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Austria

Austria

  • Austria’s bilateral relationship with Russia is between ‘friendly pragmatist’ and ‘strategic partner’
  • With the FPÖ now being a junior member of the country’s coalition government, a far-right political party with exceptionally close ties to the Kremlin has occupied the ministry of defence and interior among others
  • Vienna is a major target for Russian intelligence activities as well as interference in domestic politics

Relations with the Russian Federation

Austria is a non-NATO EU member state with a long tradition of neutrality throughout the Cold War. Its relations with Russia have not suffered significantly due to the situation in Ukraine. In particular, energy interests continue to shape the two countries’ relationship and remain a cornerstone of Austrian diplomacy with Russia. For this reason, Austria is sceptical about the EU sanctions regime against Russia and is less concerned than other EU member states about the threat Russia poses to European stability. What is deeply worrying, however, is that the FPÖ is part of a new government coalition, representing a party with close contacts to the Kremlin. Reportedly, FPÖ officials are widely believed to have been targets of Russian attempts to cultivate the “very upper echelons of the political systems”. Although Austria will unlikely challenge Russia sanctions, the fear is that Austria will be part of European integration projects, including defence integration and intelligence cooperation, while passing notes to the Kremlin.[1] In sum, “Austrian behaviour reflects the habits of a small, isolated, and neutral country trying to get along in between rival political blocs.”[2] However, a large Chechen diaspora in Austria (20,000-25,000), the product of Russian policy in the Northern Caucasus, is perceived to be a potential national security risk. Public support for Russia remains low: according to the latest Eurobarometer, 28% of Austrians had a positive view of Russia.

Political acknowledgement of the threat

The threat of disinformation or other hostile influence operations stemming from Russia does not feature on the Austrian political agenda. As anti-American, anti-Western, and pro-Russian ideologies and conspiracy theories are fairly popular amongst members of all three big parties, it is often hard to distinguish Russian-orchestrated disinformation from indigenous ideological agitation. On the contrary, following its tradition of neutrality, and in order to protect its national energy and trade interests, Austria seeks to walk a conciliatory and diplomatic line between Russia and its commitment to Europe. This attitude is exemplified by the Austrian Foreign Ministry’s long-term priorities for European, foreign, and integration policy: “As demonstrated by the Ukraine-Russia conflict, the EU and its members need a clear neighbourhood policy […] which provides our Eastern neighbours with the opportunity to participate in common solutions and saves them from having to choose between Russia or the EU. […] Sustainable safety and security in Europe can only be achieved in cooperation with Russia and not by working against Russia – and the same holds true vice versa: Russia too, can only ensure long-term safety and security by working with and not against Europe.”[3] There is no mention of security threats associated with disinformation or hostile influence activities in particular.

Government activities against Russian influence & disinformation

The Austrian government is undertaking no discernible action to counteract Russian disinformation or other means of subversive influence. Indeed, Austria continues to see Russia (along with the U.S.) as a strategic partner in national and European security.[4] This failure to acknowledge Russian subversion is noteworthy given that Austrian politics have proven vulnerable to Russian meddling. The right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), which won 47% of the vote in the 2016 presidential run-off and 26% of the vote in the 2017 legislation election, is the most notable proxy agent of Russian influence, frequently hosting Russian politicians and nationalist intellectuals. Following its strong performance in the 2016 election, the FPÖ signed a cooperation contract with the United Russia Party – an act that was widely criticized by other Austrian elites.[5] However, mainstream Austrian parties have also at times proven receptive to a pro-Russian agenda (e.g., the centre-left SPÖ and centre-right ÖVP, also currently in the coalition government).[6] For instance, current leader of the ÖVP and the Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz, in his position as foreign minister and chairperson-in-office of the OSCE, repeatedly proposed a step-by-step approach to lift sanctions against Russia. The “system of punishment should be exchange for a system of stimuli”, Kurz suggested.

Furthermore, Kurz criticized the June 2017 US sanctions bill due to its potential impact on Austrian firms (OMV) involved in constructing the NordStream 2 pipeline. Now Kurz’s centre-right party will teamed up in a coalition government with the far-right FPÖ. With this kind of division of political power, Austria could turn into a leader of opposition against the EU sanction regime.[7]

In sum, then, a “‘dovish’ attitude” towards Russia dominates across the Austrian political spectrum, with vested interests eager to return to “business as normal” with Russia.[8] This became all too apparent in the Golowatow-affair, when the former special operation colonel thought after in Lithuania for manslaughter was arrested in Vienna – and quickly released after the Russian ambassador intervened at the then minister of justice.[9] The possibility to settle affairs “unofficially” and to put rule of law below personal ties and networks is exactly what the Kremlin desires – Austria is a perfect operational environment for Russian state operatives.

