Why is Austria not expelling Russian diplomats?

As countries across the EU expel Russian diplomats following reports of atrocities in Ukraine, Austria is taking a different approach. Here’s why.

Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg. Photo: JOHANNA GERON / POOL / AFP
Austria's Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg has followed other EU countries in expelling Russian diplomats. Photo: JOHANNA GERON / POOL / AFP

Please note: Austria has since changed its approach, deciding on April 7th to expel four Russian diplomats. Here’s what you need to know. 

Austria’s Foreign Minister Alexander Schellenberg (ÖVP) has criticised other EU nations for expelling Russian diplomats and said Austria would not follow the same path – yet.

Schallenberg, of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), said Austria did not agree with the policy of expelling diplomats in bulk and lamented that states were acting individually, not collectively.

The comments were made during an interview with ORF’s ZiB 2 on Tuesday evening and Schallenberg said he is concerned that Russia would take “reciprocal action” if Austria was to expel Russian diplomats from the country.

READ MORE: Austria’s Nehammer to visit Zelensky in Ukraine

But Schallenberg also described the Russian embassy in Vienna as a “propaganda machine” and didn’t rule out the possibility of declaring diplomats undesirable if there is evidence to support it.

Douglas Hoyos, Secretary General of the New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS), has already called for Schallenberg to take “decisive action” and expel Russian diplomats.

Hoyos said: “The behaviour of the Russian embassy in Vienna is simply unacceptable and requires correspondingly harsh reactions.”

On Monday, Schallenberg defended his decision to not expel Russian diplomats during a conference in Berlin and referenced Austria’s role as the official seat of the United Nations.

Prior to the reports of atrocities committed against civilians in Bucha in Ukraine, Schallenberg had stated there would be no return to the “status quo” with Russia. 

FOR MEMBERS: EXPLAINED: Why Austria won’t allow Ukraine’s Zelensky to speak before parliament

Hundreds of Russian diplomats expelled across Europe

Since Monday, more than 200 Russian diplomats have been told to leave EU countries after reports of civilian deaths in Ukrainian towns hit news outlets around the world.

Austria is currently an outlier in its political approach after Germany, France, Lithuania, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Slovenia, Romania, Portugal, Estonia and Latvia all expelled Russian diplomats.

Neighbouring Slovenia referred to Article 11 of the Vienna Diplomatic Rights Convention in its decision, which allows states to reduce the number of diplomats in their country to the same number as in the other country. Slovenia then expelled 33 of 41 diplomats from the Russian embassy in Ljubljana. 

Additionally, EU Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrell confirmed that 19 employees from the Russian representation in the bloc have been expelled “for engaging in activities contrary to their diplomatic status”, as reported by Bloomberg.

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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?