Frenemies

Putin visits Austria to exploit rifts in Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony in Vienna
To quote Tolstoy: One must be cunning and wicked in this world. Source: Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin managed not to yawn during the carefully stage-managed press conference with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz during his visit Tuesday to Vienna, but he was clearly tempted.

The timing of the symbolic meeting – soon after Mr. Putin’s re-election as president and just before Austria takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union – adroitly capitalized on the pro-Russian leanings of the young chancellor and his government.

“During its presidency, Austria will work to improve relations between Russia and the EU,” Mr. Kurz said in brief remarks after a number of official documents were signed. “I hope that we can make progress in dialogue in order to progressively reduce sanctions.”

Those documents included a contract ensuring deliveries of natural gas from Gazprom to Austria’s OMV through 2040. Among other things, Mr. Putin’s visit celebrated 50 years of gas deliveries from Russia to Austria.

“It makes little sense, purely economically, to replace Russian gas with American liquefied gas.”

Alexander Van der Bellen, Austrian president

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen noted that Russian gas is a good deal cheaper than liquefied natural gas from the US that President Donald Trump is recommending Europeans. “Under these circumstances it makes little sense, purely economically, to replace Russian gas with American liquefied gas,” he said.

But Mr. Van der Bellen was firm that Austria would adhere to EU foreign policy with regard to sanctions and relations with Russia in general. Mr. Van der Bellen, himself the son of Russian and Estonian parents who were refugees during Joseph Stalin’s rule, belonged to the Austrian Green Party before becoming president last year.

His stance was countered by Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the far-right Freedom Party that is the junior partner with Mr. Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party in the coalition government. Mr. Strache openly espoused an end to the Russian sanctions, which date back to 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and normalization of relations with Russia.

The rifts at the top of the Austrian government reflect the divisions in Europe as a whole. The new Italian government under Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is also eager to end the sanctions. “We will support opening up to Russia,” he said Tuesday in the first presentation of his government’s platform to parliament. “We will push for a review of the sanctions system, starting with those that risk humiliating Russian civil society.”

However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains steadfastly in favor of the sanctions until Russia fulfills the conditions of the Minsk agreement. The foreign minister in her new coalition, Heiko Maas, has taken a harder line on Russia than his predecessor, Sigmar Gabriel.

Several Handelsblatt reporters contributed to this report. Darrell Delamaide is an editor and writer for Handelsblatt Global in Washington, DC. To contact the author: d.delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com.

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