Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 29

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seemingly never-ending road show resumed this past weekend with a three-day visit to Austria. His choice of destination appeared to underscore what some in Russia are saying will be one of the Kremlin’s top foreign policy priorities in the coming year: the rebuilding of Moscow’s relations with the countries of Eastern Europe. If so, the choice may have been an apt one. Austria’s status of neutrality during the Cold War put it on the fault line between the Eastern and Western blocs. In the evolving post-Cold War world, however, Vienna began its formal gravitation toward the West in 1995 when it joined the European Union. Later that year, moreover, Austria acquired observer status within the Western European Union and became a participant in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel’s center-right coalition is now raising new questions about Vienna’s neutral status and, in that context, has been a force driving public discussion about the possibility of eventual Austrian membership in NATO.

Against this background, Putin was expected to use his visit to restate Russian criticism of NATO’s enlargement and to urge Austria to maintain its status of neutrality. Indeed, Russian sources suggested that this would be one of the two chief goals of Putin’s visit to Austria. The other would involve a bilateral matter: Moscow’s hope of hammering out a deal by which Austria would agree to acquire Russian military hardware as partial repayment for Moscow’s Soviet-era debt to Vienna. Estimates of the debt range from US$1.2 billion to as high as US$2.8 billion, and Russia has reportedly been pushing the Austrians to take thirty MiG-29 fighters in exchange for forgiveness of up to half of the debt burden. That Putin’s visit did not appear to be overly successful in practical terms was suggested by one Russian headline, which quipped that the former KGB agent had managed to procure a ski run for Russia (one of several economic agreements signed during his visit), but had failed to get much accomplished with regard to the debt issue.

Indeed, while the Russian president did manage to hit the ski slopes during his visit–thus affording him another opportunity to display his remarkable vigor and athleticism to Russian television viewers–he was apparently rebuffed both on the neutrality question and in his effort to peddle the “jets for debts” deal. The seeming inconclusiveness of Putin’s visit in anything but symbolic (or public relations) terms was another reminder that, in foreign capitals at least, some of the bloom appears to have come off the Russian president. Putin’s relatively low-key visit reception in Austria, and the dearth of substantive results it produced, contrasted sharply with his visits to Europe and elsewhere in the initial stages of his presidency, when he was treated like a wunderkind of some sort and showered with praise by a host of Western leaders. While European governments remain determined to build constructive relations with Moscow, several factors appear to have led them to treat the Russian president a bit more coolly. They include his heavy-handed attacks on democratic freedoms at home, the ongoing war in Chechnya and Moscow’s reluctance to pay its foreign debts. At least some of Putin’s foreign visits may also be suffering from a lack of real purpose. One Russian critic has argued that the Kremlin seems most intent these days on creating the image of an active and vigorous president, and that Putin’s many foreign trips have been scheduled mainly with that goal in mind. Even if that is an exaggeration, the same critic’s observation that the Foreign Ministry cannot possibly prepare properly for all of these trips seems to be more on target.

Indeed, some lack of preparation seemed evident in Putin’s visit to Austria. In an interview with a leading Austrian newspaper just prior to Putin’s arrival in Vienna, the Russian president praised the concept of neutrality and appeared to admonish the Austrian government for daring to consider its abandonment. That stance reportedly led some Austrian diplomats to protest what they presumably felt was Russian interference in their internal affairs. Yet Putin pushed the issue again on February 8, his first full day in Vienna, when he described Austria’s nonaligned position as “the fundamental basis for the development of friendly relations between Moscow and Vienna.” Austrian President Thomas Klestil rebuffed Putin, however, telling him that Austria’s “permanent neutrality” was still written in law and that “changing this law is a matter for Austria” to decide. Subsequent reports suggested that Putin had then tried to soften his comments on the neutrality issue. On February 9 he told his hosts that Russia does not worry over much about Austria’s domestic political debate over neutrality, and that ultimately the decision of whether to seek NATO membership is up to the Austrian people. But on the same day he also called NATO obsolete and, while claiming that Russia no longer represents a military threat to Europe, called for the alliance’s dismantlement. Russia, he added in a comment aimed only indirectly at Austria, had not itself been invited to join NATO, and it could therefore not welcome the alliance’s expansion to include former Warsaw Pact countries.

If Putin appeared to hit some wrong notes on the question of Austria’s neutrality, his promotion of the “jets for debts” arrangement may have been misguided from the start and the result of bad advice from subordinates. As some Russian sources pointed out, Putin arrived in Austria pushing a deal which Austrian military leaders had already made clear publicly was not going to happen. In his talks with Klestil and Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, Putin had apparently tried, at the very least, to get Russia included in a potentially lucrative competition of tenders for modernizing the Austrian air force. The Russian delegation reportedly offered to sell the MiG-29SMTs to Austria for half price (with the other half to be applied against Russia’s debt), and may have used a recent Russian-German deal to refit MiG-29 fighters as an added inducement to Vienna. But the Russians appeared to have made little progress–Austrian Defense Minister Herbert Scheiber repeated an earlier assessment that the maintenance costs for the MiG-29s would simply be too high. Russian sources, in pointing out that the Austrian Defense Ministry has already limited its search to U.S.-made F-16s and 18s, French Mirage 2000-5s and the Swedish Saab J39 Grippens–concluded that Vienna was already looking to orient its armed forces more fully toward the West.

If Putin struck out on the aircraft deal, he did preside over the signing of a package of other accords, which included a number of economic agreements. While none was a blockbuster, they did appear to give a further boost to already rising levels of trade between Russia and Austria. According to a spokesman for the Austrian president, the two countries now have some 200 joint companies, and Austria is “today Russia’s fourth [largest] commercial partner.” Austrian direct investment in Russia reportedly totals US$200 million, which makes Vienna Russia’s tenth largest foreign investor. More than 1,000 Austrian companies are said to export their products to Russia (AFP, Reuters, February 7-9; AP, February 9; Russian agencies, February 8-9; Vremya Novostei, February 6; Kommersant, February 8; Izvestia, February 10; Segodnya, February 9-10).