The approach of intelligence agencies to Russian interference

Vienna serves as the base of operations for a large number of Russian security service agents (estimates vary from several dozens[10] to several thousands[11]). According to experts, at least 50 % of the accredited diplomats in Vienna are spies, which is a number that far exceeds the number of counter-intelligence officers working to counter Russia in the Austrian Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “From time to time, the Austrian media report [...] on Russian secret service activities in Austria. The Austrian side is usually overly keen to restore everything to normality as soon as possible: From its point of view, spy scandals must not spoil its ‘good and cordial relations’ with Moscow – and, especially, the natural gas supply”.[12]

Gert René Polli, the former chief of Austria’s counter-terrorism agency, told The Telegraph, “Vienna is a stock exchange of information. We have the most liberal laws governing spying activity in the world.”[13] Austria’s annual constitution protection reports mention Russian secret service activities; the latest notable incident occurred in 2011, when a Russian secret agent couple with Austrian identification documents was arrested in Germany. The ensuing investigation “significantly substantiated the suspicion of illegal activity.”[14] Nonetheless, the 2016 counterintelligence report (Verfassungsschutzbericht) does not identify Russia as a threat to Austrian security, but rather names Russia as an important partner in fighting Islamist terrorism.[15]

In the meanwhile, the situation of the Austrian intelligence is obviously deteriorating as police raids at Austria’s BVT domestic intelligence agency and the homes of some of its staff under the command of the FPÖ suggest.[16] As a result, Germany is reviewing intelligence sharing ties with Vienna over fears of sensitive data leaks.[17]

Activities of the non-governmental sector

There are no significant non-governmental initiatives in Austria seeking to mitigate the threat of Russian disinformation and attempted hostile influence. However, the Austrian media (e.g., Der Standard, Die Presse) frequently reports about cases of Russian information manipulation, though primarily about incidents in other countries. In addition, several civic media watchdog groups have emerged in recent years that are concerned with fact-checking, debunking false stories, and media literacy. These include: FPÖ Watch, mimikama.at, hoaxmap.org, digitalks.at, werdedigital.at, saferinternet.at, oiat.at.

However, there is also an extensive and growing network of so-called ‘NGOs’ and think tanks agitating on behalf of Russia. These include the Suworow Institute in Vienna, which has ties to the FPÖ, and the Center for Continental Cooperation, which appears to benefit from Russian government financing. In addition, Russian influence is palpable at the level of far-right civic youth movements. In particular, the popular Identitarian Movement, an extremist group founded in 2012 opposing U.S. ‘hegemony’ over Europe, derives much of its ideological inspiration from the Russian nationalist intellectual Aleksander Dugin.[18]

Prominent FPÖ members as well as FPÖ front organisations also organise events, balls,[19] and congresses with right-wing Russian organisations, such as the “St. Blasius foundation” of the Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeew[20] or the annual congress “Defenders of Europe”, which features right-wing and Russian disinformation, and is organised by FPÖ front organisations.[21]

But cooperation with Russian institutes is not limited to the political far-right. The Renner Institute, the SPÖ’s party academy, long cooperated with the “Dialogue of Civilisations” (DOC) think-tank. Its then-director and former SPÖ chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer still works for this institute now residing in Berlin (previously Vienna). The then-socialist run Austrian Ministry of Defence is sponsoring “research projects” with the DOC on regional security in Europe.[22]

Since the onset of the conflict in Ukraine, a new Austrian fringe media has also emerged, united in its pro-Russian orientation and admiration for Vladimir Putin.[23] Three outlets are particularly prominent: Neopresse,[24] published since 2012; Contra Magazin,[25] founded in 2013 by right-wing activists; and Info Direkt,[26] a medium published since 2015, with its server located in Moscow. Similar pro-Russian and deeply anti-American and anti-NATO agitation is issued by the FPÖ’s indigenous media or media affiliated with the FPÖ: Aula, the freedom Party’s student newspaper, and unzensuriert.at, a “counter-information” platform run by the FPÖ’s communication manager Alexander Höferl.[27]


