The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has ushered in a new era. This month, Vienna expelled four Russian diplomats on suspicion of espionage and has more broadly yoked itself to the transatlantic consensus on supporting Ukraine. Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, who was in Washington for a brief visit last week, spoke with Today’s WorldView about his nation’s geopolitical position, the war in Ukraine and its impact on European politics. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Today’s WorldView: We’re nearing the one-year mark of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. How has it changed Europe?
Alexander Schallenberg: I believe it has dramatically changed Europe. I sometimes cite Robert Kagan, the American political scientist, who said about 20 years ago that Europeans are living in a post-historic paradise of peace. But outside, power struggles are ongoing. To a certain degree, you could say on the 24th of February, 2022, we were kicked out of paradise. And nobody likes being kicked out of the Garden of Eden. We might have dreamt about the fact that Francis Fukuyama might be still right — that we have a post-historic, post-national world where one way or another, our model of life will be progressing.
But we have found out that the very way we live is considered an act of aggression by others, including Russia. And they believe they have to use tanks and rockets to invade another country because simply this country might be about to embrace our model of life. So it was like a geopolitical ice bucket thrown in our face, brutally tearing us from our daydreams.
And it has an impact. I cannot quite see all the repercussions yet, but it has moved Europe together. It has moved the transatlantic partnership together again. And yes, countries like Austria, Germany and others are paying an economic price because we have been heavily invested in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. But the assumption we had maybe in the past that you can minimize political risks by creating mutual economic dependencies has proven wrong with authoritarian states.
The Ukrainian president keeps calling for more and more weapons, and the West, by and large, keeps obliging. How long can this keep going? Is there a decisive military solution to the war?
I believe that’s not the thinking behind this. The thinking is you have a large country invading in a neo-imperialistic manner a neighboring country. And we are supporting this country in its self-defense, which doesn’t make us a party to the war. The Ukrainians have put up a really impressive fight for their freedom. And I believe it’s right that we continue to [support them]. How sustainable is it? I believe we do have a lot of resilience and patience.
Are you worried about public opinion shifting in the West against open-ended support?
We are democracies, so public opinion is something which we shouldn’t be worried about. It’s part of our life. And democracies have to always justify their actions and take them in parliament. But there is a strong sense of the necessity of what we are doing in Europe, in the larger parts of the population.
There is some controversy over Austria issuing visas to a number of sanctioned Russian politicians, so that they can attend an upcoming meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Why issue these permits when it upsets your neighbors and allies?
We have a seat agreement, as we do with the U.N., as Vienna is the seat of about 40 international organizations. And in this seat agreement, like in any other, we have the obligation by international law to permit delegations of member countries to enter. It’s similar to the United States, as far as New York is concerned. [The late Libyan dictator Moammar] Gaddafi was at the General Assembly, [former Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad was there. So that applies here. It’s not the question of whether we want to [admit the Russians MPs]. It’s a must.
We are currently in a struggle to defend a rules-based international system, a system where laws are respected. We should be very watchful as the West, as the free world, to not give the impression that we are selective when applying international law, because that’s exactly the Russian narrative.
Your constitutional position of neutrality has also frustrated some other European governments, since Austria is not sending weapons to Ukraine.
Our neutrality is a purely military neutrality. But Austria has at no point been neutral as far as values of principles are concerned. Our position is very clear — full solidarity with Ukraine. If you put humanitarian aid and public and private humanitarian aid together, we are among the top European countries aiding Ukraine. We are fully in sync with every single measure the European Union has taken. The only thing we don’t do is deliver weapons. But we don’t prevent any others from doing so.
Your neighbor, Hungary, and the right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban have shown a softness toward Russia that has made Hungary an outlier in Europe. How much of an ideological problem is Orban for the European project?
Yes, to some degree. What Viktor Orban says publicly — I believe he has deep doubts as far as European integration is concerned and the value of it. But I believe, at the same time, he acknowledges that the vast majority of Hungarians support the membership of Hungary in the E.U. and NATO both. And he has to acknowledge that.
On the energy front, Austria is decoupling from Russia, like other European countries, and diversifying its natural gas supply. But is a post-Russian future possible for Europe?
I always cite former German politician Egon Bahr, the architect of Ostpolitik, who said that, for us, America is irreplaceable, but Russia is immovable. So geography doesn’t change. History doesn’t change. Russia will remain the biggest member of Europe. And Russia will remain part of our culture. We talk about Tchaikovsky, talk about Dostoevsky and others. We have centuries of common history, good times and bad times.
But decoupling is necessary, and we understand there will not be a return to the status quo ante with Russia. Russia will still be there and we will have to somehow deal with them. What is the struggle now is to have the Ukrainians regain their full independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. And then we can think about how to deal with them. But in the meantime, we should not willfully destroy platforms which we might need [for dialogue with Russia]. It might not be the most popular thing, but if we learned anything after Feb. 24, it’s wishful thinking is not a good way of conducting policies. The planet just might not be the way we wish it to be.
For years, we have heard talk of Europe building its own “strategic autonomy” on the world stage. Has the experience of the last year accelerated that project or offered a reminder of how fundamentally dependent the continent is on U.S. support and leadership?
I could say that Europe had outsourced its security needs to Americans, its energy needs to the Russians and its economic needs to China. And now we have to figure out how to correct this. There is also in Washington a wish for Europe to be able to shoulder this problem, and now we are actually doing it. Looking at the last 11 months, we are stronger, more flexible, more resilient than we believed ourselves [to be].
There was the expectation that the lights would go out in Europe. We would have an energy crisis, the economy would crumble, we would have disunity. Instead, we have a 4.8 percent growth rate in Austria. Tourism is booming again. The winter season was good. No lights went off.
Europe being stronger independently is not something directed against Washington. It actually helps the partnership. We know that this planet is challenging in many ways and that we are not just surrounded by friends, and if we both shoulder our part of the bargain than we are stronger together, and that’s what we have proved in the last 12 months. We have again understood the value of transatlantic partnership, which we always knew intellectually, but maybe not emotionally.
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