The Russian-Austrian summit in Vienna on June 5 was the first time Russian President Vladimir Putin had visited an EU member state since his reelection in March. It was also his sixth visit to that country since he became the president of Russia in 2000. That official event was part of celebrations commemorating the 50th anniversary of the gas-supply deal signed by Austria’s OMV and Russia’s Gazprom. The agreement between these two energy giants has been extended until 2040, in defiance of the EU policy giving preference to short-term contracts.
Austria was the first Western nation to enter into a gas-supply agreement with the Soviet Union in 1968. Today Russia is responsible for roughly 60% of Austria’s gas imports. Last year this trade was valued at $4.1 billion, an increase of 4.5%, while Russian exports to Austria grew by 78.9%. to $1.9 billion. Despite the sanctions, Russia’s imports from Austria also expanded by 18.5%, to reach $2.2 billion. Russia’s total investments in Austria were worth $22.9 billion as of mid-2017, and Austria held $4.7 billion of investments in Russia. Austrian companies have no plans to cut back on their business activities in Russia. Vienna strongly supports the Nord Stream 2 offshore project to supply Europe with cheap natural gas via the Baltic Sea.
The Austrian government pursues an independent foreign policy, opposing the EU leadership on such issues as migration and what it believes to be excessive interference in the internal affairs of the bloc’s member states. It has also formulated its own policy toward Russia.
In July Austria takes over the EU rotating presidency for six months. Its government wants to use this opportunity to build some bridges between Europe and Russia. The Freedom Party (FPÖ), a part of the ruling coalition, has on many occasions called for an end to the sanctions imposed against Russia by Brussels. An FPÖ delegation visited Crimea in 2017.
Vienna refused to join the over 20 EU member states that expelled Russian diplomats over what is being called the Skripal case. During President Putin’s talks with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his meeting with President Alexander Van der Bellen on June 5, both sides seized the opportunity to emphasize their desire to boost bilateral relations. Mr. Kurz called Russia a superpower with which he’d like to “keep the channels of communication open.” The Austrian chancellor chose Russia as his first non-EU destination after he took office in December 2017. That visit took place in February.
There are signs that the EU-Russia relationship is beginning to gradually recover, given the deepening rift dividing Europe and the US, including the recently unleashed trade war. Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, who also heads the Freedom Party (FPÖ), believes that lifting the anti-Russian sanctions would be the right thing to do in response to the US imposition of tariffs on aluminum and steel imports from the EU. Last year, the Austrian party signed a partnership agreement with the United Russia party, which enjoys a majority in the Russian parliament. Some prominent members of the FPÖ support the unification of Crimea with Russia.
Austria’s neighbors, including Hungary, Slovenia, and Italy, are also frustrated with the EU, especially regarding its stance on the influx of immigrants. They are concerned about US policies and want to improve relations with Russia. Sebastian Kurz may use his upcoming EU presidency to lead the emerging group of states that long for change.
All this brings to mind the words of French President Emmanuel Macron, who told Le Journal du Dimanche in May that he opposes the idea of isolating Russia and wants to be a link that can connect Russia with Europe. Marine Le Pen, the head of the French National Rally party, sees Putin’s visit to Vienna, along with the rapprochement between Hungary and Italy, as the beginning of the process of Europe’s liberation. On June 5, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told the Italian Senate that his government wants the anti-Russian sanctions to be revised, with no strings attached. “We will be the advocates of an opening towards Russia,” he said, opening a rift within the EU over the issue. He’ll make his stance known during the G7 summit June 8-9 in Canada. Conte’s remarks coincided with Putin’s visit to Vienna. Matteo Salvini, the interior minister and leader of the Northern League, which is a part of Italy’s ruling coalition, said that he was an admirer of the Russian president, and believed Mr. Putin was “one of the best statesmen.”
The shifting political winds in Europe are paving the way for positive changes, moving toward normalizing the ties between the EU and Russia. Obviously Vladimir Putin does not lack friends in Europe.