On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first trip to Europe since his re-election. His destination? Vienna. This is not a randomly chosen city. The constructive relationship between Russia and Austria dates back to the times of the Soviet Union. Even in the recent turbulent times, Austria has aimed at retaining this positive relationship with Russia. It sought to lift existing sanctions on Russia and decided not to expel Russian diplomats after the nerve agent poisoning in the UK earlier this year, as one of the few countries in the EU.
What Putin hopes to achieve
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, economic sanctions from the EU have been in place. These sanctions prohibit EU companies to buy or sell bonds, equity, or financial instruments from or to Russian companies. These sanctions hit Russia hard and contributed to the recession Russia plunged into later that year. Additionally, as a result of the annexation of Crimea, the G-8 summit was relocated from Sochi to Brussels and Russia was uninvited. Especially concerned with the economic well-being of his country, Putin visited Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and declared that it would be in the best interest of both Russia and the EU to lift the sanctions on Russia’s economy. Kurz agreed but has so far been unsuccessful in persuading the EU to lift the bans.
This, however, may change soon. In July, Austria takes over the presidency of the Council. Of course, this does not mean that Austria can take unilateral decisions without the input of other EU Member States, but it does mean that it has increasing leeway over decisions to be taken since it has the power to set the agenda. After all, the Maastricht Treaty which led to the creation of the Euro was achieved since the Dutch presidency put it on the agenda. As indicated before, Austria seeks to help its ally on the east by lifting economic sanctions and by establishing a more friendly partnership between the EU and Russia. It must also be kept in mind that Austria’s right-wing government may get support from other right-wing governments, such as Hungary and Poland, and, more recently, Italy.
If the EU would lift the sanctions on Russia, it would discredit its position as normative power. Since the EU does not have the military capacity to challenge Russia in Crimea, it needs to resort to economic pressure to show its concern over the annexation. A lift of the ban would thus seriously harm the Union’s reputation. It is therefore of pivotal importance that the EU blocks this from happening and balances the power from the East.
Author: Eva Durlinger