EXPLAINED: What would ‘Austrian-style neutrality’ mean for Ukraine?

Russia has demanded Ukraine adopt 'Austrian-style neutrality'. But what does that mean?

Austrian President Alexander Van Der Bellen (R) and his wife Doris Schmidauer (L) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (2ndR) and his wife Olena Zelenska (2ndL) listen to the national anthems in Vienna, Austria on September 15, 2020, during a welcoming ceremony at the beginning of Zelensky's state visit. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP
Austrian President Alexander Van Der Bellen (R) and his wife Doris Schmidauer (L) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (2ndR) and his wife Olena Zelenska (2ndL) listen to the national anthems in Vienna, Austria on September 15, 2020, during a welcoming ceremony at the beginning of Zelensky's state visit. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

The Kremlin on Wednesday called for Kyiv to adopt a status similar to Sweden and Austria, describing it as a “compromise” option as the two countries grind through conflict talks nearly three weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Nehammer on Russian sanctions: ‘Austria is and will remain neutral’

But Kyiv quickly rejected the proposal, saying talks with Moscow to end fighting should focus on “security guarantees”.

But what exactly would ‘Austrian neutrality’ look like in Ukraine?

In Austria, the policy of neutrality was imposed by the then Soviet Union as a price for the end of the Allies’ post-war occupation of the country in 1955.

“Neutrality is part of the country’s identity,” says Martin Senn, political scientist at Innsbruck university.

The policy offered the country an honourable way of exiting the rubble of World War II and avoiding the blame for complicity in the Nazi regime.

Ukraine conflict: Would NATO protect non-member Austria?

It then made use of its status to host high-profile international organisations and summits including between then US president John F Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev in 1961, and their successors Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev in 1979.

However, since the end of the Cold War, Austria has taken several steps towards the Western camp. It joined the European Union in 1995 and participated in the joint security and defence policy outlined in the 2009 Lisbon treaty.

Austria has said its neutrality does not prevent it from condemning breaches of international law and has condemned the invasion of Ukraine.

EXPLAINED: Why isn’t Austria in NATO?

But according to Senn, there has never been “a true discussion on the issue of neutrality”, which is now “urgently needed”.

Military figures have also spoken out in favour of more defence spending, a stance backed by the public in a recent survey.

In the EU, only Ireland and Malta spend a lower share of their GDP on defence than in Austria, where the figure stands at 0.7 percent.

EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland’s neutrality has always been ‘malleable’

Austria’s government — headed by ex-soldier Karl Nehammer — has said it wants to boost this to one percent to match neighbouring Switzerland.

Despite this, Nehammer has ruled out any change to the country’s officially neutral status.

Looking at the opinion polls, it’s not hard to see why — despite the war, four out of five Austrians are still opposed to the idea of joining NATO.

Member comments

  1. Being a neutral country has been a positive development if Austrian history, it helped them get through the cold war and they still joined the EU like similar likeminded nations.

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‘Unimaginable’: Austria prepares to reopen coal power station

As an "emergency measure", Austria is getting ready to reopen a coal-fuelled power station near Graz amid fears there will be disruptions to the gas supply from Russia this winter.

'Unimaginable': Austria prepares to reopen coal power station

At the Mellach coal power plant in southern Austria, spider webs have taken over the conveyor belts, and plants and flowers have sprung up around the vast lot that once stored coal.

The plant, Austria’s last coal-fuelled power station, was closed in the spring of 2020, but now the government – nervous that Russia may cut its crucial gas deliveries further – has decided to get the site ready again in case it’s needed.

“I never would have imagined that we would restart the factory,” Peter Probst, a 55-year-old welder, told AFP during a visit of the plant.

“It’s really sad to be so dependent on gas,” he added.

READ ALSO: How to keep your apartment cool in Austria this summer amid rising energy prices

Europe had been trying to move away from coal in the fight against climate change.

But as Russia has cut gas deliveries in the wake of sanctions the West has imposed on it for the war in Ukraine, European countries are turning back to coal.

Today, the Mellach plant’s white and red chimney stands out amid fields of corn and pumpkins, the city of Graz in the distance.

Inside, the walls are black, and coal dust clings to the doors and railings.

Some 450,000 tonnes of coal were stored at the plant before its closure as Austria’s conservative-Greens coalition aimed to have all electricity come from renewable resources by 2030.

Site manager Christof Kurzmann-Friedl says the plant operated by supplier Verbund can be ready again in “about four months” — just in time to help tackle any gas shortages in winter.

READ MORE: When will you get your cost of living ‘bonus’ payments in Austria?

Welder Peter Probst reacts to the news that the coal-fuelled power plant in Mellach will be reopened. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

“Emergency measure”

Chancellor Karl Nehammer insisted on Monday that the plant would only go online if necessary, while Austria holds on to its goals to reduce emissions.

“It’s really an emergency measure,” the conservative told foreign correspondents at a briefing.

“It’s really something that shows how extraordinary our times are… We must prepare for any eventuality.”

The 230 megawatt power plant would take over from the nearby gas-fired plant, also operated by Verbund, which currently supplies heating to Graz’s 300,000 inhabitants, according to Kurzmann-Friedl.

FOR MEMBERS: EU oil embargo: How will the sanctions impact Austria?

He warned, however, that the site must still be readied, hooking up all the equipment again, in addition to hiring qualified personnel and above all finding enough coal.

Before, the coal mainly came from mines in Poland’s Silesia region, which the Polish government is aiming to shut.

Because coal prices have risen by as much as three times since 2020, the power produced by the plant will also be more expensive, Kurzmann-Friedl said.

Criticism has already flared with the opposition Social Democrats slamming the decision to reactivate the coal plant as “an act of desperation by the Greens”.

“Will the next step be the reactivation of Zwentendorf?” the opposition asked, referring to the country’s only nuclear power plant.

The Alpine nation of nine million people has been fiercely anti-nuclear with an unprecedented vote in 1978 against nuclear energy that prevented the plant from ever opening.