Is Austria’s capital Vienna really a ‘city of spies’?

A recent Financial Times article has alleged that Vienna is a hub for covert Russian activities, adding to the city’s reputation as a “city of spies”. How true is it?

Is Austria’s capital Vienna really a 'city of spies'?
Is Austria's capital city really a hub for international espionage activity? Photo by Clive Kim on Pexels.

During the Cold War, Vienna was known as an international hotbed of espionage activity due to its neutral status and Central European location, leading to the nickname, “city of spies”.

Today, Austria’s capital city is once again in the spotlight after an article in the Financial Times named the Russian Embassy in Vienna as an important spy hub amid the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

The article includes interviews with eight serving European intelligence officials and diplomats, with one citing Austria as a “veritable aircraft carrier” of covert Russian activity.

READ MORE: Can Austria reduce its dependency on Russian gas?

Reports of espionage in Vienna

Recent concern about espionage in Vienna started in 2017 when a “friendly partner service” – reportedly British – warned Austria about an outflow of information from the BVT.

This was a time when the ministerial heads of all intelligence services were politicians from the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which was in a coalition with the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). Der Standard reports that the FPÖ signed a friendship treaty with United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s ruling political party.

READ ALSO: Calls for Russian-owned Austrian hotels to be opened to refugees

The following year, rumours began circling around Europe about Austria’s security services being compromised after a police raid on the BVT offices and the suspension of Austria’s anti-terror chief Peter Grindling.

Back in 2018, the BBC also reported on Vienna’s reputation as a “nest of spies” and included a quote from Siegfried Beer, historian and founder of the Austrian Center for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies, who said espionage was still a business in the city.

‘City of spies’: What does Austria think about the moniker?

Austrian newspaper Der Standard wrote that Vienna’s location made it the perfect Russian espionage hub. 

According to the Financial Times, an Austrian chancellery official refused to comment on the allegations, but did say the “current government has been pushing through sweeping reform of its security agencies”.

Russia has used Vienna as a location from which to target other countries. Der Standard reports that although Austria has been aware of the extent of Russian espionage efforts, the focus has been only on activities targeted against Austria rather than other nations. 

The threat reached a head in 2017 when the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) came into government, which had signed a friendship treaty with United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s party. 

The FPÖ took on leadership roles within all intelligence services, with Herbert Kickl becoming interior minister in 2017, and Mario Kunasek taking over the defence department.

The links between the two parties were so strong that Vladimir Putin attended the wedding of FPÖ foreign minister Karin Kneissl, where he danced with the bride and presented her with the now infamous sapphire earrings worth 50,000 euros. 

Kneissl, for her part, was later awarded a lucrative position on the board of Russian state-owned energy company Rosneft. 

A consequence of these close ties was that Austria’s Federal Agency for State Protection and Counterterrorism (BVT) was excluded from European intelligence sharing for a while because it was considered as deeply compromised.

An anonymous European diplomat added that Austria’s defence ministry is “practically a department of the GRU”. The GRU is the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

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REVEALED: What is Austria’s emergency plan if Russia cuts gas supply?

Amid fears about what would happen if gas supplies to Austria were disrupted, the Federal Government has put together a package of measures to create a strategic gas reserve.

REVEALED: What is Austria's emergency plan if Russia cuts gas supply?

It has been well reported that Austria is heavily reliant on Russian natural gas – but what would happen if supplies were suspended or stopped altogether?

Austria sources 80 percent of its gas from Russia, so the country would be seriously impacted if supplies were disrupted due to the war in Ukraine, a breakdown of diplomatic relations or any other unforeseen event. 

This is why the Federal Government has now unveiled a package of measures to protect Austria’s gas reserves in the event of an energy emergency.

READ MORE: ‘An unprecedented situation’: How would a gas embargo impact Austria?

What is in the package?

Energy Minister Leonore Gewessler and Finance Minister Magnus Brunner presented the plans following a meeting in the Council of Ministers on Wednesday, May 18th.

The most important points include an increase of the strategic gas reserve by 7.4 terawatt hours (TWh) to 20 TWh. This would cover Austria’s gas consumption for two winter months but the additional gas would not be sourced from Russia, according to the Kronen Zeitung

Gewessler said: “This measure will significantly reduce dependence on Russian gas.”

Increasing the strategic reserve with non-Russian supplies will reduce Austria’s dependence on Russian gas to 70 percent, Gewessler added.

Additionally, gas storage facilities located in Austria – such as the Haidach facility in Salzburg – must be connected to the Austrian gas grid. Haidach, which is supplied by Gasprom, is currently only connected to Germany’s pipeline network and has not been refilled for some time.

Finally, any unused gas in company storage facilities should be surrendered to the government if needed. Companies will be financially compensated for this.

READ ALSO: Austrian Economy Minister says gas embargo would be ‘red line’

What about next winter?

Federal Chancellor Karl Nehammer has already said that gas storage facilities in Austria have to be 80 percent full before the next autumn and winter season.

The storage level is currently at 26 percent, reports Der Standard.

Gewessler also appealed to the Austrian public to make changes to help reduce the dependence on gas for energy, calling for more gas boilers to be replaced with other heating systems.

She said: “Together we are strong and together we can achieve this feat.”

READ MORE: What would an embargo on Russian oil mean for Austria?