[1] Gressel, G. (2017).  “Austria: Russia’s Trojan Horse?”. European Council on Foreign Relations. 21 December 2017.  http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_austria_russias_trojan_horse
[2] Gressel, G. (2015). “How Should Europe Respond to Russia? The Austrian View”. European Council on Foreign Relations. 21 January 2015.http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_how_should_europe_ respond_to_russia_the_austrian_view405  
[3] Long-Term Priorities for Austrian European, Foreign, and Integration Policy. Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Austria.https://www.bmeia.gv.at/fileadmin/user_upload/Zentrale/Ministerium/Schwerpun kte/HBM_long-term_priorities.pdf 
[4] Austrian Security Strategy (2013). Republic of Austria.  www.bka.gv.at/DocView.axd?CobId=52251  
[5] Weidinger, B., Schmid, F. & Krekó, P. (2017). “Russian Connections of the Austrian Far-Right”. Political Capital. April 2017.http://www.politicalcapital.hu/pc-admin/source/documents/PC_NED_country_ study_AT_20170428.pdf 

Rohac, D., Zgut, E. & Györi, L. (2017). “Populism in Europe and Its Russian Love Affair”. American Enterprise Institute. January 2017.  http://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/ 01/Populism-in-Europe-and-Its-Russian-Love-Affair.pdf      
[6] Gressel (2015); Weidinger et al. (2017).
[7] Krekó, P. et al. (2017). “Will Austria's New Government End Sanctions on Russia?” Atlantic Council. 23 October 2017.  http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/will-the-end-of-sanctions-on-russia-begin-with-austria

[8] Krekó, P. et al. (2016). “The Weaponization of Culture: Kremlin’s Traditional Agenda and the Export of Values to Central Europe”. Political Capital. 4 August 2016.  http://www.politicalcapital.hu/wp-content/ uploads/PC_reactionary_values_CEE_20160727.pdf   
[9] Golowatow-Affäre: Polizeiakt stellt Regierung bloß, DiePresse, 28 July 2011, https://diepresse.com/home/ausland/aussenpolitik/681566/GolowatowAffaere_Polizeiakt-stellt-Regierung-bloss 
[10] Malek, M. & Luif, P. (2013). “Austria”. National Perspectives on Russia: European Foreign Policy in the Making? David, M., Gower, J. & Haukkala, H. (eds). Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 209-221.
[11] McElroy, D. (2014) “Vienna Named as Global Spying Hub in New Book”. The Telegraph. 31 July 2014.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/austria/11003898/Vienna-named-as-global-spying-hub-in-new-book.html 
[12] Malek & Luif (2013).
[13] McElroy (2014).
[14] Verfassungsschutzbericht (2015). Republic of Austria.  http://www.bmi.gv.at/cms/BMI_Verfassungs schutz/Verfassungsschutzbericht_2015.pdf 
[15] Vergfassungsschutzbericht (2015).
[16]  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-austria-politics-intelligence/austria-says-intelligence-raids-were-legal-but-political-storm-rolls-on-idUSKCN1GQ2R5   
[17]  https://euobserver.com/justice/141406    
[18] Weidinger et al. (2017).
[19] Russischer Neofaschist Dugin vor Akademikerball in Wien, Der Standard, 18 January 2018, https://derstandard.at/2000072514481/Russischer-Neofaschist-Dugin-kommt-vor-Akademikerball-nach-Wien 
[20] Strache soll sich mit russischen Oligarchen getroffen haben, Der Standard, 03. June 2014, https://derstandard.at/2000001740015/Strache-soll-an-Geheimtreffen-mit-russichen-Oligarchen-teilgenommen-haben 
[21]  "Verteidiger Europas" treffen sich in oberösterreichischem Schloss, Die Presse, 04. January 2018, https://diepresse.com/home/innenpolitik/5348172/Verteidiger-Europas-treffen-sich-in-oberoesterreichischem-Schloss 
[22] Between Fact and Fakery: Information and Instability in the South Caucasus and Beyond, Policy Recommendations, Study Group Regional Stability in the South Caucasus, 09-12 November 2017, https://doc-research.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/PfP_Policy_Paper_16RSSC_2017-Reichenau_Web.pdf 
[23] Krekó et al. (2016).
[24] See  http://www.neopresse.com   
[25] See  http://www.contra-magazin.com   
[26] See  http://www.info-direkt.eu   
[27] See: http://www.oe24.at/oesterreich/politik/Die-Wahrheit-ueber-unzensuriert-at/297203575 

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