Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer will on Monday become the first European leader to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine began six weeks ago.
Nehammer’s trip to Moscow is part of efforts to promote a “dialogue” between Russia and Ukraine, according to chancellery officials, who said he would specifically raise the issue of war crimes with Putin.
Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, and European Council head Charles Michel have been briefed on the trip, along with the Germany chancellor Olaf Scholz. Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president who this weekend met Nehammer in Kyiv, was also informed of the Austrian premier’s plans.
The visit is almost certain to raise hackles across the west, at a time when Europe, the US and their allies are at pains to present a united front of opposition to Russian belligerence. It follows a week of mounting evidence of atrocities perpetrated by soldiers against Ukrainian citizens in territories where Russian forces have withdrawn.
Moreover, Austria’s diplomatic overture comes on the cusp of a fresh Russian military offensive against Ukrainian forces in the eastern Donbas region, which western defence and intelligence officials fear may mark the beginning of a new and potentially even bloodier phase of the conflict.
Austria, which is not a Nato member, has long been a sympathetic voice for Moscow in Europe. The country, which is officially neutral, has often sought to portray itself as a mediator between Russian and European strategic interests.
Although it has staunchly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and has acted in lockstep with European allies to enforce punitive sanctions against Russia, it has also continued to push for dialogue with Moscow to solve the conflict.
Austria is also highly dependent on Russia economically: 80 per cent of its gas needs are supplied by Russia and its banking sector is deeply entwined with Russian financial and commercial institutions, as well as those in Ukraine.
Other European allies have in recent years viewed Austria’s ties to Moscow with suspicion. During the first coalition government of former Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, forged in 2017, members of the country’s far right Freedom Party — which had forged close ties with the Kremlin — were given sensitive ministerial portfolios, leading to many western intelligence agencies suspending information sharing with Vienna.
Since the collapse of that government in 2019, Austria has been at pains to assuage European allies about its Russia links, though with mixed success.
Nehammer’s visit to Kyiv on Saturday was praised by many as an example of Austria’s revised relationship with Moscow.
“It’s a very important signal for us. A signal to the whole of Europe that Austria supports Ukraine, the Ukrainian people in its resistance to the aggression of the Russian Federation,” Zelensky said as the meeting with Nehammer began.
Western leaders including Germany’s Scholz and Emmanuel Macron of France have spoken to Putin by phone since the invasion on February 24 but none have been to Moscow.