Austrians are Particularly Insistent on “Understanding” Vladimir Putin

In an interview with Currenttime on 29 June, founder of the investment fund Hermitage Capital William Browder, called Vladimir Putin a small, mean-spirited man who might have been beaten with a belt every day as a child. This eventually led to a personal philosophy that anyone who stands up to the President of Russia is automatically ‘designated’ as his personal enemy.

He continued to say that the amount of money that Vladimir Putin had stolen from the Russian taxpayer could be judged by analysing data from the Austrian Raiffeisenbank, the Swiss Credit Suisse, UBS, and the German Deutsche Bank, which would probably show that the President of Russia, and his entourage, owned around a trillion US dollars.

The owner of Hermitage Capital, long active in Russia, but after the activation of the Sergei Magnitsky List in the second decade of this century, knows what he is talking about.

Sergei Magnitsky, who exposed the corruption of top officials of Russia, died on 16 November 2010 in Matrosskaya Tishina prison. The founder of Hermitage Capital Bill Browder, where Sergei Magnitsky worked as Head of Tax and Audit Department, dedicated himself to an investigation that tried not only to bring the guilty to justice, but also to impose sanctions on corrupt officials worldwide.

The Magnitsky List was as a commitment to democracy in the fight against corrupt regimes; Bill Browder was as one of Vladimir Putin’s toughest adversaries, who has been the subject of several criminal cases in Russia.

In 2020, the USA, Canada, the UK, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and the United Kingdom were still in the process of adopting the List, now there are 34 such countries, with the Czech Republic likely to become the 35th.

Among the banks quoted by Currenttime, a couple of the British investors mentioned are from German-speaking countries, which probably is no coincidence. The German-speaking political class, however, is visible in the large and now thinning international community of Vladimir Putin’s supporters.

The undisputed icon of that community, Chancellor of Germany Gerhard Schröder, announced on 20 May that he could no longer continue to serve on the board of directors of the Russian state-owned corporation Rosneft.

Although on 23 April, in an interview with The New York Times (the first since 24 February, when Russia started its aggression against Ukraine), he gave Moscow a fair shake by stating that it is impossible to isolate Russia in the long term – politically or economically – with sanctions. For Germany, Russia needs raw materials – not only energy but also rare minerals.

After his chancellorship from 1998 to 2005, Gerhard Schröder was banally bought off by the Kremlin for lobbying, first as chairman of Gazprom’s Supervisory Board, and then in 2017 as Chairman of the board of directors of Rosneft, the largest state-owned oil company.

Gerhard Schröder has consistently reaffirmed his loyalty, for example in an interview with Tagesspiegel on 3 May last year, when he declared that Crimea would never be returned to Ukraine.

On 1 June, another Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, for the first time since the aggression against Ukraine, publicly condemned Russia, expressed her solidarity with Kiev and pointed out that the current affairs represent a profound turning point in the European history since World War II.

However, it should be recalled that it was in Germany, during chancellorship of Angela Merkel, that the term Putinversteher was coined, after the decision was taken to build Nord Stream 2, even after Moscow had annexed Crimea.

This is the resounding turnaround of the Chancellors of Germany after almost two decades of consistent pro-Kremlin activity. Maybe they can no longer ignore trends in their homeland.

At a Donors’ conference held in Warsaw on 5 May, Chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz promised EUR 125 million in humanitarian aid and a further EUR 140 million for development in Ukraine.

On 3 May, the German government decided to supply Ukraine with seven Panzerhaubitz 2000 self-propelled howitzers from Bundeswehr stocks. On 17 May, Ukraine confirmed that it had received from the Germans 2,450 RGW-90 single-handed anti-tank grenade launchers, 1,600 hand-held anti-tank grenade launchers and 3,000 DM31 anti-tank mines. Berlin delivered millions of ammunition and explosives of various calibres.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Germany Annalena Baerbock said on 16 May that her country has no choice but to make it clear that it will continue to support the Ukrainians because the Russian government has de facto refused to abide by the requirements of the NATO-Russia Cooperation Act signed in 1997.

On the same day, the Bloomberg news agency, citing sources in the German government, reported on Berlin’s decision to refuse the Russian oil by the end of the year, even if the EU fails to agree on an oil embargo.

We can say it‘s a systemic slide from the economic ties with Russia, which Berlin was grasping to the last moment.

The Nord Stream-2 pipeline from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea was abandoned by the Germans a couple of days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but never launched.

According to a German political scientist and coordinator of international programmes at the Körber Foundation Liana Fix, Russian gas was seen in Germany as a stabilising factor, a kind of geopolitical “sacred cow”, because people remembered that Moscow had also supplied it reliably during the Cold War.

Rejection of the Russian energy sources indicates that Russo-centrism is over.

The German ruling class ignored the criticism for a long time, not least because trading with the Russians was very profitable. It seems that Olaf Scholz has to admit that the country was moving in the wrong direction and hit the emergency brake.

Yes – Germans, but also German-speaking Austrians – ‘slightly different’.

After a Russian missile once again hit an apartment block in the centre of Kiev, Chancellor if Austria Karl Nehammer posted a photo of the aftermath of the attack on Facebook on 26 June, accompanied by the categorical comment that he did not understand how such crimes could be committed, that it was not possible to tolerate the shelling of civilians and that the bloodshed had to stop.

To stop means to stop. How do things look in reality?

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria Alexander Schallenberg was one of the last European politicians before the official granting of the European Union (EU) candidate status to Ukraine (23 June) to say that he did not think it was appropriate to offer Kiev membership of the Community, as the Western Balkan countries had a significantly longer path to candidacy.

