On February 28, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz arrives in Moscow on his first visit to a non-EU country since he assumed office last December. The topics to be discussed during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin include Ukraine, Syria, and bilateral relations.
The Austrian chancellor’s visit to Moscow illustrates that bilateral relations are excellent. Austria is one of those countries in the European Union which have for many years insisted that sanctions do not work and that the EU should gradually overcome the sanctions regime towards Russia. This, of course, has been very welcomed by the Russian leadership. The fact that Austria, despite its skepticism about the sanctions, has always voted for their prolongation in the European Council was understood by the Russian leadership as the consequence of Austria being a very small country, which does not have any significant influence in the EU. As I see it, Russia understands that the Austrian position is “We are opposed to sanctions, but in order to maintain the unity of the EU on this issue we will always vote with the other members”. This position has been very welcomed by the Russian leadership, and this position will remain the same under the new government.
A Way Out of the EU Crisis and Chances for Better EU-Russia Relations
There can’t be any doubt that the refugee crisis of 2015/16, Brexit, and the emergence of fundamental differences between the old EU countries and some of the new ones in the East about the concept of integration versus national sovereignty are major challenges for the European Union.
The second reason why the relations are good is that Austrian companies, including banks, have assets in the Russian market and have stayed in Russia despite the difficult situation there over the past three-four years. Russia’s government welcomes the fact that Austrian companies remain committed to the Russian market despite the recession and the fact that the investments of Western companies, including Austrian ones, are under the threat of new sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU or the United States. Under the sanctions framework, everything possible will be done to maintain good investment relations between the two countries.
By the chancellor’s visit, Austria signals that it is very important to reinstate dialogue between the EU and the Russian Federation. The Austrian position is that Troika meetings between the EU and Russia should take place again, so Austria is committed to bringing this dialogue into operation again. The visit gives a political signal, because Russia is the first non-EU country to be visited by Kurz, but economic and business relations are very important for this government as well.
I do not think that many countries will have problems with the fact that the chancellor is now visiting Russia. Concerning the Austrian position that a new formalized dialogue between the EU and the Russian Federation should be started, I have to admit that it is quite isolated in the EU, but Austria is truly committed to institutionalizing the dialogue between the two countries.
The topics which are going to be discussed in the meeting between Kurz and Putin have been agreed upon: that is Ukraine, Syria, and bilateral relations. As to bilateral relations, there are no problems, and I think that both sides will point out that they are interested in finding a solution to the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. As to Syria, Austria does not have a strong position, because that is not a conflict the country is very interested in, despite the refugee crisis. The Austrian position, not unexpectedly so, is that the Syrian crisis should be solved primarily via the Geneva process mediated by the United Nations. The Astana and Sochi processes are helpful for Geneva, but any solutions should be found in negotiations which are part of the Geneva process. That is what the Austrian position will be; that is what the chancellor will tell the president.When it comes to Ukraine, as I said, the sanctions on Russia are seen quite critically by the Austrian government. However, it will take the position that had been agreed upon in the EU. That position is that the sanctions on Russia will be lifted only after the full implementation of the Minsk-2 agreements. There is also the issue of the UN peacekeeping force in the east of Ukraine. The Austrian government fully understands that the preconditions that Germany, France and the US set for such peacekeeping force – that it should control the eastern border between Russia and Ukraine, – are somewhat in contradiction to Minsk-2. It clearly states that the Ukrainian control of this border, as it is written down in the point 9, is dependent on the Ukrainian obligations on the point 11. So here is a contradiction between what the peacekeeping force should be allowed to do, and the Minsk-2 agreements. The Austrian government understands the two positions’ incompatibility, but on all issues Austria will stick to the EU position, and the EU position is defined not by Austria, but by Germany and France.