelection, as Kurz's recently inaugurated government is known to be among the most Kremlin-friendly in Europe, and also because starting on 1 July, Vienna will assume the EU presidency.

Business was a central issue in the bilateral talks, as Russia is one of the largest investors in Austria, and it once again became clear that the Austrian business interests are pushing towards lifting the EU sanctions which are hurting their ties. Putin himself openly called for sanctions to be lifted and criticized them for being "imposed for political reasons", in spite of them being adopted by the EU in response to Russia's occupation of Crimea and portions of the Donbas region. In response to this, President Van der Bellen, who holds a largely ceremonial role, said Austria will follow EU's policy on Russia. Striking a more appealing tone, Chancellor Kurz stated that while Austria will continue to enforce EU's Russia policy after it takes over the EU presidency, it will, nevertheless, work towards improving relations with Moscow and towards "relaxing step by step". Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of Kurz's junior partner in the government, the extreme-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), stated that sanctions must be lifted immediately as his party supports Russia's claims in Crimea. The FPÖ also has a partnership agreement with Putin's United Russia party.

This division within the Austrian government is symptomatic of the appearing cracks within the EU on Europe's response to Russia's policy of changing the borders of its neighbours by military force. This change is mainly due to the rise of the extreme right parties which have long since manifested sympathy towards Kremlin, and in some cases have been accused of receiving money from Moscow and benefitting from Russian disinformation campaigns. For instance, the extreme right Lega Nord which is expected to co-govern in Italy has expressed its unequivocal support towards ending the sanctions regime with relation to Russia, while Marine Le Pen stated on 6 June that Putin's visit to Austria marks the beginning of the "liberation of Europe." If as a result of the pressure exercised by European nationalists, Putin's aggression in Ukraine goes unanswered and EU decides to swallow Putin's land-grabbing use of force, this could in long-term have the consequence of encouraging the reemergence of nationalists grudges within the EU itself.

About author: Mihai Turcanu

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