One indicated that it would not support an embargo on the Russian natural gas when Minister Alexander Schallenberg said on 4 April that the EU had other options to press Moscow. Russian gas makes 80% of Austria’s imports of this energy resource.

It seems that Austrians tend not to stand in solidarity with the dramatically struggling Ukrainian nation, but to buy off. Disaster Abroad Fund (AKF) under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Austria decided on 4 May to allocate EUR 41.96 million to the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine. According to the Austrian media, this is the largest disbursement by the AKF so far.

German-speaking Austrians have been pragmatically “holding on” to current affairs even longer than Germans. The key word here is probably “pragmatically”.

Divided into sectors after World War II and ruled by Soviet, American, British and French administrations, Austria maintained its neutrality status until the mid-1960s.

Long regarded as the “spy capital”, the non-NATO country also hosted authoritative international organisations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency in its capital thanks to its neutrality status. To tell the truth, it has been pragmatically ‘open’ to anything, as long as it is useful.

Vladimir Putin’s rise in Austria in 2000 was also viewed pragmatically. Russia is one of the biggest foreign investors in the country, with Russian companies having invested €25.5 billion in Austria at the end of 2021.

Austria was a major investor in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would have doubled the flow of Russian natural gas to Europe; the launch of the pipeline was suspended after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but Austria resisted with perhaps the most persistence.

The nomination of former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria Karina Kneissl to Rosneft’s board of directors on 3 March last year was certainly out of the blue.

After becoming a minister in December 2017, she was forced to resign in August 2018 after the Euro sceptic far-right Freedom Party, which had delegated her, was caught up in a corruption scandal. After her resignation, she wrote a guide for the website of the Kremlin’s propaganda television RT.

The Freedom Party, like many European radicals until recently, was a reliable Kremlin sympathiser. In summer 2018, President of Russia Vladimir Putin attended (incidentally on his way to Germany to meet Angela Merkel) Karina Kneissl’s wedding and danced with the bride.

The dance at the wedding can also be seen as a parabola of Vladimir Putin’s current “anti-fascist” ambitions (bringing together categorically different ideas). The nominally non-partisan Karina Kneissl got into the government under the quota given to the Freedom Party only because the other parties refused to include sympathisers of the former German National Socialist Workers’ Party.

She did, however, resign from the Rosneft board of directors on 23 May in a particularly quiet manner.

Karina Kneissl is considered to be Vladimir Putin’s most prominent “understander”, but former Chancellor of Austria Christian Kern was a member of the Board of the Russian Railways, and another chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel was a member of the Board of the energy giant Lukoil. In fact, both also resigned after the Russian invasion of Ukraine

The article “Russia’s influence in Austria in the wake of the Ukraine invasion” printed by The Washington Post (05 July), recalled the story of how OMV, the Austrian energy company, partly owned by the government and the second largest in the country, hired a German citizen Rainer Seel as CEO in 2015, who had previously worked for Wintershall Holding, the German crude oil and natural gas producer, in cooperation with Gazprom, and who had been a strong supporter of Nord Stream.

Already this June, Supervisory Board of OMV announced an internal investigation into Rainer Seel’s activities in relation to contracts that have made Austria highly dependent on the Russian gas. “Investments in Russia after 2015 were based on overconfidence in Russia’s role in the international community,” Chairman of Supervisory Board of OMV Mark Garrett told shareholders.

“These are things that the Austrian government may have to sort out, but personally I don’t know if the Austrians will go that far,” former Head of the CIA’s European desk Sonya Lim, told The Washington Post, commenting on OMV’s internal investigation. – “I think their attitude since the 1950s and 1960s has always been one of reluctance to disclose inconvenient truths.”

In other words, neutrality is as an unconditional cover for “Nothing personal just business”.

Here is also a national episode to complement the context.

In July 2011, a former KGB officer Mikhail Golovatov, accused in the 13 January case under a European Arrest Warrant issued by Lithuania, was detained at the airport in Vienna, Austria, but released after one day. Lithuanian and European Commission officials strongly criticised Austria at the time, claiming that it lacked sufficient evidence to hand over the suspect to Lithuania. Mikhail Golovatov was the leader of the Alpha squad of the KGB that stormed the Vilnius TV tower on 13 January. At the time, 14 unarmed people were killed as a result of the actions of Soviet forces.

In the present context, however, it is expressive.

Russian historian Yaroslav Shimov describes Vladimir Putin’s regime as banditry with ideas, something that was long tolerated – a nicely “packaged” Russian elite was building up in Western capitals, Russian money, often of dubious origins, was pouring into the financial systems of Europe and United States.

The “ideological bandits” eventually decided to take more than just a sixth of the planet’s landmass “under their control”. After Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Munich Peace Conference in February 2007, they began first to look for, then to covet – “their” style – neighbouring lands, first of all in the post-Soviet space.

In particular, they saw the deficit of the West principle – Gerhard Schröder and Karina Kneissl are by no means the benchmarks of principle.

Between 2008 and 2013, when the Kremlin regime was particularly strengthened, the West was self-absorbed – arguing about the unity of the EU, the wealthy North and the debt-ridden South, etc.

We have what we have. To paraphrase a Soviet cartoon about “we built, built and finished building”, the Kremlin host, under the benign watchful eyes of his “foreign partners”, tried, tried and “got over the top”. The ranks of the Putinversteher may be thinning, but not at the same rate everywhere.

The Austrians are still among the more visible Putinverstehers at the moment.

Arūnas Spraunius


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